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I have been pondering on a novel idea that would likely utilize a large chunk of a premise of a novel that I read several years ago.

To be clear, the elements that I would want to use are the premise (Magical detective solving magical crimes) and the configuration of the three main characters (The magical detective, his apprentice, and an aristocratic girl whom the detective is allied with).

I read a story with this exact setup and felt that I would want to take it in an entirely different direction, but with a somewhat similar world (magic is real, urban fantasy setting). I fell in love with the idea of writing a story that starts out with this same configuration of story elements, but has a different theme, plot line, and ultimately a different focus than this series ended up having.

My question is, is this enough to not worry about copyright claims? I’d love to move forward with the idea, but it seems like it would be a wasted effort if I could do nothing with the story when I’m done, due to having such a similar premise.

To reiterate, my intent is not to re-tread the same plot lines and ideas of that series other than what I detailed above. My main issue being that I’m not sure where the line would be in terms of copyright if I use an extremely similar jumping off point, but then do my own thing.

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Legally, yes, this is absolutely fine! Many authors borrow ideas, characters, settings and plot details from other works. Stephen King writes extensively about how his stories are greatly inspired by other writers' stories.

The only thing to note is that if you follow the same character formula as the work you were inspired by - in your case, a magical detective solving magical crimes with an apprentice and an aristocratic ally in an urban fantasy setting - you may be compared to the more popular work, and some readers may point out the similarities. This isn't necessarily a bad thing at all, but just be aware that it might happen. If I were to write a book today about a wizarding school where the main characters are teenagers, for example, it will obviously be compared to Harry Potter. As long as you don't mind that potential for comparison, you have nothing to worry about.

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If you're concerned about copyright violation, not a problem, this is completely legal. Ideas are not and can not be copyrighted, only the exact words or pictures or other means of expression used to convey those ideas. As long as you are only copying a general idea, like "magical detective solving magical crimes", and not the specific words that the original writer used, you are perfectly legal.

Whether it's a good idea is another question. If you follow the original author's writing too closely, people might well consider your writing an unimaginative rip-off. Whenever there's a popular movie, you can always count on a dozen other movies coming out that are obviously lame attempts to copy the success of the original.

That said, I hear many original writers panic unnecessarily that people will think they're copying from some other story. "I'm writing a story where a couple fall in love but then they face all kinds of problems that keep them apart. Will people say that I'm copying from Romeo and Juliet?" That depends on just how similar your story is. Just because two people fall in love in your story doesn't make it a rip-off of Romeo and Juliet. Likewise, just because you have a magical detective doesn't make your story a rip-off of this other story.

Here's the practical tip I would give you: If you find yourself struggling to find ways to make your story different, that is, if your first draft is very similar to the inspiration and you have to go back and change things to make it different, then it's probably too similar. You're not taking the same basic idea and heading off in a different direction. You're heading in the same direction and trying to find a detour here and there. But if you take someone else's basic idea and putting a spin on it that is totally your own, yeah, that's how creativity works. Few people are creative enough to invent an entirely new genre. Most of us try to explore a new variation within a genre. (Well, some writers are happy to recycle the same old ideas and just rearrange them a little, but that's a different story.)

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