Monday, April 18, 2011

Sometimes stealing is not so bad!

This awesome image of a fantasy freeway features a "stolen" idea: a Hot Wheels loop-de-loop. (I don't know if that is a real word, but it sounds so good that I'm not even going to try to look it up.) The result of this particular "theft" is an iconic image of real-world fun and games.

T.S. Eliot famously said, "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal," which has since been paraphrased as "mediocre writers borrow; great writers steal." Is this winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature correct? Is stealing ever okay for writers, or at least not so wrong?

I'm not talking about plagiarism. I'm talking about reading Oliver Twist and thinking, wow, the character of the Artful Dodger is so great! I'm going to try to bring a character like that to life in a story.

In my view, it's perfectly acceptable ... as long as you put your pen to paper and declare (in gambler's speech) "I'm gonna take your Artful Dodger, Charles Dickens, and raise you mine!" In other words, build on the idea and make it your own. If you're lucky, the result might be a character like Spring-Heeled Jack in Paul Crilley's The Invisible Order (Egmont USA 2010), a definitely new and fresh twist on that skilled and cunning pickpocket.

Many people believe that Harry Potter wouldn't exist without Diana Wynne Jones. D.W.J. noted similarities between certain goings-on in her fantasy novels and J.K. Rowling's, and was very gracious about it. She surely knew that when a writer takes the same idea and adds something new to the mix, it contributes to a well of influence from which all sorts of fresh new fun can be drawn. After all, D.W.J. attended lectures by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis while a student at Oxford, and likely "stole" from them, too.

The moment I read about Harriet M. Welsch I knew I wanted to create a character that was so strong-minded and true to her beliefs. (It took me a few years to get to it ...) There's a debt to Louise Fitzhugh in the characters in The Boy Who Howled. I did my best to build on her influence. Standing on the shoulders of giants can be a great kind of writerly tribute, when it's done to help see a new way forward.

Honor bright, now, authors! What have you "stolen," what would you LIKE to "steal," and what have you given back?


  1. What a great picture, Tim! I think every writer who is writing an adventure uses at least part of the idea of the hero's journey from mythology. I certainly did. Every theme has been used before; it's in how you combine the elements to make a story unique.

  2. I just stole that picture to use later for a blog post. Thanks.

  3. Shakespeare brilliantly ripped off other playwrights. I've stolen a classic fairytale and twisted it into something nonmagical and contemporary. I'm more of a taker right now, but I'd gladly share my gum.

  4. I don't think there is anything new. It's just how we make other ideas our own.

  5. @Michael ~ Theft can be so glamorous!

    @Dee ~ Isn't it a great pic! I stole it off some guy's blog. :)

  6. Mythology and folklore are great places to ste--I mean, to find inspiration :)

  7. I was reading the opening pages of Edmund Spenser's Fairie Queene when I started writing STORYBOUND and there are a few echoes of his imagery. I second Dawn's suggestion of folklore and mythology. I also find that what I'm learning or thinking about in the realm of nonfiction worms its way into my writing.

    And nearly every day I trip over those little hot wheel loops that are forever taking over my house! Three little boys. haha!


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!