World Building in Someone Else’s World

Last night I finished watching “Dickensian” on Amazon. Although was not written by Dickens, it uses his characters and settings to tell its own stories. First, there is the murder of Jacob Marley and the investigation by Inspector Bucket (played by a Victorian Era Columbo by Stephen Rea). The other is that of Amelia Havisham and why she is still the mad and vengeful bride when you read Great Expectations. For Dickens fans (and those of us that only read him because it was required) you favorite characters are all present and portrayed by some great character actors (Ned Dennehy as Scrooge looks like he has never smiled) and young actors (Mark Stanley‘s Bill Sikes is a portrait of barely controlled rage). Although I strongly recommend the series (definitely binge worthy), my purpose is to talk about world building.

The idea of using someone else characters is not new. There have been so many variations on Sherlock Holmes that it would be impossible to count. More recently Louis Bayard has made a career by using history and fiction as the basis of his novels (His Mr. Timothy takes place in Dickens world twenty years later.)

At issue is when can an author take another author’s world and make it their own? This came up with some of my beta readers for my story “Ruthless” (unpublished as of this post). Like “Dickensian,” it was a prequel and involved a famous character. Most of my readers (authors themselves) advised that because of questions of copyright, I should not specify the character or the setting.

With Holmes and Dickens’s world, it has been long enough that copyright is not an issue, or the author’s assume that they are sufficiently in the public domain for it not to matter. BTW, modern fan fiction is a trickier issue because not all authors or franchises treat them the same. Some state that they consider any fan fiction a copyright infringement.

So, the question to think about it is – who really owns a fictional world?

I’m not talking historical fiction where the events are part of the past (although defamation may be an issue). I referring to where an author has gone through the effort to create characters and relationships in the telling of their story. Because I have only written short stories, this has not been an issue, however, this year I am planning on a novel (I mentioned in an earlier post ( My question is – do I own the world that I create, or can others play in my sandbox? Should I let them if they want?

As with “Who Owns the Interpretation“, I don’t have any answers, just questions. If you have thoughts on this topic, please comment on this post.

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