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I'm aware that some fictional work is loosely based on others, consciously or not. For instance, Lord of the Rings has some common elements with the Saga of Nibelung from the old Norse traditions.

Well, I'm writing my own story that has some common elements with a well-known book that is still under copyright. And that is not a coincidence: I really like the original story, and I would like my story to resemble the other one, but without plagiarizing it.

So, just for giving you a concrete example, suppose that my story is based on The Harry Potter books (inspired by this question). Would you say that my story is a plagiarism if:

  1. It's about a boy who goes to a hidden wizard school in London, learns that his parents were killed by a villain, gather some friends to fight this villain while attending on the school by learning about mythical creatures, spells and playing a unusual sport.

  2. It's about a girl who goes to a hidden wizard school in London, learns that her parents were captured by a villain, gather some friends to fight this villain while attending on the school, etc...

  3. It's about a girl who goes to a well-known wizard school in Japan, learns that her parents were captured by a villain, gather some friends to fight this villain while attending on the school by learning about mythical creatures, spells and practicing how to fight like a samurai.

  4. Assuming that the Harry Potter series were not under copyright anymore, would it be valuable to write the story described on (3) and make a explicit reference to it (like 'What would happen if Hogwarts was on Japan')?

  • 2
    This is a well-asked question, laying out a spectrum of possible differences that seem significant to you. Thank you and welcome to the site. – Monica Cellio Dec 7 '14 at 21:16
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Excellent question. The boundaries between different forms of derivative work are constantly being pushed and redefined. "Derivative" has come to be used mostly as an insult, but as you rightly point out, some works of fiction (I would argue 'most works') draw inspiration from preexisting sources. In a way, storytelling is an ongoing cultural endeavour.

But you didn't come here for a spiel about the collective unconscious, right? Let's get to the meat of it.

Your story contains derivative elements, and these elements are deliberate. You've established that much. You admire this story that you've read, something about it has touched you and you want to replicate that experience, but also to personalize it. Stop me if I'm missing the mark. What you struggle with is how to balance which elements to change, and which to keep. You want your story to be readily recognizable as an extension of the literary tradition in which these previous stories have been written, but still to stand on its own.

There are two things you absolutely need to do. I'm going to try and make this as generally applicable as possible. Number one, you need to identify the compelling element that draws you to the story. What is the focus of your interest? This can be difficult to identify, and requires a fair bit of practice, at least in my experience. If you're stumped, try writing freeform stream-of-consciousness about why you like your favorite story and why you keep coming back to it. Say, for twenty minutes. Once you've identified the heart of the story -- in your own subjective experience -- you know more about what can be dropped (e.g. 'kid wizard in glasses') vs. what definitely needs to be kept (e.g. 'choice is more important than destiny').

The second thing you need to do is background reading. Lauren touched on that above, but I'd like to generalize it even more. The Hero's Journey is never not useful, but you might like to zoom in more closely on the specific tropes and elements you want. When transitioning from a reader to a writer (or from a consumer to a creator), your best step is to figure out who inspired the people who inspire you. This is where you might start to feel like you're telling just one chapter in a longer story. At least, that's how I usually feel. You don't have to become a scholar, but you need some familiarity with the timelessness of the ideas you're playing with.

Mythology, folklore and fairy tales are invaluable. It's invaluable to recognize that older forms of storytelling -- up until fairly recently -- invariably involve dozens of variations on the same basic story. There is no writer who can't learn something from myth and folklore. You don't need to know every story, and you can't know every story. The point is to grasp the principle behind it. This is why fairy tales are so useful, because they demonstrate far better than modern novels the myriad forms in which a core idea can be developed. There is nothing new under the sun. That's not a bad thing. Your story is in no way less important or valuable than the ones that came before it. You just need to find what story it is you're trying to tell, and what it is that you, specifically (and no one but you) can bring to it.

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Your best bet is to break down the source into broad mythical elements and rebuild your story from that.

Harry's tale is both a coming-of-age and a Hero's Journey, and you don't get much more archetypal than those. JKRowling admits she modeled Harry-Ron-Ginny after Luke-Han-Leia, and Lucas was working with Joseph Campbell's Hero With a Thousand Faces. (An excellent book; I suggest you read that or the easier digest, The Power of Myth.)

So you start with the absolute basic building blocks (hero/ine, helpers, lack of family, villain, hero/ine must learn tools to defeat villain, guides) and create your unique story from those blocks.

Your #3 is a good stepping stone on the way, but I think you should keep pushing it. Why a school? Why not an individual master? What if it's not friends she gathers but rivals assigned to assist her by an overlord, and they have to learn to work together? What if the villain turns out to be a long-lost family member? You get the idea.

As an additional step, when you finish it and hand it off to a beta or editor, make it clear that your story was originally inspired by this other work, and ask that the reader keep watch to make sure no elements are too directly lifted from it.

And do not use "Hogwarts in Japan" as your elevator pitch if you're worried about copying your source material.

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Excellent question. It really depends on how you use each similarity. If you make it very obvious that your story has taken elements of the Harry Potter stories (-For example.) then it will be picked up by fans who will start to pick out more and more similarities. However, if you use a few subtle similarities that allow the story to have the same sort of base of "Orphaned Hero finds amazing discovery and learns new skill to beat bad guy." It's not exactly a premise that is subject to just the one story and so you will more than likely get away with it.

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