What’s the difference when it comes to creativity in the arts?
When is something a rip off of something else or a homage? And how do you identify it?
When I was perusing Animorphs reviews, I came across a reader who claimed Applegate ‘ripped off’ Sauron from Lord of the Rings in Book 6: The Capture, with her Big Red Eye that ended up being Crayak, an evil being that seemed to be a tall tower with a red light at the peak. However, Applegate had claimed that it was in fact a homage to Tolkien, as was the use of the alien name Yeerk, which sounded phonetically similar to Tolkien’s elves’ named for orcs, yrchs, and the name Gondor, a city in Lord of the Rings, was the name of a Yeerk-run industrial company in Book 14: the Unknown. There are lots of other references, of which I will not add here.
Clearly Applegate had written loving homages to one of literature’s greatest storytellers, and it annoyed me that this other reader had jumped right out and accused Applegate of ripping something off, or copying the idea, rather than paying a respectful homage to it.
So what’s the actual difference?
Cassandra Clare won’t come out and say the characters from The Mortal Instruments are based on her Harry Potter fanfic characters. She’s not paying a homage with her Ginny-Draco ship where Harry is some weird vampire or something (I haven’t read TMI, mostly because Clare refuses to admit the inspiration, oh and also she plagiarised a fair chunk of her fanfic without credit then got mad when peeps called her out on it and ragequit, and all her books are copies of each other and her ‘original’ book was a copy of a fanfic which is a copy of another super popular work… just no)
On the other hand, EL James opening admits her 50 Shades of Grey is a Twilight alternate universe (AU) fanfiction. People embrace this. It’s fun, from what I can gather (because I tried to read the first book but OH GOD IT WAS SO BAD I gave up after about 20 pages) to pinpoint which 50 Shades character is which Twilight character.
Then there are books that are so startlingly familiar some people wonder if they are original at all. The two main ones that jump to mind are The Hunger Games and its unfavourable comparison to Battle Royale (though I do think the judgement is unfair, as the only similarity is a group of teens have to murder each other, and I think a lot of hipsters are needlessly harsh), and Vampire Academy compared to Half Blood (Covenant #1), which, from what I can gather, both star half-bloods of a more powerful race, where the main character returns to her training school to learn how to protect the ‘superior’ race from evil demonic creatures, and falls in love with her hot personal trainer which is forbidden for whatever reason.
In this last example, it’s clear they ideas here are not homages. Suzanne Collins denies any similarities between her book and Battle Royale and claims her inspiration was channel surfing between a news item reporting on a war zone and a reality TV show.
What I want to know is, without a reader doing research or the author leaving an author’s note, which a reader also has to read (and many probably choose not to), how does one identify what is a homage and what’s been ripped off?