This ‘un includes pitchas! I heard you cultured people enjoyed sommut to stare at between words and bad phonetic spellins t’ represent lower-class dilekt.
I’m sorry, I promise I’ll never do that again until the next time I really feel like irritating the British (it’s all in good fun, old chaps [Ha! Got you again!]) You may have heard that imitation is the sincerest form of that thing in the title of this post. Do you believe it’s true? I’m personally inclined to agree, if– and this is a big if- you also prefix (and suffix, and suffuse) that imitation with constant praise for the person/thing/Old God that you’re imitating. There’s just one slight problem with imitation from a literary standpoint. It’s a fell deed the very accusation of which scuttles both careers and semesters in academics, which can lay low the proudest, best-written novels, cripple companies and leave the most brilliant writers nothing more than shattered husks. That’d be plagiarism if you hadn’t already guessed. And imitation, my good people, is always flirting with it.
Now then, everyone has their inspirations, and it’s fine to pay homage to them. I was obsessed with Star Wars growing up, and wouldn’t you know it, my writing also features a militaristic interstellar empire that uses wedge-shaped warships and rank upon rank of faceless, armor-plated troops. Of course, I chose the first one because a wedge or knife shape is an excellent shape for a warship; guns positioned on the rearward slopes of the wedge can shoot over and around the ones in front with little trouble, and enemy fire will disperse its energy over a large area of the ship rather than all on one spot. It’s just common sense (in space). As far as the Mon Calamari’s blobs of doom go… well, I’m sure someone thinks they have artistic merit, but I wouldn’t them on my battle-line. And here’s the separation, you see; if you’re going to copy something, you need a reason why you’re copying it, and you need to shake it up enough that someone who claims you stole it will be unreasonable rather than just, erm, correct.
Concerning the faceless armored troops, I’d like to think large interstellar powers aren’t hilariously moronic. Standardized equipment is just common sense for a large army, and those troops will thank their lucky stars (I.E. quartermasters) when their monolithic visors keep their skin from frying off the next time they’re deployed to some volcanic hellhole.
All these ideas, while they’re certainly associated with Star Wars, are common sense enough that I don’t see an issue with using them. What would cause issues is if I introduced a group of mystical warrior-magicians with a strict moral code who operated as galactic police and had a splinter order that wanted nothing more than to kill all of the first group and take over the galaxy. This would be problematic because I’ve basically just created the Jedi and the Sith. This can still work, but now I need to make the two groups I wrote up as visually distinct from their inspirations as possible. And they can’t fight similarly. And they can’t have similar names. And they shouldn’t operate on similar timelines (none of this cyclical dominance bullcrap!).
The human brain works based on associations, remember? Neurons connect to other neurons that manage similar information. It’s how you can remember so much about your cousin Jeff’s Christmas party, but almost nothing about Jeff’s wedding; you and a bunch of the other family were invited to the Christmas party, but for some reason Jeff didn’t want Uncle Larry and his thirteen children (with all their mental associations) to come to the wedding. Bringing this serpentine tangent back to heel (where it will probably poison me), if my warrior magicians wear long clothes and fight using a melee weapon in an age of future-guns, there’s a slight chance they’ll draw comparisons to the Jedi.
The simplest way to get rid of this problem is to get rid of the second group. I can still have villains, but the Sith-imitation cult doesn’t need to exist. The Jedi and the Sith are defined by their ongoing war more than anything else, so to axe one is to axe the other. Simple! Ideological differences are the next step: there are a number of things I don’t like about the Jedi Order, given they’re basically a bunch of wannabe space-Buddhists from a sect that enforces celibacy. So, I’ll remove all the idiocy that makes the Jedi morally superior on paper and so infuriatingly dense in practice.For example, all that crap about detachment? Gone. Waste of time. All that means is that one of them suddenly experiences an emotion, they can’t handle it.
Han Solo would never kill somebody he really needed to keep alive purely because the guy was an asshole, or because some suspiciously pushy politician told him to. Han Solo doesn’t have an illogical, childlike reverence for authority figures, and he deals with his feelings often enough not to fly off the handle because someone called him a name. And lastly, I’m going to go ahead and not bind them to a purely black-and-white moral code that gives them no room to think about the long-term consequences of their actions. Now, they will have a code, because these people aren’t afraid to commit to things, but the code puts the burden on the individual to decide on the best choice overall, not the one that’s easiest to deal with.
