Originality

Recently a fellow who had strolled into our Facebook writers’ group was talking up his obsession with original ideas. This is a group of fantasy and science fiction writers, and of course fresh ideas are the meat and potatoes of those genres. But how many ideas are really original? Darn few of them. In truth, most of us are recycling ideas that are decades or centuries old, giving them a fresh twist or two, and sending them off into the world with our own name on the cover.

This is not a cause for outrage, despondency, or chagrin. Thousands of talented people have been laboring in the field of imaginative fiction for decades. In the process, they have unearthed, developed, and possibly bludgeoned to death most of the ideas that will actually support a novel-length work of fiction. If you have an idea that will give birth to a novel, somebody has had that idea before you. Trust me on this.

The ideas that have never been seen on the shelves of a bookstore are, almost entirely, those that are so far out on the fringe that they won’t work. Once in a great while, a genuinely new idea comes along and proves fruitful. But it’s rare.

What matters, as several of us pointed out to this fellow, is not how original or exotic your ideas are, but how you develop them into a story. It’s the development process that sets your tale of King Arthur apart from other people’s tales of King Arthur.

I like to say that originality is both impossible and inevitable. It’s impossible because, during the entire course of your literary career, you may have one or two truly original ideas. It’s inevitable because the insights and limitations you will bring to your exploration of that idea are unlike anybody else’s insights and limitations. You can’t help being original, because you’re you.

I don’t think we convinced him. He kept trotting out new ideas for our scrutiny. One was of an alien race that had eight sexes. This is truly an original idea, I’ll grant you that. But imagine the dating and mating difficulties if you have to find seven other compatible people in order to get it on! Then try to work out how such a species could possibly evolve. And that’s before we even get into the anatomy of the gozintas and gozoutas.

I started musing about originality tonight while dipping into an anthology called The Complete Guide to Writing Fantasy, Volume One, subtitled Alchemy with Words. I must have bought it — it was sitting there on my shelf. I don’t think I’ve ever read it. In the first chapter, “Roots of Fantasy” by John Teehan, there’s a tidy list of five themes that are notable from the romances of King Arthur: the commoner who is really a king; an old wizard who guides the hero; an enchanted sword or other artifact of great magic; a quest for a relic with great powers; and diverse companions.

And wouldn’t you know it — all five are prominently featured in the fantasy epic I’m writing. The fellow in the Facebook group would probably shriek in horror on discovering such a thing and tear up his manuscript. Far from reacting that way, I’m encouraged and more confident. It’s clear I’m hitting the sweet spot. I’m doing something right.

The originality in my story lies entirely in how I’m doing it. I’m hoping to have Book 1 and Book 2 out by the end of the year, so you’ll be able to judge for yourself.

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