Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Freecycling Ideas

I just joined Freecycle. This is a program where, if you have something that is perfectly useful but which you don't want anymore, you can offer the item on your city's Freecycle newsgroup. If someone wants it, that person will arrange to come get it from you. The only stipulations are that the item be legal and that it be offered for free. (I'm getting rid of an aquarium.)

This got me thinking about copyright, idea-poaching and genre.

Ideas are free. If you tell me your great idea for a novel, and I then steal that idea and write the novel myself, I get all the money because the work of art is mine. The idea was yours, but lick it up: ideas have no intrinsic worth. It's what you do with them that matters. The art is mine, therefore the money is mine.

Nobody likes an idea-thief, of course. However, we all borrow ideas from one another. It may be part of why humans are such successful beasties.

I've noticed that if, when I'm demonstrating equipment to my students, I do some simple thing that makes the experiment run more smoothly, all my students will emulate that technique. If I don't do that thing, virtually none of my students will think the method up on their own. I'm not telling them to do it - they just recognise it's a good idea when they see it.

Good ideas are hard to come up with; this is why ground-breakers are so revered. Recognising a good idea, however, seems to be something humans are uniformly clever at.

Which leads to genre. Someone thought up the monster called a vampire, but no one considers themself an idea-poacher for writing stories about vampires. At worst, we recognise we're using a stock character. We also note, however, that vampires are a good idea, and popular. It would be difficult to come up with a new monster that would resonate with our audience quite so well.

And I'm sorry, but it's bedtime and I don't think this post is going to wind itself up in a coherent fashion. I've been trying to find my point for several fruitless minutes now. The questions I'll end with are:

How hard do you try to be creative? How often do you use stock characters and stay within the boundaries of genre? How often to you try to build something completely new? Do you try to have the best of both worlds by taking a genre and turning its conventions on their head? What's your diabolical plot when it comes to world-building for a novel?

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