One of the most crippling problems that can face a writer is the fear of plagiarism. Or rather, the fear of being accused. Accusations of plagiarism, like accusations of any crime, can mark a writer’s reputation forever, regardless of the facts.

Especially on the Internet, such accusations can linger for years
as a stain on one’s honour that even a writer who is concerned about such
things will feel by way of reduced sales.

I will admit that there was a time when the mere thought of a reader finding similarities between my own work and some previously published work made my blood freeze. Other writers have admitted that same fear, and while it can be used to strengthen our writing, in extremes it can prevent one from writing anything at all. But don’t panic. There are a few simple things to keep in mind that can help you to tread the fine line between imagination and inspiration.

One: The Rule of Three

The number three has a peculiar significance to the human mind: it is one of the easiest numbers to recognise when counting groups of objects; many cultures around the world assign superstitious significance to things that come in groups of three; and most Heroic Parties in generic fantasy are composed of three (or five) people (typically, the mage, the fighter, and the thief). Most lists of facts are given in blocks of three, as well. Two seems too few points, and four feels like it’s stretching it. Five is right out.

With that in mind, it makes a lot of sense that coincidental similarities between fictional works are often counted in threes as well. Let us take, for example, everybody’s favourite fantasy series: The Inheritance Cycle, by Christopher Paolini. Eragon is a farm boy in a remote region of the Empire (1), whose farm and home are burned down by agents of the Emperor (2), in search of a valuable object stolen by rebels (3). Any one of those things would be fine by themselves. Even two of those things might ‘fly under the radar’, so to speak. But the combination of three brings a specific reference to mind, and not in the sense of homage. Alternatively, another example from the same series: Paolini’s elves are tall and graceful (1), in population decline (2), and they worship the stars (3). In addition, they come from a distant land to the west (4), have control of a mysterious magical energy most people cannot comprehend (5), and have distinctly hostile relations with the dwarves (6). Three sets of three similarities relating to different parts of the story. Even without magic and superstition, that is significant.

You will notice that any one of those points is, in isolation, innocuous if not almost ubiquitous in generic fantasy. But taken together, they direct the reader’s mind to a particular conclusion.

Given the Rule of Three, what I jokingly coined the ‘threeshold’ in an ImpishIdea discussion, it makes sense to avoid suspicions of plagiarism by staying under the limit. One or two similarities with another author’s works is practically expected by the majority of readers. A writer describing one of their characters to me recently used the phrase “Like Gandalf, only with Aragorn’s muscles”. Two similarities. Not three. The description “Like Gandalf, only with Aragorn’s muscles and Legolas’ agility” is instantly more suspicious than the former. Surpassing the threeshold, “Like Gandalf, only with Aragorn’s muscles, Legolas’ agility and Gimli’s stoicism” is entirely worse (For the lack of the Oxford comma, if nothing else).

One point that must be made is that the Rule of Three only really applies to substantial similarities, not necessarily throwaway lines and descriptions that only appear once. This is unfortunately a matter for individual judgement and intuition.

Two: Mindful and Respectful

Another thing to keep in mind is to know what you are being inspired by, and to be respectful to the original works. An excellent example of this is that most definitive C.S. Lewis work, The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe. There are certain similarities in this work to a story written at the beginning of the 1900s by William Morris, called The Wood Beyond The World. In both stories, a person from our world with an emotively weak name (e.g. Walter or Edmund or Alice) unwittingly enters another world (1), in which they encounter a beautiful and powerful Lady, who is the sovereign of the land (2), and whose great malice and authority simmers almost unfelt behind a façade of grace and charm (3). The character finds themself trapped by the Lady and her dwarf thrall (3), but eventually escapes with the help of loyal friends, including intelligent talking animals (4). However, despite exceeding the Threeshold, Narnia is a beautifully-crafted, imaginative and genuinely engaging story.


It all comes down to attitude. Lewis remained at all time conscious of the work he drew his inspiration from (as did Tolkien, drawing from House of the Wolfings by the same author), and was very respectful to the original work and author.

Secondarily, mindfulness and respectfulness can help to create a rapport with the reader. When a writer borrows something from an earlier work and is both respectful and mindful of it, readers will pick up on that mindfulness due to the language used, and a subtext develops in which reader and writer share a moment of “Hey, remember when…? Wasn’t that so cool?” In combination with the Rule of Three, this can develop a powerful subtext that can potentially garner the respect and admiration of readers.

Three: Make It Your Own

Mindful of the Rule of Three, this article felt incomplete without a third subheading.

Simply put, if you are worried about being accused of plagiarism, one of the most failsafe methods of avoiding such is to make your work as original as you can. If you do take someone else’s idea, change it or add to it substantially enough that the casual reader won’t even notice it.

Of course, if you’re good enough at that, you’re far better off not plagiarise at all.

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  1. Snow White Queen on 6 July 2011, 11:14 said:

    Yay, I’m glad this article came out! :D

  2. Steph (what is left) on 6 July 2011, 11:39 said:


    (For the lack of the Oxford comma, if nothing else).

