Nov 02 2012
Did Hollywood or a well-known author just ruin your day by releasing a story that looks strikingly similar to something you’ve been independently developing for years? Here are some ways you can develop your story in a different direction.
1. Focus on unusual character traits. There have been a LOT of superheroes that are brilliant scientists, but Iron Man’s protagonist has a very unusual combination of traits. Whereas most scientist characters struggle with something like shyness, Tony Stark is hyper-charismatic and his main flaw is impulsiveness/recklessness.
2. Give the main characters unusual goals and/or motivations, preferably which tie into unusual decisions. For example, in most national security thrillers, if a character gets framed for a major crime, the character’s quest will center on proving his innocence and/or getting revenge on the people that have framed him. In contrast, Point of Impact’s protagonist is a backwoods hermit who responds to a framing in a very unusual way. His first move is to break into an FBI-guarded morgue to recover the corpse of his dog (who was killed at his house when the criminals were planting evidence against him). The protagonist’s sense of honor causes him to jeopardize his chances of succeeding at the main plot over a point of honor that wouldn’t matter much to most protagonists.
3. Perhaps the main character has an unexpected/counterintuitive background. E.g. a vampire hunter who’s also a high school student or a U.S. President, a homicide investigator who’s an ex-conman and a reformed psychic, a police forensics technician who’s also a serial killer, a private investigation specializing in gruesome cases but is a retired granny, a national security protagonist who’s not a strapping authority figure, etc.
4. Perhaps major plot events and/or conflicts play out in different ways. For example, the main character turns into an alien in Avatar and District 9, causing District 9’s protagonist to lose a romance but Avatar’s to gain one. Viewers are meant to sympathize with Avatar’s character deciding to become an alien, but the involuntary transformation is the central problem for the protagonist of District 9.
5. Characters make different major choices. For example, take two characters in a Peter Parker-like mold. The actual Peter Parker doesn’t stop the robber, which gets his uncle killed and causes him to become a superhero out of grief/guilt. Now take a second character that DID decide to get involved in a similar situation, which caused one of the robber’s associates to kill the uncle out of revenge. The plot pivots on a different decision and the character’s journey will very likely feel substantially different.
6. Plot events and/or decisions resolve in different ways. I think the most memorable aspect about Watchmen is that (spoiler) the villain is more successful than not.
7. Different mood and/or authorial style. Spider-Man and Kick-Ass are both about high school superheroes, but KA is much more of a dark comedy, whereas Spider-Man’s life is more romanticized. (E.g. compare/contrast Peter Parker’s ultimately successful romance with a actress/model vs. Kick-Ass’s graphically incompetent attempts at romance).
8. Unusual relationships. Casino Royale feels substantially different from most of the earlier James Bond movies because he’s actually emotionally attached to Vesper. There’s an interesting conflict between Bond the cold killer and Bond’s concern/empathy for her. Alternately, the Amulet of Samarkand and Harry Potter are both about young wizards, but the wizard-familiar relationship at the heart of AOS doesn’t have any sort of analogue in Harry Potter (no offense, Hedwig).
9. Different side-characters and settings. For example, District 9 and Avatar share some striking plot similarities (a human turns into an alien), but Avatar is a romanticized journey a la Dancing-with-Wolves set in an exotic/alien wilderness with aliens that mostly looked like blue humans, whereas District 9 is a much more gritty story set in an urban slum with aliens that looked sort of horrifying. The main use of side-characters in Avatar is a love gained, whereas District 9’s most important side-character is a love lost (mostly).
10. As a last resort, maybe do it as a parody. If you work in some authorial commentary and transform the material in some way, that could work. One minor bit of caution here for superhero comic writers: I think the market for superhero parodies is mostly oversaturated.
Thanks to Tim Smith for suggesting this article. If you have any writing questions, please let me know.