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I'm writing a story about fictional beings who have the power of the four elements. Only very few, very rare people posses the power of all four elements while most only have one. My main character is going to be one of those who have the powers of all the elements.

The thing is, I don't want people to read this and think I stole the idea off of the old animated Nickelodeon series, Avatar, which honestly, I rarely watched.

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    A different, fresh, culture and plot should do the trick nicely – Mary ML Jan 23 '17 at 7:44
  • obligatory "what movie?" – Travis Christian Jan 23 '17 at 23:10
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I'll approach this from a different angle than the two great answers already here. Let's assume that yes, your story is too similar to an existing, fairly well-known property. How do you fix that?

1) Address the root cause. Figure out the story you're trying to tell, and how your similar aspects tell that story. Do you like the idea of balancing pairs of forces? The idea that nature exists in sets of four? Playing with the four ancient elements? Figure out what part appeals to you — get down to the nub of the thing. Could you instead use the Four Humours? The four winds? Name your power aspects after the four suits in a deck of cards? (and not everyone uses the same deck. French and American decks are hearts/diamonds/clubs/spades, Italian and Spanish decks are cups/coins/cudgels/swords, Swiss-German decks are roses/bells/acorns/shields.) Invent your own suits from an in-universe deck and have the characters use the suits as nicknames for the powers? Use Tarot cards with major and minor houses?

2) Rework the problem symptoms. If your problem is that you have four Powers, and one person has All Four Powers, well, why? What's the story you're trying to tell about this person? Does it have to be one person with all four powers? Could you have a gang of four or a Five-Person Band (WARNING: TV TROPES LINK) working in tandem? Could the powers be in artifacts and the character has to collect a series of MacGuffins instead of having innate abilities?

This can obviously be altered to fit whatever your specific issues are. My point is, if your reader radar is redlining into Fanfic, and you don't want to write fanfic, you need to find the heart of your story first and then work outward from that. If your story is so closely bound up with the original property that you can't separate it, then go ahead and write the fanfic, or the pastiche. The writing will be practice and you can tell some other story once this one is out of your system.

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There are so many stories about people possessing the power of the elements, that there is no danger of yours seeming like a rip-off.

What you can do to help your story to become even more different, is not read anything similar while you work on it.

Many writers avoid reading their own genre while they write. If you write crime fiction or fantasy or romance, don't read crime fiction or fantasy or romande while you develop your story or write it, or what you read will mix up in your head with your own (related) ideas and what you write will be a mix of your reading matter.

When you work on your story, read what you want to influence your writing. Read classics with great language to influence your style. Read psychology to influence your character development. Watch documentaries to influence your worldbuilding.

Or read something completely unrelated, so you can relax from your story for a bit.

But most of all: Don't worry. Many writers made lots of money writing rip offs.

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Whether or not people will accuse you of stealing ideas from Avatar depends largely on what you do with those ideas. So long as you implement the ideas differently, you'll be okay.

An example:

My character is from another planet (his home planet blew up). He crash landed on Earth when he was a baby, and was subsequently raised on Earth. Although he's an alien, he looks completely human and no one looks twice at him; until he uses his super strength and speed and starts flying around. Fortunately, he uses his powers for good.

Am I talking about Superman, or Goku? They have the exact same character premise, but two different stories. Their stories are sufficiently different enough that neither one is seen as a copycat of the other.

Besides, Avatar is hardly unique. In the anime Naruto, most ninjas can only use one or two elemental forces; it is rare for a ninja to able to use all of them. Again, same premise, two different stories.

I wouldn't worry about it.

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I feel that yes, there is a very close resemblance to Avatar: The Last Airbender. However, I could also name several books in which the idea of elemental magic is used. All of them are different, so if you can make yours different, it will be fine. Perhaps you could change:

  • The setting.

  • The ideas/story goal.

  • The 'nation' thing.

Among other things from the film.

To be honest, so many people use elemental magic that there's no way the creators of Avatar could possibly find the time to sue them (even if they could). It's fine. People won't think you stole the idea because the 'four elements' thing is one from very ancient civilizations.

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There are no original plots left. There are no myths that have not been mined and exploited a hundred times over. And coming up with a new mythos is nigh impossible because the elements of myth are elemental -- they speak very deeply to basic human hopes and fears and so even the ancient myths we have from all over the world are broadly similar to each other.

The success of a story lies not in the plot, or the myth is borrows from, but in the telling. The old stories need to be constantly retold for a new audience, an audience whose minds are stocked with different experiences, education, and prejudices from their parents. You tell the old stories, explore the old myths, but you do it for a new generation.

Neither JRR Tolkien of J.K. Rowling created a new mythos. They gleaned, sorted, and retold old ones. If they seemed original to millions, it was because it was the first time they had encountered them. Tolkien and Rowling tool old myths and old tropes and retold them for a new generation of readers to whom the older tellings would have been much less accessible.

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  • "There are no original plots left" Are you referring to the plot as a sequence of events, arranged in a certain order to allow you to tell the story? Then I cannot agree, for there is an infinite number of ways to skin the cat. "coming up with a new mythos is nigh impossible"--cannot agree either. Brandon Sanderson develops a new complex and highly logical magic system for each of his novels/(x-logies), and he never employed elves, dwarves, zombies, or elemental forces. – Lew Jan 23 '17 at 14:47
  • @Lew I think Mark is reducing plot to "A needs thing, A must go on journey to find thing, A is assisted by B and C, A fails repeatedly, A eventually succeeds." The Good Dinosaur and Star Wars are both Hero's Journeys. You'd obviously never confuse them, but they have the same basic building blocks of structure. – Lauren-Clear-Monica-Ipsum Jan 23 '17 at 17:05
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    Right. Boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy gets girl back. Same plot, a million tellings. I know some writers invent new mythos but I can't think of one mainstream success. Elves, dwarves, orcs represent aspects of the human. They recur under many names. We re-dress the same plots, same myths, in new clothes. This is not a failing, it's our job. – user16226 Jan 23 '17 at 17:46
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If you're story exceeds genre, becomes more than the sum of its parts, then it is original, regardless of how similar it may be.

When I'm reading a story, I'm not comparing it to all the stories I've ever read: I'm reading your story.

The "plot" that you say is similar is barely relevant. There will be thousands of stories written similar to it before 2100. Just focus on making your story the best it can be.

If you do justice to your world, and aren't just pinching convenient plot points from similar media and hobbling them amateurely together, then I think you'll be pleased with the result and others will be too.

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