    You know by now that I officially love you, right?

    Be that as it may, I think you could’ve been a bit more example-heavy in part 2. I am no closer to knowing what you mean by being ‘mindful and respectful’ of a work, than I was at the start of the article.

  3. BettyCross on 6 July 2011, 12:48 said:

    Operating in a certain literary tradition, with characteristic motifs, is not plagiarism. Trolls, dwarves, elves, dragons, magic rings, and curses associated with treasures (such as rings) are all parts of the Northern mythic and epic tradition that Tolkien was consciously drawing upon.

    Since Tolkien is the creator of modern epic fantasy, many have imitated him by borrowing the same motifs. They are no more plagiarists for this than was Tolkien himself.

    By this argument, Paolini is not a plagiarist of Tolkien, and Gloria Tesch is not a plagiarist of the Chronicles of Narnia. Paolini and Tesch (and many others besides) are guilty of nothing more than uncreative use of the motifs typical to the tradition in which they’re working. Which is bad enough!

    This is why you never hear of Tolkien’s estate suing other writers for having trolls, dragons, etc.

    PS – Hobbits and perhaps orcs are original to Tolkien.

  4. NeuroticPlatypus on 6 July 2011, 13:23 said:

    Yay! You wrote this!

    (For the lack of the Oxford comma, if nothing else).

    I always use the Oxford comma. :)

  5. WulfRitter on 6 July 2011, 13:29 said:

    A very good article. I like the “threeshold” idea, although I think the reason that C.S. Lewis could violate the “threeshold” is because his audience may not have been familiar with The Wood Beyond the World. While William Morris was very popular in his time, he had fizzled by the fifties and sixties, and his books went out of print for quite some years.

    @BettyCross – Good point about the Hobbits. But for the orcs, Tolkien essentially renamed goblins. In fact, if you read the book The Princess and the Goblin (one of Tolkien’s favorite books as a boy), you will meet the same creature. Using his linguistic awesomeness, Tolkien broke down archaic words to come up with a new name for his goblins.

  6. Inkblot on 6 July 2011, 14:35 said:

    Woo hoo, it’s here! And it’s awesome. I concur with another comment on the lack of specific examples only because more, MORE of this delightful analysis is required.

  7. TakuGifian on 7 July 2011, 08:16 said:

    Great points, all of you. Thanks for the feedback. I suppose I really should have given more example for point two, but I was pressed for time and without access to the internet. Alas, alack, lack-a-day, &c.

    BettyCross, you may note from my article that that’s entirely my point: it’s not the conventions themselves (in isolation) that lead to a feeling of familiarity and hey-isn’t-that-someone-else’s-idea, but the combination. I have never said anything against having a magic ring OR Tolkinean elves (which, by the way, were extremely rare and obscure if not non-existent before Tolkien standardised them), OR cursed treasure, etc., but that it’s the combination of all of those elements together which makes the influence so visible. There’s certainly nothing inherently wrong with writing about a farm boy, OR somebody whose guardians perished in a fire, OR somebody who is on the run from a government agency, but those elements all together in the one story or scene builds up a familiar and recognisable pattern that people will possibly recognise and assume as the product of plagiarism.

    Secondly, Tolkien standardised and codified the Dwarf, Elf etc. races as we see them in modern unimaginative Generic High Fantasy. People who ‘borrow’ these motifs are not borrowing the original Germanic and Gallic imagery, they are directly taking Tolkien’s interpretation of them, and Tolkien’s unique back-story and culture and stylisation which did not exist in stories of the traditional dwarves or elves of folklore. The folkloric elves, for one, were small, mischievous and capricious. The closest equivalent to the Tolkien vision of elves that you will be able to find is the Sidhe of traditional Welsh and Irish mythology. The Sidhe are never actually called ‘elves’ at any point, and were closer to humans with otherworldly powers, rather than something distinctly nonhuman.

    To say that Paolini did not plagiarise Tolkien is like saying that Shakespeare did not plagiarise the Attic tragedies, or that the ancient Romans were not inspired by the Greek religious pantheon. Not only incorrect, but completely contrary to the evidence.

  8. BettyCross on 7 July 2011, 08:54 said:

    @Taku, Shakespeare didn’t plagiarize the Attic tragedies, because plagiarism is a modern legal concept, based on modern copyright law. If copyright had existed in his time, the author of “Romeus and Juliet” could have sued his ass off for “Romeo and Juliet.”

    Some things by definition cannot be plagiarized: (a) Works that were never copyrighted to begin with, like the Bible; and (b) works that have lost copyright for some reason, thereby becoming “public domain.” Lots of movies were made of Jules Vernes’ works in the Fifties and Sixties because the copyright had expired on them.

