Well, although I’ve already talked about how breaking things down into general elements is an essential part of taking inspiration properly, I thought that I’d look at a really great example of how this sort of thing can lead to radically different creative works, which are still reminiscent of each other whilst also being their own thing too.
The day before writing this article, I read a couple of E.W.Hornung’s “Raffles” stories. This was mostly due to a combination of watching this youtube video about the series a few weeks earlier and finding an old “Raffles” book whilst clearing out part of my room a week earlier.
E.W. Hornung’s “Raffles” is one part of a group of great late 19th century/ early 20th century crime stories. The most famous of these are, of course, the “Sherlock Holmes” stories written by Hornung’s brother-in-law, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. But, there are also G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” stories too- which can often get overlooked slightly.
(For the sake of brevity and simplicity, I won’t include either Agatha Christie’s “Poirot” or Allain and Souvestre’s “Fantômas” in my comparisons. But, these two characters are worth looking at if this article interests you.)
Although I’ve read a lot more “Sherlock Holmes” stories than “Father Brown” or “Raffles” stories (yet, at least), it’s pretty clear that neither of them would have existed if it wasn’t for Sherlock Holmes. Yet, neither character or collection of stories is a carbon copy of Conan Doyle’s stories.
Yes, there are a lot of similarities. They’re all stories that revolve around crime, they each feature a highly intelligent man and/or his companions, they’re all set in late 19th century/early 20th century Britain etc… But the differences between these stories are what makes them so interesting.
For example, all three stories set themselves apart in terms of how they approach the subject of morality. Here’s a chart to show you what I mean:
On one end, you’ve got Father Brown – a Catholic priest who follows his conscience intently and will sometimes even deliver moral lessons. In the middle, there’s Sherlock Holmes. He’s mostly good, but is made more interesting by a small amount of moral ambiguity. At the far end of the scale, there’s Raffles – a gentleman thief who pulls off elaborate heists just for the sport of it.
So, by changing just one element of the stories, both G.K.Chesterton and E.W. Hornung made the entire tone and atmosphere of their stories completely different from the “Sherlock Holmes” stories that inspired them.
Likewise, these stories take a slightly different approach to narration. In both “Sherlock Holmes” and “Raffles”, the narration is (for the time) fairly modern and fast-paced. Both stories focus on grabbing the reader’s attention with alarming or intriguing events. After all, these were the thriller novels of their day (well, technically, “Bulldog Drummond” and/or “The Thirty-Nine Steps” were, but let’s not split hairs…).
On the other hand, G.K.Chesterton’s “Father Brown” stories are designed to be read at a much slower pace, and the narrative style reflects this. These stories will often contain much longer descriptions of characters and environments. Often, the crime won’t be solved or committed through a series of detailed fast-paced events, but will sometimes be nothing more than a background detail that helps to add flavour to the stories. Since these are stories about humanity, morality, theology and occasionally humour, this slower narrative style works in a way it wouldn’t do with “Sherlock Holmes” or “Raffles”.
But, most interesting of all, there’s the way that each collection of stories critiques the others. It seems like E.W. Hornung wrote his “Raffles” stories, because he was curious about what Sherlock Holmes would be like if he was a criminal.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, reacting to “Raffles”, wrote a story called “The Adventure Of Charles Augustus Milverton” in 1904. This is a story where Holmes and Watson break into a blackmailer’s house in order to retrieve compromising documents for a client. Although this story derives a lot of it’s thrills from “Sherlock Holmes breaking the law“, it’s also a subtle criticism of “Raffles” because there’s a lot of discussion about the moral elements of what they are doing. Likewise, it’s also made very clear that – unlike “Raffles”- they aren’t breaking the law for personal gain, but for a more moral purpose.
G.K. Chesterton’s “Father Brown” stories, on the other hand, are a criticism of the more “scientific” approach to crime taken in both “Sherlock Holmes” and “Raffles”. Unlike Sherlock Holmes, Father Brown is more likely to try to convince a criminal to see the error of their ways than he is to hand them over to the police. He sees crime as a human issue, rather than as an abstract puzzle to be solved.
Likewise, these stories also contain a “Raffles”-like gentleman thief called Flambeau. In one memorable moment, Father Brown gives an impassioned speech to Flambeau about how “good” criminals often gradually become more evil and unprincipled over the course of their lives. This is pretty clearly a criticism of “Raffles”.
So, yes, this group of stories is the perfect example of inspiration taken properly. These stories share common elements, but they are interpreted in radically different ways by their respective authors. These stories may have a lot in common, but they each express their own unique and distinctive worldview. They each contain original characters who differ greatly from each other. They also take an intelligent look at both their inspirations and their contemporaries too.
Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