Why Aren’t You Using More Public Domain Characters?

Last month, Robert Smedley took us through the interesting world of copyright and public domain. Today, he returns to the subject of public domain characters, and why you may (or may not) want to write about them…


I’ve an idea for a book. In it, The Time Traveller from H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine accidentally saves Macbeth from death by landing his contraption right on Macduff. He and Macbeth then travel forward in time to Seventies Los Angeles, where Macbeth joins the LAPD and teams up with Frankenstein’s Monster (who’s been sitting in the evidence cupboard for a century) to solve crimes in their Buick and battle the cryogenically frozen corpse of Professor Moriarty.

I’d call it, ‘Mac n’ Monster’, and it’d be perfectly legal to write, publish and even make a mediocre movie out of. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the wonderful world of public domain characters. The question I have for you is, would you use them?

The Toys in the Toy Box

So this is goodbye

Last month I wrote about how public domain characters were basically a writer’s toy box. You can use them, I can use them, we can even make money out of them, and many people enjoy reading them.

So if that’s the case, why isn’t the market saturated with stories featuring Cinderella or Sir Lancelot? Public Domain characters (PDCs) are often popular, yet publishers seems reticent about them. Done right, using PDCs can be very popular (it’s how Jasper Fforde makes his living, and Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is one of the 20th century’s great graphic novels), but it’s not easy to ‘do right’, and there’s the immense danger that a story can just read like bad fan-fic. And no one wants to read, let alone pay for, bad fan-fic.

To the cynics it can also look like you’re simply cashing in on another author’s hard work and making a quick buck.

Why Should You Use PDCs?

house-of-silk-the-new-sherlock-holmes-novelThere are, though, a number of pros to using PDCs; the largest being audience familiarity. Anthony Horowitz has just released the new and 100% official Sherlock Holmes novel The House of Silk and millions of pre-existent Sherlock fans are going to read it. They already know and love the character, and they’re interested to read more of his adventures.

The same could be said for a novel about Captain Nemo or Count Dracula. If you write about them, before you’ve finished your first sentence, you know that there’s already a fan-base who’ll be interested in how you finish that sentence. That’s quite a good feeling. It’s also a stupefyingly daunting feeling – enough to freeze the fingers on the keys and stop the blood to the brain. Hell hath no fury like a fan scorned. God forbid you take a beloved character and do them a disservice with a bad story or bad writing. You’ll be run straight out of Authortown.

Audience familiarity works for you the author in another way too, as there’s a cultural shorthand that comes with famous characters. We already know who Count Dracula is, so you don’t have to spend time giving us the 4-1-1 on him. That’s no excuse for lazy writing, but it does take a bit of pressure off you.

Golden Rule: Have a Good Reason

Regardless of your audience, there’s got to be a good reason for using a PDC than just Hey look, I’ve got so-and-so in my book! Wacky or what!’. You can’t just take someone and hammer them in. You have to think about the potential of that character, of whether there is anything new or meaningful you can add to their history and the shared public consciousness of that character. Otherwise you may as well invent your own character.

Some are more ripe for exploration and expansion than others. Sherlock Holmes is one but you can’t have him yet. Dracula though? With Twilight giving bloodsuckers everywhere a bad name he’s needed more than ever. The Time Traveller or Phileas Fogg, two adventurers of very different sorts, are also capable of sustaining more than their original story. In fact, imagine if those two met – Fogg, the ultimate adherent of punctuality, meeting the man who has nothing but time. Hollywood, steal this pitch!

Know When a Character’s Story is Finished

2643204536_1bdaa641aaSome PDCs, by the nature of their original story, are ‘closed off’. They are ‘completed’ by the end of their story and not in need of anything further adding to them. Scrooge is one of these kind of characters, so is Captain Ahab, because the books they feature in are themselves the stories of those men; of how they fall victim to their own flaws, and are fundamentally changed by them. It’s impossible and unnecessary to add anything to their stories (unless, in the case of Scrooge, you add Muppets). I suppose you could do a Captain Ahab prequel where he’s mildly peeved at a dolphin, but, well… I think I just proved my point.

So, Worth It?

So far we’ve assumed that we can write a competent story about a public domain character, which is quite a lofty assumption. History and high expectations ride on the backs of many a PDC. I love Sherlock Holmes but I know for a fact I couldn’t write a good Sherlock Holmes story. Often part of what makes us a fan of a character is how the author writes them, and authors have a special parental understanding of their creations that’s impossible for another writer to truly fully grasp. The best we can do is copy it based upon what we’ve already read of that character. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Is it worth it in the end? That’s up to you and your dedication.

But here comes what, for many, will be the knockout punch. Why write about a character that already exists when you can create your own and have that satisfaction? A character you can call your own and who, most importantly, will be protected under your copyright. No one else can write a story about your character, but the world and his wife can write one about, say, Frankenstein.

So, Public Domain Characters are a double-edged sword. Ready to play with, but never truly yours to own; easy to write, hard to write well. But it is possible for authors to write other author’s creations, so if you’re thinking about it then don’t be afraid. Just make sure it’s not a police procedural with a Shakespearean character and a monster.


Have you ever considered using public domain characters? Do you prefer creating your own? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

Images courtesy of Jonathan_W Borders and Maaike Verwijs.

Robert Smedley is a TV Reviewer and Writer. When not staring at moving images or being creative with ink, he can be found at any bar that serves a good martini.


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