Monday, October 27, 2014

How to Be 100% Original (Spoiler: You Can't)

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When it comes to writing original fiction, the most obvious, most important, most imperative thing is that you be original. Completely original. Like something nobody has ever, ever done before. Otherwise, it’s not original, right?  

Ha.  That’s funny.

The truth is that there is no such thing as a 100% original story.

Think of The Hunger Games. Great books, right?  Really fresh and original and fun.  But…wait a minute…a lot of life in Panem, particularly the Capitol, is modeled after ancient Roman history. Ever hear of gladiators—you know, Roman slaves and dissidents who were forced to fight each other to the death…in games? The rebellion is loosely modeled on the French revolution. And the love triangle?  Please.  There is no such thing as an original love triangle.

The Hunger Games trilogy is a really neat, original story, yet it is full of concepts that have been around for centuries.

What about Harry Potter?  J.K. Rowling was acclaimed for her fresh, engaging, original stories.  But how original were they, really?  Almost every magical animal (with the exception of a few) was directly hijacked from ancient myth.  The basilisk? Yeah, it exists in legend.  Mandrakes? Yeah, those exist in legend too. And what about the story line?  Pureblood wizards vs. halfbloods, mudbloods, etc? Based on the ideology of Nazi Germany.  The costumes worn by Death Eaters are based on the Ku Klux Klan white supremacist group that started in the United States. At the end of the series, Harry dies and rises from the dead in order to defeat the ultimate evil.  That’s a distinctly Christian theme, and whether Rowling purposely modeled it that way or not, there it is.

How is that completely original?  All of that has been done before, in one way or another.

What about the Percy Jackson series?  Those are original, right?  Um, let’s see…use of Greek mythology—yeah, no.  Those are not 100% original either.

Twilight isn’t either.  Werewolves and Vampires have been around forever. And so have love triangles.  And wars between two diametrically opposed cultures.

And what about books or storylines based on the four elements of water, fire, earth, and air?  There are lots of those, or variations on that theme. Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender is one very popular example.  A lot of video games use ‘elemental’ powers.  My unfinished story The Tower Key has a variation on that theme.

And let’s not overlook one of the most original, game-changing books in the 20th Century: The Lord of the Rings.

Yeah, that’s not original either.  Tolkien didn’t invent Dwarves or Elves.  A lot of what he wrote was drawn from ancient European mythology.  If you want to read something really interesting about Tolkien’s fantasy creatures, check out this blog post at Falling into Mythopoesis. Even Tolkien’s storyline isn’t totally original.  While Tolkien never purposely wrote The Lord of the Rings as an allegory for anything—he just wanted to tell a story—there are many elements which reflect Biblical themes.  If you read the Silmarillion, you’ll see just how much he drew from other mythologies.

Outside the fantasy genre, consider Tom Clancy.  He wrote awesome, original books—but they were all drawn from history and modern warfare.  He got all of his ideas from things that had already happened. How is that original?

What about Harper Lee? To Kill a Mockingbird was based on actual events.  How is that original?  

It’s simply not possible to be 100% original because all fiction is drawn from life.  As people, we all interact with a lot of the same things.  We hear a lot of the same old legends.  The easier communication between cultures becomes, the more things we share—the more impossible it becomes to be completely original.

As a Christian, I am convinced that only one person ever was completely original—God.  Everything else we’ve come up with since has either been a knock-off of His stories or a knock-off of other people’s stories.  If you’re not a Christian, you still kind of get the point.  The only people who were original were the first homo sapiens, but even they got their inspiration from nature.

Either way, humans are incapable of being completely original.

So what the heck do we mean by ‘original’ stories?

Original stories are stories which do not plagiarize other stories.  For example, if I wrote a story called “Mary Trotter and the Magician’s Rock,” which was about a young girl who discovers she’s a witch and goes to Pigpimples, a special school for witches and wizards, that would definitely be considered plagiarism.  My butt would quickly wind up in court and I’d be sued for all I’m worth. (There is an exception for parodies—books which explicitly make fun of other books—but unless this was a parody, I’d be in trouble.)

If I wrote a story about a guy named Oedipus who ends up marrying his mom and then poking out his eyes, and claimed that it was my own original work, that would be plagiarism.  However, if I wrote a story about Oedipus and titled it, “Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex Retold” that would not be plagiarism, because of a little thing called copyright laws. Nobody has a copyright to Oedipus Rex, so as long as you acknowledge that this wasn’t your idea, you’re good.  However, since J.K. Rowling has a copyright to Harry Potter, anything you do with her works, even if you say it’s a retelling, could not be published for monetary gain.  Unless you want to be sued, big time.

My Oedipus story wouldn’t be considered original.  Unless, I significantly changed several facts of the story, changed the setting, and put an original spin on the story.  Maybe it’s now a science fiction story that takes place in space.  It’s simply modeled on, or perhaps inspired by, the story of Oedipus Rex. Suddenly, with a ton of things different, it’s now an ‘original’ story.

Most of the time, what we mean by ‘original’ is a story which hasn’t been told before in the way that it’s being told now. And a lot of it also has to do with copyright laws.  Being original isn’t so much about doing stuff that nobody else has ever done—otherwise, James Patterson would be a plagiarist hack because of his Witch and Wizard and Middle School series.  It’s about doing it in a way that nobody else has ever done it before.

Even then, there are overlaps.  Some stories are very cliché, but people like them because people enjoy that particular cliché.  You’ve probably left a movie once or twice and felt like you saw the exact same movie before. 

So, I’d say that there are two types of original stories: the kind that doesn’t plagiarize anything, and the kind that truly tells a story in a way that nobody else has ever told it.  All original stories need the first one, but the real shining gems are the ones that also meet the second type.

There are lots of very successful stories that are very similar to others.  While I haven’t read Veronica Roth’s Divergent series, I have heard that it is almost exactly like The Hunger Games. One of those, “exactly the same, only different” type things. It’s different, so it’s original, but it’s not a revolutionary kind of original. Maybe it is; not having read it, I can’t say—I’m just basing that on what I’ve heard.  

So, if you’re writing a story and you realize that someone out there is doing something sorta-kinda similar, don’t freak out.  Remember, it’s not necessarily the topic of the story that matters: it’s the way you tell it.

Do you find yourself worrying that your story might not be original? Share any thoughts or questions in the comments.

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