Is Your Idea Original Enough?

 

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Everyone always says to be original in your writing, but are we oversimplifying things? Can anyone be original anymore, and what are the pitfalls in striving for originality?

“Originality is merely an illusion.” -Isaac Bashevis

In my last Under the Microscope post, I made reference to the Brandon Sanderson quote above. After I included it, I thought to myself how great of a subject that would be for an entire post. Originality. We hear it pounded into our soft minds regularly. What it is to be truly original still seems unclear. I know what it’s supposed to mean, but after hundreds of years of fiction, how can anyone be genuinely original anymore?

The dictionary describes originality as the freshness and novelty of an idea, method, or performance. Okay, not much help there.

“Everything has been done but not in every way.” -Brandon Sanderson

Let’s have some fun with this. For example, let’s take a train robbery that happened in 1905, just outside of Pennsylvania. Someone wants to write a story about a train robbery in the fictional world of 1910, just outside of a made-up town. Is it still original any longer? That seems easy, so let’s ramp it up. Now, let’s have a train robbery in the year 2010 in Europe, where two spies have a confrontation after one tries to rob a passenger of a top-secret briefcase. How about now? Imagine a steampunk story, set in the 1890’s, where giant robots shooting black powder muskets literally steal the train itself. Or there could be a romance on a train in 1934, where a man steals a woman’s heart. Most of those examples are a little exaggerated, but the thought exercise remains valid.

“Originality is nothing but judicious imitation.” -Voltaire

Want a more direct example? Many people consider The Lord of the Rings to be one of the most original stories of all time. Would it surprise you to hear that Tolkien admitted being heavily influenced by other stories?

  • Wagner’s Opera The Ring of the Niebelung (1876): the plot revolves around a magic ring that grants the power to rule the world. A dwarf called Alberich searches for the ring and fights to get it back. The ring destroys those who bear it. It also involves reforging a powerful shattered sword. A human hero knight falls in love with a female demigod. A wise, old man wields a staff with powers.
  • The Finnish folklore Kalevala (1835): the story about a wise, white-bearded wizard who fights evil with magic.
  • Beowulf (8th-11th century): the story with a Gollum-like creature named Grendel who was a “detestable outcast.” Grendel is a twisted being with extraordinary strength and malice but with human ancestry. A mysterious power gives Grendel a sad and lonely long life.

Sound familiar? Tolkien talked about studying all three of these pieces. In fact, Tolkien gave speeches on the story of Beowulf.

Here’s the golden question: did Tolkien copy those pieces? Everyone has a different opinion, but I say no. Why not? Because, in my opinion, the tidbits Tolkien “borrowed” were made his own. It could be argued that there are no truly original ideas anymore. But to borrow Brandon Sanderson’s quote from above, not everything has been done in every way. You could take an idea that is exhausted and completely made it fresh with your own spin. Is that original? I say yes.

“It is better to fail in originality, then to succeed in imitation.” -Herman Melville

Here’s an example of the above point. Jim Butcher was a member of the Delray Online Writer’s Workshop, and he was once challenged in the middle of a heated conversation about writing. The challenger bet that Jim Butcher couldn’t write a good and enticing story based on a lame idea. Jim replied that, of course, he could. In fact, he would write a cool story based on two lame ideas of the challenger’s choosing. The lame ideas chosen were Pokemon and Ancient Rome. Jim Butcher wrote the book, called The Codex Alera, which is now quite popular. That particular originality was created by melding two unoriginal concepts.

Many people knocked Avatar for copying several sources (Ferngully, Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, Call Me Joe, The Fire Kind). What do you think? Does it take away from James Cameron’s execution of the movie? At the least, can we agree that his name for the material “Unobtanium” was a little too on-the-nose?

 

What is original?
Summarizing my above examples, I would say that originality is the act of not intentionally copying someone else, but if you do have a small piece that came from a known entity, give it its own unique flavor. The more distinct you make it from its original source, the better and more respectable. No matter where the idea came from, make it yours.

