There is a tension which authors face in writing their stories. On the one hand, they wish to make their stories original—why bother to write the story at all if someone else already wrote it just with different names? On the other hand, stories with familiar elements greatly help readers to understand the stories. This can be fairly extreme—when an individual work defines a new genre, quite a few elements of the original may be necessary in order to seem to the reader to be in that genre and they can feel lost, or worse, disinterested, if it strays to far from those elements. Something that may help authors to feel better about this is that derivative origins of a character can easily be lost over with the readers being accepting of this and possibly even forgetting that the beginnings of the characters were clichéd when the many other copies of the work disappear under the sands of time. This will get to an interesting question that I will save for the end. First, I want to give a few examples from my own genre, mystery.
Hercule Poirot had a remarkably derivative beginning as a detective but is now one of the most celebrated fictional detectives of all time and thought of only for his original qualities. For a more highbrow example, Lord Peter Wimsey is a fiercely beloved character so original and lifelike he feels real to a great many of his readers. And yet, to quote Ms. Sayers herself:
When in a light-hearted manner I set out, fifteen years ago, to write the first “Lord Peter” book, it was with the avowed intention of producing something “less like a conventional detective story and more like a novel.” Re-reading Whose body? at this distance of time I observe, with regret, that it is conventional to the last degree, and no more like a novel than I to Hercules.Gaudy Night, Titles to Fame
In order to explain how they began so conventional and in Poirot’s case outright derivative, I need to go over a (very) brief history of the detective genre. This won’t take long as it only existed for about thirty years by the time these detectives came on the scene.
The origin of the modern murder mystery is Edgar Allen Poe’s Murders in the Rue Morgue. Published in 1841, it is told by an unnamed narrator who is a friend of C. Auguste Dupin. Dupin is a brilliant and logical thinker who solves the murders for which the story is named. Poe wrote two other “tales of ratiocination”, but neither is remembered in anything like the same way for various reasons that aren’t pertinent to the moment.
There are a few things published over the next forty six years that people occasionally try to argue are murder mysteries, but the next unambiguous murder mystery is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, which introduced to the world Sherlock Holmes. It was the Sherlock Holmes short stories, however, first published in 1891, that became wildly popular and created the mystery genre.
Even Holmes was not an altogether original conception, as we can see elements of Dupin. Holmes, like Dupin, is a brilliant and logical thinker who goes so much father than others because of his orderly thinking and his methods of the science of deduction. Watson, like Dupin’s unnamed narrator, learns of Sherlock’s brilliance and science of deduction and moreover the adventures that he narrates after becoming his roommate because neither has much money. There are differences of detail, to be sure, but there is an unmistakable inspiration. Heck, there is even a Holmes short story (The Resident Patient) of Holmes imitating a trick of Dupin’s of predicting what someone was thinking about based on what his last conversation was some minutes ago—and Holmes explicitly said that he did so in order to prove that Dupin might have done so as well.
Conan Doyle did not write Holmes for long, however. In 1893 he killed Holmes off. Feeling some financial pressure, he wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901 and its financial success prompted Conan Doyle to bring Holmes back, which he did in the short story The Adventure of the Empty House in 1903. He wrote twelve more stories through 1904, then nothing again until 1908.
This dearth of an extraordinarily popular character created a vacuum that pulled a great many people into the mystery genre. Most of these short stories are lost to the sands of time, or at least require more than a little digging to find them. It was not too long before these stories would start to broaden the genre out, but I suspect with new Holmes stories occasionally coming out until 1927, the pull of the Holmes premise was strong. Moreover, examples in the genre that I’ve researched from the early 1900s and 1910s have tended to stick close to the Homles-Dupin formula.
Certainly we can see it in Hercule Poirot. His story is narrated by Captain Arthur Hastings, who was invalided out of the army in The Great War and now lived on his pension. (You may recall that Doctor Watson was invalided out of the army after Afghanistan and lived on his pension.) Hastings had met Poirot in Belgium before Poirot was forced by the war to flee to England, but after being reunited by the events in the first Poirot story, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, the two became roommates and Hastings, like Watson, helped Poirot to solve crimes as a private consulting detective. Indeed, Poirot even told Hastings, as Holmes told Watson, that his instincts for deduction were almost perfectly wrong; the great detective found them invaluable for knowing where not to look.
