Tuesday, June 11, 2013

It's Not About Originality (It's About Not Being Blind)

Look around you.

Everything you see, everything you do, everything you associate yourself with is guilty of unoriginality in some way or another.

Originality! Wait, I don't see it.

This is where most of my dread comes from in writing. I constantly worry that what I have written has it been done before, better even. And that people will brush my work away, wrinkling their noses in disgust. Because I am garbage.

But we hear it. We hear people say that The Hunger Games is just a teen angst version of Battle Royale. We hear people say that Divergent is just a less intense, matrix-themed Hunger Games. But on what grounds? Where do we stop looking at something as it's own entity and see it merely as an unrelated expansion of what's already been done? And then done again?

So far, Harry Potter is the only novel set that I hear people go on about how original it was, and how special it was. I never finished the Harry Potter series, partially because my sister's obsession with it sort of led me astray, but what I read didn't seem any more original than the books I mentioned above. Stronger, more dynamic world building, perhaps, but nothing that truly appealed to my interests.

Everything is original. And everything is cliche. You really can't avoid it. And when you think you are, you're usually falling into another trap. That's why I have to stress that character motivation their choices, and they choices the author makes are essential for a less contrived product.

Example: Two boys were the best of friends, until friend A (let's call him Aaron) grows up to be a sexy beast over the summer and is instantly thrown into popularity when he returns to high school in the fall. Friend B (Baron!) has no such luck. Still short and stick bone skinny, he watches his friend get sucked into the limelight while he's left in the dark.

Sound familiar? Good!

A million people could write a story with this premise and people would still buy more than one of these books. One, people may like to read certain plots. Over and over. Two, if the stories are told in different, interesting ways, then you are not going to feel like you're reading the same thing. Over and over.

Because a lot of things could happen. Maybe the story is told to the more popular guy's point of view, which usually doesn't happen. Maybe Baron becomes the unlikely bad guy by teaming up with someone and wreaking chaos on the populars. Maybe they were gay lovers, and the story progresses beyond high school and their journeys of navigating adulthood without each other's support. Maybe Baron has a disability. Maybe Aaron doesn't want to be popular. Maybe he doesn't want to be friends with Baron anymore either. Hmmm....

Cliches are only cliche because they work. The important thing is not to be outright cliche because no one wants to hear the same story over again. Because even if you have different characters and a different setting, people aren't stupid. They're not going to see past your gimmick. And if they do read it, they're probably not going to like it.

Life's a competition. I think when the author realizes this, two things happen.

1. You try to replicate what has been done before. It's less creative, but safer.

2. You try to push yourself as far as you can and come out with a work of staggering genius. Maybe.

Your pick.

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