No Such Thing as Original

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    There’s no such thing as an original idea. If you’re beating yourself up because your idea isn’t original, you’ll never get there, so don’t try.

    So, what is that makes a story that’s been told once or a thousand times before interesting? Why pick up the next book or go see the next movie knowing you can probably map it out from beginning to end (especially if it’s a Marvel movie) by the trailer?

    I don’t plan on exploring every little detail, but I want to touch on a few that have made a lot of difference for me as a reader and as a writer. The first is stick to themes that are personal to you. Odds are, if it’s personal to you, it likely is to someone else. If you have passion, put it into your work-it shows.

    In The Last Archide, many of the events described are taken directly from real-world events or people. Some are from my own life, and some are taken from the lives of those who had a real impact on me. They are the ones that stuck out the most to me and I’m always happy to see how much they mean to others. If moments define you or another person, they will likely resonate with similar experiences in others.

    When I wrote the character of Roanoke for that series, I really wanted to capture a character void of fear, empathy, sympathy, caring, or compassion. I wanted him to as HG Wells said it, “…vast and cool and unsympathetic.” I wanted to show what real evil is-the complete absence of love. That’s a really tough mindset to be in as I’ve never had a desire to be that kind of person. How do I effectively write it? I picked up a book called Death Dealer which is a translation of the journal written by Rudolf Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz while he was on trial at Nuremberg. Not only could I start to touch on that kind of evil, but some of the events in it were so shocking to me, they made their way into the book.

    The next is stick to the familiar-with a twist. I remember when Independence Day came out in theaters (yes, I know I’m dating myself). I don’t particularly care for the film these days, but I was blown away by it then. One of the big reasons was the scale. Everyone knew the concept of flying saucers-which is all the alien ships were-but the scale of them was a clever twist. Similarly, JK Rowling didn’t invent wizards, witches, wands, magic, flying brooms, or school. She put them together, you produced a potent blend of familiar material with a subtle perspective shift. If the shift is good enough, it makes someone believe they’re experiencing something original.

    Another component (and I believe this one may be the most important) is that a great story is only as good as the characters in it. My guess is we can all think of a book or movie we love but we make excuses for because the story is great, but the characters are…lacking.

    I love Orson Scott Card, but one of my beefs with him is that his characters don’t change much. This is likely due to his penchant for writing children who think/behave like adults, so when they do grow up, they’re the same as when they were kids.

    Ender’s Game is his most well-known and it falls into this trap. The story is amazing, but it begins with Ender in a fight in which he does what he has to in order to survive while feeling sympathy for his opponent. It ends with the exact same thing on a larger scale. So, the character didn’t change, just the scale of the enemy. It’s still a great book, but after I really wrapped my head around the concept, I haven’t read it again.

    By contrast, there’s the movie There Will Be Blood. Unlike Ender’s Game, the story isn’t all that great, it isn’t action-packed, and it’s certainly not original. However, Daniel Day-Lewis and Paul Dano are some of the most captivating characters ever put on screen. Watching them both descend into madness in their own ways is captivating. Watching them each push the other closer to the edge is even more so. What would otherwise be a mediocre film at best becomes riveting because there are two characters that are beautifully written and executed even better.

    Every life in the world is driven by, well, life. What matters most to everyone is how their actions or the actions of others affects them. Characters in a book are no different. Give me a reason to love a character, then thrust them into something that makes them grow or change in some meaningful way-good or bad. Give me a small cast-three to six major characters max-and put them through the ringer. Doesn’t matter how far-fetched the setting is, let me care about them and live through their eyes and I’m in. Focus on the characters, not the scale, effects, magic, or science.

    Be personal and passionate, give me something familiar then add the unfamiliar, and give me characters to care about. That’s what a good story needs. The rest is window dressing.

    As the preacher said, “I could write shorter sermons, but once I get started, I’m too lazy to stop.”

     

     


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