Nov 02 2012

What to Do When You Discover That Your Story Is No Longer Original

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.

24 responses so far

24 Responses to “What to Do When You Discover That Your Story Is No Longer Original”

  1. Nayanon 02 Nov 2012 at 11:09 pm

    I am planning a comic book in which the main character has skills and abilities a bit similar to Batman (i.e. no superpower, highly intelligent, martial artist etc.). But the origin, background, personality, motivation all are different. Will that (skills a bit similar to Batmam) be a problem while submitting the proposals? I think in that regard Nite Owl was similar to Batman.

  2. B. McKenzieon 03 Nov 2012 at 3:32 am

    If the characterization is substantially different from Batman, I don’t think the skills will be a major problem. The skills you’ve mentioned are pretty generic, which makes it easier to use them without bringing another particular character to mind. If we’re also talking about gadgets, I think that would present more of a challenge.*

    *There aren’t many well-known superheroes that use gadgets much, so those might bring Batman in particular to mind.

  3. Rawle Nyanzion 04 Nov 2012 at 6:56 pm

    Hey, B. Mac. Been reading you for a while. I’ve actually commented here before (I sent you an e-mail stating my old screen name.)

    As for this question here, I did a story in which the main character doesn’t become a superhero, despite having had telekinetic powers all her life.

  4. B. McKenzieon 04 Nov 2012 at 7:07 pm

    “…the main character doesn’t become a superhero, despite having had telekinetic powers all her life.” Okay. That would definitely serve as a different major choice than most superhero stories would have.

  5. Marion Harmonon 07 Nov 2012 at 8:47 pm

    And sometimes you just have to roll with it and write a good story; when I started writing Wearing the Cape I thought it was unique–then I started seeing similarities cropping up. For example, the WtC world is like ours until it is changed by the Event, which includes a few seconds of universal sensory blackout. While I was writing it, Flash-Forward came on TV–a series based around a, yep, universal blackout experience (heightened by several minutes of precognitive experience, but still…).

    I never tried to make any of WtC’s characters “unique” so far as powers were concerned–but worked hard on making them believable and enjoyable characters.

  6. Dr. Vo Spaderon 16 Nov 2012 at 5:25 pm

    …New problem. :/

    …There is a character who can travel to the future. (When this happens, it is more of an attack than a voluntary action. It’s limit is that it happens when an emotion is brutally rocked.) However, the side effect of his ability is that he is struck mute. Because he doesn’t have time to learn sign language, he draws a picture of what he has seen.

    …Don’t worry, it isn’t a “prevent the future” theme. But it still feels too much like _____, that Heroes character. Thoughts?

  7. B. McKenzieon 16 Nov 2012 at 6:28 pm

    I agree it feels very similar to Isaac Mendez, the painter from Heroes, especially if what he sees is remotely similar to what Mendez saw. One possibility which may help a bit is if he experiences the future in a different way (e.g. through dreams he can barely remember glimpses of). If this is a novel, I’d recommend cutting the muteness–I don’t think making the character rely on a visual element will work all that well for a novel.

  8. An aspiring writeron 27 Dec 2012 at 2:39 pm

    So my antagonistof my novel series, Mark Baker(originally a protagonist) of my series of books is a guy in his late teens with immense telekinetic abilities. He starts fairly original, i.e. he’s just some kid from an orphanage who doesn’t have many friends, but a strong moral compass. Anyway, without getting into to much story detail, about midway into the series he see’s his romantic interst killed trying to protect him(she has the power of illusions and tricks the killer into thinking she is him). He flips, loosing control and killing almost everyone (he doesn’t mean it he just loses control). His father take him away and explains that he put barriers inside his mind to limit his powers, for his own good and that the last barrier had been broken. Mark gets the wrong end of the stick, believing his father had been decieving him and lying to him, and attacks him inside his mind, stopping his father from building another barrier. His character then changes dramatically as he becomes darker and less heroic. Long story short he massacres a lot of people, declares martial law in New York and becomes a revolutionary leader of meta-humans(people with powers). I wanted to convey this twist of his being so had him fight with the other protagonist and easily defeat them, until one causes a gas tanker to explode and incompasitate him. Thanks to his powers a force-field protects saves his life but he is left with permenant burns, the right side of his face is badly scarred and his right eye is discolored and yellowish. His right arm is also cooked and he has to amputate it himself with his powers. He replaces it with one made of scrap metal and steel (i did this to show the level of control he had over his powers and to give the feeling that he had “lost a part of himself”)
    Here is my problem, physically, is he too much like Tetsuo from Akira or Anakin/Vader from Star Wars? Even Andrew from Chronicle? his personality is vastly different and he isn’t really a conventional villain, since he’s fighting against a gouverment wo is bent on eradicating his kind. It’s his physical appearance that worries me. Also he is(or was) a comic and superhero fan so can i possibly pass it off as being his inspiration from these sources?

  9. Anonymouson 27 Dec 2012 at 2:54 pm

    Does my novel sound too much like Green Lantern?
    Eons ago, a group of five dragons noticed how much turmoil the universe had to deal with, and so they created many weapons, each with a different magical power. They gave them to every race and created the Dragonforce, a group of heroes dedicated to combating evil in both the fantasy world and on Earth. My novel follows Octavious Millhall, a 22-year-old man who always thought his parents were crazy. This is because they told him stories about the fantasy world and told him his real mother was an elf. (They were humans in leauge with the Dragonforce.) After foiling an embezzelment scheme at the school he teaches at, he is approached by one of the dragons, who transport him to the fantasy world and tell him the tales he heard at a young age were true. The dragon tells him he is now ready to join the Force and give him an orb with the power to generate illusions. They send him to The Academy, a school for aspring Dragonforce cadets. Once there, he discovers a plot by the headmaster to use the newly trained cadets to enslave the Earth.
    Also, does anyone have any ideas about how I could start the novel?

  10. B. McKenzieon 27 Dec 2012 at 6:00 pm

    “Eons ago, a group of five dragons noticed how much turmoil the universe had to deal with, and so they created many weapons, each with a different magical power.” This sounds a bit like a contrived way to create a [Number]-Man Band, a Five Man Band in this case. It feels to me like there could be a more natural, organic reason the characters start working together than that they’re chosen by a dragon.

    “After foiling an embezzlement scheme at the school he teaches at…” I’m intrigued.

    –”Does anyone have any ideas about how I could start the novel?” Show the main character doing something interesting, preferably involving some choice which few other characters would make (to help develop what makes this character unique). Developing a conflict with another major character is another common element of effective openings.

  11. YellowJujuon 28 Dec 2012 at 12:28 am

    aspiring writer, I didn’t think Darth Vader/Anakin, I thought TwoFace/Dent (becomes villain after love interest dies and half body burns). I don’t think the love interest part is too big of a deal but I wouldn’t make the burns just affect one half of his body.

  12. Anonymouson 28 Dec 2012 at 6:15 am

    Wow. B. Mac, you repiled faster than I expected. Thank you so much!

  13. Anonymouson 28 Dec 2012 at 6:21 am

    Also, I am going to show the MC bonding and forming friendships with the people who help him stop the villian. See, the dragons gave the magical artifact to billions of people from all races. This is one of the reasons I asked if my novel was too much like GL. So only a select few people believe him when he tells the dragons about the plot. The rest think he is insane.

  14. Anonymouson 28 Dec 2012 at 4:58 pm

    B.Mac, sorry for commenting so much today, but I got a new novel idea today and I just want to flesh it out. So I have one last question (hopefully) for you. When I told you about my MC foiling an embezzlement scheme, you said you liked it. But I just got a new opening idea.
    The MC was an astronaut 10 years ago, but he is still arrogant and self-centered about it. After refusing to pay for a meal, he gets in a fight with his girlfriend. When he gets back to his apartment, he thinks it over and realizes that he needs to do something spectacular to get noticed again. He knows that NASA is in the process of conducting the first manned mission to a black hole. He sneaks aboard, and the other three astronauts find him. There is a struggle, and he ends up disabling the shields, getting the ship sucked into the hole. It leads to the demention of the dragons, and he and the other three people are given artifacts. His is an illusion orb. They are all sent to a school to harness their powers. One of the astronauts takes up black magic and casts a mind control spell on the headmaster, in order. to use the students to enslave the Earth.
    Which opening do you like better, the new one or the embezzlement scheme?

  15. B. McKenzieon 29 Dec 2012 at 2:26 am

    My main concern about the astronaut plan is that the main factor driving the plot forward is the main character making crazy choices for no plausible reason (sneaking onto a space shuttle to get noticed again). I think it could be tweaked fairly easily, though. For example, if he’s naturally a very competitive person (very plausible for an astronaut), he might decide that the main thing he’s missing in his life that he had 10 years ago was a worthy goal he was fighting towards. (He might also feel like the worthy goals made his life more exciting and he might miss the attention it brought him). He might start up his own space company and try racing NASA to the first manned mission into a black hole. In his zeal to get there first, he does something unsafe which causes both shuttles to get sucked in… I think that’d be more believable.



