This question is marked RESOLVED, which delights me, but I am still going to say a few words here. (The answer the Yahoo readers selected is pretty good, though. Wisdom of the crowd!)
Fantasy writers sweat originality quite a bit, perhaps even more than other writers—maybe because it seems like fantasy should be originality’s own playground. The constraints are off! Do whatever you like!
Like that’s not paralyzing.
But the reality is that fantasy has its own conventions, many of them based in centuries of folklore and fairy tale, and your story of a boy and his elf has probably been told in one form or another a thousand times before.
So like the plaintive Yahoo Answers questioner, you might begin to feel that originality in fantasy is actually quite impossible. And sure: yours will not be anyone’s first dwarf. But in my opinion, that’s a wrong notion of originality, and I’ve got two big guns to back me up.
"Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different."
- T.S. Eliot
Isn’t that distinction brilliant? The difference between imitating and stealing is that when you steal something, you own it. You make it yours. And how do you do that? That brings me to the second quote:
"Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, music, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. [Emphasis added] If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent."Your soul, he says. That’s what authenticity means: you. Writing a novel is just a series of decisions, millions of them: every word a decision, every plot turn a decision, every character sigh and blink, a decision. And what are those decision based on? Nothing but your own deepest desires and inexplicable preferences, your own idiosyncratic longings and furies and joys.
- Jim Jarmusch
At least, as a reader, that’s what I want. I want you. Not your surface politeness or charm, not your bland social gestures, not what you think I want to hear. I want your meat. I want your juice. I want your weirdness, your voice, your truest thing. I want the part of you that everyone who has ever fallen in love with you has loved. I want to fall in love with you, too.
And because you are, actually, a special snowflake, none other like you, then if you can give me your juice (not easy to do, and that’s a whole other subject)—if you can follow your own self in deep, and make every decision from your true heart—then everything you write will be authentic and original, no matter the number of dwarves and elves and heroes who one morning set out alone into the darkest woods.
Anyway, that’s what I think, or what I think today. I would love to hear what you think: about originality in fantasy writing, about artistic theft—and maybe also what books strike you as especially original, and why. Please say!