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Stolen Characters

Friday, May 4, 2007


 We interrupt your regularly scheduled series for this Fun Friday post . . .

I read an article this afternoon about the proliferation of “Character Plagiarism” in modern publishing. Yes, there is a problem with story/idea plagiarism that has splashed across the news over the past several years, not the least of which are the accusations against Dan Brown for stealing the idea/story for The DaVinci Code. But that’s not what I’m referring to. What I’m talking about is people stealing characters from classic (i.e., public domain) literature and either writing “sequels” or putting the classic characters into new pieces by updating them, sending someone back in time to interact with them, or some other method of incorporating someone else’s creation into their story.

One of the most famous of these modern-day sequels is Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley, which was so poorly received that it only rated being made into a TV miniseries (in 1994) that few people will admit to actually watching. A quick trip to shows that Ripley, a best-selling romance novelist in her own right before publishing Scarlett, carries a 4.5 star rating on almost every single one of her titles . . . except Scarlett which is hovering around a 2.5—which, to me, indicates two things: the book wasn’t up to the standards her regular readers expect from one of her books, and fans of Gone with the Wind didn’t like her version of the continuing story of the characters.

As my dear blog readers know, Jane Austen is my favorite author. Though I love her characters, I, for the most part, have stayed away from almost all of the sequels to her novels–most especially those for Pride & Prejudice. (I also get ticked when people claim P&P is the first chick lit novel, because it’s NOT! It’s a romance—but that’s a rant for another time.) I made the mistake of picking up one that opens with a sex scene between Elizabeth and Darcy! I don’t know if Jane Austen would have been mortified at the liberties taken with her story/characters/sensibilities, but I certainly was. The only ones I’ve read that I truly enjoyed reading were Pamela Aidan’s Fitzwilliam Darcy: Gentleman trilogy, which retells the story of P&P from Darcy’s point of view. The second volume lost me a bit, as it takes place during the timeperiod when Darcy and Elizabeth are separated from each other, but the first two are excellent reads.

The truth behind the madness is, these books sell—and sell well, or else the publishers would not continue publishing them. But it does worry me a little that the book industry is taking too much of a lead from the film industry where, in the past ten years, we have seen a shift from studios wanting to produce new stories—stories that have never before been told—to rehashing the same characters (Spiderman, Superman), the same stories (did you know Oliver Twist has been put on film 23 times?), multiple sequels–even when they can’t get the same actors back in the original roles (the “franchise” films like American Pie, Revenge of the Nerds, Police Academy, Scream, etc.), and making old TV shows into movies (Scooby-Do, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Brady Bunch, X-Files: The Movie, Starsky & Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard). Again, the film studios wouldn’t produce most of these if they weren’t convinced the box-office returns would be there. And on Monday, we’ll see if Spiderman 3 pulls in the $100 million they’re hoping for. (I’m sure it will.)

On the other side of the argument, this proliferation in Character Stealing can be seen in its purest form in Fan Fiction all over the web, which is really how this trend got started. The reason authors write sequels to these books—at least those who began the craze—is because they were fans of the work. They loved the characters. They loved the story. They thought their idea for “what happens next” would be something others would be interested in reading. Others read it and gave them really positive feedback on it, so they submitted it to a publishing house. The acquisitions editor really liked it, decided to send it to the ed. board. The board loved it, decided to buy it and—bam—fan fic becomes published novel. Yes, I have written fan fic. No, I don’t intend to try to get it published.

But whether it’s stealing or a tribute (that might have the author spinning in his or her grave), whether we—the fans of that particular story—love it or hate it, it seems like it’s here to stay. I just hope all writers don’t forget how to create our own unique characters, plots, settings, and storylines in the rush to jump on the Sequel-to-a-Classic bandwagon.

  1. Friday, May 4, 2007 7:17 pm

    I love to spin the ‘what if’ yarns about favorite characters in books. Alec Ramsey of the Black Stallion series, Paul and Maureen Beebe of the Misty series, and Don Revere of the Arabian Cow Horse series (are you sensing a theme here?) were my first ‘fan fiction’ tales. I spun them by the yard as a youngster right before I’d fall asleep at night.


  2. Friday, May 4, 2007 9:49 pm

    The X-Files movies was made while the show was still on the air. It fills in some of the gaps between seasons 5 and 6. Yeah, I like the X-Files!


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