The Power (and Problems) of Writing with Public Domain Characters

It didn’t take Captain James Hook and the Curse of Peter Pan long to reach 10,000 readers.  It took even less time for it to blast through to 25,000+.  For a new author’s first novel, it was an encouraging sight.  My co-author and I were through the roof with excitement.

Then I was told that some of the ideas in our book were lifted by a different property.  Peter Pan is evil and is described as a shadow?  Check.  The fountain of youth is in Neverland?  Check.  Captain Hook had connections to the British Navy before becoming a pirate?  Check.  These were all in the originally published ebook made available for purchase on June 21st, 2012 and linked to the other property’s fan page long before the other property introduced these characters.   (The book was reformatted for print and resubmitted on November 15th, 2013.)

Despite what I was told, I still have doubts.  All of these connections are so incredibly vague that it could be a coincidence.  Even if our book inspired someone who works for the other property, which is a complement, there are broad differences in the way that these ideas are used.  In short, I am making no claims or insinuations.

I did, however, learn a few things about using public domain characters that are worth sharing.

Creatively, the benefits of using public domain characters are pretty clear.  The world is built for you.  The characters are already fleshed out with opinions and goals.  Events have already happened that will shape their actions.  Since the Captain James Hook series of books are all prequels to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, future events are set in stone and give a clear end-point that directs the narrative.  The only downside to all of that available history is that there is a good deal of research involved.  This wasn’t a problem for me, I generally like getting my hands dirty in the details.  One of my main sources of pride in the first book is that it is set in historical context.  For example, J. M. Barrie wrote that Hook was Blackbeard’s boatswain.  That puts a narrow window on the time when Hook could have done that because Blackbeard wasn’t a pirate for long.

The real advantage to using public domain characters is market recognition.  People know Peter Pan.  People know Captain Hook.  When they see those names, it triggers a whole set of memories, feelings, and expectations.  Even though we turned those expectations around and seemed to have done a pretty decent job at it, I have little doubt that most of our success was due to people already being invested in the characters.

That advantage can also play against you.  Your ideas aren’t as protected as they would be had you built the world and made the characters yourself.  No one can publish and make money off of J. K. Rowling’s characters.  They belong to her.  The same is true for the work of Riordan, Martin, King, or any other author from the last 75 years.  Yes, fan fiction exists, but it is seen as not worth reading (even though some of it is really good).

The conclusions I drew from my experience are pretty simple.  Authors who adapt works from the public domain take a risk.  Yes, much of the work is done for you, but there is only so much a copyright can cover when the characters belong to someone else.

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