Monday, February 6, 2012

Plagiarism, originality, and the fuzzy truth

Sometimes when I'm browsing online, I come across a blog post on a topic upon which I have Opinions, and I use it as a jumping-off point for my own post. Other times, as today, I notice that someone else posted something I already posted about. Do I feel like my idea was stolen? Am I stealing an idea if I'm starting from the same point, but writing my own post about it?

No. Sometimes, for whatever reason, a lot of different bloggers think about a topic at the same time. Sometimes people have a different take on the same topic, and they have something to add. Complaining about a popular blogger posting about something I blogged about last week would be akin to stomping my feet and whining that someone else reviewed the same book I did, or that someone in the readalong wrote about the same thing I did. (None of them did; we had a refreshing gamut of opinions.)

The same goes for fiction releases. You may have noticed a lot of books being released with similar descriptions, or whose ideas seem remarkably similar. Sometimes, these books aren't based on a trend that's currently popular, and yet they come out within a week or two of one another. Who copied who, there?

Probably neither. There's a handy German word, zeitgeist, which I learned in my psychology background. It means, literally, "spirit of the times," and it refers to the cultural climate, and also to the knowledge and arts that have contributed to create that climate. I find it's a useful term when I'm talking about literary trends that spring up seemingly overnight, without any obvious trigger. Some trends come from the popularity of one book or series, but most of them appear in clusters. That's not a publishing house conspiracy; it's zeitgeist. Several different people grew up consuming the same media, observing the same events on the news, ingesting information the same way. This generation's writers shared a lot of the same environments and experiences growing up, and so they're able to process things in a way that's familiar to this generation of readers. People writing epic fantasy in its early years may have been copying Tolkien, or they might have read up on their Joseph Campbell.

There's more that goes into it, too. At the very core of stories, you have three basic plots: person vs. person, person vs. nature, person vs. self. My high school freshman English teacher taught us this, and, for the rest of the year, referred back to it by asking us which of the basic plots came into play. Some of the better stories were some mixture of all three elements, but those plots were still there. It taught me early on that originality is a myth. Every story is derivative of another, and boils down to one of the basic plots. If we distract ourselves with how similar plots are, we miss out on the parts of it that are fresh and new.

I've found that plots that strive to be unexpected and new end up either nonsensical or jarring, and neither is a positive reading experience. There's plenty of room for surprising readers while sticking to a formula, exciting readers while presenting a predictable plot, or amusing readers despite the low-key language. I've seen each performed masterfully, and I've seen people try for fresh and new who had terrible execution.

That said, there is such a thing as plagiarism in the writing community. People do steal passages, or entire books with the character names switched around, or stories off the web. Be wary of ebooks whose authors you're unfamiliar with, for that very reason. But blatant plagiarism and what people call plagiarism when a book happens to share elements with another are entirely different.

Personally, I like playing with cliché elements and turning them on their heads, but that's a trope all its own. (Potential time sink warning — that site can suck you in for hours.) I'm not trying for originality. All I want out of the stories I tell is that they say something the way I want to say it. Sometimes, that will mean saying something someone else already has. All that matters to me is that it resonates better with someone than the old way of saying it.

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