Last night, when I was futzing around the internet instead of writing, I was reading a brief article on a website I frequent about a remake of "RoboCop". I'd never seen the original, knew nothing about it (other than, presumably, it involved a cop who was a robot), but the website is humorous and the article was short, so I read on. As I read the one-paragraph summary of the movie, I started feeling queasy. "Shit," I thought. "This sounds an awful lot like the book I'm writing."
Panicked at the thought that I would be accused of ripping off a rather popular franchise, I rushed over to wikipedia to read about the original movie. Long story short: while there are some similarities, enough was significantly different from my book to allow me to breathe a sigh of relief. But that got me thinking - how many "original" ideas really exist?
Back in my high school music theory classes, a friend and I were being all philosophical one day, and we pondered whether there would ever come a point in time where every tonal melody or logical chord progression has been written. (The comedy group Axis of Awesome may have proved we're closer to this than we think.) The same can be applied to literature - have we run out of ideas? Are writers just taking the same basic plot outlines, character archetypes, and other tropes, and just twisting them around?
There's a large group of people out there who believe Suzanne Collins's mega-popular "The Hunger Games" trilogy is a ripoff of an older Japanese novel (later film and manga) "Battle Royale". She claimed that she had never read/seen it prior to writing THG. Some people believe her, some claim there are too many coincidences and she must be lying. Me, I never strongly cared one way or the other, but I fell on the side of believing what she said was the truth.
It never seemed too strange to me to consider that two people in two different places (even at two different times) could come up with similar ideas. There have been plenty of such occurrences over the course of history. But let's come back to my near heart attack from last night: As I said, I have never seen the movie "RoboCop", or anything that spun off from it. I was vaguely aware of its existence, but I knew practically nothing about it. Until I read the wiki article, I'd assumed for some reason that Arnold Schwarzenegger was in it (I was wrong).
Will I be accused of stealing ideas from this movie I've never seen? Possibly. I know the truth. Regardless of whatever similarities there may be, I also feel that there's a big difference between a novel and a 90-minute movie. I'm not saying one is necessarily a better form of entertainment than the other, just that they're different experiences. I like to think that I can develop my characters and themes enough that my story will truly become mine. (And let's not forget about the erotica component.)
However, I'll also make sure that when I write up the blurbs for promotion, I'll highlight the points that make my book different and unique. (That is, if anything's really unique these days!)