 

Being too original
On this blog, I often try to give both sides to an issue. So, what if you are too original? Is such a thing possible? Dan Wells talks about how, until the TV show Dexter came out, his serial killer book series didn’t have much of a market, in the eyes of some publishers.

I’ve read some books where it felt like the author was trying to be…too original. It seemed like the writer tried to put in everything weird he could, just for the sake of it. Now, you might ask, what is the fine line between weird and wonderfully original? That’s a good question. It’s a fine line, and it’s different for everyone.

 

Conclusion
In the end, it’s all up to the reader. Whether a book is a success, a failure, a rip-off, or an original is all up to them.

 

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33 thoughts on “Is Your Idea Original Enough?”

  1. Great post. There is probably no such thing as true originality – someone, somewhere will have written something similar already. But ‘similar’ is the operative word. In a way, everything we write will be unique – nothing else will be quite like it. So it’s not something to get too hung up on.

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  2. This makes me think about Twilight and its spin on vampires. It was an original spin on a type of character that (in my opinion) had already been overdone and it was greatly rejected by fans of vampire fiction. I personally think it was an idea that could have worked if better developed and not just written into the story as something that exists ‘just because’. I think that if you’re going to take something that is already wildly popular and put a different spin on it, it needs to be done with some level of care as well.

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  3. I agree with your thoughts on being “too original.” Sometimes, you’ll read an oddball text that some people like and others despise. For example, I read The Zero: A Novel by Jess Walter. His writing was fun, but his “original” spin on things (I won’t spoil it for anyone) annoyed me and many of my classmates to no end. Yet, the teacher seemed to love the book. So much of writing is a matter of individual tastes. I think that there’s probably a market for just about anything out there, though, so why not try out an “original” oddball way of doing things?

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  4. I think everything a person writes is already a part of something else he has read or viewed. You don’t purge your mind of those stories when you close the back cover of a book. So they become a part of your writing tool kit, so to speak. You’re not intentionally plagiarizing. Elements of other stories creep into your writing, even when you’re not conscious of it. I’ve seen that over and over again in my own stuff. It may not be a book I’ve drawn something from, might be a TV show, an opera, a movie. But seldom have I ever pointedly set out to include something already written or viewed.

    Case in point: We were watching Haven on the Syfy channel last night. The story was about two brothers who had to reconcile after years to end a “trouble” (can’t even begin to explain what that is if you haven’t seen the show) that was affecting everyone around them. I told his lordship, this is really a retelling of the story of Jacob and Esau from the Old Testament. And I’d bet the writers never once thought of that.

    Ecclesiastes 1:9 says it best: What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. And Ecclesiastes was written about 935 B.C So we’ve been using THAT plot for a long time.

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    1. Even the story of Jesus Christ was unoriginal. Sons of gods, virgin births and magicians all predated the entirety of Abrahamic mythology.

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  5. I think that being too original is far worse than being too derivative, in terms of marketing. It’s a lot easier to sell a book (or a movie, or a game) by saying that it it “Just like XYZ” or “Like XYZ, but with ABC” rather than trying to explain an original concept from scratch.

    I also believe that most of any given audience is more interested in appearing to be original than in actually exploring new territory. Science fiction readers, for example, often claim that they are tired of the same old thing and want media that breaks new ground, but the familiar–Star Wars or Star Trek novels, for example–tends to dominate the sales chart.

    I guess the best thing would be something familiar that readers could claim was original.

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  6. My opinion is that absolutely nothing is 100% original. We are ALL influenced by something, somewhere that already exists in the world, which means pure originality is impossible to achieve. I agree with the comments above that elude to the writer’s particular voice and style being what makes one piece more “original” than another.

