On Writing #3 Originality (with some additional thoughts on style)



Originality can’t be taught; it can’t be passed on from one writer to another. Neither can creativity. But they can be encouraged, they can be nurtured. Of all genres the fantasy genre ought to be most apt to encourage originality. Unfortunately, for some writers it has precisely the opposite effect. The reasons for this, I think, are two. The first is misconceptions about the genre, and the second is fear.

And so today I offer . . .


Over the years, I’ve heard a lot of new writers talking about how their books are so different from everything that has gone before that they are going to reinvent the fantasy genre. But when I have had the opportunity to read their works, the one thing that has struck me is how very much their books are like all the other books being produced by writers who are also attempting to do something completely new and reinvent the genre. I think this can be traced back to several causes, but it starts with their sources of inspiration.

Some of these writers have read very little (or no) fantasy but nevertheless believe they know what it is all about. On the other hand, some of them read a great deal of fantasy, but it’s of a very limited type, usually heavily influenced by role-playing games. In both instances, the writer thinks that taking even a small step outside of what they (mistakenly) understand to be the confines of fantasy will amount to a major revolution. Having avoided one or two clichés they manage to incorporate several others into their story, believing that a story cannot be a fantasy without them.

But the field of fantasy literature is rich and vast. The possibilities are limitless, or at least as limitless as the human imagination. There are fads and trends; there are subgenres, styles, tropes, and conventions of the genre that go in and out of fashion. None of these define fantasy, fantasy is too big for that.

Sometimes a writer coming new to fantasy makes the decision to curtail their reading within the genre because they fear they will be “influenced.” This leads to the unfortunate side effect that they’re overly influenced by any books they’ve already read.

If the only wizards you ever read about were Gandalf and Dallben, you would probably be unable to visualize a wizard without some combination of white beard, staff, irascible but loveable personality, book, pig. But if you know Prospero, Väinämöinen, Math, Taliesen, Ged, Roger Bacon, Cornelius Agrippa—if you have even begun to acquaint yourself with the long, long, list of wizards in legend, folklore, and literature—then you come to understand that the archetype “wizard” is not limited to any one set of features or characteristics.

And whether you want them or not there will be influences. Everything you ever write will be influenced by things you read, see, think, feel, and do. And this is a desirable thing, not something to be avoided. The more you read, the more other writers will inspire you with ideas—but you will no longer be copying their creations nearly whole. You’ll be picking up inspirations and influences from a variety of different books and writers and you will be combining them in ways that are uniquely your own.

As fantasy writers we may write about non-human races, but there is always in those races a touch of humanity—our orcs, elves, vampires, may be used to explore a handful of human characteristics, exaggerated perhaps, often intensified to become stronger drives, or to become physiological or psychological imperatives, nevertheless these characteristics are essentially human—and the very best fantasy, no matter what else it has to recommend it, reveals something about our human nature, our hopes, aspirations, and fears, seen from the sort of fresh perspectives that only speculative fiction can offer. The vampires of legend may not be real, but hunger is, and obsession, we each know them, and if it happens that we choose to write about vampires, then if we choose to follow our own instincts and intuitions, explore our own deepest hungers, incorporate our own experiences with obsession, instead of relying on what is expected, we free ourselves to go beyond what is stale and predictable. It can be a fearsome thing to examine our own hearts, to show who we really are—what if we are rejected?—but it is also one of the best ways to liberate our creativity.

But since we are each one of us only privileged to see and experience a small part of everything there is to be seen and experienced, it only makes sense that we would wish to broaden our understanding by collecting other viewpoints as well. To do this we should read widely, inside and outside our chosen genre. We need to get our ideas (ah, the ancient question!) not only from fiction but from nonfiction as well, from movies, newpapers, people we meet, people we already know—in short, study the world around us. Ideas meet, mate, and give birth to other ideas. If we gather our inspirations from a limited range of sources, chances are high that the results will be inbred and predictable. On the other hand, inspirations that come from a wide variety of sources and a wide variety of perspectives will often produce offspring with singular and unexpected qualities.

But originality requires more than the intitial inspiration.

There are those who believe that writing fantasy is all about the Idea, the grand and glorious original premise. But it is not enough to come up with the Great Idea, if you are not willing to explore it, if you just leave it lying there flat on the page while you go on to tell a stereotypical story with stereotypical characters. It is not the idea you start out with that makes a work original, it is where your ideas lead you.

Certain archetypes turn up in fantasy over and over because people sense that they are metaphors for our deepest hopes, fears, or aspirations—though it is true that they’re often treated in an unthinking, predictable way. Take the fantasy quest: In the hands of one writer the characters may simply collect magical artifacts like the property deeds in a game of Monopoly. For another writer, something as familiar as the quest can be a profound metaphor. Even the objects of the quest can have deep personal meaning, and those deeper meanings inform the story. The writer is writing with heart and passion, telling a story that no one else could tell even if they began from the same starting point.

We all know that most fantasy and science fiction stories owe their origins to the question “What if ____?” Yet we shouldn’t be content to leave it at that, because it’s a very good question to ask at every single stage of the writing process. “What if, instead of what I had originally planned, my character decided to do this?” “What if, instead of following the obvious course, I choose to examine one of the other possible consequences of this particular set of circumstances?”

And though it is wise to polish our craft and learn the basic principles of good writing—whose purpose is to help us learn to communicate the stories we envision more effectively—we should not be afraid to allow our own voices and our own styles to develop. This, of course, can be an uneasy balance. If a style is too eccentric it may sacrifice clarity, or limit the writer’s audience, but if we do not choose eccentricity for its own sake (in order to impress people), if instead we choose it because it is the best or the only way to tell the particular stories that we have to tell, then our goal should be to master that style and develop it to its fullest potential. Here again we need to listen to our instincts, which will seldom lead us wrong. Our vanity, on the other hand, almost always will.

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