Keep Integrity and Don't Steal

In response to the appeal of Arthurian Literature, Mary Stewart once said in an interview that part of the appeal of the genre is that people are able to reinvent and adapt it. Whether you are Geoffrey of Monmouth, T.H. White, or Marion Zimmer Bradley, you are tasked to find your own spin on the vast collection of characters, archetypes, and themes that populate Arthuriana. It’s why we still find new ways to tell the stories.

Last week I was perusing George R.R. Martin’s website when I came across something that struck me:

But don’t write in my universe, or Tolkien’s, or the Marvel universe, or the Star Trek universe, or any other borrowed background. Every writer needs to learn to create his own characters, worlds, and settings. Using someone else’s world is the lazy way out. If you don’t exercise those “literary muscles,” you’ll never develop them.

I suppose I had never considered that point of view before. How can a writer learn to create their own world when they are building on something that already exists? At the same time, I find myself struggling with it. In the case of Arthur, the origins of the myth are certainly debatable at best. Because it is essentially the result of a thousand years of tradition, is it fair game? Or should we leave well enough alone because we are essentially borrowing from what exists? Might the challenge then be to take what is so well known and see how you as a writer can make it fresh?

Looking at something less broad as Arthurian literature, I then consider Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. In her case, she took the story and characters of Jane Eyre to explore themes of postcolonialism. While one might argue that she does indeed create her own world by focusing primarily on the Dominican rather than English setting, could she also be considered ‘lazy’ because she’s using plots and characters that someone else created? Would Martin apply the same analysis to recent offerings like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters? Or Christopher Moore’s Fool?

It is my guess that Martin is specifically addressing fan fiction and sci-fi/fantasy writing in his statement, but as he does not say that, I think the bigger picture is worth considering. Is it a worthwhile exercise to write stories from the point of view of marginalized existing characters, as is done in Wide Sargasso Sea and Fool? Or are we better served in creating our setting, characters, and plots from scratch? When exercising our literary muscles, is any exercise worthwhile if it keeps us writing, or should we be more discerning in the way we spend our writing time?

I don’t know that I’m sure of an answer to any of these. Perhaps the one that I am most certain about is that any writing exercise can be useful, even if nothing publishable comes from it. In terms of writing in other worlds, I am guilty. My master’s thesis was a bildungsroman of Mordred. Most recently I did a piece about the marginalized father from Sally Morgan’s My Place. Both pieces relied on research, intertextuality, and my own creative approach. The process for each was difficult and resulted in works I believed demonstrated thoughtfulness.

Maybe they just demonstrated that I’m a dirty thief.

What do you think, dear readers? Should be swim in other worlds or only spin our own galaxies?

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