Originality and "nods" to other works?

by Lucas
(Dallas, TX)

I had a couple of questions regarding the originality of content. I've got two examples which I'll try to keep brief.


Firstly, my current project features characters I've dubbed "Wildlings" but, to my dismay, I've googled and found out that Game of Thrones already has a group of characters called "Wildlings." While I typically wouldn't worry over a similarity as small as a group-name (since the name is where similarities end), I'm concerned that with GoT being so popular, sharing a name like that might distract the reader from my own story because they're already familiar with it in another context. Do you think it's worth renaming things in a story to avoid unwanted associations with other popular media?

My other question is about intentionally associating your work with other writing. The same project features a talking cat character that I'd like to name "Chess." I see this as a nod to Alice In Wonderland's Cheshire cat, and I felt it was appropriate because the story helped inspire my own. However, I'm worried such a reference might be too blatant, too "beat-the-reader-over-the-head." What do you think about intentional nods or references to other works? How can a writer best apply a reference to other works, and what degree of subtlety would you suggest go into one?

Answer: First understand I am not a lawyer and cannot give a legal opinion or advice. If you sell your novel, you or your publisher may wish to consult a lawyer with such questions.

That said, I wouldn't worry at all about the cat. This sort of allusion appears all the time in fiction. Your cat, I presume, is not the same character as in Alice in Wonderland, nor are you using Lewis Carroll's words. Besides, Carroll died over a century ago, so his works are in public domain. Anyone can now write a story set in Wonderland and using Carroll's characters without committing plagiarism.

I can't render a solid opinion regarding your Wildlings, though it certainly helps that they are quite different from George R. Martin's. It would help more if the story world is very different too (i.e. not high fantasy) and the story is aimed at a different audience.

A quick glance at the dictionaries reveals that the word "wildling" has been used for centuries to refer to an uncultivated plant or wild animal. "Wilding" seems to be a variation. If this traditional sense of the word inspired your book, that may also help your case (just as anyone can write about elves and dwarfs without being accused of plagiarizing Tolkein because these are old entities in folklore).

Of course, having the right to use the term may not, as you say, stop some readers from spotting the similarity of names and drawing their own conclusions. It doesn't help that Martin's stories are recent and quite popular. So if a variation or synonym of this word carries the same emotional tone or image for you, it might be prudent to make the switch. If you can't find an alternative that fits the bill, then you might wish to wait and discuss if with your editor, should you be fortunate enough land a publishing contract. No point making a change you're unhappy with unless you need to.

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Jul 07, 2015
Re: Originality and "nods" to other works
by: Todd Rogers

This is a good subject!

I was looking at the synonyms of the word WILD and if you can do what Glen suggests and find a synonym of "Wildlings" to use in place of the term associated with the popular media usage in GoT, then I'd agree that changing the term for originality's sake might be most prudent.

Consider:

FREE = Freelings
SAVAGE = Savagelings
FERAL = Feralings
BARBARIC = Barlings or Barbalings
LUSH = Lushlings
FIERCE = Fiercelings

Those sound quite original and if you can make that work, why not?

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