Monday, June 4, 2012

There Is No Such Thing as an Original Idea in Art

There is no such thing as an original idea in art. Or so my husband keeps telling me (he is an artist). He tells me this when I struggle to come up with a new story, a new world, even a new name for an unknown cousin of the main character. This got me thinking, where do I draw inspiration from? And how original, really, are the elements of my story?

 Many ideas are reused over time. There are a huge number of stories involving the main character coming of age, the epic journey, the predestined hero, basic human emotion stories (love, revenge), and the telling of fairy tales and fables. These stories pop up all the time, not because they are easy to tell, but because they are easy to relate to. A story is a success when the readers identify with the events and/or characters. One example is the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling, a coming of age story with a hero that was chosen by events outside of his control, and over the course of the story he grows into his role. Or another series (which shall not be named) where both vampires and werewolves have been tamed and sexualized to appeal to young readers. Many stories are also retold in new ways, such as Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, a retelling of The Odyssey.

So. Is there such a thing as originality in writing? Yes! But there is a caveat: your story needs to draw from reality, and that necessitates a bit of borrowing.

I attended a fantastic con in Salt Lake City on May 26 -- CONduit 22: The Time-Lords of CONduit (a more in-depth look at what the con was about from a writer's point of view here). There was a common question asked of the panelists - "Where do you get your ideas?" The guest of honor at the con, Tamora Pierce, graciously told us a bit about where she got her ideas from (as a side note, she is my favorite author!). Her Song of the Lioness quartet began with a scene where twins argue with their father, one of the twins being modeled after her sister. One of her upcoming books has a culture based on that of Tibet, and the magic system in her Circle universe was created after she saw family members creating blankets with a hook and yarn, and thinking it magical. She also told how much of her inspiration is taken from events in history and people she meets. I even heard her say "I am not good at making things up." In short, she takes a seed from reality, and grows it into a new universe that has never been seen before.

One of my favorite books, Coraline by Neil Gaiman, begins with a family moving into a house, as all families do, and their daughter finds a doll. One that looks just like her, but with button eyes. This is very familiar to readers, as dolls with button eyes are common, and many young child loves to give their doll a matching outfit. Using this as a bit of reality to draw readers in, the story then builds a world where the doll is a magical tool for a creature that lies in wait for the unloved children.

Another example is the Pern series by Anne McCaffrey, where she writes about humans that have left earth to colonize other planets. Again, this is a common theme. But that's where she changes it a bit. They colonize a planet with little mineral wealth, and unusual creatures that resemble dragons (which have been present in myth and tales in many cultures) are then genetically altered to help the humans fight Thread, a substance that eats anything organic.

Every story could be broken down to show how the author has borrowed from their experiences and then woven them together in news ways to create stories that we all can enjoy. The point of all this is, everyone can build a great story, and it can begin from something as simple as a desire to write about one's boss as a villain in a fantasy world.

There are a few basic resources that I have found useful while brainstorming ideas. If I have an idea for a character but no story to put it to, I have used this wonderful generator - The Thirty-Six (plus one) Dramatic Situations where I can find examples of basic situations that every story has, such as loss of loved ones, or remorse for past events/misdeeds. When creating a world I read books and internet articles about different cultures and countries. One of the stories that I am working on involves the countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, especially Greece, so I have read a lot about the culture of the area. Another resource I draw upon when I need a name and want it to be a real name and not sound made-up, I use Behind the Name, which also gives the name's meaning and history. A final resource that I find useful if I wish to include a convention or idea that my audience will be familiar with, such as what wizards are expected to do and not do in fiction, I use Television Tropes and Idioms.

So go forth and create, and don't be daunted by a past memory of English teachers telling you all your ideas must be original. Pull from the world around you, use a dramatic situation that everyone is familiar with, even use Victorian Era England in your story and change it a bit by having your main character be a dapper lizard in a top hat. Have fun!

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