Why originality matters (but also doesn’t)

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock, I’m sure you’ve heard by now of elves and dwarves and orcs and centaurs and mermaids and unicorns and vampires and — well, you get the idea.

Modern fantasy is saturated with them to the point where it seems like fantasy writers don’t even try to come up with anything new. (Why bother designing your own species and beasties, that each requires a description and a culture of some sort, if you can point your readers at an elf and call it done?)

Even the massively popular Harry Potter is chock full of creatures that Rowling ripped right out of someone else’s back pocket (with a little spin to call them her own).

 

Is Tolkien to blame?

 

A lot of people seem to think the man responsible for this smorgasbord of ready-made material was J. R. R. Tolkien, the man behind The Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien is blamed for the decades-long obsession with elves and archers, with the “I don’t know how to create my own, let’s just throw a shadowy villain and a bunch of short people in there”, and even with the sometimes-lewd-but-always-enjoyable preoccupation with handsomely brooding, mysteriously hooded warriors who turn out to be more than they appear.

Except Tolkien didn’t invent elves or dwarves. They were part of Old Norse cosmology long before Tolkien was a twinkle in his daddy’s eye, and I remember reading an essay back in university that argued that even the basic plot of The Lord of the Rings was lifted right out of the epic poem, Niebelungenlied.

 

When Originality Fails

 

How many science fiction stories have you read or watched where the entire plot rests on Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics? How many of them were written by Isaac Asimov himself?

My dad stopped watching Falling Skies because every “new” concept they introduced — from the bass-booming mechs and flesh-eating insects to the mutant humans and friendly alien allies who “learn how to be human” — was something he’d seen before.

Say what you want about sparkling vampires (and I’m usually right there with you), but at least Meyer was trying to do something different (though even the “unremarkable girl forced to move but meets her soulmate”, “dangerous overlords who want something”, and “werewolves forced to work with vampires against a bigger threat” have all been done before). For whatever reason, and however illogical Meyer’s vampire logic was (or any of the vampire romantics, for that matter), Twilight was still weirdly popular.

And how many times have you heard the term “FTL drive” in a story or a game? Or the more modern concept that space travel can only realistically happen with wormholes or cryogenics?

 

Originality matters

 

There’s a reason we have copyright laws and artists who threaten to rip your eyeballs out of their sockets if you copy their work or claim it as your own.

No one wants to watch a carbon copy of I Am Legend or read a rip-off version of War of the Worlds (even though Hollywood seems to think we do).

But how much does originality matter?

I used to truly admire Steven Spielberg, but I’ve lost a lot of respect for him because he’s the perfect example of a writer/producer who has apparently lost his ability to create. His latest works (Falling Skies included) have all ripped off either his own work or someone else’s (see again: “bass-booming mechs” that sound almost identical to the Tripods in The War of the Worlds).

At the other end of the spectrum, zombies are a popular trend right now and have been for more than a decade, with not much to choose between one film and the next.

We don’t watch zombie movies for new concepts, though; we watch them to see society and individuals fall apart and piece themselves back together in a multitude of ways. The zombies in The Walking Dead, a show purportedly about zombies, are almost completely inconsequential by the third season when humans become the enemy instead — and you could make a very solid case that the Walkers are just furniture for the characters to stub their toes on in the dark right from the start.

 

Except when it doesn’t

 

If done well, it doesn’t matter that your story is about a farm boy who learns he’s a powerful Jedi mage and trots off to save the galaxy world.

If done well, it doesn’t matter that your world is populated by dragons and the very special people who can ride them.

If done well, it doesn’t matter that all your characters are mythical creatures everyone has seen a million times before.

But that’s the key, isn’t it? Doing it well. How can you be original when your entire foundation is anything but?

 

How to be original

 

For me, it’s the characters. That’s always what drives me, as both a reader and a writer. The first book in my Guardians trilogy basically wrote itself because I had two solid characters who hopped and skipped from plot point to plot point, surrounded by friends and family who filled in the blanks.

It almost doesn’t matter to me what the characters do if they’re interesting while doing it.

I love good world-building, too. Lost Girl and Defiance blew me away in their first seasons with the sheer amount of culture dropped on us every week. Lost Girl soon lost its way (does that count as irony?) but Defiance continued to grab at me because the characters and the stories were well developed.

