The entire point of this post is this: everything is fanfiction of something else. Don’t think Eragon is original, but instead an attempt to copycat some of the elements from LOTR? That’s fine, Tolkien readily admitted that he pulled from Norse & Celtic mythology to write LOTR. And, realistically, all mythology stems from ancient Pagan beliefs that were then broken apart into cultures as people started to migrate.
Really, every story you’ve ever read is fanfiction of a cave person’s artwork. We all come from something. We find similar themes and tropes and what-have-you in stories that we like, and we keep searching for those similar things. We’re attracted to The Witcher adaptation right now because it calls back to things like A Song of Ice and Fire and The Lord of the Rings, and, way before that, The Song of Roland and Arthurian legend, and even before that, Beowulf. We like this tall, brooding hero of Geralt because we also like Aragorn, Eddard Stark, Roland, King Arthur, and Beowulf. Sure, they’re vastly different characters, but at their very basic personality traits, they all do the same thing for us.
Later in the month, I’m going to chat about why I love the Ravenspire series so much, which so far covers the tales of Snow White, Rumpelstiltskin, the Prince and the Pauper, and Cinderella. Last week, we chatted about the latest King Arthur adaptation that I watched and why I loved it so much. And so, instead of rehashing either of those, we’re going to talk about my own unoriginal original story.
So, you want to be a hero, kid, well whoop-di-doo–that’s right, I’m writing a Greek mythos retelling. Kind of. I always have to add on that kind of because it’s not really a retelling, I’m just using the characters and pulling from some of the myths. But is that a retelling, or just fanfiction?
Because that’s the real crux of it. If you wanted to start writing a book about a young boy who grew up orphaned in the north, who knew that he was destined for great things, but instead chose to live his life wandering the wild and helping those in aid, you could definitely do that, and I would definitely read it. But if you named that character Aragorn, that would be fanfiction.
However, if you wanted to start writing a book about a young man whose wish in life is to become a great earl that leads his people on adventures to enormous riches and fame, but must struggle first with overcoming a terrible dragon, you could definitely do that, and I would also definitely read it. And if you named that character Beowulf, that would be a retelling.
Why? Well, the simple answer is that Beowulf is ancient. We literally can only pinpoint when it was written between the scope of 300 years. And, that retelling of Beowulf does not hold wholly true to the original. The Beowulf we know fights a dragon, yes, but he’s already a successful earl, and he fights Grendel. The Beowulf I’m telling you about is a young, hopeful man chasing his dreams. The Beowulf of legend is old, tired, and can’t believe he has to fight these damn monsters to prove himself again.
Aragorn is not ancient. He was written into existence less than 100 years ago. Tolkien’s daughter is still alive. His grandchildren have personal stories about the famous writer. There’s still a direct connection to Tolkien in our present time. And that “retelling” above is not a retelling. It’s just Aragorn’s past.
Now, if you were like, “okay I’ve got this story about a young boy who grew up orphaned in the north, who knew nothing but the wild around him, and so wandered through it for decades until a mighty wizard came down to sigh fondly at him and give him a prophecy about the great things he would do, that is also not a retelling. It’s just your story. It’s so far removed from Aragorn’s origin story that it becomes something separate. Sure, you might have been inspired by Aragorn, but you added your own flavor to it.
And that is what makes the difference.
If I was just here to rewrite the myth of Hercules, we’d all be pretty bored pretty quickly. Take Lore Olympus for example. Yes, it’s a retelling of the love story of Persephone & Hades, but the actual love story is um? Well, full of abuse and literal murder and definitely not politically friendly. The Tumblr curated version of it, though? Y’all, we don’t love the myth of Hades. We love the retelling of the myth of Hades that we’ve collectively created, and Lore Olympus is a really fantastic version of it.
Yeah, you’ve got to be careful about how you use other people’s characters, and you should probably avoid things that are less than a century old, but let’s look at Aragorn and Eragon real quick since people like to sneer at that all the time.
Aragorn: orphan, grew up in the north, knew he was destined for greatness, but also knew the world was a dark place that didn’t want greatness then, so wandered the wild, was raised by elves, eventually becomes king of all, super chill dude
Eragon: orphan, but grew up with his cousin & uncle, grew up on a farm, thought he was a nobody, embraced the possibility of greatness pretty immediately, suffered so much by war that he said peace out and ran away to an island, super high strung dude
Sure, they’ve got similar names, and I’m sure Paolini was inspired by Tolkien. Literally who isn’t? But Eragon is not a retelling of the story of Aragorn because the elements are so different.
The Boneless Mercies, however, is a retelling of Beowulf because while some of the elements have been shifted, they still sit firmly in the original myth. They still fight a dragon. They still fight a monster in a cave. There’s still a great earl to contend with. There’s just also a witch war and a band of fierce women warriors.
I feel like I’ve really gone off the rails here.
Basically, the whole point of this is that yes! You can use other characters! You just have to be super careful about how you’re using other characters.
My Greek myths retelling (kind of) is not just “here’s the gatekeeper of the underworld, he’s old and dead and grouchy, and he ferries souls across the river.” That’s boring. That’s not original at all. Instead, my Charon is young and misses his family. He’s proud of the work that he does on the river Styx, but he also wishes he could see the sun more than just every once in a while. Yes, he does ferry souls across the river, but he also does so with kindness, with compassion, and without demanding payment.
And when the legend of Chaos wakes from his eternal slumber, slays the old, forgotten legend of Icarus, and Icarus falls again, but this time into the underworld? Well, Charon’s story just got a lot more interesting.
Are the usual suspects there, as well? Of course! Hades is still king of hell. He’s still rude af and super angry about everything. He just also happens to want to die every time Persephone is forced back to the human realm. He just also happens to want to try to rekindle his relationship with Zeus. And yeah, Zeus is still king of all gods, still arrogant and loud-mouthed and flashy, but he’s also a super softie, loves Hera unconditionally, and writes Hades pretty much weekly letters.
Truthfully, there are no original characters in my Greek myths retelling. It’s got Hermes, the Sisters of Fate, and Apollo. It’s got Thanatos and Hypnos, Atlas, and the Sisters of Healing. They all play a part in one way or another, and that’s the point. The characters are there, and there are some elements of the original myths that match up, but, in the end, the story is so vastly different and the characters have my own spin on them that it becomes not fanfiction, but a retelling.
I just now realized that it sounds like I’m knocking fanfiction, which I am 100% not doing because fanfiction is the literal basis of all of my writing and one of my favorite things in the world. But you can’t publish fanfiction (and shouldn’t try to), so if you want to use someone else’s characters, first make sure a) you’re utilizing a story that can actually be utilized (ie: isn’t Harry Potter) and b) you’ve actually done some work to make it your own.
I’m not here to tell you about how Hades stole Persephone into the underworld and forced her to be his bride.
I’m here to tell you about how Persephone was tricked into the underworld by a prank gone wrong (thanks, Zeus), eventually decided to befriend Hades, which of course meant they fell in love, and how she ruled as the queen of darkness and light until the end of time.