Recently I had the pleasure of seeing the first episode of HBO's new series Westworld and although I quite enjoyed it, I was struck with a feeling that I've been inflicted with more frequently as I get more and more serious about writing. The feeling of accidental plagiarism. That sort of dismay that strikes when you see an element in some kind of media that encroaches dangerously near an idea or concept you've had, either for something you're about to write or have already written.
Although I haven't had to worry about this overly much as far as the memoir that this site has thus far been solely dedicated to, I do have aspirations of writing fiction and have dabbled in it occasionally during the "nonfiction burnout" I sometimes suffer. However, when writing ye olde memoir and I happen to come up with (what I think is) a particularly striking turn of phrase, there's always a voice within me that wonders if I was really the one to come up with it. Or was it pulled from my dusty memory vaults from some other author? Although this is relatively easy to check with several online tools, it is incredibly time-consuming and makes me feel neurotic to check every good paragraph to see if I'm ripping off Anne McCaffrey or Chuck Palahniuk.
I find the realm of fiction to be a far more treacherous landscape as far as concept theft goes. It's easy to see if you're committing actual plagiarism, but as far as I can see, there is no easy way to see if someone else has come up with the exact same element or plot device you're planning on using. How do you know that your original idea is really just that… Original?
If you haven't seen the above YouTube video "Everything Is a Remix", I highly recommend it. In it, the creator goes over the differences between plagiarism and inspiration, imitation versus outright theft and cites various examples throughout history. For a personal example, I've had various folks compare my writing style to one or two other authors. Whether or not those people are just saying that because they're my friends and family, I take it as a compliment. In my opinion, it's impossible to create a voice of your own that is completely original and purged of outside influences. How do you speak in a manner that has never been done before? Surely there's been visionaries that come close to creating a completely new writing style, but those individuals are few and far between. I mean, as long as you're not writing about your driving through bat country on your drug-fueled trip to Las Vegas during a journalism gig, it's okay if you write like Hunter S. Thompson.
My problem with Westworld is not so much that certain concepts in it are remarkably similar to something I'd like to write in the future – I can now try to just distance myself slightly from how it's done in the show/70s film. My problem is that if I just happened to stumble upon something that's similar… How many other hundreds if not thousands of science-fiction works cover the same exact thing that I might be writing about? How does one even begin combing through all of that material, searching for things that match exactly what I want to read about?
No really, I'm asking you.
The closest idea I can come up with is to lay out your whole synopsis for your story/book/graphic novel on a writing forum and hope that no one has read or heard of anything like it. And then you hope like hell that no one steals it out from under you. If there's one thing standup comedians have taught me, regardless of whether or not you meant to be unoriginal and/or a blatant plagiarist, people do not treat you kindly after you are caught doing such a thing.
Of course, you can't just not write because you're afraid of crafting something that's already been done. I feel incredibly silly giving out advice to anyone as an extremely unpublished author, but in my mind, you just have to go for it. Writing vampires? Obviously, you need to do a certain amount of research, but beyond that, just write a good story. It'd be great if you could reinvent the sanguine wheel, but if you can't, just do it in a way that people don't see coming. Combine elements not normally seen in your choice of genre/topic. I firmly believe that compelling characters, smart dialogue, and a sensible plot can outclass a mind-blowing new original concept.
Now all I need to do is follow my own advice. Yeah… No problem. Maybe I would just be better off writing about twelfth-dimensional beings residing inside of a black hole.
Good luck out there, word warriors.