The Problem Of Originality

*Sorry about being so late.  I was up late yesterday working, and this morning had to get the older kid out of the door for finals at … an unholy hour (he should be back soon) so everything slipped.*

The Problem of Originality


What do I mean the problem? Why is it a problem? Have I gone around the bend? Isn’t the goal to be original?

No. The goal is to be somewhat original – original enough that people have never read anything QUITE like that. But not so original that people have to work really hard, no matter how accessible you make it.

Look, remember being in elementary school? I do. There were twelve of us, and an aged teacher. Sometimes the aged teacher got tired and just had us do something “creative.” For instance, she would tell us to write a story.

I’m sure you guys were in similar situations, or even worse, someone went to the blackboard and you were supposed to write a round robin short story. Remember that?

Let’s go with my class size for easy division. About four of those kids would dictate exactly whatever story we read last. They wouldn’t even change the names of the characters. They might in a fit of attempted creativity say it was Wednesday instead of Saturday. The rest of us would roll our eyes.

The next four would continue with the story we read last and maybe change it so the boy had a cat instead of a dog and went to the bakery instead of the candy store. I was unimpressed but the rest of the class was interested.

The next two would mash in bits of a story we’d read last week. The class would get excited and talk about how good it was.

Then you hit my friend and I (we were deskmates and sat in the last row the better to trade snark). She would reveal the whole thing was taking place in Sherwood Forest. I was somewhat impressed, but really, thought she had missed a great opportunity. I revealed that the little boy was really an alien masquerading as a little boy and that his species was hear to steal all our oak trees. My friend would get excited and add in Robin Hood’s men fighting the alien.

At which point we realized the rest of the class wasn’t along for the ride, and our contributions were struck from the story.

The sad thing is that real life is still like that. No, I am serious. Being original or very strange (which in my case comes to the same) is a handicap when it comes to finding an audience.

No? Browse the bestseller lists sometime. Most of them are AT BEST a mashup of two previous bestsellers. Some of the more creative steal bestsellers from another genre. No, seriously. The DaVinci code stole its central idea/plot from a book that was already a best seller in the new age community and had been for years. (Funny story, the authors of the book started a lawsuit for plagiarism. Then it was born upon them that the only way to win the lawsuit was to claim their book was fiction. Since they’d made a mint – and a name – out of claiming it was all true, away the suit went.) We all know fifty shades was Twilight fanfic. Twilight itself had the “fingerprint” of nineteen seventies young romances. Then there is hunger games, which is two hoary sf ideas wrapped around a game show. Shall I go on?

But Sarah, you’ll say, most of the people who loved the DaVinci code hadn’t read the original new age book.

No, of course not, but the new age book itself is based on a soup of free floating conspiracy theories (Just saying the word “Templars” in conjunction with “conspiracy” should get anyone sent for psychiatric evaluation. If you add in “Opus Dei” then you should be done. You should get a straight jacket by return mail. Not to say – I mean if I knew Opus Dei had assassins, I’d have joined decades ago.)

Now, I’ll grant you the market is somewhat distorted by the fact that for years most of it has been controlled by editors who were the sort of kid who dictated the last story read (in between eating glue) and so what got pushed into megabestseller status by dint of promotion was the blah.

To an extent indie is breaking that, but only to an extent. Sure, if you have a truly oddball book – Witchfinder, say – you can now get it before the public and it will sell. But how well it will sell remains a question. (It’s doing okay.) Though even there, note I hooked it into the regency romance archetypes.

Which brings us to romance, THE best selling genre ever. For a long time and to an extent still (though these days Western, which is just like western books but with sex, is a close second) if you wanted to become a bestseller in Romance, you took one of Heyer’s plots, mashed it with another and off you went. Don’t believe me? Pick any of them. Heck, I’ve even ENJOYED a few of them.

Science fiction – Heinlein wasn’t so much original. He took the plots other people were doing, did the same sort of thing and added depth and characters.

Patricia Wentworth in mystery made a good living out of stealing Christie’s plots, adding a woman in peril and throwing the whole thing down the road, running. We who like her see very well what she’s doing, but it’s low effort, and so amusing to read.

