Monday, January 14, 2013

Fantasy and Originality, or Tolkien Stole My Idea

"How to create an original, unique, deep, fantasy novel?" reads the Yahoo Answers question.

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."
- Jim Jarmusch
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.

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!


  1. I love this post. I try hard to come up with unique magical elements in my contemporary and historical fantasies, but it's possible to stray too far from the familiar, for younger readers in particular, who aren't as jaded with traditional tropes. Perhaps I did. I'm trying to steal better from now on -- steal from the best and make it different, rather than build new.

  2. No, but I love the idea of finding new magic to introduce! Kids won't know you're straying. That is one of the best things about kids as readers, how few preconceptions they bring.

  3. I'd like to print this out, frame it, and put it on my wall. It's the best post I've read in ages. :D Proud to be an Inkie!

    1. Couldn't agree more. Energy, passion, and a well-reasoned call to action! Fabulous!

  4. As an accomplished literary thief, I consider this very reassuring. Even when working in a familiar framework, every writer brings unique elements to story that no other writer can offer--a database of memory and experience that no one else can draw upon. Then readers add into the mix.

  5. "a database of memory and experience that no one else can draw upon" -- yes, exactly! well said.

  6. I keep telling myself it's all about character. If we're all snowflakes (some flakier than others--baddaboom), so are the inhabitants of our novels. Even if your MC is battling an evil wizard who wants to take over the world, he/she is not Harry Potter, but a brand new person. And that makes all the difference. Or so I tell myself.

  7. It does make the difference, I think. Also, you are not JK Rowling (moment of sadness as we watch big bags of cash flicker and vanish) -- you have your own, much different perspective, and as Cinda said, your own database to draw on.

  8. Fascinating topic! And like other folks who have commented, I find it reassuring that so many of us are "thieves" of a sort.

  9. I so agree! At least with the stealing part. And the later part reminds me of the time I figured out that it did me no good to wish I could do characters as great as this author, or images as wonderful as that one, or humor as funny as... The only thing I can do is to be the best Hilari Bell I can be. Period.

  10. I'm a fiction writer, but not a fantasy writer. I've toyed with the idea, but I've shied away from it. I was afraid that I would write what everyone else had written. The idea that we're all kind of digging out of the same idea pot with the distinctions being in the details...that's comforting.

  11. I think I something in my eye...

    This is a great post. I needed to "hear" that. I'm a bit shy and it's very difficult, to pour myself into my writing, peeling back the layers and revealing the tender parts of myself. But if I'm ever going to improve as a writer, I have to get out of my comfort zone. Will I ever find the courage?

  12. Coming in rather late here to say that yes you WILL. I am absolutely sure.


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