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.
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.
Guest post contributed by Ryan Lanz. Ryan is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.