And that’s part of it. If a book is totally original, you sort of step back and go “Wha?” and have to make a greater effort to read it, because you need to remember all the little things that are different/strange so you can make sense of the plot.

In reality no one but my older son tries to build a completely new world. We all rely on each other’s framework or on reality, even in science fiction. To some extent, we all go with “everybody knows this.” And we should, for the side lines of the plot.

When you don’t rely on anyone you end up with my son’s “The Last Voice” in which telepathic dinosaurs build biological spaceships … and the thing almost doesn’t sell. Particularly since the entire dilemma is about the made up religion of the sentient dinosaurs.

Even for a short story, that’s too much work.

And that’s what you have to remember. For a mega bestseller, you need to interest practically every one in that class, even the people who think “original” means changing the day of the week something happens.

If you do much more than change the name of the characters, or maybe mash up another book, you’re going to lose the glue-devourers. BUT if you suddenly add in time travel or aliens, or… you’re going to lose the masher-uppers too.

Now, you have a little more leeway in science fiction because, yes, siree bob, we do venture into ODD territory. (Which is also why our audience is one of the smaller ones.) BUT even there, it’s good to have some sort of framework people recognize.

My older kid thinks it’s terrible I stole some props from Heinlein (flying cars – Hey, I LIKE flying cars. Everyone in golden age had them. I wanted them) and freshers (mine are a little different) and automated cookers and burners for instance. I had to tell him I stole them from the golden age not (just) Heinlein and it’s because it allows me to stretch the originality (bio solar collectors. Anti-grav flying “wand-bikes” ) without making people work too hard.

The truth about originality is that the more original the idea, the more you need to put it in a setting that goes down more easily and without the readers feeling like they must take notes. OTOH if your idea is “standard” you can afford to throw in more tweaks, bells and whistles around it, to make it memorable.

This is a lot like humor, btw.  If you’re writing humor and make EVERYTHING absurd, from the situation to the plot to the characters, it’s not going to hit anyone as THAT funny.  OTOH if you take a normal situation and throw a skewed plot and characters, or vice versa, into it, then it becomes hilarious.  Because we’re not in totally new territory.  We’re in “this is what I expected and, wow, that’s different.”

And this, ladies, gentlemen, dragons and sentient dinosaurs, is why you should read in the field. If you’re breaking wholly new ground you should know it and put it in a way that it’s not going to make the reader work too hard.


  1. Sarah, I like this quote on Originality:

    Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it.

    ~C. S. Lewis

    Care more about the characters, about the story, than being original. Care about truth, as Lewis says.

    Your points about not being too far off and losing the audience is spot on, BTW, as always.

    1. It’s a good quote.
      But I feel the need to go off on a tangent in reply to what follows after.
      IMO, originality isn’t in the characters or the story. It’s in the setting. Which itself sharply limits the types of characters that fit, and the stories that can be told.
      (Or I could have just run too many RPGs over the years. Setting was the one aspect that I had total control over, and could use to influence the others.)

      1. Characters, setting and story have to fit together. Each limit the other. And I think it is in original settings that authors are most in danger of losing an audience by creating things the reader isn’t able to relate to.

        Myself, I’m not a fan of originality for its own sake, it has to serve a purpose. Just like change for change’s sake is a waste of effort, in my opinion.

        Even scientists, when the change a variable to get something different, do it for a purpose, for a pursuit of knowledge, or truth.

        You are quite right that setting has a lot of influence, sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious.

        1. But “wouldn’t it be cool if…” or “what would happen if…” are perfectly valid purposes.
          Taking a game I ran a couple years back as an example (which is admittedly a different medium, with different needs, but I want to illustrate rather than bloviate), there were two definite starting points.
          The first one was simply the idle conjecture “Cities are a blight. But most people would prefer to live there. Why?” Which quickly blew up into dead gods, fae, ley lines, a mythic past lost in the mists of time, and a whole lot of other stuff.
          But while a bit off-kilter, it’s fundamentally stable. There’s not a precipitating event to kick off the story that’s going to brush against it.
          So enters the second starting point. Fantasy demi-human races traditionally have much longer lifespans than humans. What happens when a human dynasty is entering it’s third generation, but the usurped heir is still young and kicking around (and a significant percentage of the population remembers the progroms undertaken against them in the wake of the usurpation.)? This part was totally unoriginal. All I did was telescope the heck out of British history and mix up the order a bit. I didn’t even file off the serial numbers of Stephen I and Bonnie Prince Charlie as the two main figures in the drama.
          It was a good setting (if I do say so myself). At some point, I’ll have to resurrect it and do something else with it.

