Being a Better Writer: Creative? Or Copy?

So a few months ago I picked up a fantasy book from the library. Pretty good book, actually; it kept me gripped well enough and had me staying up into the early hours of the morning to see how it panned out. But there was something interesting about it that I felt applied to today’s topic.

You see, after a while, the book started to feel … familiar. It was, as I said, fantasy, about a young boy whose home village was razed by dragons. His family was killed and the village ruined, leaving him the only survivor. A day later, a bunch of men showed up to strip the village remains bare, and, in the process they grabbed him and sold him into slavery.

From there the book followed a fairly traditional path. His early childhood in some underground mines. His eventual escape. His learning the ways of the world while on the lamb, falling into just enough money that he could hire a man to train him in the art of the sword and survival. Because this boy—now a young man—had a goal. Revenge. On those that sold him into slavery and the dragons that had wrecked his home.

And the whole time I was reading this book, I couldn’t help but feel that something about it was familiar. And I’m not referring to the classic trope bit of “young man adventures into the world” either. No, that was pretty general. This felt even more familiar than that. Like I’d read the story before. But I still couldn’t figure out exactly why.

It wasn’t until this young man made contact with a long-thought-lost trade route and returned to the capital city of the nation with an absolutely massive fortune, buying an old palace to wow the citizenry with as part of his revenge scheme, that it finally clicked. I was reading The Count of Monte Cristo. Fantasy edition.

I finished the book. The realization didn’t make me enjoy it any less. In fact, once I saw what was going on I actually enjoyed it a little more. Once I saw the initial inspiration (or at least, the classic that it was spinning into part of its cloth) I had quite a bit of fun comparing the two as well as seeing how the universe the author had made necessitated certain changes and guessing what those changes would be.

But at the end of the day, it’s undeniable that what I had read was basically a fantasy version of The Count of Monte Cristo, complete with dragons and magic, rather than Napoleon.

So, why tell this story? Because I think it illustrates an important facet of today’s topic. Which brings us right to the matter at hand. Was this book creativity in action? Or was it just a copy?

This is a common topic for a lot of early writers. It comes up in writing classes. It comes up on writing forums. It comes up on writing blogs (as self-evidenced right now). It’s a topic a lot of early writers worry about.

And you know what? To an extent, they should. Because you do want to create something that’s unique and fresh—wholly you, in other words. You want to give your readers the best possible story you can craft. You should aspire to create something original.

But here’s where we get into water that, to a new writer, can seem muddy. When I say original, I don’t mean original. Have you ever heard the old saying “There’s nothing new under the sun?” Well, it’s kind of true. To a certain, limited extent.

See, the problem is that most new writers are translating that word—original—entirely incorrectly. When they hear the word, they’re going whole hog. Nothing in the story can have been done before. Actually, not even that. Most young writers seem to think that being original doesn’t just mean doing something not done before, but that they can’t even create a story that’s similar to other stories. Not even in context. Thinking about writing an adventure story about a kid who discovers/learns that they have magic powers? Too late!Harry Potter did that! Can’t write it!

And here’s where we run up against a wall. When you’re that broad with your interpretations of what’s “new,” you’re never going to write anything. Ever. You might as well give up.

See, what those writers (or wanna-be writers) have done is committed the grievous error of assuming that tropes and cliches are unoriginal, and that their use is something to be looked down on because it’s not “new.” This is where they fail. Because using tropes and cliches as tools in our writing and our storytelling isn’t copying. It’s simply storytelling. This is why you can have a story about a young orphan who is told by a mysterious man that he’s the inheritor of strange powers from his parents, powers that he must harness in order to stop an ancient evil and—

Actually, stop right there. What story do you think that was? If you thought Harry Potter, well, congratulations, you’re right. And if you didn’t think that, but instead thought the story was Star Wars, well congratulations, you’re right again. Also, you’re right if you thoughtThe Wheel of Time. Or really, just about half the adventure stories out there.

And yet, if we sat down and compared any of those stories, doubtless we’d be hard pressed to find anyone in a group who would actually insist that one is a copy of another. The idea is pretty ridiculous. They’re very different stories, despite being similar on a broad level.

Right, what I said just then? Broad level? That’s where those who worry greatly about copying usually go wrong. Because each one of these stories is very different … but on a closer level. Star Wars has lightsabers, the force, and spaceships. Harry Potter has wands, magic, and broomsticks. Both, if we’re willing to stand far enough back, accomplish similar objectives in the service of the plot and serve similar functions. But we would hardly argue that they were copies of one another.

No, because in truth they’re only like one another in the broadest of terms. Those who are worried so much about “copying,” either in their own works or others, quite often fall into the trap of looking at things from such a pulled back perspective that just about any story can be identical to another. And at that point, well, pretty much all stories do start to look similar.

See what I meant above about original vs original? One is a legitimate concern, the other is a falsehood created by a perspective so far back as to render the realities of the story almost meaningless.

Which then, brings us to a pertinent question. What about real originality? Well, this is where the time comes to zoom in our perspective a little bit, because when it comes to writing our own story and world and making it truly original, what’s going to matter are the details … not the big picture. Because what really matters isn’t the tropes and cliches that make up the one-sentence summary of your work … but the details that appear when you look closely.

For instance, let’s look at the differences that set apart three Urban Fantasy Detective works: Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files, Kevin J. Anderson’s Dan Shamble series, and my own Unusuals series. From the pulled back perspectives, they’re all the same story and idea, and therefore unoriginal. Each has a main character who is solving a magical mystery in a modern world. Each is clearly a detective-styled mystery. Each deals with magic, werewolves, and other paraphernalia of Urban Fantasy.

