- By Kara Newcastle
Writing Wednesday: Imitation vs. Plagiarism
Writing Wednesday: Imitating vs. Plagiarism
I mentioned in a few blogs back that it’s okay to imitate your favorite authors’ style, but you should never (repeat: NEV-ER) plagiarize their writing. Let me just clarify the differences between the two:
I’m pretty sure that every aspiring writer deliberately imitates another author at some point in their life. New authors who are just getting into the craft and haven’t developed their own style will draw on the styles of a favorite author in order to learn how to construct an illustrative sentence, storytelling method, dialogue or physical description and that’s perfectly fine. Mimicry is a natural way of learning to do … well, basically anything …
The cons to mimicking another author’s style is that if you get too into the habit of doing so, you’ll never develop your own voice. You might want to have James Patterson’s sales numbers, but honestly, you don’t want his voice. James Patterson is James Patterson, you’re you. You want to be unique, to stand apart from other authors. Furthermore, imitating another’s writing style can have disastrous results: I mentioned before how I really enjoyed Anne Borchardt’s description of food from ancient Rome so much that I tried to emulate it, but the tone was so jarring compared to the rest of the story that it really ruined the flow.
Plus, your readers might not appreciate your attempts at trying to sound like Mark Twain if a) they don’t like Mark Twain or b) they do like Mark Twain but you just sound like a gluten-free, diet-soda version of him (you know, it’s not bad but always seems just a little bit off, which makes it distracting and unpleasant?)
When you plagiarize someone, you have blatantly copied their work without giving them credit for it. Like, you took all of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and slapped your name over JK Rowling’s. If you took sections or large portions of a book and changed some details (such as characters’ names) that’s technically referred to as copyright infringement, but it’s still the same thing in the end: you stole somebody else’s creation rather than putting in the work yourself.
So now I know you’re asking me, “But Kara, I’ve read books that had very similar plots. Is that plagiarizing too?” Well, that depends; two books can have similar plots but are executed differently enough that you can’t say they’re plagiarized. You might be able to argue that the idea was stolen, but sometimes that can be hard to prove. For example, about a year ago fantasy author Sherrilyn Kenyon sued YA author Cassandra Clare for plagiarism, claiming that Clare stole the idea of a group of warriors defending the planet from a supernatural menace from Kenyon. Seeing as how that theme can be found in various forms in mythology—mythology that’s thousands of years old—that’s going to be really hard to prove that it was stolen. Before that, Andriana Pichini sued the studio that produced the movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button¸ claiming that they had stolen from her story “Arthur’s Return to Innocence,” which was published in 1994 … except that the movie is actually based on F. Scott Fitzgerald’s story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, published in 1921. So who’s copying who here?
Honestly, these ideas are not that difficult to dream up. About five years ago I had a great idea for a story about Nazis camping out in Dracula’s castle in Romania, only to be terrorized by vampires all night long. Imagine my irritation when three friends of mine said (in unison!) that the idea had already been done!
Oh, and that brings me to one more point; I’m sure by now you’re saying, “But Kara, what about books like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? That was a book that was already written and some dude just took it and added zombies. Isn’t that plagiarism?” Actually, copyright law states that ownership of an intellectual work (be it book, movie, song, whatever) is credited to the original author for the length of their natural life plus an additional seventy years after their death. Once that time is up, the work then becomes public domain and is therefore free to anyone who wants to use it for their own profit (the Disney corporation is currently sweating over this because starting in the year 2024 cartoons like “Steamboat Willie” are supposed to enter public domain. But don’t you worry, they’ll find a way to extend the copyright. God forbid it should enter public domain and therefore enhance society’s storytelling capabilities.) That’s why you see so many book and film
versions of things like Pride and Prejudice, Dracula, The Three Musketeers and so forth, and it’s a good thing because that’s how societies and cultures enhance their stories—creating a new mythology, if you will. All the same, that still doesn’t grant you ownership of Dracula, it just means you can use him in your book without getting sued.