The case of Hastings is curious, as Agatha Christie married him off and sent him to live in Argentina in her second Poirot novel but she then spent the next ten years frequently bringing him back for story after story, and he was in almost all of the short stories.
For all that he started out as an obvious Watson character, Hastings would bloom into his own man. More importantly, Poirot very quickly became his own detective. His talk of his little grey cells, his fastidious manner, his selectively broken English, his French immodesty, his self awareness, his Catholic faith, and his habit of gathering everyone together and telling the story first as it is known and then as it really happened created a genuinely interesting character. One reads Poirot for Poirot, not because one cannot get enough Sherlock Holmes, but because one wants Poirot.
Heck, even his name was not original in its day. According to Wikipedia, “Poirot’s name was derived from two other fictional detectives of the time: Marie Belloc Lowndes’ Hercule Popeau and Frank Howel Evans’ Monsieur Poiret, a retired Belgian police officer living in London.” Yet as the best fleshed out character with the most interesting mysteries, Hercule Poirot is remembered and the others are not.
Lord Peter Wimsey was not quite so obviously a direct rip-off of Sherlock Holmes. His books were not narrated by his Watson, who was a police detective and who did not live with Wimsey. Wimsey, being rich, needed no roommates, and did his detecting for fun. Wimsey was himself invalided out of the Great War, by the way, while Charles Parker—his Watson, at first—was never, that we knew, in it. Wimsey had, however, his tricks of the trade just as Holmes did. He had a magnifying monocle that could be used much as Holmes’ famous magnifying glass. He picked the hairs out of a hat to identify just as Holmes concentrated on such trivia that turned out to be important. (In 1923, when Whose Body? was published, R. Austin Freeman’s Dr. Thorndyke was extremely popular and made even more out of even smaller clues, so this may as much be copying him as Holmes.) Even Wimsey’s comic manner feels like it almost certainly owes something to P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertram Wooster, as Lord Peter’s valet, Bunter, almost certainly owes something to Wooster’s valet, Jeeves. Jeeves & Wooster never investigated a crime, that I’ve heard of, so I suppose we can accuse Ms. Sayers of having stolen from two genres. Indeed, one might almost hear the Hollywood pitch meeting phrasing, “What if Bertie Wooster was actually brilliant and used being a fop as a cover to let him solve crimes?”
And yet Lord Peter becomes one of the most memorable characters of all of detective fiction, and consequently of all time. He continued, it must be admitted, a somewhat two dimensional character until Ms. Sayers got tired of him and tried to marry him off to an honorable retirement—she had learned from Sherlock Holmes’ ignominious climb up the Reichenbach Falls not to actually kill one’s detective off. The problem was that she made the girl he was to marry a real character, and she wouldn’t marry him in the sorry two-dimensional state that he was in. (This was in Strong Poison.) Sayers then decided that she had to make him a real character.
If the story was to go on, Peter had got to become a complete human being, with a past and a future, with a consistent family and social history, with a complicated psychology and even the rudiments of a religious outlook. And all this would have to be squared somehow or other with such random attributes as I had bestowed upon him over a series of years in accordance with the requirements of various detective plots.Gaudy Night, Titles To Fame
The result was magnificent, though. Lord Peter and Harriet Vane (the aforementioned girl who wouldn’t marry him) investigated a murder together in Have His Carcase, and it is one of the best murder mysteries ever written. Lord Peter becomes a really interesting character who is quite unique within detective fiction. He really comes into his own in Gaudy Night, widely considered Sayers’ best novel, becoming an extraordinarily rich character with a character arc that rings very true to human nature. Harriet also blossoms in Gaudy Night, and the whole thing is a truly excellent study of human nature. (The excerpts I quoted, by the way, are from her essay in the collection Titles To Fame.)
So, what is the author to make of all of this? Especially when faced with the question of how to get people to read a story when people really like what is familiar? If I had the answer I’d be a rich man, or at least a richer man than I am. I can say, though, that it certainly seems that it is not, in the end, who did it first that really matters. It’s who did it best. This is perhaps the true meaning of the saying, “mediocrity borrows, genius steals.” When the genius borrows, he makes the thing his own, and it is his version that is remembered, even if he was twenty years late to the party.