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Arguably this might belong in worldbuilding.stackexchange.com, but the question has to do with a fiction story and its relation to other fiction in the real world.

I have a plot which involves an alien race. This race needs certain characteristics (biological, social, technological, etc) to make the plot work. Call these primary characteristics.

In fleshing out the race, it adopted a number of other characteristics which seemed to "naturally" spill out of my imagination in relation to the primary characteristics. They just seemed to, artistically speaking, "naturally" fit or extend from the primary characteristics, backing them up and making a believable, convincing whole package.

When I then looked over what I had, I realised that my alien race seemed similar in many ways to a race in a certain famous film / TV show / novel. Ouch. Didn't intend that.

I want to avoid copyright upsets, so I'm considering my options:

  1. Rework my alien race until it's not at all similar. This relies on the idea that the similarities are in the secondary characteristics, not the primary; and assumes I will be able to "dress-up" the primary characteristics in a completely different set of secondary, if I can unstick myself, imaginatively speaking. It may involve rewatching / rereading the film / show / novel (it was many years ago) in order to systematically note down a comparison, and to know what to avoid.
  2. Go "all in" with the alien race. This would involve somehow contacting the creator(s) of said film / show / novel and asking for licensing permission to use their race. Problems here are a) how to communicate with them, b) I don't want to become fan-fiction, I'm just looking for a useful vehicle for the primary characteristics, which is what the plot is all about.
  3. Ignore it. This answer basically takes the viewpoint, "If there's no money involved, it doesn't matter. When (if) your story ever becomes big enough, cross (or burn) that bridge when you get to it." In other words, relax, I'm worrying over nothing.

Any suggestions for a good approach to this?

  • Having trouble choosing an answer. They all have something to contribute, more or less. – Stewart May 5 at 7:31
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I say, ignore it. Sort of.

I think you're right that the primary characteristics aren't the problem but it's all in how you flesh the race out. If your goal is humanoid aliens with human levels of communication skills and intelligence and a culture that is mutually intelligible (aliens you'd bump into in Star Trek or Supergirl or any of a thousand other works), there aren't many directions to choose from.

What you want to avoid is:

  • Names that are too similar to known ones. No "Klingins" for example.
  • Very specific characteristics made famous by others (unless you can really pull it off). "On the third hand."
  • Groupings of stereotypical characteristics that will make people think of the race. "Huge human-like ears and incredibly greedy and stingy with money...hmmm..."

My suggestion is to show what you've got to some geeky friends and ask them if they see similarities (don't say with whom). If they do, then make some changes.

There are some things you can easily tweak before publication. But others would require a large amount of rewriting. So anything big like that, you do want to figure out before you get too far.

Most similarities people notice will come from culture and not looks. Avoid making Planets of Hats and that eliminates a large portion of the problem.

  • 1
    Thank you for the "Planet of Hats" link. This is definitely a pertinent point to bear in mind! – Stewart May 3 at 15:31
  • @Stewart Someone here or on Worldbuilding posted it a few days ago. The name was new to me (though not the concept). Now I won't forget it :-) – Cyn May 3 at 16:07
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First off, copyright is not an issue. Or at least, it is an easily avoidable issue. Copyright does not protect general ideas, like "what this alien race is like". It protects the specific words used to describe those ideas. If you copied ten pages out of a Star Trek script word for word, that would be copyright violation. If you liked the general idea of a race of aliens like the Klingons and you described them in your own words, that is not copyright violation. It may be stealing ideas and lazy writing and uncreative and many other bad things, but it is not copyright violation.

Oh, if you used someone else's names, like if you called your aliens "Klingons", that could be trademark violation. That's super easy to avoid: don't use someone else's names. (Or symbols or musical compositions, etc.)

The real issue is, If you make your aliens too much like the aliens from some other well-known work, readers will say, "Oh come on, you just stole that from this other well-known work!" You won't have a LEGAL problem, but you might certainly have an ARTISTIC problem.

At that point, I think the question is how specific the similarities are, and how distinctive the idea is. If you say your aliens have blue skin, that's pretty general, and the fact that someone else wrote a story with aliens who have blue skin ... I doubt anyone would think twice about it.

If you say your aliens disdain emotion and pride themselves on being logical, that's pretty general, but I wouldn't be surprised if many readers think of Star Trek Vulcans.

