On Originality

“There ARE no new ideas.  Everything under the sun has been done.”

Sometimes we hear this from people who are defending trite rehashings/copycat stories/ripoffs of existing, well-known, popular works.  After all, there are really only a few story types that just keep getting retold, so why should we expect originality from writers?  Why not just let them lift whatever they like and get away with calling it an homage?

Because even established story types like the Hero’s Journey can be told in original ways.  Even traditional high fantasy can be Tolkien-inspired without reading like the author thinks Middle-Earth is a public-domain playground.

Inspiration is one thing but literary transplants are another thing entirely. And any good surgeon knows that if you’re going to do a transplant then there has to be a blood type match. If you don’t have the skill or knowledge on how to gracefully incorporate elements from other stories without making them look like they were grafted on without being spun through your own concept and voice, your story will experience lethal curdling.  Influence. Influence is the key word.

There’s nothing wrong with inspiration and I stand by that. I also stand by my statement that if you’re going to tell an old story, you should have something new in it as well so that you are not rewriting the same plot with the names changed.  Epic quest this, get the jewel that, blah blah. And the whole of the argument is not simply that “it’s been done” (or even that “it’s been done better”).  It’s that if you didn’t conceive it yourself, you’re not its master, and it will show in your writing.

If you weren’t just inspired—if you have crossed the line into actually taking in full another author’s character blueprint, story idea, or setting concept—then your inability to create organically will get in the way of your storytelling abilities.  Instead of being a product in the style of others before it, it will be a blanket that was sewn together from the torn apart products of others, like some old quilt on which the stitches are showing.

Look, I’m a science fiction/fantasy writer and one of my stories is extremely derivative (meaning it “copies”), but I doubt anyone will read it and say “this has been done before, this is totally a rip-off.” I’ve rewritten a well-known fairy tale. But I venture to say when that one comes out people aren’t going to call me unoriginal because of it. Good authors don’t “copy”; they have influences. Almost every fantasy writer is influenced by Tolkien and the other greats. But the bottom line is, there is a big difference between writing something that has been Tolkien-inspired and writing something that sounds like Tolkien fan fiction.

And I really resent the idea that there are no new ideas just because you haven’t thought of any. It’s probably a fabricated quote, but I once read that in the 1800s some guy who worked at the patent office claimed that “everything that can be invented HAS been invented.” While it’s in some very narrow way true that there is “nothing new under the sun,” it is also true that all it will take is another person like Tolkien for the whole fantasy genre to be revolutionized again.

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