Sara Paretsky’s Blog

May 13, 2009, 7:26 pm
Filed under: reading

“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” This is the captivating opening sentence of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

Mr. Darcy?

Mr. Darcy?

If you want to write a bestseller and are too lazy to think of anything original yourself, you are pretty well guaranteed success if you tamper with Jane Austen.  Especially with Pride and Prejudice.  We’ve had at least twenty spin-offs in the last few years, including Mr. Darcy’s Daughters, Bridget Jones’ Diary, and The Bar Sinister, in which Mr. Darcy has fathered an illegitimate child on the Pemberly estate.  Austen believed Darcy to be a moral and ethical person, but what did she know?


I am baffled by the trend of taking other people’s work, or lives, and using it for one’s own fiction.  I think of such books as vampire books, where someone else is sucking the blood of the original creator.  Do people do it because they don’t have confidence in their own creative ideas?  Is it a form of laziness?  Or does it stem from a desperate search for common cultural markers in a world where we’re inundated with Twitters and Faces and Jerry Springer and a host of other shouted comments?

I confess, too, to a dislike of novels based on historic figures.  It feels both like an invasion of privacy, to take over another person’s life, and a limitation on one’s own creativity: the ending, indeed, the trajectory, are already determined.  As my granddaughter, then seven, said when her mother wanted to take her to see Gibson’s movie, The Passion, “I already know how it comes out.”  

A few years ago, I read a book whose author claimed to know the effect of the Manhattan Project on Fermi and his family.  It wasn’t based on Fermi’s life or letters or the memoirs of others who knew him, but on the author’s anger over the development of the bomb, projected back on to Fermi.

Fermi in the Italian Alps

Fermi in the Italian Alps

Searching around for a book topic? Make up your own physicist. It will allow you to explore the human experience more fully if you’re not constrained by a pre-determined outcome.  Make up your own Regency family.  And make up your own damned Zombie!


6 Comments so far
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Your grand-daughter sounds wise beyond her years!

Vampire books – well said.

Comment by Bag Lady

Someone on Twitter sent me a link to an article about this very thing…it’s Famous Characters You Didn’t Know Were Shameless Rip-offs. The Lion King is one of them. Walt Disney would probably turn over in his grave.

Comment by Cheryl K

So you wouldn’t want any unexpected novels about VI Warshawski, Sara? There is that strong yearning people have to write more about what they love.

Comment by bookwitch

Bookwitch, I think I want to read more about characters I love–not write more. And when I find the characters haunting my unconscious mind, then the question I ask is, what is it they’re saying to me about my own life, and how, to use Dorothy Davis’s phrase, do I then turn that information on its head to create unique characters of my own. But i’d love to know what everyone else thinks about this suggestion

Comment by saraparetsky

Really, really interesting discussion. I have to confess that I share the anxiety about “vampire characters” (GREAT phrase… Dracula being a good example…).

I can’t imagine writing about characters whom another writer has created, and don’t think I would want to try. I suppose it’s because I believe that a fictional character is a specific fusion of words and imagination, an individual voice and whatever goes on inside the writer’s head, as a result of her experience, explorations, beliefs, interests, ideas etc. What comes out as the particular character, the one I love in the books, is the result of a process to which I can’t have direct access, although I can access its outcomes. And very glad I am to do so.
But if I were to write about – to take a random example – Elizabeth Bennett Darcy – it would not be the character I love. It would be another Elizabeth B-D, who happens to share a name and possibly some social circumstances with the one I’ve read about. She might be equally interesting, captivating, enduring etc (actually she wouldn’t be, because I’m not as good a writer as Jane Austen, but hey, I can dream), but she wouldn’t be the same character. So why give her the same name?

Perhaps it’s two ways of thinking about fictional characters. Are they people whom the writer “discovers” and draws faithfully on paper, and whom therefore every writer can “know” in the same way, so that they really are writing about “the same characters”? There’s a further point here about how the different styles of different writers contribute to who the characters “are”? Or are characters creations which writers *make* using words to represent a particular creative activity?

Fantastically good writers can create characters who “come to life”, and the blurring of the line above is the sign of a terrific fictional talent – which I why whenever I visit Chicago I have a fleeting hope that a tall half-Italian woman with short dark curls will tie up her Golden Retriever outside the coffee shop, sit down and order a cappuccino without sugar… I know she never will, and as a reader – as was said above – I want to read more about her (or reread “Hard Time” until it finally falls to bits). As a writer, though, I know that writing about her would be unethical and impossible.

I suppose I feel the same about fictionalising real people, e.g. the Fermi example. There’s biography and then there’s the novelisation of real *lives*, which by definition cannot be “true”… and if it’s not true, then why not call a spade a spade, a fiction a fiction, write a book “based on actual events” and don’t upset the family?

Oddly enough I don’t think I’d have the same scruples about writing fiction around real events, and I can’t get annoyed over Shakespeare’s blatant nicking of plots in the way that I do over the Austen “industry”. Does time passing and things happening “belong” to everyone in a different way from inventing a person? Certainly it seems to. I certainly have a different access to specific historical events, witnessed by a number of people, from the access I have to “what sort of person is Elizabeth Bennett”, or, indeed, Fermi.

I think I’ve just spent 600 words repeating what Sara said in about 50… sorry about the ramble and I hope I haven’t crashed your blog!

Comment by Anna

Thanks for that thoughtful and thought-provoking post, Anna. You touched a nerve, so to speak, because even when I was writing my post I was thinking, well, what about Shakespeare? Neither a borrower nor a lender be, but he “borrowed” copiously from others, and I think the people he’s lent to, like Shostakovich or Verdi, responded to the cultural icon of MacBeth–those operas would have been meaningless based on some other characters made up on the spot. So it’s a more nuanced topic than I did justice to. But I still think Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was about making a quick buck, not paying homage to Austen.

Comment by saraparetsky

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