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  7. I stopped worrying about how “original” my works were a while ago, which was pretty freeing. Ultimately, we have a natural habit to compare one thing to another, to find common threads and patterns, and when something is different, it delights us, but, then again, we find a certain comfort in something familiar. Remakes and retellings have the best of both worlds, which is why they can often be successful (though retellings more so than remakes). I decided that a story told with sincerity, as the author envisioned it despite what influenced it or what might be similar to it, is a story told in the best way. Besides, it’s all fairly subjective, too. What seems droll to one person could be something new to someone else. I remember feeling that my recent release, Soulless, was going to be “just another post-apocalyptic zombie story,” but my readers so far have commented on how original and fresh it seems. Most of them aren’t zombie fans at all, so they were pleasantly surprised because they didn’t know what to expect, but the zombie fans appreciated some of the tropes and common themes within.

    So, yeah. If you’ve got something original on your hands, good for you. But there’s nothing wrong with a familiar tale told in an exceptional way, either.

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  8. One of my favourite sayings is ‘There is nothing new under the Sun’. Human beings look for patterns, and will always find the connections between new work and older items. Some people (critics) turn that into a career!

    This post was very kind of useful with its observations on the topic. I do think you can be too original, but better to be too original than too much of the same old, same old.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I’m trying hard to be original in my writing. Sometimes, as a writing exercise, I will write in the voice of my favorite writers. In spirit of Halloween, I’m currently trying to channel “Stephen King”. I’ve almost got a handle on the “ah” in the Maine accent for my characters.

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  10. I believe there aren’t any truly “new” ideas just new ways to spin them. I also believe people want the old ideas, with a fresh twist. I’m a children’s librarian and I do story times. Invariably, the kids sit still the best for familiar stories with a novel approach. Not too long ago, I read a Cinderella picture book that the author had very cleverly placed in the roaring twenties. I was very unsure of its reception. You could have heard a pin drop in the room. The kids all knew the story arc, or the myth. So, give the readers what they want but give them a new spin.

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  11. This was a great read. Very thorough. I’ve psyched myself out of giving my family a copy of my manuscript to my first novel. I am afraid they will think it is trite or silly.

    But even more now I am fascinated with the concept of ‘too original’. I’d like to investigate that further. I would have said previously, no that was not possible, but now you have me thinking about it.

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  12. good post. I find many writers are influenced by other writers, but are still original in their own right by putting their own perspective on things. One example I found recently is that Charles Dickens may have been influenced by his friend and fellow writer Adelaide Procter, since her poem Two Spirits (http://www.readbookonline.net/readOnLine/36103/) is about the spirits of the past and present, very similar to the characters in his greatest work, The Christmas Carol. I think that many of us are influenced more than we realize, but we can still be original in many ways. Interesting to think about, at any rate.

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  13. Another question might be original enough for what? We could say that there is nothing new under the sun, which may not be true of technology but is surely true of human nature. A self-conscious striving for originality is likely to fail. It seems to me that originality is over-rated, particularly when it comes to expression. We all just love Finnegan’s Wake, right?

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  14. Good post. I think its something that could be said of anything creative really, music, art, painting, design, fashion, etc. But if something is drawn on for influence but then adapted, changed or morphed into something new and innovative. Different enough to set it apart from its counter parts then that’s new for the time it is in. It too will then have its duplicators and followers until the next person takes it to another level.
    The too original’s are the biggest risk takers I think because they will get the biggest rejections. But they are the ones that break the status quo, the accepted norms, traditions and accepted views of the academics. They potentially can make the biggest waves.

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  15. There is nothing new, and most writers learned to write by copying writers they loved (including fanfiction; I know I did). But your voice is what makes you unique. Plus, I’m a big believer in subverting tropes – turning a trope on its head is always a good way to shake things up.

    PS Thanks for stopping by 🙂

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  16. Reblogged this on Pukah Works and commented:
    Words of very wise wisdom. So far, I haven’t had to face these questions, but sooner or later, I am certain they will show up… Err… I stand corrected. Credit should be given where it is due. At least when ideas spring up, though the credits may not show up in the work itself.

    Thank you for the reminder.

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