Can a Story be Inherited?

Cat, the assistant editor over at The Book Case, recently reported that Tony Hillerman‘s daughter would be picking up the story of Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, with a new protagonist on center stage. I know several readers who will be happy to hear this. But I can’t help but wonder what the new books will be like. Will Anne Hillerman be up to the task?

But that’s not what I wanted to write about in this post, in spite of the picture. I just figured you (if there are any readers out there) were getting tired of all the black and white. What I want to write about is inheriting stories and characters.

Earlier today, I gave a lecture to my library research students about plagiarism and copyright, in which I mentioned a number of examples of people writing sequels or retellings using characters or plots that were originally created by someone else:

Based on the reviews I’ve seen, of these books and others, these continuations just don’t seem to have the spark of the original. And yet, there are exceptions. A good continuation can be done. Wide Sargasso Sea proves that.

Authors have willed the rights to their stories, including the rights to writing sequels, to their children or surviving significant others. It’s my understanding that this is mostly to make sure their survivors are set up, money-wise. But is it really possible to will a character and a story to some one? Those characters and stories live inside their creators head and I don’t think that anyone else can understand them quite the same way. Anyone taking up the pen later on will have a different understanding, a different interpretation. In the case of Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea, this means that incredible things can be accomplished.

Still, it’s an interesting question.

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