When it comes to art, we crave originality and newness. No artist or writer or musician wants to be written off as derivative. Even worse is the fear of being accused of stealing another’s work. After all, the written tradition spans thousands of years, and it seems nearly impossible that every story hasn’t been told already. As I work on my novel and struggle to avoid many of the tired tropes of the fantasy genre, I wonder if it is even possible to create a completely original story.
Put simply, the answer is no. But that’s okay!
On NPR recently, the TED Radio Hour show featured four podcasts centered on the topic of “What is Original?”, which examined the originality of ideas in music, film, fashion, and technology. The show stated the simple fact that nothing, no idea or work of art, is completely original. Perhaps the last original thing to have happened was The Big Bang.
Put another way, everything is a remix.
I was not able to embed the NPR player in my post, but you can follow the link below to listen. I encourage you all to listen to the full show when you have time (it’s 48 minutes in total), but if nothing else, I recommend the fourth podcast, “Where Do Good Ideas Come From?”
The host states toward the end that we all have an aversion to copying when it comes to art. But at the same time, we all copy. To be human is to copy. Even the most original stories are not really as original as we think. An example from the show is Star Wars, which was hugely successful when it came out and has enjoyed enduring critical praise. But even Star Wars copied ideas from other sources, including old samurai films. This is not to condemn Star Wars, but to celebrate its application of old ideas into a new and exciting form. In other words, samurai + space = awesome.
One of the speakers makes the great point that those who seek out complete originality are doomed to fail, and this might end up backfiring and hurting the final product. He goes on state that it is better to consider how you can combine different things in new ways, or give a new perspective on a familiar story, taking something which has come before and building on it. That is, in reality, the story of human existence.
For a writer in the fantasy genre, the danger is being thought too derivative of J.R.R. Tolkein or George R.R. Martin. However, borrowing some of the ideas that have worked well in the past, combining them with other ideas, and providing your own distinct spin, is not the same thing is merely copying. Indeed, this is the only way new ideas are born.
Go forth and remix!