Thursday 17 November 2011

Public Domain Characters

I came across this rather fascinating post over on Fuel Your Writing about using public domain characters in your work. These are characters whose copyright has passed into the public domain, and are moreorless "up for grabs". Think of the novels of Jasper Fforde, or the retold fairytales that Gregory Maguire made popular (and whose novel, Wicked, spawned a musical). We couldn't have those endless literary remixes without them (though the jury is still out on whether or not that's a bad thing).

I understand the reasons for using them (built in audience, pre-existing mythology) as much as I understand the reasons for not using them (risk of upsetting existing fans, difficult to use them without it seeming gimmicky). Heck, I've even enjoyed reading them - I love the novels of Jasper Fforde, and I grudgingly admire what Alan Moore did with League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. I've only written such a story once - my Deathmatch escapade, in which I pitted Dracula against Edward Cullen. I did it for a giggle, but I'd never want to write a full-length novel using someone else's characters.

I've got two reasons, really. First of all, I know these characters are all well outside of their copyright and their creators are long gone. As much as I imagine Mr Darcy, Vampyre had Jane Austen spinning in her grave, realistically speaking, the author can't get cross about what I've done as they're not around to complain. Having said that, I'd be really uncomfortable with the idea of someone inserting Grey O'Donnell, Liss Hunt, Fowlis Westerby, or any of my other characters into their work. I guess it's a little possessive but my characters are either facets of myself, or characters who choose to work with me. So I guess I don't use other people's characters because I wouldn't want people to use mine.

But secondly, I like inventing my own characters. I can enjoy reading the stories of Dorian Gray, Dr Jekyll and Elizabeth Bennett, but they're not my characters. I can get to know them but I'll never know them inside out the same way that their creators do. So no matter what I might have these characters do, they'll only be refractions of the originals, viewed through my own particular matrix of experiences, prejudices and beliefs. With my own characters, I have all the fun of getting to know them, and even if I don't like them, at least I understand them. Besides, inventing backstory is one of the most entertaining things a writer can do (even if most of what they create never makes it into the book)

What about you? Would you use public domain characters in your work?


Anonymous said...

I probably wouldn't use a public domain character in my works. Reckon it would be like describing your second cousin; you know the back story but you don't quite see the world how they see it.
I wonder how many modern literary characters will still be around to become public domain. Race you to have the first modern character public domain :)
Adam B @revhappiness

Craig Smith said...

I use goblins, trolls etc... but no well defined public domain characters.

John Wiswell said...

I would feel incredibly gross getting paid for using characters someone else invented and didn't consent for me to take. It's different in comics, where the writers invent things for a publisher and yield rights. To compose a full novel using somebody else's stuff... that seems like cheating. Certainly the glut of bad books and movies that steal other people's IPs, like the recent Three Musketeers movies, gives it a whole extra distasteful layer. The only exception I'd have is where someone wrote it deliberately absurd, winking at, if not embracing the reality that this fiction isn't how it's supposed to be. That it's legal for someone to rewrite Lord of the Rings explicitly to attack Tolkien's politics repulses me. Yet if you do it over the top, like the comic that put Twain and Tesla in control of a giant robot, I can see the fun in it.

Tony Noland said...

I once wrote a FridayFlash filling in a fictional backstory for Bertie Wooster, and another as a joke piece with Star Trek characters. I think it's an easy shortcut to take someone else's world or characters and overlay your own plot on top of them. Very difficult for it to be anything very original, though. In the Eyre Affair, most of the plot revolved around Tuesday Next, while the literary characters were secondary and acting way, way out of type anyway. That helped a lot.

Larry Kollar said...

Under the right conditions, I don't see a problem with using public domain characters. That's the whole purpose of public domain, after all: to allow people to do something new with something familiar. The (IMHO) "right conditions" are similar to what several of y'all have already mentioned — do it as a spoof (or in the case of a Bertie Wooster type, the opposite), or use them as secondary characters. There's also the professional courtesy of explicitly citing the originals.

Musicians remix stuff both new and old these days, why can't writers join the fun beyond the odd bit of fan fiction? (Of course, I mistranslated the lyrics to "Hey Jude" for a #FridayFlash once.) I wonder how many people who read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies were moved to read the original as well. Many writers have used (or at least alluded to) Lovecraft's characters in their works, published and online, and the lawyers of R'lyeh haven't demanded anyone's soul that I'm aware of.

Now if I were to grab one of E.E. "Doc" Smith's space operas off Gutenberg, modernize the language and social structures, and republish that as my own, that would be icky. Not illegal, but icky. However, if I had my own characters find the Skylark frozen in a comet, and revived the crew to find… something? It could potentially be a fun read, and stimulate interest in the originals.

If someone wanted to borrow a character from White Pickups, I guess it would depend on what they wanted to do and how I'd get recognized. But by the time they pass into public domain, I'll be long dead, buried, and (if I'm awfully lucky), the characters will outlive me and find their way into other stories.

Icy Sedgwick said...

As I say, I understand why people might want to write it and I don't have any problems reading it, I'm just saying that personally, I don't want to write it, and I wouldn't want people using my characters.

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