As I get older, I find I read more biographies. I guess when you have more road behind you than ahead of you, you get more interested in other folks perspectives on the hike. I am always amazed when I read about writers and storytellers I admire. From Shakespeare to J.K. Rowling, they all talk about the stories and tales that lit the spark for them. I’m not talking about research here or even pure inspiration. I mean grabbing a fully crafted character or plot-point, or a gorgeous run of dialogue and “adapting” it. In music, if you invert a chord change, play it in D instead of G and slow down the beat, IT’S A NEW SONG. Storytellers are always doing the same thing.
Great stories are great because they are common to the human experience. Joseph Campbell studied mythological, religious, spiritual, and fictional stories including the tales of Prometheus, Osiris, the Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, Jesus, and what I prefer to now call the “MYTHS” of Freud. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell summarizes what he coined as the monomyth:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
In this archetypal narrative, the Hero’s plot-points are “Departure”, “Initiation”, and “Return”. The other 7-character archetypes that flesh out the trip are: The Mentor (Dumbledore), The Ally (Sam Gamgee), The Trickster (Coyote) , The Herald (The Lady of The Lake), The Shapeshifter (Gollum) , The Guardian (Gandalf) and The Shadow (Maleficent).
Not to be reductionist, but you can pretty much see this structure in almost any story. It’s not a leap to see that great tellers of tales have a grab-N-go policy about good ideas. So, is it a rip-off or not? I say no. If we allow that storytelling is a practice numbered among “the arts”, it is no more disingenuous for a novelist to kidnap a character, give her a quick makeover and plug the reincarnation into a new tale than it is for a painter to adopt a technique or a chef to adapt a recipe. The great American musician and songwriter John Hartford notes in his song “Trying To Do Something To Get Your Attention” that “music is based on repetition” and “Style is based on imitation”. You can hear that song here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3eHUVcOyPlE
My own endgame is that when I write, I hear the voices of my Mentors, Allies and Heroes in my head (I refer to their collective persona as The Word Fairy). Clear direction will come from my beloved English teacher Jan Pratt, a remnant of some swift correction to an ill-conceived pompous turn of phrase in a High School essay. A delicious expression arrives from Ray Bradbury, who saved my life several times beginning in the early 1960s and who continues to remind me that it is OK to write in the neverland between poetry and pure prose. Tolkien generously offers beautiful landscapes from Middle Earth painting my mind to help ground a rambling narrative in some sure place. Michael Conelly, father of LA detective Harry Bosch, kindly slaps me with a mid-story switch-up. Most of all, a persistent chorus of “what-if?” thunders down from Ursula K. Le Guin, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlein, Ben Bova, David Brin, Kurt Vonnegut and the rest of my personal Olympus of Sci-Fi and Fantasy Gods. All Storytellers are, have been and ever shall be highway robbers, pickpockets and swindlers or as Mark Twain once put it “Burglars, congressmen…all of us in the trade.” The road into the unknown has to start somewhere. Why not set off from dry, firm ground?