In 1859 British Naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace ventured to the island of Sulawesi in Indonesia. He was collecting specimens when he happened upon a strange ant, far from its nest, stuck to a leaf. Wallace could’ve been forgiven had he suspected the ant was covering in webbing, given the mossy substance between its legs, but Wallace must’ve done a double take, because he spotted something odd. There was a tall growth, covered with strange bulbs, protruding from the ants’ skull. Wallace realized this growth was a fungus, a fungus that would be dubbed Ophiocordyceps unilateralis (or cordyceps for short).
Wallace visited the Amazon and found two more specimens suffering from the same infection that plagued the Indonesian ant. He might have discovered a mass grave had he tracked down the rest of the colony.
Cordycep spores stick to ants, break through their exoskeletons, and mutate their physiology. This parasitic fungus compels the ant, against its own interests, to climb a plant and secure itself. The fungus liquefies the ant’s insides, erupts from its skull, and sprays its spores. Cordycep devastate entire colonies at a time.
In 2006 the BBC aired an episode of Planet Earth featuring a segment called Attack of the Killer Fungi. This segment introduced Wallace’s zombie fungus to mainstream audiences.
Many of the program’s viewers happened to be storytellers and they had the same science fiction fantasy epiphany at once: What would happen if the zombie fungus infected human beings?
Flash forward to 2009. Videogame developer Naughty Dog began work on a title called The Last of Us. The game is about an airborne fungus that’s spread across the globe and the only hope for humanity is a girl immune to infection.
Flash forward to 2014. Author M.R. Carey publishes a novel called The Girl with all the Gifts about an airborne fungus that’s spread across the globe and the only hope for humanity is a girl immune to infection.
Flash forward to 2016. Author Joe Hill publishes a novel called The Fireman about an airborne fungus that’s spread across the globe and the only hope is a girl learning to treat the infection.
On the surface these pieces of popular media seem to be the same. In interviews each author cites the BBC documentary as the source of their inspiration, but is it so bad if three stories show up to the party with the same dress on?
While the fungus in The Last of Us and The Girl with all the Gifts causes a full on zombie apocalypse the fungus in The Fireman causes spontaneous human combustion. While the leads of these stories have a type of immunity they all wear it differently. Ellie from The Last of Us shows no symptoms. Melanie from The Girl with all the Gifts goes feral when she gets a whiff of human skin, and Harper from The Fireman isn’t immune, she has to learn how to manage the stress that triggers her symptoms.
It can be embarrassing showing up to the party in the same dress, especially when you’re trying to make a statement, but just because three people show up to the party in the same garment doesn’t make them the exact same person.
In this metaphor the dress is the premise these writers share and the people beneath the attire represent all the elements that are unique to these stories: the characters, the relationships, and the plot points.
If you fall in love with a designer gown odds are you’re not the only person with such good taste. If you get a great idea from a BBC documentary odds are a dozen others are having the same eureka moment at once. That’s okay. Don’t be discouraged from wearing that dress or developing that idea into your own thing.
I meet a lot of wannabe writers who say their ideas are too original to dare share.
People with great ideas and no time to jot them down aren’t writers, they’re imagineers (and if that terms sounds like bullshit to you, it’s because it is). Ideas are cheap. It’s the execution of ideas that’s expensive. It costs time and effort. Don’t throw all that away just because the cheapest part of your story shares a common element with something else.
If you write for long enough you will walk into the party in the same dress as someone else. You’ll be at the movies and see a trailer with your exact setup. You may feel compelled to make some adjustments. Just remember it isn’t about who wears the story better, it’s about the impression that you make.