If you describe 20 characteristics of your aliens and every one of them sounds just like the aliens from some well-known story, yeah, people are going to think you're stealing ideas.

You didn't say just who you were afraid of looking like you copied from and what the similarities were, so I can't give an opinion on the specifics. But in general I'd say:

One, are they really all that similar? I've heard many beginning authors get paranoid about looking like they were copying because they describe the hero as being handsome and brave and then they saw this other story that described its hero as being handsome and brave. There are some ideas that are found in a million stories. Don't worry about it. There's no way that you're going to write a story that is 100% original in every imaginable way.

Two, if your ideas really are looking too similar to someone else's, take a step back and see if you can change something. Maybe you can just add some irrelevant details that will distract the reader from similarities. Like if you're thinking that your aliens look too much like Chewbacca from Star Wars, can you make them short and weak and bald and have the story still work? Or if that's hopeless, okay, figure out what you CAN change without destroying the story you're trying to write.

  • Nice idea. Add some extra 2ndry characteristics that will muddy the waters a bit, or distract from anything that's too obvious. – Stewart May 3 at 16:27
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Welcome to writing SE.

I like both answers you've so far received.

I'll add in a suggestion. When the species is introduced, do so with a couple distracting and strongly memorable details (language, physical, cultural, naming) that are wholly unlike the existing aliens you don't want us to think of. Throw the reader off the scent up front. Because we tend to latch onto the first strong descriptor we get.

Three aliens walked in to the bowling alley.

"Why are they all wearing red bowties?" I muttered to Jill.

"No idea. Every time I see them, they're wearing red bowties. I keep thinking those aren't really bowties; like they're some sort of disguised tech device; maybe they think we think it's normal."

"Heeloh," the softest-skinned of the Almari group of aliens said as they reached our table. "May weee joieeen you?"

I gestured to the empty chairs and the three folded their legs underneath themselves to sit. It always freaked me out, like an elaborate origami move, when they sat.

"So you like to bowl?" I asked them.

"Oh yes. Theee matheematics and geeometries geeeves us pleasure."

^^So there are several odd behaviors in that, which are nothing like Vulcans, Klingons, Ferengi, Zaphod Beeblebrox, Cylons, Ewoks, Aliens from Alien, or what have you. I intentionally put the bowties into dialog, to emphasize them. Dialog tends to be more memorable than narrative, at least for me.

I'm intending these particular aliens to head toward logic (vulcans). I'll avoid ever saying logic (opting for rationality and mathematics, etc) and showing logic in their thinking. But every now and then I'd comment on the red bowties or their strange way of sitting down.

That's my suggestion. Introduce the aliens with some visual oddity or other, and massage the details that concern you. And then remind us every so often that your aliens always wear red bowties (or whatever). We'll start thinking of them as those weird aliens in bowties. And, let's say you are skirting close to Klingons and your aliens have forehead ridges. Massage that--call them something else--Colorful boney protrusions surrounding their eyes. Etc. They are a warrior race--don't call it that. They have bloodlust (or something.). It's not honor, it's obligation.

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    I like this because, although you didn't know it, the similarities only become obvious in the second part of the story (there's 2 subcultures of the alien race.) I wanted to also avoid, "Those aliens were cool up until chapter X, then they just changed into XYZ from ABC". But so also long as the 2nd subculture has correct descriptive / narrative emphasis .... – Stewart May 3 at 16:32
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In life, we all absorb a huge number of cultural influences, and integrating those into our own work is an important part of the artist's journey. But our instincts can sometimes play us false. If your intuitions lead you to recreate a carbon copy of something popular and well-known, then that could be a symptom that you're only regurgitating someone else's ideas.

It isn't necessarily a problem if your alien race strongly resembles someone else's alien race, as long as you're bringing us something new and fresh in the execution. But if you're setting your imagination loose, and all it's bringing you is retreads, it might be a sign of a deeper problem than any little tweaks can take care of.

I recently finished an entire book that felt original and fresh to me when I was writing it, but that I came to see was covering ground that other people had covered better and in a more interesting manner. So now I'm working on something completely different that I'm sure no one but me could ever write.

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    There are famous examples of this, for example tribbles vs flat cats (flat cats came first, and flat cats themselves were inspired by a third story). – user3067860 May 3 at 19:11
  • @user3067860 Aliens vs Doom ? – Stewart May 3 at 19:21

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