Recently a friend offered me her story. (She knows who she is.) It was an unutterably bizarre experience, for a whole variety of reasons, and it’s made me think about what sense of ownership I feel toward ideas — and what I don’t feel.
Ideas are free. They come to me by the dozen, and I would never be able to write them all out, even if I lived for a thousand years, because I suspect that those thousand years would also be filled with new ideas, thereby compounding the problem. Many of my ideas aren’t worth the effort, though. They’re a flash in the pan, a momentary fascination with something that won’t last for a month or even a week. I’ll never get around to writing those ideas, but it doesn’t matter, because in a few days I’ll have forgotten them anyway. If they were worth writing, they’d stick around.
There’s not much sense in feeling proprietary about one’s ideas, either. If you look hard enough, odds are you’ll find something already published that bears strong resemblances to what you had thought of. In some ways that’s depressing; it gives you the sense that there’s nothing new to be said, that it’s all been done already, and probably done better and more interesting than you could hope to manage. You can easily fall into the trap of deciding that, since your ideas are not unique snowflakes, there’s not much point in trying to catch them.
Obviously I don’t feel that way, or I wouldn’t be putting all this time and effort into writing out my ideas. Oh, I hit brief funks like that, but they’ve never been strong enough or persistent enough to stop me. Partly that’s because your ideas are unique snowflakes. There may be things out there that look like them, but unless you were deliberately playing the plagiarism game, they’re not identical. You put your own spin on the stories you tell; you cannot possibly tell anyone else’s stories, because you are not that other person. So even all the Tolkien ripoffs are on certain levels their own unique stories, because nobody copied Tolkien’s story down word for word (although it looks like some of them tried).
So while it’s a truism that there aren’t any new stories, it is likewise a truism that you and I could not write the same story. I could say, okay, the story is about four children who find a closet that is a portal to another world that’s locked in winter and ruled over by an evil witch, and the story I write from that would not be the story you write, and neither of those stories would be The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, although there would be some suspicious similarities.
This brings me back to my friend. She outlined to me what sounded like a wonderful idea for, not just a novel, but a series, and then when I expressed my admiration of said idea, she offered it to me.
This was, as I said, unutterably bizarre.
On the one hand, I envied the idea — just as I envy half the things I read (the good half). I wish I had thought up Methos. Or Trent. Or Mary Gentle’s series, The Book of Ash. They’re really cool, and the back of my brain is forever trying to find ways to borrow them. And that’s fine, because of the truisms stated above; since I’ve outgrown my stage of outright plagiarism, odds are good that whatever I do with those ideas will be my own, although the source will be someone else’s.
But at the same time, my reaction to this offer was an immediate “No!” I couldn’t take the idea; it’s not mine. I could play a riff on the idea, maybe, but I couldn’t use the thing itself, because it doesn’t belong to me. This isn’t an issue of ownership so much as responsibility, I think. If I tried to write my friend’s idea, it wouldn’t turn out like it does in her head. Obviously. Which in its own way is a good thing — see the above discussion — but it’s also a bad thing, because then my friend would feel like the idea has been “taken.” I’ve already written it; why should she? And that would be wrong. Because I’m not the one who has had this idea lurking in my head for years. I haven’t been embroidering it every time I’ve got a few minutes to kill and need to entertain myself. All I know about it is the little she told me — hardly enough to even pitch to an editor — and it would be the height of arrogance for me to think that I could do any kind of justice to her idea, even if she told me every detail she had in her head. It’s hers. Not mine. I may steal clandestinely from it — so clandestinely that when the results show up in my own stories, neither of us will recognize them — but I can’t take the idea itself. It doesn’t belong to me.
So your story ideas are not unique — and yet they are. Ideas are free; they belong to everyone — and yet they belong to the people who thought them up, and stealing them, even if they offer, is wrong. At some other point in the conversation this offer occurred in, I said that I feel a certain responsibility toward my characters. I mentally promise Alefan that, although I will make him suffer, I will not make him do so needlessly. I allow Ennike the time she needs to find herself, rather than trying to decide for her who she is. I apologize to Caroline for botching her story the first time through. I swear to Vervain that she’ll always live in my heart, and if I can find a way to make her live on paper as well, I will. To do otherwise would, to me, be comparable to owning a pet and not taking care of it. Or having a daughter and not trying your hardest to do right by her. I’ve known for a while that I feel this way. But I’ve realized now that I also feel responsibility toward other people’s creations. It’s the flip side of what I feel for my own. I vow to every character of mine that I will do everything I can to tell their story right. How could I make that promise to someone else’s character?
I couldn’t. I can’t. If I told my friend’s story, it wouldn’t be her story, but it might stop her from telling it herself. Which would be a terrible injustice to her characters. I have to take care of my own little snowflakes, as best I can, and I can’t go stealing someone else’s, because I can’t take care of them right. They’d melt.
This analogy is getting ridiculous, but that’s okay, ’cause the essay is almost done. 🙂
The point is, I don’t think you can just hand off ideas to someone else as if they were chattel. Seeds, maybe, but not once they’ve put down roots. And my friend’s idea has most definitely put down roots. So I don’t accept her offer; I encourage her to water it herself and see what it grows into. It’s the best I can do.
And in closing, I would like to apologize for the way my snowflake metaphor wandered off into small plants at the end. I never claimed to have good control of my imagery. <g>