      2. I think that as science fiction or fantasy writers we tend toward (what we hope are) unique settings and frame the story that way… How would people react to this? What would be different?

        But it would also work very well (and does often) to reverse those and take an entirely mundane setting and make the character just a little bit strange… now your high school student is an alien in hiding or telepathic or a vampire.

        Which, since we’re talking about originality, has been done a thousand times.

        1. “In Hiding” (1948) by Wilmar H. Shiras.

          A quiet story about a doctor’s interaction with a boy who is apparently normal with no problems but his school teacher is concerned about him.

          The boy turns out to be a super-intelligent mutant (no powers just very very smart). It was interesting to see how the boy, Timothy Paul, and his peers (discovered in later stories) lived basically adult lives while hiding as “just children”.

          Oh, Shiras wrote a book combining the shorter works and new material about the children titled _Children of the Atom_.

          I’ve wished she had written a sequel to it.

          1. Timothy Paul, and his peers (discovered in later stories)

            There are other stories? Coolness! I read this in, I think, one of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame books. I didn’t know there was more. (Just hope it isn’t as big a disappointment as I found “More than Human” was after reading “Baby is Three.”)

            1. I enjoyed the complete book. Good luck finding it. [Smile]

  2. Flying cars. Visualize this. The future equivalent of someone in Jerry Springer’s audience flying the equivalent of a rusting ’97 Honda Civic that last saw serious maintenance in ’98 flying a few feet over your house and your loved ones.

    1. It’s too bad that we’ll be forever-limited to the avionics systems of Right Now, then. Because if even a little further advance occurred in computer autopiloting, flying cars would become practical. But as we all know, the technology of today is as far as we’re ever going to get, because … um, I dunno, the game designers got lazy at the end of their Tech Tree?

      1. It’s actually funny to read The Roads Must Roll. Go on and do it. The system APPARENTLY came about because of the MASS CASUALTIES caused by everyone having a car. In Portugal when I was growing up, people still believed you needed to be exceptional to drive (this is part of my issue, psychologically.)
        What I say is, let the everyday man and woman surprise us. They tend to be more competent than the elites think.

    2. …and then we get another issue. Given our shared libertarianism, how will the government screw up flying car traffic control? For that matter, how will they screw up the Google car?

            1. Oh, I’m saying they will screw up even the things they can’t. It’s one of those paradox of government things.

              Like I had to explain to my boss why his house has all the weird problems. He and his wife both have PhD’s. I mean, what can you expect in a house with a pair ‘o docs?

      1. Screwing things up is where our government is at it’s most efficient, creative, and effective.

        1. At a close second, they breed/spawn more government: government jobs, bureaus, committees, and anything else that pokes an upturned nose into what used to be private business.

  3. Interesting– I guess I have been doing it wrong all the time. 😉 I have the brain that looks for the most original ideas (which is probably why I really like Witchfinder). But you are right. When I want to read something mindless or when my brain needs a rest, I read romance esp. stuff that is on a formula.

    1. I can relax best with stories which are formula with a twist or few of them thrown in. I want the twists, if it’s completely guessable that is usually boring (not always, very likeable characters can sometimes be enough), but the rest fitting the formula is what makes it relaxing (like good guys winning). If it keeps me guessing the whole time I may start to fret too much to really enjoy the story.

      1. It’s like going to see a showing of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You want them to do new and different stuff, but it’s more important that it recognizably be Dream.

        1. This is another point where I diverge from the majority. If I go and see a play (or a concert), I don’t want them to do something different. When I’m following along with something familiar, even a minor change in tempo makes a severe crashing discord in my mind.