    To return to Tolkien, American fantasy writer Dennis McKiernan wrote a sequel to the Lord of the Rings. The Tolkien estate, approached for permission, forbade the idea (as was their right under copyright laws). McKiernan’s publisher, Doubleday, agreed to publish his trilogy if he’d change all the names of the characters and draw a different map that didn’t look like Middle Earth. He did — and changed the name of the hobbits to “warrows” for good measure. The result is a dreadfully uncreative series called The Iron Tower. It’s notorious in certain fantasy-writing circles. But the Tolkien estate didn’t sue. Because of the new map and all the name changes, they couldn’t prove plagiarism.

  9. TakuGifian on 7 July 2011, 16:43 said:

    Actually, BettyCross, plagiarism doesn’t have any legal definition whatsoever. It’s an ethical debate about using someone else’s work and claiming it as your own, but it is very different from copyright law. And just because copyright law didn’t exist back then, doesn’t mean the actual occurrence of taking someone else’s work and claiming it as your own didn’t happen.

    As for The Iron Tower, as I said, copyright law is very different from plagiarism. McKeirnan was still guilty of plagiarism, but because he’d made enough changes to significant recognisable parts like names and maps, it no longer fell under the legal definition of copyright infringement.

    Let me repeat and make clear: plagiarism is not a legal term, and it not recognised by the law. It is very different from copyright infringement in many ways. Accusations of plagiarism don’t require any legal evidence, and will not stand up in a court.

  10. BettyCross on 7 July 2011, 18:26 said:

    @Taku, thanks. I thought plagiarism was the equivalent of copyright infringement.

  11. BettyCross on 8 July 2011, 04:34 said:

    Let me repeat and make clear: plagiarism is not a legal term, and it not recognised by the law. It is very different from copyright infringement in many ways. Accusations of plagiarism don’t require any legal evidence, and will not stand up in a court.

    I’ve found a legal definition of plagiarism / copyright violation, with detailed examples.

    A relevant quote:

    Plagiarism is theft of another person’s writings or ideas. Generally, it occurs when someone steals expressions from another author’s composition and makes them appear to be his own work. Plagiarism is not a legal term; however, it is often used in lawsuits. Courts recognize acts of plagiarism as violations of Copyright law, specifically as the theft of another person’s Intellectual Property.

    The legal precedents cited in the article are all American. Other systems of law may view the matter differently.

  12. TakuGifian on 8 July 2011, 06:30 said:

    Plagiarism is not a legal term in America or Australia, as I said. It is often confused with copyright law, but has no legal standing by itself.

    Here’s the tricky bit: While copyright infringement (the actual legally-culpable act) is always plagiarism, plagiarism is not always copyright infringement.

    Copyright exists on physically-existant works, including key phrases unique to that work (e.g. “Hogwarts”, “Harry Potter”, “Obliviator” and so on). Copyright infringement is the use of specific phrases, paragraphs or key words from an existing copyrighted work. Plagiarism is the use of themes, plot ideas/events, similar (but not the same) character names, similar locations, et cetera. Plagiarism of these ideas is not generally legally defensible as copyright infringement because they do not involve physically existing keywords and phrases. The idea expressed in a work is not copyrighted, only the expression of it (i.e. the words themselves). I could write a seven-part series about a hidden school of magic in the Scottish lowlands at which students play rugby on broomsticks, but so long as I don’t use the specific copyrighted phrases “Hogwarts” and “Quidditch” and do not use specific, recognisably unique plot points (like one of the teachers trying to steal a hidden alchemical MacGuffin from the school but bheing stopped by a first-year student with a pecular scar…)I will not be in breach of copyright laws. I would still be plagiarising, but it would not be legally actionable.

    Do you understand?

  13. swenson on 12 July 2011, 15:02 said:

    I’ve been reading a lot of Discworld over the past week, and I never quite realized before just how heavily influenced he is by other works. Maskerade, for example, is Phantom of the Opera if the main character wasn’t pretty and there were witches involved (and it’s sort of a parody anyway). In this case, I think the trick is simply that the references are so obvious, it’s clear Pratchett is doing it on purpose. Besides, it’s been pretty thoroughly Discworldicized anyway.

  14. bareminimum on 11 August 2011, 11:44 said:

    One really cannot, without ludicrousness, accuse Paolini (or C.S. Lewis, for that matter) of plagiarism (under the definition implied in this article) without accusing thousands of other authors of the same thing. Contrary to popular belief, literary appropriation does not consist of having 4 or 10 or even 100 of the same plot points, plot devices, names, or events as another work. It comprises taking parts or the whole of a work, paraphrasing it, and then selling it off (literally or figuratively) as one’s own work. If it were simply the case of the former, I could go to the library at this moment and pick out two books by different authors, peruse them while taking notes, and then afterwards say that one of the authors definitely plagiarized the other.

    The only difference in this case between Paolini’s work and that of other authors is that he has not the skill of concealing his allegedly “plagiarized” sources. It’s really a wonder, in this era, that one does not get accused of plagiarism for merely existing. Of course, the “real” definition, and indeed, the real importance (or insignificance) of literary appropriation is all a matter of opinion and perspective, as is nearly everything else in this word.

  15. BettyCross on 11 August 2011, 15:32 said:

    @bareminimum, I agree.