Writing original stories populated by famous literary characters is completely distinct from fan fiction, a hugely lucrative if legally murky category of eBooks, especially attractive to aspiring authors looking to break into the marketplace, even if they break a few copyright laws in the process.
I don’t recommend it, but there are cases where this shrewdly calculated entry into the field proved quite successful. For instance, E.L. James’ phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey was initially derived from her own self-published Twilight fanfic.
But not everyone gets that lucky, or gets away with profiting from the works of others. Better to play it safe now than be sorry later.
It’s easy to find lists of characters in the public domain, from every point of the literary/entertainment spectrum, like this one, which is the most comprehensive one I’ve come across.
It breaks down the various subjects up for grabs via convenient category, such as Fairy Tales (Cinderella! Snow White!), Folklore (Robin Hood!), Historical, Movie, TV, and Literary Characters further subdivided by genre: Detectives (Sherlock Holmes!!), Romance (The Three Musketeers!), Adventure (Robinson Crusoe! Tarzan! Zorro!), Westerns (Hopalong Cassidy!), Criminals (Fu Manchu!), etc. etc. etc. There’s even a list of available Animal characters - Black Beauty can finally meet Moby Dick, if you so desire.
In fact, Captain Nemo could team up with Captain Ahab on the high seas in an aquatic, cyberpunk epic concocted by your own fevered imagination – and then shared in your own books.
“A Rose by Any Other Name…”
Many of the works of such literary legends as William Shakespeare, Lewis Carroll (Alice in Wonderland), Edgar Rice Burroughs and H.P. Lovecraft, among several others, are also yours to mine and reimagine as you see fit.
Other popular characters like James Bond and Doc Savage have had their exploits continued by authors long after their creators have expired, but these rights had to be legally secured. The rest of the characters in that extensive list are yours to creatively appropriate, no strings or small print liabilities attached.
You are probably wondering: how can this be?
In my previous column I provided an overview, with pertinent informational links, on the historically complicated but currently streamlined rules of copyright law regarding intellectual properties, specifically as applied to literature.
Basically, since many of these works were published prior to 1978 – in fact before the dawn of the previous century – their ownership can now be claimed by the world at large. They’re like gifts from their authors, and even though they no longer profit from them (nor do their estates, if they even exist), they are literally gifts that keep on giving.
And you can be the re-gifter.
A Penny For Your Thoughts
I’m a big fan of Showtime’s original series Penny Dreadful, which takes its title from the prototypical pulp magazines of the 19th century, which specialized in lurid subject matter. The show is a very stylish, moody “monster mash-up” of several of the most famous horror characters of all time, all derived from classical Victorian literature: Dr. Frankenstein and his creations, Dracula, the Wolf Man (simply a “werewolf” due to Universal copyright), Dr. Jekyll (and presumably Mr. Hyde), Dorian Gray, and others.
Since they existed concurrently in the literary universe, it makes perfect sense for them to cohabitate a live adaptation of the collective works, though with artistic liberties – which are perfectly within the producers’ rights. However, their reverence for the source material is also one of the show’s strong suits.
The reason the producers can get away with this is that all of those characters have fallen into the public domain. The Invisible Man could also make an appearance (as it were), since H.G. Wells’ transparent protagonist is likewise fair game for filmmakers and authors alike.
It should be noted that though Frankenstein and Dracula have been featured in a wide variety of films and books over the years, Universal Studios owns the copyright on their makeup for those characters.
This is why you only see the iconic “flat-top” version of Frankenstein’s monster (created by movie makeup master Jack Pierce) in films and televisions shows distributed by Universal – including Herman Munster! Contrast that with, for instance, the same character as depicted in films released by other companies, like The Curse of Frankenstein (Hammer, 1957), I Was a Teenage Frankenstein (American International Pictures, 1957), the kaiju classic Frankenstein Conquers the World (1965), Mel Brooks’ popular parody Young Frankenstein (1975), and more recently Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1994), which starred Robert De Niro as the monster.
In each case, while the name “Frankenstein” was used without fear of a lawsuit, the character’s appearance was re-imagined to avoid any hassles.
Since books aren’t a visual medium, you have a lot more freedom in your personal interpretation of characters with famous names.
Your challenge and indeed your responsibility are to show respect for the legacy of that character, out of respect not just for its creator, but also for its long, well established reputation and audience, which will not only reject but also most likely publicly ridicule you if you misrepresent or disrespect established history and tradition.
Pay It Forward and Backward, Too
That doesn’t mean you can’t reinvent the character and even update it for contemporary readers. Author Dean Koontz successfully overhauled Mary Shelley’s original concept of Frankenstein in five best-selling novels.
But if you want to eroticize or otherwise exploit a universally beloved character, tread lightly or risk severe backlash.
Dracula and vampires in general are inherently sensual entities, due to their predilection for bodily fluids, so writing a sexually charged novel detailing The Count’s X-rated escapades would probably prove popular (and in fact has been done many, many times in cinema).
But publishing something called “The Secret Erotic Diary of Jane Eyre” might get you into trouble, at least with more prudish fans of the original.
Then again, that actually sounds like a potentially lucrative idea. Go for it! I mean, if bestselling author Seth Grahame-Smith can score both a major book and movie hit with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, why not?
Or you could just invent your character that might be similarly lucrative for future indie authors a hundred years hence.
Meantime, while you’re still here, you do have bills to pay. And if you can pay a few using someone else’s character, good for you. Just make sure to pay that dead author his or her due respect, since they sure won’t be earning any royalties.