Picture this. You’re a kid just going about your kid life and for some reason you wake up tomorrow as an adult and have to deal with all the problems that adults have but from the perspective of a child! It’s kind of a coming-of-age story you’re in, just in a scrambled order. Cool idea, right!?
Oh. It sounds familiar? It’s 13 Going on 30! I mean Big — you know, with Tom Hanks!
Plots Are Made to be Stolen.
To be fair, I had to be kinda vague on the description above. In my defense, I watched 13 Going on 30 in theaters almost 20 years ago, and the last time I watched a VHS copy of Big was when I was in elementary school (almost 30 years ago? Seriously?). But the point I’m trying to make still is valid — virtually every good character and plot has already been written.
But I’m here to tell you that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As a people, we have stories that have been told for thousands of years. Bards and poets and novelists have all told the same tales over and over again. Different names, different settings, different challenges, different times. But these are the “good” plots and character tropes that persist throughout time, because they are what we want to see.
It’s Okay to Steal an Already-Stolen Character.
Thinking back to one of my favorite shows, Battlestar Galactica (2004), I remember how upset it was when they finally found their way to their destination. Those three and a half seasons where the last of humanity had nowhere to go were some of the most entertaining episodes of any program I’ve ever binge watched. I loved the wide cast of characters. But even though each episode and season brought its own subplots, the characters each followed their own natural trajectory. Every one of those good characters is very much a trope. I’m not going to list them all, but take your favorite binge-worthy series and substitute those characters in. I’m pretty sure this point is going to hold up.
Those characters we’ve just looked at and their plot lines have existed FOREVER in the written word and oral traditions. We love us a good “I don’t want to be a leader” who’s the best person for the job and saves the world. We all root for the true lovers who are always just inches away from recognizing they are each other’s soulmates. We all hope the alcoholic with a troubled past overcomes their adversity. We LOVE these tropes.
How to Trick People Into Thinking You Didn’t Steal Anything.
Once you’ve successfully stolen the source plots and characters you’ve desired, now’s the time to make them yours. That’s where the beauty of your characters shine — that bit of uniqueness that makes them real people. Take inspiration from characters, both real and fictional, and bring the parts of them you enjoy into a brand new body. Take some traits from anywhere you can find them and sprinkle those in. Now the hard work begins — you need to look deep into this new person’s soul and learn their past so you can see their future.
My friend Spencer and I were talking the other day about this, so in the spirit of this blog post, I’m going to steal a bit of her insight (At least I’m giving her credit, yeah?). You are you because you’ve spent the last X amount of years being alive. Every interaction, every experience has shaped who you are today. If you look at when we were fresh “characters” we were all the same. We pooped our diapers, cried for food, slept in the most uncomfortable positions. And over time we evolved, and became unique characters, that are still somehow all based on the same trope. You may not have decades to work on your character’s uniqueness, but you can accomplish a lot in a short amount of time.
Trust Me, I’m An Expert.
Now, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert or someone who you should really even take this advice from, but it works for me, so I wanted to share it with you. I wrote a blog post last year for Mythical Unicorn that I don’t know if I actually agree with or not, but it is a good exercise nonetheless: “Magically Transforming Five Tropes“. Speaking of Mythical Unicorn, there’s some great templates that we’ve put together to help you build out your world, giving your plot some room to grow. [SHAMELESS PLUG]
Plots are so much easier to twist into your own. Don’t worry about if your plot infringes on another’s, just don’t plagiarize okay? If you keep a safe distance, such as the one between 13 Going on 30 and Big, then you’re golden.
By the way, I liked Big better — it’s a classic and you should watch it if you haven’t. It’s also kinda creepy if you think about it as the movie goes on but… 🤷
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below, then go tell your stories with whatever inspiration you can find.