I know a lot of creative people, good writerly people. People who have whole worlds in their heads. They’re great to spend time with. It takes some doing but after a while these people will open up and tell me about their fantastic ideas and intriguing plots. They will speak about amazing characters and captivating scenarios; all really solid stuff. Maybe it’s for a story; maybe it’s for a screenplay or a video game. Whatever it is, it all sounds so exciting that I can’t help but jump up and tell them:
But time after heartbreaking time, I hear “Nah. It’s been done before.” And just like that, the ideas, the plots, the characters, the scenarios...they are put on the dustiest shelf in the saddest bookstore: The Shop of Unwritten Tales.
I hate that shop. I have a few items in there myself.
There was a time when I wanted to be a comic book artist. Not just any artist, but a manga artist. I loved Japanese comics so naturally I wanted to emulate them. But this wasn’t just me being a new fan of a budding medium. No. I had an edge. I could draw passably well in the manga style but I had a brilliant idea that would make up for my lack of real talent.
It would take place in the near future, when virtual reality was a thing and everyone played the hottest MMORPG. It was called neXus, you know, with a big stylized X and it...
Guys, this was going to be rad.
The game was real. At least it was when the players got trapped inside.
I drew out all the characters, concocted backstories, designed a whole world. I invented a class system for the video game world and skills and bosses and I was so damn excited. When the scene was in the real world, it would be drawn in a Western style but in the video game, it would be in my beloved manga style. I could smell the success already.
Later, I visited the mall to get some manga. I was browsing their new titles when one immediately caught my eye. It has such a weird name. When I read the back, though, I immediately despaired.
It was .hack and it was about MMO’s of the future. And in that story the game got real.
My idea had already been done! And was already a manga with multiple volumes, an anime and even a video game series! Sure there were a few minor differences but no one would want to buy something that was so similar to an already existing, successful franchise. I tried not to cry there in the bookstore.
I gave up on neXus.
Over a decade later, I was searching for some new anime because old hobbies die hard. It didn’t take me long to run into the name Sword Art Online. It seemed to be the hottest new anime. Everyone was raving about it. The story, the action...you could start an army with the number of people cosplaying the main character alone.
And it was about players getting trapped in an MMO.
I remembered my own little idea, shut down so quickly with the discovery of something similar. Surely the creators of Sword Art Online knew about .hack. How could they not? But it had not stopped them from making their own wildly popular series.
When I was working on Vessels, it happened again. I was watching a movie where there was this totally cool, kickass monster that was damn near identical to what is central to my own story.
I remembered neXus and I took heart. I’m not giving up and I’m not writing the monster out of the story. So what if the creature has been done before? I’m going to take the idea, twist it, refine it, chokeslam it and make it my own.
Does your own novel have elves and magic swords? Tolkien already did it so why should you bother?
Because it didn’t stop the Shannara series from being made. (Or loads of other series; let’s be real here).
Does your campaign setting involve an omnipresent corporate culture and cybernetics?
Better not do it since Cyberpunk 2020 did it. Oh wait, hi there, Shadowrun.
Don’t let the existence of a similar concept trouble you. Check it out, study it, strengthen your own idea and then keep going. You actually have to make something first before you can be accused of ripping something off. And I’d rather be a poser than someone who never tried.