          I’m ok with internal flourishes that don’t change the basic structure, but anything else makes me want to go up on stage and smack people around.

      2. Completely the same– for those days when the brain doesn’t work at all (do have those days)… most of the time– NOT

    2. It’s not even that, really. It’s just that if the setting is strange, the characters weird, the problem bizarre . . . it’s really tough to follow the story.

      If the setting is familiar enough–say, a spaceship with artificial gravity a control deck, and an engine room–then the reader can concentrate on the very odd multiple alien species crew, and their really really strange problem, without constantly being distracted by the weird place it’s happening in.

      Or you can have musical chords that are influencing the eight dimensional host to carry the parasite pods to the correct interface before scratching them off. And that’s fine, so long as the people are acting like people (despite antennae and such) and they have to solve the murder mystery before they scratch off and land.

      But if you throw it all at the reader all together, instead of the cool spy glass you thought you were building, you’ve got a kaleidoscope. But the readers came to see the whales swimming by, and they’re a bit frustrated.

      1. I’ve read some stories set in really really really high tech worlds. I’ve enjoyed most. But boy can they be hard to get into.

    3. I read a lot of romances for that reason. I want a *break* from thinking for a while because if I’m going to think I have homework I ought to do. I haven’t even played an online MMORPG since January, and A Few Good Men is sitting on the shelf above my bed, waiting.

      1. Well, if you get back into it and find yourself playing WoW, send an in-game mail to Capellini on the Nesingwary server. I can help you get started.

        1. I only have Guild Wars 2 on my computer now, mostly because there’s no monthly fee so it doesn’t matter if I didn’t play since January. I’ve done a lot of Ever Quest in the past, but never much got into WoW.

          Husband is playing Elder Scrolls.

  4. You’re making me cringe.

    😉 Fortunately, I’m a total amateur, and my hobbies are mainly about entertaining myself.

    1. Quick clarification: I’m not being original to “be original” but doing the “Oooo shiny!” variation.
      I freely admit that everything I do is shamelessly derivative. It’s just that I can take that, and make it fit here, which means I can take this, and put it here… Until it can admittedly be a mite overwhelming.

  5. I think this is why Edward Scissorhands worked so well–the oddity in the midst of normality. And why in an odd environment, you should have teenagers arguing over who takes out the garbage.

    1. That’s what used to be great about urban fantasy. You had something utterly mundane – for example from a C d Lint book, a woman on the run from her Mafia ex’s trouble. And they blunder into Caernunos. Or the Lackey story where some game designers accidentally put a real Windigo into the server, and it goes downhill from there. Now it all seems to be [supernatural creature] in a city with [chick in leather or tactical gear] and [stuff happens] and [conspiracy]. Or maybe I just had a run of bad picks at the library and book store.

      1. No, it’s not bad luck. It’s all chicks in leather hip-huggers these days.

        Just how do you run and fight in pants like that? And where do you store your extra ammo clips?

        1. In your cleavage, at least all the women on the covers of those books have enough cleavage to store an entire case of AR magazines.

      1. Too much Bloom County in my misbegotten early adulthood. Opus *always* means goofy penguin to me.

  6. I deliberately set out to create an entirely new mythos in my work. It’s a hard sell, but I find that the people who like it usually really like it. I think that there is a small but very enthusiastic market for stories that make the effort to be completely different.

  7. To me, the problem ins’t lack of originality. It’s how to make an overworked cliche new again. For example: Let’s say you were doing an alt-hist where a modern day historian/political scientist somehow traveled back in time to the Constitutional Convention to keep the Founding Fathers from writing a Constitution that is so easily corrupted by liberals. How would you keep that from being so trope-ridden as to be boring? (Warning, I may be taking notes here.)

    1. Identify assumptions and turn them on their head, possibly.

      Like: the founding fathers were stodgy old white guys, *totally* “the man” and establishment focused… As many, many folks who really ought to know better believe. The preceding is not a new concept, but you could tweak it. Have Ben Franklin hammering at your character’s door at midnight all afire to know how automatic weapons work, and what’s this Twitter that isn’t birds? Or have the bitter arguments over the new Constitution-to-be played out with modern touches, and so on.

