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Writing A Novel With Public Domain Characters

Over the years, many writers have used public domain characters they didn’t create to write stories. Think of all the Grimm fairy tales that have been turned into stories and movies. Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, Hansel, and Gretel have appeared in multiple versions throughout the last two centuries.

Dracula, Phantom of the Opera, Frankenstein, and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are all examples of novels that have been around long enough to enter the public domain. One benefit of using public domain characters such as these is that they are already well-known and have established fans. This also means that these fans will expect to see something new or at least a high-quality version of the character. For example, making Watson female in Elementary was a new twist on the Sherlock Holmes’ stories.

What is Public Domain?

Public domain means something, such as a novel or song, is no longer is protected by a copyright. Because of this, you don’t have to pay a fee to use it. For general purposes, you can narrow down public domain into works that were published before 1923. There are exceptions, such as authors who didn’t renew their copyright after 1923, but for our purposes, I would suggest not writing a novel based on any characters created after 1923.


Ways Public Domain Characters Have Been Used

Disney and many other movie producers and authors have used public domain characters for years. For example, Percy Jackson the Lightning Thief uses the Greek Gods. These characters have been around for over two thousand years. Dracula is one of the most commonly used characters in movies and television. Snow White, Zorro, Tarzan, Cinderella, and Aladdin, are all characters that stories have been told about for over a century, some much longer. Take a moment and think about all the movies that have been made using these characters.

Why Use Public Domain Characters

Since there are already stories about these characters, the author generally doesn’t have to create a brand new story from nothing. They can use what has already been written and make some changes to the story to fit what they imagine. After all, Disney definitely didn’t want Ariel to die like the mermaid did in the original stories. Disney also left out the fact that when there were too many Lost Boys or one of them got too old, Peter would “thin them out.”


What is Not Public Domain

This can make copyright tricky. For example, people have been telling the story of Robin Hood for centuries. Because of this, you can write your own stories and adventures about him. However, if your Robin Hood happens to be a fox and the Sheriff of Nottingham is a wolf, that would be infringing on Disney’s copyright since that would be “their” version of the story.

Another example would be Frankenstein. In this instance, the book would be in the public domain, but if you chose to give the monster green skin, a flat head, and bolts on each side of the neck, you would be breaking copyright. This particular version of Frankenstein’s monster is different from the one in the book, and as such is protected.


Exceptions to Public Domain

There are exceptions. For example, in the UK, Peter Pan would not count as public domain. Another exception would be Sherlock Holmes. Some of the stories are in the public domain, while others are not. His first cartoon was Because of this, I would not suggest using pre-existing characters unless you are certain they are in the public domain. If you do use public domain characters, I would suggest changing them in some way to make them different from all the other versions out there.