So You Want To/Be Original

Everything About Fiction You Never Wanted to Know.
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"Don't copy, improve".
"...No man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it."

One of the biggest obstacles for creators of fictional works is originality. Many works, despite being made by different people, are very similar or even almost identical and some people don't like it, because they only try to replicate past success with minimal differences, and because they are often unable to create new ideas by themselves.

One of the most important things to learn for being original is to learn about four paradoxes.

The first paradox is that it is impossible to create anything truly "new". In other words it is impossible to create something from nothing. Every fictional work (with a few exceptions) is based on previous works. In fact all works use "elements" from previous works to make something new.

Think of the periodic table. Everything that exists is made from that finite number of elements. And yet the variety of unique biological life-forms and inorganic substances is virtually infinite. The source of all fiction is Real Life and the very first fictional works took their elements of Real Life; all "new" works are simply derived from those original works.

For instance, taking one popular element of fiction, dragons are apparently "made from nothing" given that they don't exist. However they are in fact a mixture of different kinds of reptiles that together made something "new". These new combinations are mixed again to create even more combinations like a "chain-reaction”. For example:

  1. First the Sitcom Bewitched inspired both the creation of another show I Dream of Jeannie and the Magical Girl and Magical Girlfriend genres.[1]
  2. Then the Magical Girl genre coupled with the sentai genre inspired Naoko Takeuchi to create Sailor Moon.
  3. Finally Sailor Moon redefined the Magical Girl genre and created the Magical Girl Warrior genre.

The second paradox is to realize that unlimited creative freedom actually puts limits on creativity while narrowing creativity actually helps to make creativity unlimited. To illustrate this here is a quick exercise.

  1. First on a sheet of paper, write an original short story. You can't use anything from previous works, even from past works you have made yourself.[2] All the characters must be created by you.
  2. Now write, on another sheet of paper, a piece a fanfiction based on your favorite fictional work.

Which story was easier to make? You probably struggled more with the first one than you did with the second one. Paradoxically when the human brain has unlimited creative freedom it is unable to actually create anything until its options are more rigidly defined. Instead of thinking "I want to make cool story" think "I want to make a Magical Girl series about a girl that is also secretly a singer”. That's why there is so much more fanfiction than original stories; Because it is easier to create new stories based on older ones than from scratch.

The third paradox is the realization that rules and limitations can actually help in the creative process. For instance Executive Meddling and those pesky Moral Guardians often put moral limits to TV shows. However as a certain page shows, playing with the rules can actually help create new ideas. Try to focus yourself and your ideas as much as you can. For example giving a hero a fatal weakness can create a variety of new potential conflicts and plots. Of course the best part of self-imposed rules is that you can break them....

The fourth paradox just as George Santayana wisely said: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it". If you don’t see how people before you made stories it will be very likely that you will repeat the same ideas. And even worse think that those ideas were yours (well arguably they still were if you came up with them independently, but how's anyone going to know that?). If you see how past stories were made you will by instinct put your spin on things. For example, an Unwanted Harem is not very original, even if it does contain some non-human characters. A twist on this particular genre would be making the main character a bisexual, enabling both male and female love interests. A Magical Girlfriend story is also rather unoriginal - after all, there are only so many times you can use ghosts, aliens, angels, etc, before it seems redundant and uninspired. In this case, originality stems from making the girlfriend a different type of non-human, a troll for example, or a creature made out of fire. Or perhaps you could take the plot of a Hentai anime and remove the porn, creating a story that's much different from the original.

Finally, try to get ideas straight from the source of all art: Real Life. Don't be afraid to Write Who You Know, there are a lot of real life situations and people that have never appeared in fiction. Remember that funny thing that happened to you in school? Remember that cool weird friend you met at school? Remember Real Life has an unlimited amount of ideas, so much in fact that you don't need to use ideas from previous works in order to find something truly "new".

And the best advice of all; always remembers to write what you love and never be afraid to create something that has never been done before. Never forget to have fun and you will create original works in no time!

  1. Bewitched was actually inspired by the film Bell Book And Candle (1958), which was markedly similar to I Married A Witch (1942). See what we mean?
  2. Sorry, you can't use Batman! Yeah, we all know he's GODDAMN BATMAN, but you just can't do it.