Wednesday, September 5, 2012
On March 22, 2012, Inkling wrote, My book is the same genre as Lord of the Rings, and I'm having trouble being original. All books of the fantasy genre are takeoffs (not sure if this is the right word) of LOTR because Tolkien created the genre, and I'm afraid of my book being just another takeoff. The plot isn't the same (far from it) and I've tried to add big differences, such as my Elves mainly being samurai-ish unlike most fantasy books where Elves are pretty peaceful, but I'm still afraid of not being original. I'd let my dad read it (his picture is under the definition of blunt), but most of the book is still in my head since I tend to plan my stuff out before I write. Can you help me???
I’m not sure I agree that Tolkien invented fantasy as a genre, although he certainly was a major figure and has influenced lots of writers. I just looked at a Wikipedia article, and here’s the link http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_fantasy, that discusses the roots of fantasy, which go back to antiquity. The article defines modern fantasy as taking place in an invented world beyond the ordinary or tucked into the ordinary. It credits Tolkien as the founder of the sub-genre of epic fantasy. Maybe, although I think there are Arthurian tales that are pretty epic.
Originality is at least as slippery a topic as the origins of fantasy. I wrote a post that also addresses the subject, which I suggest you visit. Just click on the label Originality. Then come back because I have a few more thoughts.
First off, there’s the question of outright infringement, that is, appropriating someone else’s creativity. We’re in danger of that if we copy word for word or if we put another author’s characters into our stories, not merely their names but also their essences. Fanfiction routinely uses other author’s characters, which I think is okay (I'm not a lawyer) when the writer is open about it and not profiting.
Even without infringing we can be unoriginal. If our story revolves around the rediscovery of a lost object of great power we may be in danger. LOTR isn’t the only example of this. Think of the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark and even stories about the search for the Holy Grail, and there must be many more. Then suppose the forces of good and the forces of evil are both vying to get to it first. You can write the rest in your head. Many struggles, many battles, and good wins out but at great cost.
But we can take this framework and still be original. Our characters can be so unexpected that they surprise the reader at every turn. We can spoof the prototype and exaggerate everything until the reader is laughing so hard he’s gasping for air.
In your example, Inkling, why do your characters have to be elves? If you’re worried about originality, why not invent a new kind of creature with a samurai sort of culture? Maybe your creatures have long heads and short bodies and their limbs are extraordinarily flexible. In my Disney fairy books I came up with tiffens, who are smaller than people and whose ears are thin and floppy like elephant ears and who debate everything and accomplish little beyond banana farming.
In writing there are a zillion candidates for fretting, and worry about originality may just be one of them. Writing a quest, say, or a conflict between good and evil doesn’t mean you’re unoriginal. There must be thousands of novels that involve one or the other or both. Some are tired and predictable, but many many take a fresh approach. Both are archetypal plot structures that probably will never get used up.
But if you’re still worrying, go through your story or review your conception of it. In every spot where you’re unsure, list at least five other possible ways to go. See if one of them pleases you more than your first choice. But also keep in mind that your fears very likely are exaggerated. You’re you and not this other author. Your choices will be your own. Your uniqueness will infuse your tale.
Oddly enough, another place to go for originality is real life. I wrote in an early blog post that when I want to describe a new character, in particular a character character, like a character actor, not beautiful or handsome, I like to look at photographs or portrait paintings from the art books on my shelves. Seeing actual faces moves me beyond the standard elements like hair and eye color, complexion, smile, into shape of upper lip, length of jaw line, forehead furrows - elements I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise. Likewise, the real life attitudes and struggles of actual personalities involve so many variables and quirks that we can never run out of ideas. We can recast the efforts of a friend to get along with a sibling as a the challenge of a new initiate to establish herself in society of warrior butterfly hunters while hanging on to the actual idiosyncratic approach our friend takes.
Here are four prompts:
∙ Invent a new species of creature different from elves, ogres, giants, fairies, and the like. Imagine that their habitat, which may not be a forest (a forest is unoriginal), is threatened. Invent a character who is such a creature. What happens? Write it!
∙ Retell “Beauty and the Beast,” setting it in the future and making all the characters robots.
∙ Turn something difficult, a struggle in your life or in the life of someone you know into an epic. For example, from my life, finishing Beloved Elodie was tough. If I were going to dramatize it, I might cast my editor and my critique buddy as guardian angels battling along with me and I’d incorporate aspects of their personalities into the story. There could be a swamp, a mountain, certainly a desert. Maybe a mine would need to be explored or a tunnel dug.
∙ As an exercise, which may turn into something more, chart out the story of LOTR. At each plot point, imagine other directions the story might have gone. For example, what if Sam had chosen not to go with Frodo? Write what might have happened. Keep going. Suppose Sam had gone along, but Strider wasn't at the inn in Bree? What then? And so on. If you get to a point that intrigues you, write a new beginning that plunged your characters into this fix, replace the cast with your own creations, and keep going. You’ve got a new, original story on your hands.
Have fun, and save what you write!