Last week’s WW: Be Not Afraid
That is the question. The answer is simple: Of course!
But is it really that easy?
What is a genre, if not using an existing idea to write something that fits within it? I don’t think that anyone would argue that writing in an existing genre automatically makes a story unoriginal. But where do we draw the line? Want to write scifi, ok. Want to write about scifi nanites, ok. Want to write about scifi nanites in a post-apocalypic world, probably still ok. How about nanites in a post-apocalypic, technologically advaced scifi world? I sure hope that’s alright, cause I’m doing that now. How specific must an idea get before it becomes a take-off of something else?
As I think more and more about it, I’m drawn to the conclusion that story elements can be something you’ve seen before. You don’t want to copy any one else story. But just because I write about killer robot bunnies, that doesn’t mean that your story about killer robot bunnies will be anything like it.
Most stories follow a formula. Be it 4 acts, the Hero’s Journey, or any of the 20 master plots, we’ve come to expect a certain flow from a story. It’s become so ingrained in us that when one sets out to write a story, we often follow a formula, even if we don’t realize we’re doing it. I think that it’s fine to follow a structure. In fact, I think that it would be incredibly difficult to write an compelling story that doesn’t. Not saying that it’s impossible, but to do it, and do it well, one must be a master of their craft. Historically, stories daring to break these rules are often rejected.
In my opinion, following a formula doesn’t render a story unoriginal.
What happens in your story? They say, write from your experience. Well, we experience what we read. Some will argue that every idea has already been thought of. That everything is a rip-off of the things that came before, and that there is no such thing as an original idea these days. Could that possibly be true?
There are those who say that Superman is just a retelling of Jesus, and Eragon is Star Wars. Is it really? Or do we simply draw parallels in places our minds see familiar elements?
Here’s a story we know: our hero finds out he’s special, meets mentor, trains, comes up against bad guy, mentor dies, fights bad guy once more and wins.
But I feel like there are a great many things that could be done within that plot to make it unique. And you can put your own twist on it, as well. Maybe the mentor doesn’t die? Maybe the good guy loses? Maybe the mentor kills the bad guy, and our protagonist goes back to the normal life he didn’t realize he missed until it was taken away? Change it up, you’ll find your unique.
I once, several years ago, wrote a pilot. I submitted it to a handful of agents, got a little interest, but I was a novice, and it didn’t go anywhere. Imagine my surprise when I hear about a show by JJ Abrams. No, not Lost. It was a show that never made the air. But it did have a pilot, which, through a lot of effort, I found and watched. It was called Day One. I was both infuriated and elated. I’m not saying it was my show. But every character in his version was the exact same as mine, although aged a couple years. EVERY character! And they existed in the same scenario. Such a crazy coincidence. The same thing happened with Warm Bodies.
While a character is often story specific, I think we all pull from what we know. If you think of a situation, you think of the type of person that would be in that situation, and whether you know it or not, you are likely pulling those attributes, be them physical, mental, behavioral… from someone you’ve known, or another character that you’ve seen.
I think characters are trickier to make unique. But I think that original characters might just be the most important element in a story. Readers need characters that they can connect to, relate to, but they have to be complex, complete people, unlike any one else. Because if they’re not, then why would they be interesting to read about?
They say great minds think alike. Perhaps it’s true. I’ve had ideas for stories which I have later found out already exist. I’ts happened at least half a dozen times with books. I’ll feel like I have a wholly original story idea. For example, Aliens manipulating human evolution and getting ready to wipe us all out and make the next batch, or a time travel story where someone is immune to the effects of time travel, due to genetics, and the world changes around them as the past changes. Seemed original when I thought them up. But, found out, those ideas are already out there.
Does not knowing an idea already exist make yours count as original? The answer is complicated. I think it’s both yes, and no.
You can’t be blamed for having the same idea as someone else. Even if your ideas are very close in detail. But no one other than you knows the truth that you had your idea before you knew that it was already out there.
The best defense for this is knowledge. Learn as much as you can, research, read. Hold yourself responsible for knowing if what you’re doing is yours and no one else’s.
Creating something entirely new is likely near impossible. It would take an amazing spark of inspiration. And even if you achieve this feat, you face challenges. People like to be comfortable, to see things that they’re familiar with, and to have an idea of where the story is going. They might even reject something that is too innovative.
But if you can create something amazing, that won’t matter. If you make something new, make it shiny and impossible to ignore because it will swallow you whole with it’s awesomeness. Do it like a boss. Do it so well, they can’t reject it. Make them fall under it’s spell and get lost in it. Create a path that others will follow, because you’re thing is original, and it’s hard to be completely original.
You can still be original, even if you don’t create your own language or a story told out of linear order with non-human problems. As long as you make whatever you do create your own. Put your stamp on it, or give it a twist. If the situation can’t be 100% new, make sure that your characters are. Dig deep and find out why you feel the need to tell this story, and why it’s your story to tell.