After a busy and very social Saturday, I collapsed, brain dead, on the sofa that night. My evening's HBO viewing was Eragon, and my, but that was absolutely AWFUL. Stilted dialogue, poor production values and bad effects. The dragon looked distractingly fake. Yeah, I know it is fake, since there's a shortage of really talented dragon actors and they have to make do with CGI, but this one was approaching Pete's Dragon levels, and that one was supposed to look like a cartoon. But I think my main issue was how screamingly unoriginal it was. I haven't read the book, so I don't know if it's the author or the screenwriter who has seen Star Wars a few too many times, but does George Lucas know about this? Because it was Star Wars in a fantasy setting with dragons instead of X-Wings. Lucas ripped himself off with a fantasy version of Star Wars with Willow, but aside from a big-picture plot similarity and characters that pretty much mapped to the Star Wars cast, it ended up with a few different twists and angles on the story. Any story that does follow the Universal Myth structure from Joseph Campbell is going to end up looking a bit like Star Wars, since Lucas adhered really closely to it, but dude, this was pretty much a scene-by-scene, character-by-character rewrite. I was doing crossword puzzles and reading a magazine most of the time this was on, but I kept looking up at the screen in shock, thinking, "Oh, no, they didn't, did they?"
During the latest plagiarism scandal, I found myself pondering what, exactly, counts as an actionable rip-off. It's generally said that you can't copyright ideas, only the execution of the idea, and usually the plagiarism accusations come from using the same words. That book written to get the author into Harvard was pulled not because the plot was Mean Girls with an Indian heroine, but because the author used some of the exact wording from other books (you'd think the overall plot rip-off would be more egregious than lifting a phrase here and there, but that's not how it works). But how close to something else can you go as long as you don't use the same words without getting in trouble? Apparently, changing the setting and a few key details is enough, even if you're writing essentially the same characters and the same scenes. So, since the story of Star Wars is so popular and resonates so strongly with people, that opens up a world of possibilities.
We could do Star Wars on Ice! Star Wars on the ocean with boats! Star Wars under the sea with mermaids! Star Wars with cars! Star Wars in the jungle! Star Wars in WWII with fighter planes! Star Wars in space! (Oh, wait ...) And now because most of my better ideas start with this kind of obnoxious silliness, I find myself wanting to write Star Wars as an urban fantasy -- and make it good, and get away with it without anyone noticing (which will now be more challenging because I've said I'm going to try it and people will be looking for it. Plus, I write for the house that publishes the Star Wars novels, so they're likely to be tuned into that universe). I'm sure that even if I use that as a point of inspiration, once I develop characters, it will develop a life of its own and spin off in a different direction entirely. I think I know what my next project will have to be.
Eragon also contained two fantasy tropes that have become pet peeves for me. One is that the Chosen/Destined One is also so unnaturally talented at whatever his thing is that he can outdo people who've been training their entire lives at it just on sheer instinct (what I call the Destined, Chosen One With Magical Specialness). Lucas verged on that with Luke Skywalker, but at least it was established he flew similar ships back home, and most of the pilots he was with were around his age. He mostly got through that final battle on luck rather than because he was the Bestest Pilot Ever. Lucas went way over the top with it in Episode One, where a small child manages to outrace everyone else in the pod races, and then goes on to help win a major space battle by accidentally getting stuck in a fighter ship because he's just that awesome (arrrrggghhhhh!). This is one area where I think Harry Potter worked because while he had all that destiny stuff, he actually wasn't that great or powerful a wizard. He just sort of got by in school. He mostly won out of sheer stubbornness and allying himself with people who were better at magic than he was. He didn't show up at Hogwarts and turn out to be so amazingly awesome at magic that he beat people who'd grown up with it. The only thing he was particularly talented at was Quidditch, which meant it was almost like if some West Point cadet who was destined to become a great general and leader of men mostly distinguished himself at school by being the placekicker on the football team. I like subverting this trope, and thus the series about the person who learns that she has no magic in her whatsoever. In the book I'm working on now (and will finish this week, I hope), I really play with it. Due to a case of mistaken identity, an ordinary person gets stuck in the role of the Destined, Chosen One With Magical Specialness and has to improvise, and meanwhile, the Destined, Chosen One With Magical Specialness remains blissfully oblivious, using all the Magical Specialness for some pretty ordinary, day-to-day issues.
Then there's the "deep, mystical bond between the dragon and its rider" trope. I'm not sure where this one started, as most of the folklore I've read has dragons as something to be slain rather than a partner with a semi-symbiotic relationship. Maybe Anne McCaffrey kicked it all off. I guess there is some appeal to the idea of Your Scaly, Fire-Breathing Pal Who's Fun to Be With! but it has reached the eye-rolling stage for me unless there's some new and different twist on it (making the human member of the team the Destined, Chosen One With Magical Specialness only makes it worse). What if dragons were more like cats, where they might prefer some people more than others, but as long as they're being fed, they don't much care, and really don't have that much use for people beyond that? And then the riders got assigned randomly to whichever dragon was available and had to deal with the one they were stuck with for that mission. If the going got tough, it wouldn't be "your life is more important to me than my own because you are my rider" but rather, "you're on your own, scaleless wonder!"
And now, in unrelated news, Don't Hex With Texas was in the top 100 urban fantasy books at Amazon the last time I looked (and that has probably changed by now). Still, it's a nice ego boost for a book that hasn't released yet.