Let me say immediately that I am not saying that there are authors out there who plagiarize knowingly, but there have been accusations Im sure. This usually happens whenever a writer rockets to a level of notoriety that no one ever dreamed of. And it goes both ways. There were murmurs when HP came out regarding two books in particular which pre-dated the boy wizard phenomenon- Jane Yolens “Wizard Hall” and Eva Ibbotsons “Secret of Platform 13”. There may have been others but I dont know of them. There was also such a feeding frenzy among publishers to snap up the next J.K. Rowling, that I think they were buying books with more style (co-opted though it might have been) than substance. You know- every struggling fantasy writer out there was landing a lucrative deal, especially if their book featured magic and a boy. I tried very hard not to write about an eleven-year old boy but Feltus was insistent and overcame all my attempts to turn him into a girl. The good part of the frenzy is that some wonderful writers whod been working in semi-obscurity for years were brought to light, given fat checks and new publishing deals, and found a whole new legion of fans.
(Let me also say that Feltus fortunately has never been compared to HP and I am exceedingly thankful for this. Instead my book has most often been compared to Roald Dahl, which aint bad.)
Its so hard to separate your influences when you come to write. Some are so ingrained, stories you heard at your mothers knee sort of thing that you could regurgitate them without even knowing that they werent original thoughts. I remember in grade eight a sweet and simple melody came into my head. I wrote awful poetry at age eleven, sitting in my window seat (in a cotton nightgown probably), thinking that no one had ever suffered as I did, and gazing at the moon. Anyway, the tune came, followed closely by the words. Its like it popped into my head full formed and I was absolutely positive I had written it. Turned out it was a syrupy pop ballad by, I believe, Andy Gibb. I must have heard it on the radio at a friends house…The shock of not being the next Burt Bacharach (or Billie Joe Armstrong- for my younger readers) haunted me for years.
Listen, all of us writers, especially those who write in the fantasy genre, probably come from similar reading backgrounds. Were all of an age, we all read Lord of the Rings and the Greek Myths. I know for a fact that Rowling and I share an affection for E. Nesbit and her phoenixes and Psammeads. We had parents who let us read everything and that included books my own mother had grown up with, and its only normal that all that reading seeped into the little gray cells, and combined into a sort of seething jelly-like mass which sends out pseudopod-like tendrils of creative inspiration whenever were sitting in front of a blank computer screen scratching our…heads.
Its been said that there isnt an original thought or story line left in the world. Its all been realized before and more often than not by those clever Greeks. They came up with the epic tale, the heroic journey, the quest, tragedy and the fight against evil. You can look at pretty much any plot line of any book- not just fantasy and science fiction- and find this basic structure which resonates in every human heart. Thats why its still so popular after thousands of years. We like to see the good guy win against seeming insurmountable odds, and after a lot of hardship. Its one of the ‘rules of successful writing that you throw a whole lot of bad stuff at your hero and then you pile on some more until it seems as if hell never overcome it; and then in the final hour, he does.
So if were all working off the same basic plot its only natural that there be some similarities somewhere. I try so hard to avoid everything that has been used already. This works fine if Im making up creatures like the PoodleRats or the Kehezzzalubbapipipi, but occasionally I want to dip into the treasure trove that is the myths, and- (and this is my only complaint against Rowling) use something classic, only to find that she has used pretty much all the creatures were familiar with from reading “The Twelve Labors of Hercules”. And if its not her, then its sure to be someone else. In fact, Rick Riordan has built himself a successful series re-imagining Greek mythology for the kids of today in his amusing books- “The Lighting Thief” and “The Sea of Monsters” are the two Ive read and passed onto my nephew who is a voracious reader. And by the way, I wish Id thought of it first.
Anyway I could bash my head against the wall in frustration but eventually I decided that I could use the tried and true- like for instance Gorgons- if I put my own spin on the characters. I could write about an eleven-year old boy because after all I didnt have much choice, and I didnt think readers would believe in a girl named Feltus Ovalton.
There may not be anything new under the sun, but fortunately we have the capacity to be enchanted over and over again as long as the writing is good.