Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Elusive Nature of Originality and Why It Doesn't Matter

It seems I'm making a habit of bold pronouncements lately, and today's post is no different. You ready for the humdinger I've got cooked up today?

It's impossible to be original.

Before the angry mob starts grabbing their torches and pitchforks, let me explain. I'm using a very narrow definition of "original" in this context, which is something that has never ever in the history of the world ever been done before in any way, shape or form. This means no mash-ups, no spin-offs, and no adaptations of folk stories. If you can point to a source for any aspect of the story, then according to this particular definition that work is not original.

I'll quote my older brother here: "Originality is simply undiscovered plagiarism."

And Sam Seaborn (Rob Lowe's character on The West Wing): "Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright."

OK, so assume that there's nothing well and truly original. Nothing that has any basis at all in any archetypes, folk stories, or mythic history, etc. For the record, I don't think there is anything that doesn't have a basis in any of those things. But then you have to ask yourself if that's really a bad thing.

Let me clarify -- we're told as writers that we need to be original. However, it's a fallacy to imagine that we need to come up with 100% original things for every aspect of our stories. People want familiarity, but they don't want it to be so familiar that they immediately recognize what's going on. So your Steampunk novel can have hints of Dickens or Wells, but it can't be a slavish re-telling of their stories. Take Great Expectations into the 25th Century or The War of the Worlds into the ancient past, but don't re-tell them exactly. Put your own spin on it; add in a few more elements that people don't expect.

"Originality" as I've previously defined it -- no basis on anything preceding -- is an impossibility simply because every writer is influenced by every book, movie, song, video game, etc that they experience. To assume that a person can do that and then not adapt what they've seen into their own work is a fallacy at best and delusional at worst.

Even in my own work, I don't strive for that elusive thing known as originality. I write what I want to write, and if it happens to come of as original then I call it a win. If it doesn't, well then it doesn't. But every time I've attempted to chase that originality boondoggle I always end up failing and creating something horribly derivative. That's why I feel that "originality" doesn't matter -- creating a story that people can relate to and enjoy is what matters.


L. T. Host said...

GREAT post, Matt. I tell fledgling writers this all the time-- you may as well write whatever comes to you because it's ALL been done before.

Unless it's vampires. You might want to wait about twenty years and then try it again.

K. Marie Criddle said...

So true. I had a teacher in third grade with a huge poster on the wall that said: "The best ideas come from the work, not the head." Even back then, she was trying to drill into us that nothing that came out of our imagination was new, just how it's presented. (Weird sentiment for 8 year olds, but hey, it stuck.) Nice thoughts, Matt.

And L.T. I second you on the vampireness...UNLESS you can do something like Adam Rex's FAT VAMPIRE. Now that's original. (Or is it? Mua ha, it really is.)

C. N. Nevets said...

Yeah, I think what's important isn't strict originality but making sure your readers don't walk about from your back with a, "yeah, yeah, yeah, read that before" feeling.

"Be original" == "Don't appear unoriginal."