I have a confession to make that may shock anyone who beta read my first novel, which sported a gruff, pipe-smoking wizard, a quest involving a mythical object of doom, and the line “All we have to decide is what to do with the time we’re given.” Despite these uncanny resemblances, no, I’m not Tolkien. I do, however, harbor deep respect and admiration for him, and I hope my own stories will evoke the same emotions as The Hobbit and The Children of Hurin.
Every writer has a hero (or, more often, several heroes) who left an imprint on her soul and represents the standards she strives to achieve. But drawing inspiration from another author is like tightrope walking over a hoard of angry critics. You stray too far, and oops! You’re now unoriginal, a cheap rip-off, or most dreaded of all, a plagiarist.
Can you avoid falling to such a fate? Rest assured, once you understand what classifies as a stolen idea (and what doesn’t), you’ll be able to combine your unique perspective with the knowledge and finesse of the greats. And you won’t risk your integrity in the process.
Copying Relies on Details, Not Techniques
If the inclusion of a few elves and wizards is enough to conflate me with Tolkien, the bar for literary brilliance is tragically low. Tolkien himself borrowed elves and wizards from mythology, and though he broke stereotypes, his medley of races isn’t a trademark. Instead, he’s famous for the beautiful pathos of his worldbuilding, his captivating prose, and the grand scale of his themes—ironically, all of which my Lord of the Rings wannabe lacked.
When you replicate a character or situation from a book you enjoy, that’s a form of misappropriation (unless you’re deliberately writing fanfiction or a fairy-tale retelling, but those are separate topics). Inspiration, in contrast, is when you extract lessons from someone else’s approach to enhance a corresponding area of your work-in-progress. For instance, if you love the morally complex characters in Les Miserables, portraying the POV of an ex-convict who adopts a child will do a disservice to Victor Hugo—and the creativity God has given you. That’s not how your apprenticeship should play out. The members of your cast need to be born from your own imagination, whether a kid who snatches his best friend’s bike or a warrior facing defeat by his arch nemesis.
Identifying the specific aspects of a story that fascinate you will prevent you from infringing on the author’s territory. Revisit a book on your top-ten list and note which devices the author excels at, how those make him stand out, and why you wish you could sound like him. That’s where you’ll find the starting point for your goals to improve your characters, prose, worldbuilding, and more.
Copying Recycles Themes Instead of Exploring New Angles
I recently finished a book that failed to deliver a satisfying conclusion because of how the author’s worldview contradicted mine. Yet the poignant questions about death continued to haunt me afterward, and when I began a new project, my theme suspiciously echoed them. My initial instinct was to burn my outline and fling myself on the sofa in a fit of Victorian hysterics for committing an unpardonable sin. But then an argument arose within me: Why couldn’t I reformulate the theme to provide the answers I believed had been missing?
Espousing another author’s worldview and addressing the same topic with the same slant leaves the audience with nothing new to think about—and probably a sense of déjà vu. Whereas challenging or overturning a pre-existing theme enables you to nudge readers toward higher ground. Moving from inspiration to application is similar to the stages of a painting: your outline is the base coat, but each subsequent layer adds new shapes and colors.
Stories are more than a conglomerate of techniques. Your experiences influence your worldview, which in turn influences your stories. Your values are not identical to mine, and in the places where we concur, our motivations may differ. Even if you and your writing bestie both have protagonists who are struggling with mental illness, the results will vary because of the nuances you each choose to focus on. Your responsibility is to impart the message that matters to you. The problems your characters wrestle through need to be 100 percent genuine, not necessarily 100 percent original.
My advice here may seem counter-intuitive. If you aspire to emulate a certain author, shouldn’t you study him exclusively?
Yes and no.
An affinity for broccoli doesn’t justify the exclusion of all other food groups. Sure, the tiny trees are loaded with vitamins. But reducing your meals to one type of vegetable will make a dietician squawk for obvious reasons: a healthy diet requires more nutrients than broccoli can supply.
Similarly, devoting all your attention to a single author will strengthen but also stagnate your skills. Except for a few vague parallels, Tolkien doesn’t invent any religions, so you’ll lack examples to base your own culture on if you treat him as the quintessential professor of worldbuilding. Sanderson, however, extensively develops his characters’ ideologies concerning deity. Round out your training with his Stormlight Archive, Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind, and other comparable books. Consult a broad range of sources, not just one.
If you’re attracted to an author’s style, diversifying your reading selections becomes even more crucial. Since you’re trying to coax out your own writing voice, not become a clone of someone else, consuming too much of one author’s material poses a danger: you’ll start regurgitating her word choices, pacing, and metaphors. When I set out to analyze the prose in Kate DiCamillo’s books, I interspersed a smattering of N. D. Wilson, Lois Lowry, and Marcus Zusak to keep my takeaways balanced. From that mash-up, my own voice evolved as reminiscent of all of them yet distinctly me.
Tell the Story That’s Important to You
Frankly, I still wouldn’t mind being Tolkien. He wrote some nifty stuff. But here’s a sad truth: if readers crave the adventures of hairy-footed characters who eat second breakfasts, they’ll pick up Tolkien. A story that reminds them of a favorite title may seem appealing in theory, and they may gravitate to that general flavor, but ultimately no one expects (or wants) an impersonation.
A book is a patchwork quilt of memories that the author sewed together to create something new. The same scraps can be stitched into multiple stories, because what makes the final product unique and wholly yours are the truths you use for the pattern. Being inspired by a book is like a toddler holding his mother’s hand while learning how to walk. Eventually he has to let go. But a step away from the familiar is a step toward unknown possibilities. Inspiration is a compass, not a destination, and allowing your favorite stories to guide you instead of control you will free you to craft memorable ones of your own.
Sarah Baran views herself as fiercely intimidating, but anyone who’s seen her trip over her own shoelaces knows the truth. She’s a paradox disguised in human form, a purveyor of caustic wit, a reluctant people-lover, and an idealistic cynic who sees the world through cracks in her rose-colored glasses. A love for writing grabbed her in a stranglehold when she was only a child, so she decided to give storytelling a whirl. If she’d known this decision would lead to an unhealthy obsession with daggers and many sleepless nights agonizing over finding the perfect words to describe a tree, she might have opted for a safer career choice. Regardless, she’s never looked back.
When she isn’t writing, Sarah dons the role of grouchy librarian and glares at children over the rims of her glasses. You can find her having a good time at humanity’s expense on her blog, TheSarcasticElf.com.