      I’m no historian, but read the letters of the Founding Fathers, all the period publications you can find. The context surrounding the Articles (and later the Constitution) will help. Read them while you have the local news going, wonder how John Adams would have reacted to Beyonce (I presume poorly), modern concerns of racism, and the presumption of priviledge current but not so alien to our ancestors as we might think.

      Ideas, I gots. Good ones? Good question. *chuckle*

      1. Actually, I am a historian with one of them degree things and everything. The suggestion to read the primary sources (the writings you reference) is a damn good one. It’s also something I enjoy. That’s why I got the degree. Hmm…

        1. All the better for this reader. I still re-read some of my old history references like that, and think to myself: they were every bit as intelligent, inquisitive, and able as we can be at our best. There’s no reason to think they would be *unable* to grasp the things we struggle with today. For some, I’d say unwilling, but not unable.

          The temptation I see is that there were plenty of crisis situations and pressures back then, too. How would the war of 1812 have turned out if guncotton, reliable steam power, and modern ballistics were part of the equation? Which then turns into another 1632, Destroyermen, etc…

          Not that I’d be disappointed in such a tale well told, mind. *grin* I look forward to seeing what you’ll do with it.

  8. But of course Opus Dei have assassins!
    Haven’t you read Ringo’s “Queen of Wands”?

    1. Or those stories about the hard-boiled Templar and his friend from the Special Action Directorate of the Poor Claires?

  9. Being original or very strange (which in my case comes to the same) is a handicap when it comes to finding an audience.

    “Readers don’t want original. Readers want mixture as before.” (As best as I can remember the line–it’s been a long time). From “The Cat Who Walks Through Walls” by some obscure little author that I’m sure nobody’s ever heard of. 😉

    1. They want fresh original stories that conform exactly to their formula. That’s what makes writing so interesting.

    2. Heinlein stole plots from everywhere, and freely admitted it. He was however pretty careful to confine his plot-stealing to things mostly out of copyright. 🙂

      “File off the serial numbers, change the body lines a bit. give it a new paint job, switch it over the state line, and it’s yours!- that’s the secret of literary success. Editors always claim to be looking for new stories but they don’t buy them; they buy ‘mixture as before.’ Because the cash customers want to be entertained, not amazed, not instructed, not frightened.” — Richard Campbell in Robert A. Heinlein’s The Cat Who Walks Through Walls

      Flying cars? Eh. I can live without a flying car. But I desperately want my robot maid!

          1. Hmm… give me a $5 million budget and 5 top-bracket AI programmers… One of them HAS to be a particular guy I went to high school with, because he’s a freakazoid.

  10. On comedy, and being familiar with just a little variation: This concept has even been seen in the mainstream, when Seinfeld did a commercial where he went to England and his comedy routing fell flat, so he went touring the countryside, learning the culture, came back with his revamped routine and was a hit.

    Likewise, when Penn & Teller were on Babylon 5, they explained that they studied a culture intensively before trying to do shows there, so that they would know how to be funny for their audience. Penn then demonstrated by telling a joke that DeLenn thought was hilarious, but the Captain couldn’t understand at all.

    1. Delenn. 😛

      Minbari humor is based on the failure to reach enlightenment. 😛

  11. Considering how popular fan fiction can be, yeah originality isn’t the most important thing.

    1. Umm, I’d say, being _completely_ original isn’t important. The trick is finding the balance between “familiar and comfortable” and “Whoa! That’s different!” So as to avoid boredom on one hand and confused abandonment of the book on the other.

  12. Sarah, I’m no longer sure who said it, but “if all else fails, steal from the original source (Bible).” There really are only a very small number of “stories,” it’s all in how you retell them.
    Of course, in some cases, it’s one in a poorly fitting imitation Indian costume. Or, if you want an auto image. A Rail dragster, wearing a VW Beetle fiberglass shell over the driver’s seat.
    As to “flying cars,” re-read The Tom Swift, and TS Jr., books. Look at how much was “advanced SF,” and is “old hat” now. Some things are waiting for lightweight power sources, with a high power/low weight ratio. Right now, Gasoline is the best we have, and it just won’t do. At least not for vehicles costing less that $100K/vehicle. They’re coming, but not as fast we thought 50 years ago. Others, came _long_ before anyone expected.

