What Constitutes “Derivative”? Part 2

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I find this “what constitutes derivative” topic interesting because the accusation that a work is derivative seems to be leveled at fantasy more than at stories in other genres. When was the last time, for instance, that you heard someone criticize a romance for being derivative? Never mind that category romances, for years, followed a strict structure that was taught as necessary for the success of a novel.

I suppose, rather than “derivative” these works are considered formulaic, but didn’t they derive from one original work that contained the elements that have since become requisite to romance?

Still, I find it odd that fantasy similarly can’t fall into an easy formula and be acceptable, despite Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Rather, fantasy that cuts too close to an established work is labeled derivative, and this accusation is the kiss of death. It’s a wonder that Lord of the Rings became so successful once the derivative accusation began to swirl around Tolkien.

What exactly was it that brought the criticism, since it wasn’t setting, imaginative creatures, plot points, people groups, poetry, names, prose or style?

I suggest, in the case of Lord of the Rings, critics saw similarities with the central premise in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen:

The plot revolves around a magic ring that grants the power to rule the world

Add to this that the ring was cursed, enslaving whoever would possess it, and you have strikingly similar central plot points. Discussion swirls around the idea that the similarities exist because Tolkien and Wagner drew from the same influences. Yet some scholars cling to the belief that Tolkien knowingly “borrowed” Wagner’s core concept.

Interestingly, some fantasy is intentionally derivative. I think of Bryan Davis’s Raising Dragons and Stephen Lawhead’s King Raven Trilogy. Both derive intentionally from the legend of King Arthur. However, both, in unique ways, twist the familiar story in such a way that it becomes unique.

The accusation of “derivative” is not used in such instances. Instead, it seems to be reserved for works that either model themselves after another work (which is what Christopher Paolini seems to be accused of) or those that utilize someone else’s unique development (science fiction that employs Star Trek technology and lingo, for instance).

In some cases, it seems as if critics are simply weary of stories with tropes such as good versus evil, at least ones that represent good as good and evil as evil. Normally bad vampires, as good seem to be all the rage, but then the Twilight books are hardly high fantasy.

I guess my point is this: the accusation of “derivative” has been around since Tolkien first made fantasy literature a thing of its own. Does the mere suggestion that a story is similar to some other source mean it does not have merit? I think millions of Lord of the Ring readers would say otherwise.


  1. How could it all not be derivative since “There’s nothing new under the sun”? The good v. evil connects in some form in all stories since the beginning of time as we know it. Definitions might fluctuate as to what good and evil means according to cultural designations, but the truth of good v. evil remains intact and at the heart or base of each storyline.


  2. As I said before in a comment to the previous post, according to the books there are two forms of derivatives. !, creating a sort of carbon copy of an original, and 2, something that takes from or develops from something else, while at the same time possessing it’s own unique characteristics.

    Brom of Eragon, for example, is a 2, in the spirit of a 1. He’s a sort of transposed Gandalf. Different, but the same. This sort of thing often gets people into trouble, but it’s really just a matter of taste.

    The question to ask is, on what level does this story share its plot with another story. In Eragon, themes, mostly cultures or ideas, reflect Lord of the Rings. This is properly defined as a derivation, probably class 1.

    Lord of the Rings shares a central object with Der Ring das Nibelungen, namely an accursed ring that grants the power to rule the world. This is a class 2 derivation, in that it develops the same idea, but leads in on a different path. Such is the case with most King Authur, and Robin Hood, stories.

    Really, barring a copyright infringement, or plagiarism, it’s important to remember that there is nothing inherently WRONG with derivation. It’s a matter of culture and taste. Generally, high-fantasy culture prefers derivation 2, and mostly hold class 1 in some sort of contempt. But class 2 is at least necessary, because every story operates a contrast, generally in the form of conflict.

    There is no readable story that operates on something other than contrast, because the history of the world itself is contrast. Every plot is driven by the placing of one thing over something else, generally good over evil, but not limited. You could even write a story in which the plot is driven by placing pragmatism over idealism.

    Of course, non-fiction is free of the contrast requirement, but that’s a different story.

    So really, it all boils down to culture, taste, and mental property rights.


  3. Actually, Lawhead’s King Raven Trilogy is based on the Robin Hood legend; The Pendragon Cycle is based on the Arthur legends. But I suspect you know that ;).

    Have you read Terry Brooks’s “The Sword of Shannara”? That’s derivative. I enjoyed it anyway, but it is. I don’t think being derivative is so much a matter of using familiar elements and motifs (all genre writing does), but a matter of not offering anything really original in the mix. If you can read through an entire book and come out thinking, “I’ve read this before, and the first guy did it better,” you’re probably reading something derivative.


  4. Here is my take on this issue. The concept of good versus evil, hostile empires, and-as far as I know-the motif of a divine-angelic (and even bearded) mentor and pupil relationship has been around long before Tolkien wrote down his first sentence (no offence to Tolkien).

    Some examples: Athena disguised herself as Mentor to help Telemachus. Elijah was Elisha’s mentor (and in some circles, Elijah may have been a primordial angel like Michael or Gabriel). In Christianity, Elijah was also spiritually John the Baptist, who was the precursor of Jesus (in this case, Jesus is divine, where John is lower than him as a messenger). There are others, such as Odin-Balder, Thor, and so on. The concepts of good vs. evil are found in Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and so many other religious teachings.

    Christianity also had the concept of a hostile empire.

    Not to sound confrontational, but if someone borrows the structures of the motifs from the primary sources, does that necessarily warrant an accusation of copying from Tolkien, regardless of all of the differences and “innovations” of the new work? Tolkien’s concept of angels reminds me of the Zoroastrian concepts of Yazata-“being worthy of adoration” (and possibly the concept of the Amesha Spenta, although the Amesha Spenta (“Goodly Immortal”) were primarily considered to be the attributes of the good supreme God Ahura Mazda). Saruman and Sauron sound a lot like Ahriman (but that’s exaggerating things a little, and the names are not similar etymologically). The problem is that Tolkien’s works covers a ***lot*** of mythical themes. So a lot of people would be accused of being derivative if they weren’t “creative” enough.

    From my own personal experience, I have come to the conclusion that true originality-short of divine fiat-is next to impossible, if not impossible. Taking a finite pool of potential ideas into consideration, I think there are only so many ways and permutations an idea or theme can be expressed from person to person. It’s difficult to create something truly original and unique without being accused of copying from the prior generations.

    As far as an external source of corrupting power is concerned, there is more than one way to convey such a message of corruption. What about the Matrix (sci-fi fantasy), Dario Argento’s Three Mothers series (abuse of magic for selfish gain, and the mothers/witches symbolized…I shouldn’t give the plot away) (Horror), or Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles (vampiric blood and powers) (Horror)? The concept of corrupting power is also found in different mythical, spiritual, and allegorical systems.

    That all said, I think it’s possible to create an original expression of ideas that have existed for thousands and thousands of years.


  5. […] “derivative”? I’ve asked that question before in a short two-part series of posts, and yet the topic came up again in my article yesterday at Spec Faith. Consequently, as I read […]


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