I talk quite often about originality and the unfortunate way that word is almost treated with contempt in certain indie publishing circles.
Over the last couple of months I have also seen quite a number of prominent indie publishing gurus write articles and record videos about the subject, mostly in terms again of treating it as a pejorative.
“Don’t worry about being original!”
“It’s not that important”
“It’s not copying, it’s paying homage to …”
Now, while these statements all grade on my last nerve they aren’t entirely without truth behind them. If we really want to look at what is original there is a case to be made that no story created today is original. In fact, I’d consider it an impossibility. Just about every variation of mythos has already been created centuries before the printing press. In the digital age where there’s a Democracy of Publishing aka Self Publishing it goes without saying that you’ll see themes and myths repeated.
That part I don’t disagree with at all. However, that’s not what the issue is with most of the people I see playing defense on the whole originality issue.
Original Myths vs. Original Stories
A myth, or even a trope, are at the core of storytelling. Girls meets boy, stranger comes to town, the hidden world undiscovered: all of these themes and a few others are the basis of every single story you’ll ever read, watch, or play. Unless someone discovers a new aspect of reality we’re likely to not have a new myth emerge in our lifetime.
There’s a difference between that and original stories. Telling a story is how we achieve something fresh (which is more important and often confused with originality) in modern fiction. You can take a theme or a myth and tell your own personal story using it as a template. For instance, if your story is about an affair between a wife and a circus clown, you have a unique story based on a tried-and-true myth.
Where there seems to be an issue, and it’s appearing more and more in customer reviews on Amazon for books lately, is when a story is basically following the same story beats and using very similar characters (only slightly altered) as popular books, movies, comics, or even video games.
Defending that with the “nothing is original” excuse is transparent and annoying.
It’s Not Everybody
By no means are most of the prominent indie authors doing this however. Many are creating their own versions and variations of established myths and tropes. They write to a particular genre but the story they’re telling doesn’t feel like you’ve read it before. Nor are they using characters (the Hermione Granger character type is so overused now it’s giving me a headache) that have been established in other series or novels and just inserting them in their own story.
There’s a big difference between The Bad Boy trope and blatantly taking Edward Cullen from Twilight, changing his name to Jorge, having his skin sparkle, and basically go through the same plot points. Some of this stuff borders on parody while others come extremely close to plagiarism.
Write Your Own Stuff
I’m not going to say whether or not someone is or isn’t a true writer or an artist. Being a talented artist and being an original artist aren’t divorced from one another. The fine art world has a history of talented painters doing recreations of other artist’s work.
However, trying to deflect an obvious lack of creativity by saying “nothing is original so it’s no big deal” is lazy and damages the reputation of the indie author community as a whole. A book cover is different. That’s marketing and not the creative. The content of your story is an entirely different thing.
I’ve already read Twilight, The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Carrie, The Davinci Code, and countless other popular books. I’ve already seen Star Wars, Star Trek, Iron Man and so on. I’ve played Mass Effect, Metal Gear Solid, Halo, and plenty of other games. I don’t want to re-read it in a book I went on a limb to download or, even worse, paid for. Give me the story that you came up with and not some cobbled together rip off of something that’s already been sold and told a thousand times over.