Once upon a time a writer approached me with a textbook he had written. He was extremely proud of it, and to express this opinion he told me, and I paraphrase, that no one else had ever written a book like his before… and nobody ever would again.
Unfortunately, looking over the book myself, I could guess at why it was so unique. It frankly was not effective at covering it’s subject matter. In fact, if anything, the unique idea behind it seemed to be an extension on one of the worst teaching approaches in that sector of education to begin with. It would have been better than nothing at all for someone studying on a desert island but… that was about the only academic value I could see in it.
So, what are people really looking for when they seek originality? Is there really such a thing as originality, or was William Ralph Inge right when he said that originality is really undetected plagiarism? As writers, we keep wanting to come up with something new and exciting, which is great until we start to wonder if all the good ideas have been taken.
Sometimes in the entertainment industry, it can seem as though any kind of original idea has merit, regardless of the quality of the product. Give us something new enough, and you’ll have someone’s attention at least for a moment, if only long enough for them to shake their head and wonder why something so weird was ever made in the first place. This is why, unlike the a textbook, fiction can actually be described sometimes as “so bad it’s good.” The number one commandment of fiction after all goes something like “Thou shalt be interesting,” so as long as a work of fiction is interesting to some people some where and it manages to become well known among the people it is interesting to, it’s a success.
The drive for originality comes about due to our interest in novelty. Unfortunately, though, the kind of originality that people are more likely to want seems more difficult to predict in fiction, because besides the call for novelty there is also a set of plot patters and themes that many, many people seem to like.
Are happy endings unoriginal? What about romance? Long heroic quests? Any kind of main character childhood suffering? What about the benevolent power that turns out to be nasty, the one great evil out to destroy the world, or the one hero out to save it? Where is the line between the appealing and the cliche, and does it move around as generations grow up and old trends re-emerge?
For me, the best way to strive for originality is to connect existing ideas in new ways, expressing an idea in terms of another in ways that I haven’t seen done before. This doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t draw on literary trends that connect to what I’m doing. I’m finding that in my fantasy story, it make sense for me to use some of the standard fantasy vocabulary in order to invoke the ideas I want as they connect to my characters and their world, but I feel safe in doing this because my story itself is its own unique entity. Knowing this, and that the story interests at least one person on earth, that is myself, I’m comfortable with my level of originality.