  13. On the cover of Mirabile by Janet Kagan, Gardner R. Dozois says, “One of the most popular new writers… Janet Kagan’s work is vivid, supple, and inventive, colorful off-planet adventures full of wonders, strange dangers, and intricate biological mysteries, peopled by a cast of strong, sympathetic characters who you will come to think of as friends: the good old stuff, the way Robert A. Heinlein, Hal Clement and James H. Schmitz used to do it.” The same, but different. Or maybe that’s inventive, but the same good old stuff?

    1. Steve — for the love of heaven, I already have HIM glowering in my head because apparently current book is painting him less than how he likes (i.e. seen through Zen’s eyes) and now this? You want me to be dead by character?

      1. But if he was narcoleptic he would probably fall asleep before he finished killing you.

        1. How’s this sound: He’s captured and given the Clockwork Orange treatment except that when he’s about to perpetrate violence, he falls asleep.

          Teasing aside, I’m suggesting that these weird quirks of character can simultaneously introduce originality into a well-worn formulaic narrative, and inspire interesting twists.

  14. On one of my Amazon rambles (casual browsing in genres I like to read – just to add stuff to my wishlist) I found a book that was pretty close to what I’m intending on writing soon – something I thought I would be one of the first to do. “Shoot,” I thought. “I hope we don’t tread too much of the same ground. I’m going to write that story…”

    So I threw the sample to my Kindle and got caught up with other things. Tried to read the sample the other day and I couldn’t make heads nor tails of it. I read a few pages in, trying to get a grasp on how they structure the fantasy world they’re spinning and they’re in media res, using made-up terms, and doing baffling things. I finally figured it all out.

    But I spent so long trying to grasp the setting I have no impression of the characters at all, so I reset the sample back to page one and will try again later tonight now that I have a vague idea of what the hell’s going on.

    It’s very strange, because so far the story “feels” very sci-fi, rather than fantasy. It’s like they took their spacemen and put them in wizard hats. I kind of feel very much like they’re going for, “THIS IS ORIGINAL.” and trying so hard it’s hitting me on wrong notes. Which is disappointing because it became pretty clear that what they’re doing isn’t what I’m doing, and I really want to enjoy the book now that I can read it without paranoia of too much overlap.

    PS: I had a friend who oftentimes would try to nix any idea I had that she’d heard before. “Oh, don’t do that. It’s been done.” Sometimes I thought about it and decided she was right, it was a bit “too” common or simple or saccharine. Oftentimes, it would just annoy and baffle me. Genre demands certain pacts be kept with the readers. I wish I’d understood enough to couch it that way at the time, but I didn’t.

    She would always end up putting intense pressure on herself to be “completely original” (she is very “Type A”) and I’m not sure if she refused to consume media in the areas she was interested in creating for (but she might have). Eventually, we ended up butting heads over something in those lines. I was redesigning one of my characters for an alt universe. He was meant to be an Asian pop/rock star and I gave him a really standard styling. She tried to get me to give him something more original and got mad at me when I said that I wanted him to look generic and mass produced because that was the whole deal with his character. He was just idol #238950. (Also, her offered designs were neither attractive nor suitable for the character’s personality.) I think our creative differences are one of the reasons we eventually parted company as friends.

    1. If you want a head trip read Josh Lanyon’s “Fantasy” stories. Yes, I know his REAL genre in these is m/m romance, but seriously, he COULD have read a fantasy novel or three before reinventing the wheel.
      He is normally a solid read, regardless, but reading his fantasy is like going insane. It’s like “Uh… what? WHY ARE YOU EXPLAINING THE OBVIOUS THINGS then writing a complicated magic system with no explanation? What’s wrong with you? Read Tolkien, for crying out loud.”

      1. I had a writing teacher once at the college level — good teacher too — but she wanted me to explain the word “telepath” in the story. It wasn’t a story for third graders, either.

        OTOH, it’s true that a lot of new sf/f readers don’t know words like “telepath,” so there is a certain amount of reasonableness there.

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