But upon closer examination, while the books are similar, they are only similar in the way that Star Trek and Star Wars are similar. Well, all right, they’re a bit closer than that. But let’s take a look at what sets them apart.

Right away, we have a similarity between all three—magic is real in the modern world—but also a difference in how each book does it. In Butcher’s Dresden Files, for example, magic is hidden from the world, a secret society that exists on the fringes of humanity. In theShamble series and The Unusuals, however, magic is public, common knowledge.

The changes get more diverse. The main characters in Dresden and The Unusuals are human, but in Shamble the detective is himself a zombie, a member of the living dead. Harry Dresden carries a staff and uses a lot of magic but suffers the handicap of magic interfering with technology, while Dan Shamble and Jacob Rocke carry guns and cell phones and have no problems whatsoever using technology (except in the rare case that Shamble’s zombie nature makes such difficult).

I could go on. There are literally hundreds of differences between these three books. In everything from the way the world reacts to the main character’s appearance to the way they get around, to the way they solve problems. While all three of them are similar concepts, the execution varies wildly, and so while a very distant view of each of them may make it appear that all three share the same story and are derivative on one another, once a closer look is taken it becomes very apparent that all three stories, characters, and settings are quite independent from one another.

So this is where young writers go wrong: They—and often those around them—have the wrong perspective. They’re worried about a work being a copy … but they’re looking at the work from a distant viewpoint. You want to write a story about a boy or girl going off to wizard school? You can do that! People did it before Rowling, and they’ve done it after Rowling. You can totally write that story if you want to. Same with a story about a someone joining the army and going to war. These are all concepts. The execution and details will separate one work from another.

Now, this does come with a warning. The trick for some is realizing how close their details are. Because there are people who simply rewrite other works in the genre, those that set out to write a grand adventure only to realize (or worse, not realize) that they’ve rewritten The Lord of the Rings with some slightly different characters and details. Or rewritten a popular anime (in fanfiction this happens a lot).

Right, that being the real fear, how do we prevent it? Well, first of all, we can check our own work. Not all the time, though you may want to do so more frequently if you’re worried you’re doing this. Just make sure that you’re not letting your work be influenced too highly by that which you enjoy.

This is actually harder than it sounds. Because at some point, we all have to draw the line on what is a creation of our own mind, what is influenced by others, and what is simply a byproduct of “great minds think alike” (or, to go with another rule of not just writing, but life in general, “the similarity of utility”). We need to realize that some things are just going to be similar and related to one another.

But other things won’t be. And again, here’s where we run into another caution. A small trend—but a trend nonetheless—is for young writers who have written what is basically a rewrite of another story to go through and make one or two obvious changes to make it just different enough. If you find yourself having to do this, it’s probably time to back up and admit that you’ve rewritten something, and maybe you should take a step back even further to see what else you need to change, or even if you should continue at all.

So, to pull things back to the beginning of this whole piece, what about the book I read? The one that was a fantasy rewrite of The Count of Monte Cristo. Was it copying … or was it original?

I’d argue that it’s both, actually. It’s a copy in the sense that it is very clearly The Count of Monte Cristo. There’s no escaping the fact that you can pull back a little bit and see the story for what it is—a retelling of a classic piece of literature … but only in the sense that you’re looking at the plot points. The cliches. The tropes.

As we move closer, it isn’t that. The world it occupies is very different from that of its inspiration. The characters are different. The feel is different. All of the details are different. Even some of the big plot points are different (the main character spends time as a slave in a mine rather than a prisoner, for instance). In fact, really the only way that it is The Count of Monte Cristo is in the big, overarching plot points—man/boy torn from home. Man/boy imprisoned unjustly. Man/boy escapes, learns a trade, becomes fabulously wealthy. Man/boy moves to city of those that have wronged him, now opulently wealthy. Man enacts revenge—and on those areas, both stories are identical.

Then we zoom in, and the differences couldn’t be more apparent.

So, is it creativity? Or is it a copy? Honestly, it’s both at the same time.

And so it will probably be with many of our works. More than one person has looked me in the eye and said “[One Drink] sounds like the Dresden Files.” To which I have to explain that yes, they share the same genre and are similar on the surface … but in execution the differences between the two rapidly become apparent, and the stories aren’t the same. I’m sure there will be people that claim thatColony is similar to another Science-Fiction story that exists somewhere out there.

The simple truth is that there is nothing “new” under the sun. These overarching tropes? These cliches? The boy setting off to become a hero? The heroic monomyth? As ancient as ancient can be for our culture.

All right. One last thing. One last question I can already hear being voiced.

How? How do you make sure your story isn’t someone else’s, even one in a similar vein?

The answer? You make it your own. Give it your own characters, your own life. Your own creation. Your own world. Ask questions. Ask “What if?” Maybe even look at other stories and let your mind think “But if this had happened …” or “But what if things were like this?” Let your mind wander and create its own ideas.

Is that the easy answer you wanted? Probably not. But if it’s a way to perhaps nudge you in the right direction, then it did it’s job.

So. Is it original? Or is it a copy? Like a lot of things in life, where you stand and what your perspective is when you ask matters quite a bit. A story that is a copy from far away may appear to be anything but upon closer examination. Ideally, the closer you get and the more precise your view, the more your story should look like its own, distinct work. The trick is balancing your view with what you’re writing and not losing focus.

Is it a copy? Yeah. It pretty much is. Is it original? Well, that’s the question you’ve got to ask yourself. So move close, take a look, and don’t forget: a story can be both.

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