Monday, June 11, 2007

Script Frenzy: Am I Worried About Plagiarism?

Sign you've been at the Frenzy too long: Every conversation you have starts to revolve around your script.

Especially when a power failure keeps you from actually opening your wrists and getting it down on the paper. So, yeah, at my aunt's celebrations this weekend, I bent the ear of more than a few people about not just the glories of the Frenzy and the warm, fuzzy robe they hand out when you walk in the door but I might have made sly mention of that interesting little script I was working on. You know, to go with that novel I wrote.

And, as I usually do when trying to describe my idea to another person, I go back to one of the inspirations that caused me to have it in the first place. Namely, 8-Bit Theater. Because if I had to describe where my two main characters and the relationship between the two starts it's “Black Mage” and “Fighter” all the way. I happen to be doing them straight, so to speak, while 8-Bit plays them for comedy but if you picture the two of them together you have a pretty good idea of what I'm aiming at.

Which brings up a particularly nasty little point, as one of my relatives mentioned, aren't I worried that I'm stealing those characters? That I'm ripping off Mr. Clevinger and his hard work? Aren't I committing plagiarism?

And, well, what I told them is, no. Not at all. No more than Lucas worried about Laurel and Hardy coming after him for having a pair of characters as comic relief one of whom was skinny and tall while the other was short and stout.

Putting aside the fact that 8-Bit theater is a work itself built on the work of others what we're talking about is the difference between iteration and inspiration.

What I'm not doing is lifting Black Mage and Fighter whole cloth and dropping them into my script. I'm not even keeping their characterizations and filling off the serial numbers by having say, a Wack Rage and Fight Guy. I'm not going to repeat dialog or taking anything other than the central core of those characters, as I see it, and using it as the starting point for developing my own. That emotional core. The co-dependent relationship. The way they play off each other, it's not just something Mr. Clevinger came up with, it's a classic. And if someone's going to say he's got a patent on the archetype of the big, dumb meatshield or the psychopath then there's a long line of preceding authors who'd like to have a word with him.

A character is a matter of copyright. But their characterization isn't. You can't reproduce what makes a character distinct – their background, their looks, their personal quirks – without stepping over the bounds (Not unless you're doing parody which we aren't doing here.). But I'm not doing any of that, I'm doing something as generic as “Hey, King Arthur went on a quest for a sword. That sounds like a neat thing to put into my script, I'm going to make a character like that.”

If you're familiar with King Arthur and you encounter such a character you might get the reference. You might notice where that character springs from. But each and every character is preceded by dozens of others that share certain....dramatic genetics. Every square-jawed hero, every cackling villain, every psuedo-psychological motivation, it's been done. As long as you're not making a carbon copy (And even there, hell, you have things like the Squadron Supreme or the Assemblers.) you can take the spark of a character and put it in a new circumstance, through a new scenario, and in a new shell and that's fine. It's what you do with that spark that matters.

Look, this happens all the time in screenwriting. People describe their tales as, say, “Lethal Weapon” meets “Seven”. Or they're doing a story like “Rush Hour”. They don't mean they're actually taking “Lethal Weapon” and “Seven” and tossing them into a blender. But that those are readily recognizable concepts which closely match what they've done (In this case, probably, something like a dark and noirish cop buddy film, I'd guess.). It's the same thing with inspiration. You say you're doing something after the style of the Odyssey then you're not actually going to copy that plot note for note. You're just using it as a point of reference, a template, maybe even a guide for what you're doing on your own.

In this case, I'm probably the only one who'd know about it, if I hadn't mentioned it. I know the idea stems from me reading 8-Bit and going, “huh, you know, I bet if you played those two characters seriously, you could get some decent drama out of it.” and then rushing off to the drawing board to see if I was right. But the idea, the story, has grown so far past that point it's just one small corner of all that's going into it. I'm taking from, I'm synthesizing from, a lot of places and concepts here. Some I'm even aware of. And I could probably list a lot of them, if I were to try. But that doesn't mean I'm copying those ideas and passing them off as my own.

It means I'm stealing them.

In the finest artistic sense of the term, I'm committing grand theft concept. Those works I found them from, the place I got them, have influenced me enough for me to take up those ideas and play with them myself. Good writers do that. It's why I read script after script in the month leading up to this. To soak up all those ideas and concepts and see what worked and what didn't, then let it strain out of my head in my own, individual way.

That's not plagiarism, that's creation.

No comments: