On Originality (With Some Additional Thoughts on the Subject of Style)
Over the years, I’ve been in a position to read a considerable number of unpublished manuscripts, and to hear (or read) a considerable number of new writers discussing their ideas. And one thing I’ve noticed is how very, very often the writer who is straining every nerve to write something that will redefine the fantasy genre ends up writing something that looks amazingly similar to the work being produced by other writers attempting to redefine the genre, too. (Meanwhile, somebody else, without even trying, produces original and distinctive work as a matter of course, and seemingly without much effort.)
There are a number of different reasons, I believe, why this occurs.
— The writer who tries and fails to achieve originality doesn’t read very much in the way of speculative fiction, or if they do, it’s all of the same kind, usually heavily inspired by role-playing games. They have a very narrow idea of what the genre already encompasses and, as a result, they think that something quite commonplace constitutes a major revolution. “I have this crazy idea: I’ll write a fantasy without any elves or orcs.” or ”I’m going to write something completely different: fantasy without any farm boys or wizard mentors.” Clearly they have managed to miss about 90% of the fantasy novels written over the last forty years.
— They decide to intentionally curtail their reading within the genre because they don’t want to be “influenced.” This leads to the unfortunate side effect that they’re overly influenced by the handful of books they’ve already read.
— They never read anything except fantasy (perhaps with occasional forays into science fiction), and they have no other influences to draw on; their minds are strait-jacketed by genre conventions. Or worse, what they think are genre conventions. “You can’t have a fantasy world with both magic and technology.” “Fantasy always involves castles and kings and medieval settings.”
—They’ve been tremendously impressed by a book they consider tremendously original (and it may well be), and have decided that this book, besides being unique in itself, is the font of all originality … and they consciously or unconsciously copy it.
But none of these, not even any combination of these, provides a complete explanation. I’ve also seen instances where a writer starts out with a wonderfully unusual and intriguing concept — something that leaves me wondering “why can’t I come up with ideas like that?” — and then they leave that fabulous premise just lying there flat on the page, and go on to tell an otherwise stereotypical tale with stereotypical characters. I don’t know whether these missed opportunities signal a creative lapse or a failure of nerve. (They may think they have a better chance of selling a story about an evil wizard and a talisman — but their heart isn’t in that one, and it shows.) On the other hand, I’ve also seen writers take what looks at first glance to be a familiar premise, develop it in unexpected directions, place their own personal imprint on the material, and come up with something that is very distinctive indeed.
So often, new writers will visit our Aspiring Writers forum, give a list of their characters and a brief idea of their plot, and ask, “Do you think this is original enough?” But it is not enough to come up with an extraordinary idea. What matters most is what we do with it once we’ve got it, because originality is the result of how well we develop our ideas, and in the end it all comes down to this: It’s all in the execution.
Unfortunately, even when we start out with something new, there is too often an unconscious urge to begin developing it along conventional lines. We haven’t yet filtered out all of the influences and ideas so deeply engrained that we tend to take them for granted. But the longer we are willing to look at a plot, a set of characters, and a setting, the more we are prepared to examine them from different angles, and work out all the possibilities in terms of plot and character development — to allow our initial idea to take us where we never expected to go, down crooked lanes, through small weedy courts, and sinister back alleys; along ill-lit corridors and up secret staircases; into basements and attics hitherto unexplored (all right, I think we have had quite enough of that metaphor) — instead of just dashing off the story as it first occurs to us, the more likely we are to come up with ideas that are out of the ordinary.
We all know that most fantasy and science fiction stories owe their origins to the question “What if ____?” Yet we shouldn’t be content to leave it at that, because it’s a very good question to ask at every single stage of the writing process. “What if, instead of what I had originally planned, my character decided to do this?” “What if, instead of following the obvious course, I choose to examine one of the other possible consequences of this particular set of circumstances?”
I’ll give an example of how this might work:
Say that your main character is born blind, deaf, or otherwise disabled and has the additional misfortune of a face so ugly that others shudder at the sight of it. Now most writers would take this premise and write a predictable story: He would go through life being viciously persecuted by the ignorant and the wicked, while all the truly good people would instinctively recognize his inner beauty and treat him accordingly. Ultimately it would be revealed that he has some special gift or talent, is of high birth, or has been born to some high destiny. In any case, he would discover that he is not only different but special, and end up living happily ever after, among people who love and respect him for who he truly is.
But is this the only possible scenario? What if instead of being the source of his every misfortune, his face and his disability lead to great good fortune? What if, in combination with whatever prodigious gifts or talents he happens to possess, they bring him at a very early age to the attention of a powerful and generous patron, who originally treats him as a novelty but comes to respect him for his talents. He grows up rich, admired, wealthy, and conceited, until some entirely unrelated circumstance comes along and wipes out his comfortable existence. Everything that happens to him afterward gradually wears away at his inflated self-opinion, and he learns that he is not, after all, immune to the trials and heartaches that are our common lot. Unlike the other story, this one is not a journey toward self-acceptance, but toward humility.
You can see that both of these tales have their origins in the same basic premise — an individual is born disabled, ugly, and gifted — but because the writer chooses not to follow the obvious course, and chooses instead to develop a plot that is less conventional but equally plausible, the story takes the reader (and probably the writer, too) into unexpected territory.
And this is why I think it’s less important to start out with an unique premise (if such a thing is even possible) than it is to start with something that excites us so much, that moves us on so many different levels, that we’re willing to live with it, work with it, dream it, for the time it will take us to develop it into something extraordinary. I believe that originality is less a matter of an unusual premise than of deep thought, leading step-by-step to a series of revelations, whose impact will be far greater than any single inspiration could ever be. And if, throughout the writing process, we are continually surprising ourselves, how can we fail to surprise the reader?
There are two other things that I think are important. The idea that we can avoid or reject all outside influences is unrealistic. I don’t believe it would be a good thing if we could. “The proper study of man is mankind,” said Alexander Pope. As science fiction and fantasy writers we are also writing about alien-kind, and supernatural-kind, and who-knows-what-else-kind — but in the end it really comes down to a study of human nature, of our hopes, aspirations, and fears, seen from the sort of fresh perspectives that only speculative fiction can offer. Since we are each one of us only privileged to see and experience a small part of everything there is to be seen and experienced, it only makes sense to broaden our understanding by collecting some other viewpoints. And because we are, inevitably, going to be influenced, we should make every effort to gather those influences from as many different places as possible. We need to read widely, inside and outside our chosen genre. We need to get our ideas (ah, the ancient question!) not only from fiction but from nonfiction as well. Ideas meet, mate, and give birth to more ideas; aside from personal experience, this is the only way that new ideas are generated. If we get all of our ideas from a narrow and limited range of sources, there are only so many different combinations that we can make from them — and all of those are going to be inbred and predictable. On the other hand, ideas that come from a wide variety of sources and an equally wide variety of perspectives will produce offspring with singular and unexpected qualities.
The other thing I want to say is that even while we are keeping our readers in mind — that is, trying to choose the words that will draw other people into our created worlds, trying to write clearly enough that they will see what we want them to see, feel what we want them to feel, to share the experience — we also need to add something of our own personality to what we are writing. This, of course, can be an uneasy balance. As we polish our writing mechanics and our storytelling skills, we should still allow our own voices and styles to develop.
For this reason, I think it is important when you first begin a project, and especially when you are first learning to write, that you not show your story to other writers and aspiring writers too early. If you show your work to others while it is still malleable, they will leave their fingerprints all over it. If you ask for advice while your work is too rough, the temptation to start rewriting your sentences for you is one that very few of the people you ask for advice will be able to resist. Wait until you know where the story is going and the style in which you want to tell it. Then, don’t let other people correct your mistakes for you. They may point them out; you should be open to criticism and willing to listen to suggestions, but correct all your mistakes yourself. If somebody else does it, it won’t match what you have already done. If you let a number of other people (perhaps a whole writers group) do it for you, you will end up with a patchwork of styles instead of developing a distinctive and personal style of your own.
Which brings us to this (and it is hardly an original conclusion): Originality in writing comes from being yourself. Not, I hasten to add, your ordinary, everyday, come-as-you-are self. I mean your most thoughtful, intellectually and artistically adventurous, skilled and knowledgeable self. Originality does not come from rushing to embrace the newest trends (unless they genuinely inspire you), nor by rejecting them without sufficient thought, nor from casting off too hastily all that has come before. It comes from writing with passion, writing the story that you must tell because you will never be satisfied until you do. In this way, and no other, can you write the story that nobody else but you can tell.
And if you do this with sincerity and conviction, then someday when you are looking back at the story you are writing now — looking back with the perspective that only time can give you — behind all the disguises, beyond all the wonders and marvels, you will see your own face gazing back at you.
TERESA EDGERTON is a freelance developmental editor, providing critiques and evaluations of unpublished manuscripts, and helping new writers to expand and develop their writing skills. If you would like to learn more about the services she provides, you may send her an email at email@example.com
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