It’s fashionable these days for critics and readers to describe a work of fiction as unoriginal or derivative as a way of attacking not just the work, but the author. There’s no particular group of people that does it. It’s just a convenient cheap shot that is effective because, frankly, most people are stupid and lack sufficient knowledge of the history of fiction to see through the attack.
Understand that what most people mean when they say something is unoriginal is “it’s kinda similar to this other story” or “the basic premise is the same,” not “Story A is exactly Story B except in a different location with different names.” If you have to point to fairly high level fiction concepts, compare scenes that depict common human customs, and rely on coincidences to say Story A is ripping off Story B—as the people who claim A New Hope is a scene-by-scene ripoff of The Hidden Fortress do—you might just be a dick with an agenda.
The most recent example of this sort of cheap shot comes from a comment at Vox Day’s blog (post here):
I’m posting a screen shot because I think it’s likely the comment is by a certain banned commenter, and will soon be deleted.
“Derivative.” “Uncreative.” They’re just variations on the old “unoriginal” slur.
This attack gets my dander up a bit not because I’m concerned about being unoriginal myself, but because it’s damaging to aspiring authors. It was very damaging to me, personally.
You see, when I was a young man, my memory was amazingly good. I never needed to study in school, or even take much in the way of notes. And by the time I was in my late teens I’d read over a thousand books, spanning some 175-200 years of fiction (not including the ancient works I read in school). My point is, as a young man I was fairly well-read and I had a lot of detailed knowledge of what other earlier authors had done packed in my head.
When I started to write in my mid-teens, I was horrified to find I could not seem to come up with a concept that was remotely original. Everything I tried had been done in several, if not dozens, of books I’d read. Oh, I wasn’t copying outright, but I could pick any given element in my stories and see it as nothing but—at best—a lightly modified element from another specific story.
It was crippling. Between that and the fact that back then traditional publishing was the only option—and it was virtually impossible to make a living at it—I gave up on fiction writing. I blogged a lot, but I didn’t write fiction again for over ten years, other than the occasional little short story about things I’d personally seen or done.
I’m not sure why I snapped out of it. I know when: just in time for NaNoWriMo 2010. Maybe it was just more experience. Maybe I finally put things together myself. Maybe the fact that my memory isn’t quite so sharp these days helped me get over it. I don’t remember anything specific other than deciding one day in early November ’10 that I had a damn good idea for a story and I was going to run with it.
Looking back now I can see I was foolish when I abandoned fiction writing, but, well… hindsight is 20/20. I did not make the connection at the time that many of the books I’d read had a lot in common with each other, whether it was plot elements, characters, or whatever.
The fact is, humans only experience a limited range of situations and emotions, and the creative content we’re likely to produce is therefore necessarily limited. There are only so many ways to mash up the human experience. Beyond that, if people are going to understand our work, it can’t be too off the wall. Motivations need to be understandable. Dangers and conflict should not be too different from what humans might experience in real life. In short, if you want readers to enjoy your work, you need to make it relatable.
Further, fiction wasn’t invented last decade or even last century. We have some five thousand years of known written literature, and that was influenced by oral traditions that probably go back to the dawn of human speech. It seems likely to me that fiction predates Homo Sapiens.
Given all that, how likely do you suppose it is that what you write will be completely original unless you were raised by badgers in a cave with no human contact? Even then, because the human brain is essentially a chemical computer with some predefined behavior, and because Mother Nature ain’t exactly nice, your work (when translated) could be called derivative and unoriginal because other people have written about survival in nature, and even talked about kids being raised by badgers! Originality is objective, you see; it doesn’t matter if you didn’t know something existed, or had never heard the story. You’ll still get accused of ripping off some other work.
I don’t worry much about originality anymore. Oh, I’m not going to plagiarize. But I’m not only not worried about being called unoriginal, I’m happy to crib concepts from other writers (high level concepts, not details) and make them my own if they’re cool enough, or if I think I can do them better.
The project I’m working on now sprang from a brainstorming session that started with the questions “why don’t people just shoot Jedi with miniguns?” and “what would a secret magical community really be like, as compared to the version Rowling put together in the Harry Potter books?” The world ended up much more like The Dresden Files universe than either Star Wars or Harry Potter, but the actual society and the stories I’m telling are nothing like Butcher’s work. And I didn’t have to try to make it different, because I’m my own person. I’m not JK Rowling, I’m not George Lucas, Leigh Brackett or any of the people who wrote in the EU, and I’m not Jim Butcher. I have my own experiences, beliefs, and knowledge to draw from. I started from some very high level ideas—informed by their work, plus many others’—and ended up with my own world. And I’m not remotely ashamed of how I got there.
So next time you see someone toss out the “your work is completely unoriginal” attack, understand that it’s nothing but rhetoric meant to wound. Oh, there is an element of truth to it, but that truth doesn’t matter most of the time. It’s unavoidable! Almost nobody is writing truly original stories. And unless you outright, knowingly ripped someone else off when you were writing your own story, you can safely ignore it if someone aims the barb at you.
P.S. This post isn’t even original! I know I’ve read plenty of similar posts from people I respect in the past. The one I usually point people toward is Larry Correia’s 2013 post: Ask Correia #13: Ripping Off Ideas. I don’t have any others handy, but I’ll probably compile a list of good posts on various new-writer subjects at some point, and that’ll be one of the big points to hit.