The Fine Line of Originality

There’s one question people ask writers the most: Where do you get your ideas from?

It’s also, I think, the question we hate the most, because the truth is most of us get ideas from other people. Other people’s books, other people’s actions, and of course random events.

King Solomon argued in Ecclesiastes that “there is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one can say, ‘Look! This is something new’? It was here already, long ago,” and I think he knew what he was talking about.

He contributed 3 chapters to the bestselling book of all time, after all.

This raises an interesting question – if true creativity’s impossible, how do we write original stories?

To show how we can do this, here is a true story I came across several years about fantasy authors Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling:

In the late 1980’s, DC Comics’ executive staff noticed their comic books with supernatural characters were selling really well; Alan Moore’s Saga of the Swamp Thing had recently been hailed as “perhaps the brainiest and the scariest horror narrative of the 80’s”, characters like Dr. Fate and Sargon the Sorcerer had become immensely popular after a decade of disinterest.

To capitalize on this trend, DC Comics hired Neil Gaiman to write a 4-part story that would display every major supernatural character in the DC Universe and all the worlds they inhabit.

Obviously this was a massively hard task, but Gaiman (later known of course as the guy who wrote Sandman) succeeded pretty well: the resulting story, The Books of Magic, was released in 1991 and won two Eisner Awards the following year.

DC decided to continue the series with other writers and it kept going until 2000. Two spin-off series, The Books of Faerie and Books of Magick: Life During Wartime, were also released and Warner Bros has unsuccessfully tried to make a movie adaptation of Books of Magic for more than a decade – which I’ll come back to in a moment.

Here’s the basic plot of The Books of Magic: Timothy Hunter, an English boy with glasses and black hair, is approached by four of DC Comics’ most powerful characters – John Constantine, Dr. Occult, Mr. E and the Phantom Stranger – and asked if he wants to learn about magic.

Apparently Timothy’s not a typical child, he could potentially be the most powerful human sorcerer of his era. So, it’s very important that Timothy responsibly choose who he will be, and the four men take him on a supernatural journey where he meets to every major DC magical character, the worlds these characters inhabit, and learns how he might influence the DC universe.

Six years after Books of Magic first appeared, J.K. Rowling released Harry Potter and Philosopher’s Stone through Bloomsbury Publishing.

Given that this book and the sequels were so popular – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows holds the Guinness World Record for fastest-selling fiction book in 24 hours – I don’t think I need to summarize the plot.

You Harry Potter fans out there have probably noticed there are some striking similarities between Timothy Hunter and Harry Potter:

  1. Both are Caucasian, British adolescents with glasses and dark hair.
  2. Neither of them have typical nuclear families, and their parentages are mysterious; Timothy lives with his father and his mother is absent (we later learn she died in a car crash which costs Timothy’s father his right arm), Harry lives with his aunt and uncle and his parents are dead (supposedly in a car crash).
  3. Both exist in worlds that have an alternate reality where magic exists and abounds with good and evil characters.
  4. Both of them seem normal but are actually Messiah figures – young men destined to become vastly important players in their respective worlds. Certain people want to kill them so they never reach that potential.

What does all this mean? Could it be one of the most cherished and profitable contemporary book series was ripped off from another story?

DC Comics would probably never sue J.K. Rowling (DC is owned by Warner Bros, who produced the Harry Potter movies and owns The Books of Magic film rights), but is it possible that J.K. Rowling could at least be validly accused of plagiarism?

Actually, no.

In fact, Neil Gaiman has been one of J.K. Rowling’s loudest defendants when comic book fans accuse her of plagiarizing him. This is an excerpt from a statement he made in March 1998 (reposted to his blog in 2008):

“Back in November I was tracked down by a Scotsman journalist who had noticed the similarities between my Tim Hunter character and Harry Potter, and wanted a story. And I think I rather disappointed him by explaining that, no, I certainly *didn’t* believe that Rowling had ripped off Books of Magic, that I doubted she’d read it and that it wouldn’t matter if she had: I wasn’t the first writer to create a young magician with potential, nor was Rowling the first to send one to school. It’s not the ideas, it’s what you do with them that matters.”

When asked about this topic again in 2001 by January Magazine, Gaiman said:

“Look, all of the things that [Harry Potter and Timothy Hunter] actually have in common are such incredibly obvious, surface things that, had [Rowling] actually been stealing, they were the things that would be first to be changed. Change hair color from brown to fair, you lose the glasses, you know: that kind of thing… I said to [an English reporter] that I thought we were both just stealing from T.H. White: very straightforward.”

This is where the penny drops.

Neil Gaiman and J.K. Rowling have both admitted to taking inspiration from T.H. White’s Arthurian novel The Sword in the Stone (some of you may have seen the Disney movie version).

Many of the similarities make sense if you assume both Gaiman and Rowling were inspired by White’s main character, Arthur (whom everyone in the book refers to as “Wart”).

Wart is also a young British boy who seems normal but has a mysterious parentage (he’s been adopted by a feudal lord, but no one knows who his real parents are). Then a magician named Merlin appears and accepts a position as Wart’s tutor, introducing him to a hidden world of magic and training him for something important. Wart is clearly destined for something extraordinary, although readers do not discover what until the very end.

At the same time, we need to realize that neither Gaiman nor Rowling plagiarized White. They drew inspiration from his work, and in spite of all these similarities Timothy, Harry and Arthur are still three distinct characters in three different fantasy worlds.

  1. Wart is kind, innocent and seems to take in stride the fact that there is such a thing as magic and that he has an important role to play in a medieval England where nobles misuse their power.
  2. Harry is impulsive and often rebels against the grown-ups in charge of the highly moral magic world he lives in, but his impulsiveness helps him survive against immense dangers.
  3. Timothy is an average immature teenager, a little shocked when he gets catapulted into a largely amoral magical world (which combines fairytales, Hell, mythological and Biblical characters together with an “all things to all people” attitude) but also in awe of what he could do with magic.

Original storytelling isn’t about finding the one idea no one’s ever used. It’s about finding inspiration from other sources, finding ideas that work well and connect with people, and then building stories around those ideas while putting your own unique spin on them.

Of course, if we’re lucky someone just might come up with a parallel story that sell wells too. Then we’ll know for sure it was a good idea.

P.S. Most of you probably don’t care where I got my sources, but if you’re interested in learning more, here’s my original article.

Cover image source: http://www.mhpbooks.com/200-korean-professors-to-be-indicted-for-textbook-plagiarism/

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