Embracing Unoriginality

There are two main things that got me to actually finish a draft. One was episodic structure (more on that… sometime).

And the second was embracing unoriginality.

There’s something very intrinsic-feeling about our reactions to unoriginality. Praise for a new novel will call it “original”; criticism will call it a “rip-off.” But why are these things necessarily good or bad?

Originality is good for storytelling because it keeps a work unpredictable—but not necessarily. Fresh and unusual ideas are interesting purely for their novelty—but again, not necessarily. I do agree that both of these factors are positive things to look for in a story, but I think the real reason we react so strongly to issues of originality is that it violates the idea that stories and ideas are property.

The idea that a story can be owned is relatively new in society. The earliest copyright laws (that a cursory Wikipedia search provides) are in 1710, and they only apply to reprinting books—so the exact words. And I agree with that 1000%; creators should absolutely own the words/images/product.

But the idea…

Well, here’s the thing. It’s not always so clear-cut. Should I be allowed to write a story about Harry Potter, using the names and places and even the storyline, just my own words? No, I don’t really think so, outside of fanfiction. But if I write a completely different story just in the same world? Or what about writing about an orphan who discovers his magical abilities and is taken to a magic school where he will fight the Dark Lord that killed his parents? Pretty close, but with different details and plot points, it could be a completely different story. In fact, I’m sure there are similar stories out there that predate Harry Potter.

But it still feels wrong. And maybe it should, I don’t know. It’s a complex legal and moral issue that is constantly evolving even now—the existence (and success) of Fifty Shades of Grey which openly acknowledges its beginnings (and basically its current existence) as Twilight fanfiction suggests that certain elements of stories cannot be owned. I would be interested to see if a story that more closely followed Twilight’s plot—vampires, high school, etc.—but with different names… But that does exist, as we have seen in the blossoming of dozens and dozens of vampire stories in the wake of Twilight. The closest is probably Vampire Diaries (which actually predates Twilight).

Either way, my point is that the question is not settled yet, and may never be. What one person thinks is okay another thinks is shady, and yet another thinks is shady but doesn’t care as long as it’s legal, and so on.

I tend to believe in freedom of creative expression, because for too long I have felt held back and I hate it. My ideas are all derivative… I can’t help it. I hope to grow out of it one day, but I don’t want to just wait until then.

So what happened with this current draft is that I had the sudden random impulse to make it YA… and I resisted. I thought that YA is done, overcrowded, and no way to make it even the least bit original.

And then I decided I didn’t care.

Making it YA opened up new options for the story that I hadn’t considered before, and for some reason, everything fell into place. I’m incredibly grateful for that, and if I am so lucky as to be published, I will be honored to join the YA genre.

But I had to push past my fears of unoriginality. And since, I’ve decided to embrace it. If people think I’m shady or a rip-off, who cares? I don’t want to violate the artistic integrity of my fellow creators, and I want to bring my own voice to my creations, but I’m not going to agonize over whether this or that plot point or character or set-up or anything is original…

I mean, I’ll think about it. What do I really want? What am I actually responding to (how much I like something, or how much other people like it)? Am I just falling into unoriginal clichés out of habit, and is there a way to do something I would like better?

But if it comes down to wanting to write something so blatantly unoriginal it makes me cringe… Well, I’m going to write it anyway.

Because sometimes you start finding yourself by following someone else. At least for a little while. 🙂


About J. Sevick

Just write.
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2 Responses to Embracing Unoriginality

  1. I think this is always an interesting thing to discuss. I knew about “50 Shades of Grey,” as my roots are in fanfiction, just another fandom XD I think you are right, you have to write the stories that you want to tell regardless of whether they are original or not. But I think those stories that attempt to tread where no one has before are the less popular ones.

    I’ll give you an example. I was in fanfiction for 5 years. There were 5 stories out of like 30,000+ that I loved, and I read them multiple times. Two of them were crazy popular (like 100 reviews per chapter), and the other three had less readers than mine. Mine was popular, like 15 reviews per chapter, but it wasn’t crazy popular. The two that were popular were about time travel, and for some reason that was really popular in my fandom. And the 3 that weren’t popular were very original along with having beautiful prose. But their stories fell on deaf ears because people seem to gravitate to what is familiar and comfortable.

    Also I think a lot of people read because they are looking for entertainment, not necessarily to learn. There’s nothing wrong with that. That’s why we have a wide variety of books, TV shows, and movies. I like to think when I read, but with TV I don’t want to think. It’s trickier with movies. If something makes me upset or think really hard I withdraw from the world and hide in my cave until I can resolve the inner turmoil the movie created. It’s not a particularly fun experience, so I avoid deep movies if I can.

    That lesson stayed with me, but I like to go past the boundaries of what is comfortable. In the process I have some people that really love my writing and stories, and others don’t. I’m not sure how to reconcile these things. I wrote a non-linear story about a man killing himself, and I’m still editing it. Most people loved it, but there were a few who really disliked it. I knew people would be split on the issue, and when I submit to literary magazines, I’m afraid it will be too different for them. But I wanted to write it so I did XD

    So I think if your idea for a story coincides with mainstream, then that makes things a bit easier 🙂 I think plagiarism is one of those things that you know it when you see it. In fanfic I had a woman that not only took my story, but she rewrote specific scenes. She did it to me and another author. It was really obvious. But in fanfic you have no right to your story because you are technically plagiarizing the creators. I was bulled over this, and this woman tried to destroy me with multiple public attacks, and there was nothing I could do. So I left because fanfic wasn’t worth sacrificing my health. It’s not necessarily recycling ideas that makes something plagiarism. The Hunger Games is a mix of Stephen King’s, The Running Man, and Battle Royale. The concepts are similar, but the Hunger Games isn’t a rewritten version of either so it’s not considered plagiarism. What E.L. James did is technically plagiarism, but Stephanie Myers was okay with it, so case settled I guess. The world of fanfic was pretty upset about it. I will never make any attempts to publish mine because it would be morally wrong, regardless of whether it is AU or not.

    • J. Sevick says:

      I think that’s a really great point about remembering the difference between what’s “popular” and what’s “liked” by circles of fandom and critics. Obviously, 50 Shades and other more derivative works are incredibly successful in the mainstream, whether because a lot of people aren’t aware of the other works they’re parroting, or just don’t care because, like you say, it’s just for fun and entertainment. So the “fear” of being called a rip-off is more about reviews and online criticism rather than fear of a lack of mainstream success. Either way, it shouldn’t stop anyone from writing what they want.

      And I’m still not sure how I feel about the whole 50 Shades thing at all. I mean, being inspired by another story is pretty much what I do–but how far can you take that inspiration? 50 Shades, at least originally, blatantly used the characters and the basic storyline of Twilight–and then with only surface changes was able to be published. “Plagiarism” is a moral charge, not a legal one; and it’s not copyright violation because it doesn’t steal the words themselves or trademarked elements (like names). But as those lines blur, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if someone wrote a story very similar to Harry Potter, or Star Wars, etc. I mean, maybe they have? Would it matter? How much original material do you have to bring to something to make it your own? For things out of copyright, like Jane Austen, you see legitimately published sequels and rewrites all the time… So why does that gap of time really matter in what’s right or wrong about unoriginality?

      Hmmm… still not sure. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!

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