Originality is one of those elusive qualities about storytelling that everyone seems to have a different opinion on. Some people celebrate originality for its own merits, praising original works in blurbs on the front cover with adverbs like “blindingly,” and will make comments about how the only things worth reading must be original. Others say every individual author will naturally, without effort, create something original because they are an original human being. And others say that “professionals steal” and every story’s been done before so just be unoriginal and own it (this last group often points to Shakespeare, never mind that Shakespeare didn’t have copyright laws and vicious internet trolls to contend with).
I struggle with originality, endlessly. A big part of the reason for this is that a great deal of my inspiration comes from other works, which I read or watch and think: I love this, I want to write what I love, I want to write this. Since ‘this’ has already been written, I then have to console myself with some contorted version of it that thus always remains frighteningly unoriginal.
Now, I would never wish to take someone else’s work and try to pass it off as my own, or profit from it unfairly, or abuse them in any way. In every case, I drift towards a previous work because I love it, and greatly admire the creator, and I wouldn’t want to do anything to belittle their artistic creation. The essence of copyright law is that you can’t take someone else’s work, craft some shoddy version of it, and then profit because your shoddy version steals limelight (and profit) from the original (the shoddiness may be negotiable, as the copy could be an improvement, but it’s still profiting from someone else’s work). Do I really think writing a story about an orphan getting accepted into a magical school could ever taint or dent the grand empire that is Harry Potter? No, but it’s about more than that–if even one reader comes to my story because it resembles Harry Potter, I have profited from J.K. Rowling’s work. And, more than that, there’s just something… immoral about borrowing someone else’s ideas, even if you refashion them in your own image.
But what can I do? Even if I attempt to come up with a story that is entirely my own, chances are that in this greatly crowded genre I love, someone else has already written something similar. Whether it’s a book everyone’s heard of or no one has, the “copying” vibe still exists. Do I just ignore it? Do I close my ears against the rallied cries of “knock-off”? Do I build a thicker skin, proudly own up to where my inspiration came from, throw caution to the wind and steal like a professional?
Or do I listen? Do I shut down any idea with a shred of familiarity? Do I take every detour possible to keep my story from looking like anything I love? But if I do that, if I move my story as far as possible from what I love and what inspires me, then have I taken away everything I loved about it?
In this popular genre, in this bustling marketplace, is there even any story left untread? Yes, I know there is (China Mieville and N.K. Jemisin are two awesome examples), but my brain certainly isn’t coming up with them. My muse is a magpie, grasping at jewels–or rather a parrot, with no voice of her own beyond what she’s already heard.
Accepting this, working with it, shutting out the voices of criticism in my mind drifting from my imagined future–that is one of the greatest struggles I face. And I don’t yet know if I can win.