Again, every writer has inspirations. I’ve got plenty of my own; I’ve mentioned some here, and I’ve mentioned a number of others in my other posts. It’s good to read in your own genre, both to know what’s out there and to have a baseline for what audiences expect. I’m not saying you should ignore genre convention, because that’s not only suicide but totally unnecessary. As a writer, I try to target a certain niche, and that does mean that I have to adhere to some of what’s come before; my challenge is to build off of what’s already been done rather than simply repeating it. I have to figure out where the line between derivative and innovative is (bearing in mind that innovation starts in derivation) and keep my calloused feet on the right side of it. Those callouses aren’t from dancing on the razor’s edge (or dueling on it)- I just choose to walk two miles for my groceries. I choose to do that the hard way, because it’s better for me in the long term and it makes a better story (allegory!). You can do the same. But do it in your own way. Unless that two mile walk really seems appealing to you, in which case I welcome you to my particular branch of mildly fanatical lifestyle. Just remember where you got the idea from. I decided to call my parents on all their stories about walking to school (it builds character, kiddies!)
This brings us to the better part of the issue- copying iconic moments. People aren’t going to rag on me all that much for copying the Jedi because, let’s face it, I’m clearly copying the cyborg ninjas, samurai and assorted mechanized scumbags of Metal Gear Rising (you know I’ve referenced it in at least one of every seven posts here?) And anyone who would verbally (or physically) assail me for liking Jetstream Sam, I am not interested in keeping as a reader. First off, I do not just like Jetstream Sam. I am obsessed with him. I am, in fact, trying to become him, only white and less suave. And preferably keeping my original right arm. That being said, I would not directly copy the moment in MGR when Sam tricks the hero, Raiden, by cutting open a fuel tank on a train with his sword (thus setting it on fire because vidyagames), sheathing the sword so quickly that the flames linger in the air for a moment, obscuring Raiden’s vision, and then shooting his sword out of its scabbard (because that scabbard is a gun) which lets him cut Raiden’s left arm off in one clean draw.
I wouldn’t copy it because it would completely obvious that I copied it. I might copy aspects of Sam’s fighting style, but that’s it, even though I could probably get away with copying much, much more. While Rising is an amazing game, it’s not as well known as, say, Minecraft (which is copied all the time, so… maybe I’m just allergic to money?) Thing is, I love it too much to blithely rip off its best material.
So, here’s the central issue with scenes: scenes comprise a very large number of those brain connections I keep mentioning (I’m getting all the use I can out of my belated Baby’s First Psychology Course), and everyone one of those connections is a set of related moments, movements and sounds. Every possible memory tag is drawn into a game cutscene- composer provides music unique to that game and usually to that exact scene, characters perform motions often seen nowhere else, and so on. Movies are the same; the moments most worth copying, assuming that I begin my artistic career by an immediate soulless debauch of butchering more intelligent people’s work, are the moments which everyone finds most memorable, which means I have almost zero chance of getting away with it. And if you want to pay homage to your inspirations, that’s great, but I’d say that more than two or three direct homages in the form of a copied scene (per book, possibly even per series) would be pushing it.
Yes, art in general tends to reiterate certain themes and ideas, and it’s hard to get around that because, again, that’s just how the brain works, but there’s a world of difference between writing something of your own that bears similarities between something someone else already did, and directly copying someone’s best work and calling it a tribute. The point of an influence is to get things rolling- to be the force that starts your intellectual snowflakes sliding until they become an avalanche, to be the aged mentor who helps your brain’s inner swordsman develop his own fighting style, and in short, to let you draft up a swarm of analogies so dense and so bizarre that no one knows what you’re talking about.
If I do decide to pay homage, where I tell myself to start is, ‘How do I get the same feeling as this scene? And how can I do it without just copying this scene?’ And if the answer is that I can’t get the same feeling without writing a totally different scene, then that’s what I have to do. When we decide to be artists- writer, painter, film director, songwriter, composer, graphic designer, doesn’t matter which- we have to remember that we’re making a conscious choice to go into a career riddled with uncertainty and arbitrary success, unexplained failure and poorly justified fame and fortune. Nothing’s certain, so we’re better off grabbing certainty where we can find it and leaving the derivative crap to the people who can sell their souls for tens of millions of dollars.
That’s our curse- we choose to do what we do with passion and skill, and the world will probably just ignore us for it. But we’re not the kind of people who can ignore who we are purely for monetary gain; if we try, it won’t work, and then we’ll just have lost the true admirers we built up in the first place. Besides, no one’s going to be impressed with your Jaws fanfiction. My Godzilla one is sooooo much better, he fights the starship Enterprise on top of Mount Everest and then they team up to battle the Zerg from Starcraft!
Look, everyone says originality is dead until someone dreams up something new, because by definition that thing’s new since no one thought of it. People can’t account for things they can’t think of, which means we can never be sure there’s not a new set of literary ideas waiting to be created. So if you put in the hard work, then one day you too might have a brilliantly original idea that everyone immediately kills deader than a horse in No-Mans-Land at 1917 Ypres.
Sorry for that image.