    “There is a struggle, and he ends up disabling the shields, getting the ship sucked into the hole. It leads to the demention of the dragons, and he and the other three people are given artifacts. His is an illusion orb. They are all sent to a school to harness their powers. One of the astronauts takes up black magic and casts a mind control spell on the headmaster, in order. to use the students to enslave the Earth.” –I think the fantasy/sci-fi genrebending would probably be disorienting. Astronauts and dragons?
    –I’m not sure that the school setting fits the characters as well as it would younger characters. I’d recommend either a more informal learning process (like adults experiencing a new culture–e.g. The Last Samurai) or a formal learning process more geared to adults learning something new (e.g. boot camp).
    –It sounds like the first section of the book (everything leading up to the black hole incident) feels like it’s part of a different book than the second section (the magical training and trying to stop the magician’s plot to seize power). It might help to keep the story more consistently sci-fi. For example, maybe the characters come across sci-fi powers (e.g. psionics and/or mutations rather than magic). We could also incorporate the power struggle element into the first section of the book — e.g. maybe the eventually-evil-astronaut and the main character are both irresponsibly determined to win at all costs, and his actions in the first half help explain why he goes rogue in the second half.



    If you’re more interested in telling a fantasy story, embezzlement at a fantasy school strikes me as more promising than anything with astronauts. If you’re more interested in telling a sci-fi story… I’d have to think about it, but I’d recommend being more consistent on the sci-fi.

  16. Anonymouson 29 Dec 2012 at 6:30 am

    Awesome. But how would a person just start up their own space company?

  17. Anonymouson 29 Dec 2012 at 6:33 am

    Also, If I told a sci-fi story, would giving my character an illusion orb be ripping of GL?

  18. Anonymouson 29 Dec 2012 at 8:03 am

    Don’t worry about the GL ripoff. I fixed it pretty well.

  19. An aspiring writeron 29 Dec 2012 at 9:53 am

    YellowJuji, the burns dont cover half his body. His arm gets fourth degree burns and the right side of his face gets second/third. It isn’t as bad as Two-Face , it’s just his arm that’s worst. It’s kinda hard to describe but think of it like that.

  20. B. McKenzieon 29 Dec 2012 at 10:53 am

    “Awesome. But how would a person just start up their own space company?” Here’s the abridged version:
    –Get investors/venture capital (or funding from some other source). I would recommend against getting embroiled in the details here unless you can figure out a way to make them interesting. (For example, I would recommend against covering scenes which are essentially business planning meetings unless they introduce plot-critical details or interesting characterization).
    –Hire a staff. If you’re interested in covering this in more than a few lines, I’d recommend focusing on 1-2 key researchers/engineers or anyone who has some sort of conflict with the main character. For example, even though Wayne Enterprises has thousands of employees, we only really see 2 of them in Dark Knight (researcher/engineer Lucius Fox and the would-be blackmailer Coleman Reese).
    –Execute a plan in the hopes of eventually becoming profitable. One possibility is that he is under a lot of pressure from investors to start making a profit, so he acts more dangerously/recklessly than he would if he had more time and a safer economic situation.

  21. Anonymouson 29 Dec 2012 at 4:08 pm

    Awesome, BM. You’ve helped me so much.

  22. B. McKenzieon 29 Dec 2012 at 10:05 pm

    You’re welcome, Anonymous. If you have $6 lying around, I’d appreciate if you would read and rate my book on writing superhero stories. (It’s an ebook that can be read either on a computer or a Kindle). Thanks! My book sales help me keep SN ad-free.

  23. Dr. Vo Spaderon 30 Dec 2012 at 9:25 am

    Ad free?! Now I’m glad I was late on the Prime thing!

  24. B. McKenzieon 30 Dec 2012 at 12:50 pm

    Yeah. I would estimate (very loosely–I don’t have reliable sales figures from my publisher*) that I generate $150-225 in royalties per month (50-75 sales). I think that is enough income to cover my time/expenses on SN. If I had ads, I’d loosely estimate ad revenue of maybe $450-900/month (although it is REALLY hard to estimate ad revenue on a website which has never had them).

    RANDOM IDEAS ON BOOK SALES:
    –Currently, I’m selling a book to maybe about .1%-.2% of SN readers. That means that it takes me 1000-2000 readers to make one sale. It’s hard to say, because most of the people that might buy writing advice are not used to buying writing advice in the form of movie reviews, but I think I could be converting significantly more. (If I could convert .5% of readers into customers, my royalties would be $550 a month).
    –I need to make it a LOT easier for people to see/find my book(s). For example, revamping the navigation tabs, linking to the books on the About page, referencing the books occasionally in posts, consulting with some design guys, etc.
    –I don’t regret at all publishing my first book of movie reviews/writing advice professionally, but I’m self-publishing my next book. 1) I really need sales figures and I can’t easily get them. 2) I want to pay for ads on Google searches to drive traffic to my book(s), but placing ads without being able to track sales is risky bordering on suicidal. 3) I’d really like the ability to easily edit the copy on my book’s Amazon page without contacting my publisher every time I have an idea there.

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