Lovely Lauryn April (lovely in all senses of the word) some months ago wrote a thought provoking blog post about plagiarism and every author’s fear of being accused of ‘copying’ ideas, characters, key situations, etc. (Rip-Offs, Inspiration and Coincidences)
When she kindly invited me to post on the Phantom Owl blog, I decided to do something on what might be called ‘Revelling in Cliché’, which is something I love doing in my own writing.
Another writer, Mari Biella, was kind enough to state at the Edinburgh EBook Fair that she thought that in deliberately using cliché in my novel ‘That Scoundrel Emile Dubois Or The Light of Other Days’ I had managed to make the problem of the hackneyed in the horror genre into a strength, and I was immensely flattered.
That is my way of coping with the problem, the sideways wink at the readership:
Lord Ynyr: I would remind you, Lucien, that we are not in a Gothic novel now.
Lucien: That is hard to believe, Your Lordship, down at Plas Planwydden.
In my latest, ‘Ravensdale’ which is due out this month (hopefully not Famous Last Words), I really enjoyed doing a spoof of an immensely hackneyed theme – The Disinherited Earl Falsely Accused of Murder Through the Machinations of a Conniving Cousin Turns Highwayman (or Smuggler).
I remember coming across variations of this theme in books which I read as a teenager when snowed up in the great, isolated old house my parents were renovating in the Clwyd Valley, North Wales, one winter (yes, and it was haunted, but that’s another story).
As I paced those long corridors, fuming with boredom, I was reduced to reading all sorts of books which my mother had acquired in job lots from auctions. During this time I read some of Georgette Heyer’s Regency Romances, including, as I remember, ‘The Talisman Ring’ (Disgraced Earl Falsely Accused of Murder by Conniving Cousin Becomes a Smuggler) and ‘The Black Moth’ (Disgraced Earl Falsely Accused of Murder Through Machinations of Etc Etc Becomes a Highwayman), one on a similar theme by Barbara Cartland, the name of which I have forgotten. By a weird co-incidence, at this time I came across another Victorian take on this by the now almost unknown best selling writer of cheap sentimental novels Charles Garvice, ‘The Outcast of the Family Or a Battle Between Love and Pride’ (Disgraced Heir to an Earldom Falsely Accused of Murder by Machinations of Conniving Cousin takes to the high seas and then becomes a hand on a ranch; well, it wasn’t easy or profitable to be a smuggler or highwaymen by Victorian times).
You’ll find variations of this theme in numerous historical novels, classic and otherwise. It features in a play on which many of the classic robber novels are based , Fredereich Schiller’s ‘The Robbers’ (though there the villain of the piece is a brother).
However, we can’t always be reveling in the clichéd, and this is a problem that worries a lot of writers, so on this question of originality:
As far back as 1916 George Polti argued that there are only thirty-six dramatic situations, taking his basic list from Goethe, who took it in turn from the Italian writer Carlo Gozzi who compiled his list sometime before 1806.
1. Supplication (in which the Supplicant must beg something from Power in authority)
3. Crime Pursued by Vengeance
4. Vengeance taken for kindred upon kindred
7. Falling Prey to Cruelty of Misfortune
9. Daring Enterprise
11. The Enigma (temptation or a riddle)
13. Enmity of Kinsmen
14. Rivalry of Kinsmen
15. Murderous Adultery
17. Fatal Imprudence
18. Involuntary Crimes of Love (example: discovery that one has married one’s mother, sister, etc.)
19. Slaying of a Kinsman Unrecognized
20. Self-Sacrificing for an Ideal
21. Self-Sacrifice for Kindred
22. All Sacrificed for Passion
23. Necessity of Sacrificing Loved Ones
24. Rivalry of Superior and Inferior
26. Crimes of Love
27. Discovery of the Dishonor of a Loved One
28. Obstacles to Love
29. An Enemy Loved
31. Conflict with a God
32. Mistaken Jealousy
33. Erroneous Judgement
35. Recovery of a Lost One
36. Loss of Loved Ones.
Reading through this (admittedly, archaic sounding) list inspires you at once; but you see what I mean. That is all the plots there are; thirty-six...
What fills them out is characterization, historical setting, vocabulary, humour, style, etc.
And here the minefield begins. How many original characters are there?
None again. I suppose we MIGHT write about an original character, if we wrote about someone, say, whose only interest in life was keeping a pet spider, who had an obsessive need to count pillar boxes, and who went about wearing a pair of football boots, a grass skirt, and a top hat – but how many people would want to read about such an individual?
(On this note, I have to say that I always wanted to read a story someone described to me about a man who did nothing but sit with his feet up all day resting on a door knob; sadly, I was never able to track this story down).
How many original situations are there? Very few again, unless we chose to write about something totally recondite.
So, if we want to write about people who have a reasonable appeal, and write about interesting situations, by definition we must write about something that has been used before – many times…
Many, many times.
The freshness of the whole thing is in how themes are treated.
As Lauryn says in her original article – it isn’t plagiarism to use an idea that has been used recently, because almost certainly that idea was explored several times before that recent use of it.
Sherlock Holmes wasn’t the original private consulting detective – but Conan Doyle’s creation so vastly outshone his rivals that he has acquired mythical status.
The originator of the vampire story wasn’t Bran Stoker in ‘Dracula’, or Sheridan la Fanu in ‘Carmilla’ or the writer of ‘Varney the Vampire’ J M Rymer, or even Dr Polidori in his novella ‘The Vampyre’ written in a competition with Lord Byron and Shelley.
We have no idea who it was – the traditional vampire legends in Eastern Europe go back many centuries.
So I don’t think that authors should allow themselves to become too paranoid when readers and reviewers can too eager to accuse writers of ‘copying ideas’ too quickly. As Lauryn says, it can’t be avoided.
I remember doing a short story writing course and my tutor was dismayed by the fact that I set a ghost story in a rambling, isolated old house. ‘That’s been done to death!’
Quite. But it’s still a lot of fun.
(Glances around in alarm as a hooded figure appears in a flash of lightening, followed by a dreadful, resounding clap of thunder).
I suggest we all revel in a bit of cliché…
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