 

Generating new ideas

 

I’m of the very firm belief that there are no new ideas. The world has shrunk, information is too easily accessible, and there are too many of us poor writers trying to get an elbow through the door. The market is saturated with ideas and most of them rip off someone else’s work to some degree, intentionally or not.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. It doesn’t mean you can’t find some way to twist what you’ve got into something unique.

It’s the sum of the parts, not the individual pieces, that makes a work original: how you develop your characters, how they interact with each other and their world, how they push forward the story bit by bit to the end, and how the world is changed or affected by what they’ve done.

Just look at all of those zombie movies. They wouldn’t trend for a decade if they were all identical. So what sets them apart from each other? It sure isn’t the zombies!

 

Twists and Turns

 

There are ways to make something original that didn’t start out that way. My Guardians world is populated by what boils down to demons and ice wizards and fire mages.

I didn’t stop at the surface for any of them. I made their cultures and their history mean something. I gave them religions and languages and conventions for naming their children, different calendars based on what they could each see in the night sky, rites of passage, and a society based on the consequences of who and what came before.

The primary aspect of my fire mages is no longer “they can manipulate fire” but “they became a matriarchal society intent on male suppression and world domination after the women rose up against their oppressors and accidentally destroyed half their country in the process”. (Even that’s been done before.)

Similarly, exploring the history of the ice wizards wound up with them split into three separate cultures because their ancestors pissed off the creatures that control the seas and got trapped wherever they’d landed. The demons might be the result of one of the older races getting arrogant, like so many iterations of demons before them, but they’ve got ambitions of their own and they’re evolving even as the main characters speak.

 

Dragon Age

 

For a less personal example, take a look at the Dragon Age games. I have my issues with the series, but at least their elves aren’t a carbon copy of Tolkien’s: there are similarities, sure, with the slender build and pointed ears, magical background, and the grace and verdant lifestyle of the Dalish, but there are also vast differences too. DA elves are downtrodden and outcast, feared and shunned and essentially enslaved — almost the exact opposite of Tolkien’s elves.

DA’s writers took a generic fantasy race and turned them into something new by exploring their history and giving them a culture that set them apart from the rest. (You could also argue that the Tal’Shok are basically orcs given a cultured makeover, for another example.)

 

Dragonheart

 

Look how Dragonheart changed dragons, too. Prior to that movie, almost all dragons in fantasy were antagonistic, if not downright violent. Dragonheart even spoofed that a bit by having Draco “kidnap” a woman for Bowen to save.

Anne McCaffrey made dragon-riding cool with her Pern series, but I think Dragonheart opened the door for good, sentient dragons without them needing a human manager along for the ride.

 

Look beneath the surface

 

Don’t just decide “I’m going to write about elves” and leave it there. Think about it. Think about them. Writers spend so much time developing characters and filling out worksheets longer than my leg: do that with your cultures and races too.

What makes them elves? What makes them dwarves? How are they similar to the standard fare, and how are they different?

Dwarves are often portrayed as being unsocial and xenophobic, but how did they come to be like that? Were they always like it, or did something make them change? Did they have to adapt to a world gone mad or a catastrophe of their own making, or were they victims or survivors of an invasion? Are they mad at the surface-dwellers who steal their gold, or are they bitter because they grew up in the dark?

Look back at the history of a concept to see how it can change, too. I once read a dissertation (uncited because I read it fifteen years ago and no longer have access to the University of Derby library) that suggested zombies as we know them now were originally called vampires (the dead rising to drink blood), and actual zombies originated in Voodoo as puppets.

Even if the dissertation’s author was wrong, it’s an interesting take on the “history” of vampirism and shows how the mythos of monsters can change over time. At some point, someone decided that blood-drinking was romantic and launched an entire sub-genre of paranormal romance that eventually spawned stories like Twilight, while the zombies started eating brains and became the popular monster of action and post-apocalyptic movie alike.

If you spend as much time exploring your species and cultures as you do developing your characters, you’ll soon find yourself with a world filled with peoples and creatures you can’t find anywhere else.

 

Don’t worry about it

 

At the end of the day, it’s impossible to be 100% original.

There will come a time when you’re revising that you’ll need to scour your work for copyright and plagiarism issues, to develop concepts and characters beyond your basic draft, but you need to get there first.

In the meantime, just write and let the chips fall where they may.

 

Are you original?

 

Do you think originality is over-rated or do you disagree with me that there are no new ideas?

How do you set about making your work as original as possible?

Let us know in the comments. 🙂

 

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