Similarity in Writing. Or, “How Close is Too Close?”

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A Man, Copying a Book

In my article, Terrible Plot, Critique, and Taking Advice, I encroached on the concept of encroaching on someone else’s story. (That last bit about the cave and the coin.) And I thought it might be worth a followup about the theme of similarity.

A Prime Example of Similarity

I wrote something, once, where a character was flipped upside down and slung to the ceiling by a wizard. In this particular case, I still think it worked. But when I presented it to my writing group, someone said it was too close to Harry Potter.

Now, I’ll be completely honest with you, I have all of the Harry Potter works in my house but I’ve never read any of them. (They’re on my list somewhere.) I did not plagiarize or take inspiration from anything. When I told my wife (who has actually read the books), she didn’t even see the connection between mine and J.K. Rowling’s work.

Is it wise to disregard a critic?

But to this critic, she saw enough of a similarity where it made her concerned for me. And I’m not saying she’s wrong, but there’s a bigger picture in play.

Our world is full of similar events. There’s absolutely nothing new under the sun. Sometimes you will write something that’s close to that of someone else. And then, let’s face it, if you really need to incapacitate someone, holding them upside down by their ankle is a pretty good way to do that. To me, it’s a matter of conscience. I didn’t write my story with Rowling’s in mind, I didn’t copy, I wasn’t inspired by it. It’s also a very minor point in my story. My conscience is absolutely clear.

But now that she’s pointed it out, there’s a bit of me that wants me to go back and change it somehow. Is there something I can do that would make it better? Not just different, but actually better. Because to rewrite everything because someone worries your stuff is too close to someone else’s in the most minor of ways isn’t likely to be worth it. But changing to be better, now that’s worth doing almost every single time.

And don’t get me wrong, I’d never encourage anyone to borrow, steal, plagiarize (the same thing as stealing, obviously) or otherwise. As a creative, it’s our job to write unique things. If we can’t write something unique, smash the story into little bits and adjust until it’s different and better.

Similarity is fine, it helps us plant ourselves in something we know. But use your head. Don’t let your work of passion be destroyed by something you could have easily stopped.

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