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This is meant to be a canonical question, to which particular cases can be referred. We've had several particular instances of this question in the past - "is my story too similar to specific story X". The older ones got answered, the newer ones got closed as off-topic. These questions however never get closed as duplicates of each other, being different in their particulars. The purpose of this question is thus that all similar questions in the future may find an answer here.


My story shares some similarities with an existing work: a major plot element is the same, or an overarching concept is the same.

For example, I have a regular child suddenly realising he can do magic, and start learning it (Harry Potter, Kaytek the Wizard). Or, there are people flying on dragons, and those constitute an aerial force used in battle (Dragonriders of Pern, Temeraire).

How do I know if my work is OK / original enough, or if it is too similar to another work, derivative and constitutes a copyright infringement?

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Many stories share similarities. If one story is about a school, it doesn't mean that no story ever again can be about a school. If one story is about magic, it doesn't mean that other stories can't also be about magic. Michael Ende had a story about a school of magic before Rowling did. Both are perfectly fine.

There are multiple stories about dragons, there are multiple stories about Napoleon, there are multiple stories about forbidden love. What makes each story unique is the particular way in which all the elements combine: the character traits of the characters, the situations they find themselves in, they ways they react, the particular ways everything goes wrong around them. In a way, story elements are ingredients, like flour, butter and eggs. The story, and its originality, reside in how those elements are combined, what they make in the end.

If my characters act and respond always the same as the characters of another story, if they find themselves in situations that are the same, if all the story beats are the same, then perhaps I should reconsider what I'm writing. (Or perhaps not - one can write a retelling of an older story that's in the public domain, but one should not pretend otherwise in such a case. West Side Story makes no claims of story originality, but admits freely it is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet.)

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    Another classic one is the claim that there are more stories about cowboys, than there ever were cowboys! :D – Rick Jul 29 '18 at 22:28
  • @Rick I heard that but about dinosaurs. There are modern-day cowboys, it is hard to count. – Mindwin Aug 3 '18 at 14:31
  • @Mindwin the cowboy genre typically is assumed to start after the civil war ends and before WW1 - though there are (of course!) notable exceptions - I think there's a Clint Eastwood movie where they sort of randomly stumble upon a big civil war battle and have to blow up a bridge - for reasons which seem entirely unrelated to anything else going on in the rest of the film. – Rick Aug 4 '18 at 23:28
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    To add to this, most (if not all) of Shakespeare's actual plots were not original, either. Which demonstrates that originality of plot is not even a necessary ingredient to excellent storytelling. – Wildcard Aug 6 '18 at 22:51
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    @MissouriSpartan Yes, absolutely. – Galastel Feb 26 at 19:33
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A story is like a person. Many people lead similar lives and yet each person we meet is unique. Every fireman we meet is a different fireman. Every nurse is a different nurse. Every teacher is a different teacher. Every cop is a different cop.

Even when they fall into stereotypical behaviors -- even if the firmen all keep dalmatians and the cops all eat donuts -- they are still unique individual people. The ones we know, we recognize. When we meet another, they are not the same person, through their life and work may be very similar. A stranger from the next firehouse is not your fireman buddy, even if they wear the same hat, support the same teams, drink the same beer, and live on the same street.

We meet each story as we meet each person. They may take a familiar form, have a familiar plot and setting and crisis and resolution, but they are unique stories and we recognize them a such.

But when we meet a story that is trying to be another story in disguise, we are not fooled. When we meet a story that is aping another story, we see through the deception. This is not a matter of degrees. It can't be decided by counting plot points or by doing side by side character and event comparisons. It is a matter of character. It is not quantifiable, but it is instantly recognizable. (Somehow, I think, we recognize the pale imitation even when we have not seen the original, just as we would recognize a wax work as wax even if we had never met the real person.)

Is your story to similar to a published work. Does it feel similar? Does it feel derivative? Does it feel like pastiche? It is really all about authenticity and authenticity is a property of the whole not the parts.

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There is a theory that all stories basically boil down to either the same 6-7 things*, or all stories are retellings of the Hero's Journey.

*E.g. Man vs man, man vs nature, man vs himself, going somewhere and returning (etc.)

Which doesn't really mean anything, except that if your categories are broad enough eventually you can cram everything into them.

Also remember that 50 Shades of Grey started out as fan-fiction for Twilight.

So if something is too similar, the serial numbers can be filed off later.

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Great question. I wouldn’t worry about it. One of my favorite series is called the Tapestry series and on so many levels the first book is a carbon copy of Harry Potter. The truth is, when someone likes a story, they want to hear it again. History has shown that some of the best stories get retold over and over again adapting every time with the flair of the story teller.

Tell your story. If it feels too much like the other stories you’ve read, ask yourself why you’re writing it? If the why isn’t meaningful to you, that’s where you should worry, but if why you were writing it in the first place feeds your passion of storytelling, you’re stay the course, the similarities will be indistinguishable when readers see you on paper.

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