A long time ago, I read an interview from David Foster Wallace, and in it he talked about how writers are told to write what they know and what that means. He’d been taking a little bit of flak, apparently, for his reliance on modern/pop culture and its ephemera in his opus novel, Infinite Jest. Long story short, but Wallace said that his hyper-referential writing style was a product of his experiences. Like most of us, Wallace grew up on TV and video games and paperback novels. That’s the tapestry of our lives, just like the tapestry of Emerson’s life, or Thoreau’s life, was the naturalistic world. Atari and Saturday matinees, Wallace said, were his Walden Pond, and his writing couldn’t be anything other than a reflection of his experiences.
The thing is, we’re living in a weird time, creatively. Our world isn’t Emerson’s world; we’re smothered in information and art—through social media, through nonstop streaming options, wildly accessible entertainment, so on and so forth. In a sense, we’re influenced by influence. Let me give you an example:
I’ve written two novels—Black Star Renegades and its sequel, We Are Mayhem—and I like to sometimes joke that they’re just Star Wars with the serial numbers filed off. Now, like any joke, there’s some truth to this: The story is very, very much inspired by Star Wars. I’m a Star Wars fanatic. Thinking in Wallace’s terms, if you look at the tapestry of my life, it’s Star Wars, Stephen King, John Carpenter, and a whole bunch of comic books. And I was lucky to grow up in a house that supplied me with all these things, and from a very young age. My parents were not only supportive of my weird interests, but they were also liberal about my entertainment intake. I watched Halloween when I was five years old; I saw A New Hope when I was four. And my mom, bless her, used what little extra money she had to get me comic books and paperback novels from garage sales whenever she could. I was never short on supply when it came to absorbing pop culture, and that absorption was (and still is) a big part of my life.
Getting back to Black Star Renegades, there’s no way I could deny that it wasn’t influenced by Star Wars (Lucasfilm, in fact, has hired me since, and I’m currently writing many of the all-ages Star Wars Adventures comic stories). I embrace that fact, fully—Black Star Renegades wouldn’t exist without Star Wars. But, there’s two things to say about this.
First, like I said before, we’re influenced by influence. Yes, you can jab at me for being so apparent with my influences, but Star Wars is also a sum of its influences. From classic sci-fi pulps to Kurosawa movies to silent films and a whole bunch of other stuff in-between, George Lucas’s space opera opus was the sum of many parts—all the things that influenced him. And all those things can then be traced back to various influences as well. This isn’t a groundbreaking revelation, of course; what’s important, though, is allowing your creative self to be okay carrying forth the DNA of other works. I’ve seen so many stories from talented writers wither on the vine because they were concerned with how much their work echoed things that have already been made. Solomon said there’s nothing new under the sun, and in my opinion that’s true (to a degree—if you dropped Solomon into our world, I’m sure he’d say “Holy shit! Look at all these new things under the sun!”). It’s so remarkably rare—like one in a million—to create something that’s nothing like anything else. We know it when we see it, and these rare instances are cherished, as they should be. And while striving for that is a noble pursuit, it’s also—and I’ve seen this with my own two eyes—the path to creative madness.
Of course, though, we can’t just go ripping off the things we love. That’s why I’m comfortable saying Black Star Renegades is a Star Wars knock-off—I know, in reality, it’s not. Here’s where the important trick comes in, a trick I’ve learned writing not only these two novels, but many, many licensed comic books.
So, as a comic book writer, I’m oftentimes asked to write stories for existing characters. I’ve written Superman, The Shadow, Cassie Hack, Adam West Batman, Nightwing, and more. And the thing I’ve learned in telling these stories successfully is this: You have to embrace the stories and their traditions for what they are. Nightwing is a sexy, fun version of Batman. That’s it. Therefore, when writing a Nightwing story, it wouldn’t really work to make him dark and tortured like Bruce Wayne—that’s not who he is. The job in writing for Nightwing is to write a story about a young, sexy dude who fights crime. But that’s only part of the puzzle. The other part, the most important part, is finding a way to embrace the core thing and make it your own. That’s the key. At the end of the day, the Nightwing story has to be a story that only I can tell—it’s my voice, it’s my point of view that the story is filtered through. Yes, I am embrace Nightwing completely—but I balance that with filtering everything he is through my own POV.
The thing is, the same goes for original creations. It’s the same balance of embracing your influences while maintaining your own voice. If you want to tell an epic fantasy but feel like it’s too much like Robert Jordan, remember that it’s you telling the story in your unique way. And the more you write, and the more your story takes shape, I’m confident that it’ll sounds less and less like Wheel of Time and more like your own thing. The same thing exists in Black Star Renegades. The Star Wars DNA is all over that book, but so is my DNA. There’s a lot of love for the galaxy far, far away in those pages, but there’s also a deconstruction of the messiah complex, and that dominant aspect of the book is all me. That’s my voice coming through, and it’s what makes that story what it is, and not just a Star Wars rip-off.
Now, this isn’t an endorsement of plagiarism—that would be bad. But we live in a world of influence that’s been influenced from other influence. There’s nothing wrong, in my opinion, owning it and making it your own.
Michael Moreci: Website