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The Challenge of Originality

The Good News: A few months back, I earned a semi-finalist finish in the Writers of the Future Contest, which I feel is kind of a big deal. It came with a nice certificate and, more importantly, a personalized critique from scifi writer KD Wentworth.  In the overwhelming complexity and drama of my personal life during this same period, however, I feared that, due to my recent move, my ‘prize’ was going to be lost in the mail. It wasn’t; I got the critique yesterday.

Turns out they really liked my story–it was among the very last to be cut. Considering that they receive thousands of entries each quarter, this is good news. Furthermore, those aspects of the story I was most concerned with perfecting (the struggle of the main character, the resolution to that struggle, and the emotional gravity of the situation) was, according to her words, very engaging. Great!

The Bad News: What got my story cut was that an aspect of the story was drawing upon a trope that is as old as the hills–a demon in a box that can turn upon its owner at any time. She and the rest of the judges apparently felt that other stories were more original (and I have no doubt that they were in this regard) and she gave me some substantive advice on how to make the story better by fixing this element. Appropriately, this was the element that I had obsessed over the least and that I hadn’t really considered a problem. Good–I’m learning. That’s supremely important to me.


How Original is Original?

As I have mulled this problem over the last few hours, here’s the thing I keep circling back to: just how different do we have to make things to make them new, but without making them so new that we lose the thematic and cultural resonance we’re seeking. To suggest that fantasy fiction doesn’t draw upon myth, legend, and folklore is ridiculous. My story about a demon in a box obviously isn’t the first, but it also isn’t the last nor will demons in boxes be relegated to some kind of literary no-fly zone so that nobody who writes about them will be successful. Nonsense.

So, then, if I’m to change the demon somehow (and I will; I think Wentworth’s critique is spot-on and really helpful), what kind of change are we talking here? Physical (not in a box but a sheep’s bladder?), operational (it doesn’t want your soul, but rather your eyes or your hair or your sense of humor), metaphorical (it doesn’t represent evil, but simply fear or despair or even, just for the hell of it, hope), or what? Is this enough? Of note, it isn’t called a demon, but rather a ghul, and the setting is sufficiently unique from your average fantasy tale to keep it interesting–I assumed I had done enough to make it fresh. Perhaps it was fresh, but maybe not fresh enough.

But where do you stop?

I’ve written about this problem before. I need to change the rules somehow, shake things up. How is, of course, my trouble (I’m not fishing for suggestions), and perhaps I’m overthinking this. Nevertheless, I think it’s a useful bit of critique for all of us to hear, even if we haven’t heard it said about our own work. We can’t rest on the shoulders of those who have come before us. We do not have that luxury, not when the competition is so fierce.

I need to push myself–go somewhere new, explore. You should too.

The Importance (and Danger) of Myth

I’ve been coming across various blogs, sites, and fantasy-related discussions in which participants have discussed the

What's important here is not the rock, or Sisyphus, or the idea of Hades. It's what it tells us about ourselves.

importance of understanding and studying mythology when constructing a fantasy world. This has particularly been the case when discussing the creation of urban or contemporary fantasy novels (which, for the initiated, are those fantastical stories set in our own world–think things like the Dresden Files, Harry Potter (to some extent), Twilight, most zombie or vampire tales, etc.). Now, on the one hand, I agree that having a good grasp of various cultural myths can be a great help when world-building. On the other hand, I also see the adherence to and obsession with the minutiae of these myths to be a severe limitation on what the fantasy genre can do.

If I write a story and I want fairies in it, it would behoove me to read up on fairie mythology–this only makes sense. If you want to contribute to a long-standing ‘conversation’ if you will surrounding a certain topic, you ought to do a little bit of research. However, if I want to change my fairies so that they operate at variance with the behavior of the prototypical ‘fairie’, I should be able to do so. In fact, I would go so far as to encourage people to do so. It is a constant wonder to me that the speculative fiction genres are, at times, so damned rigid in what is acceptable or unacceptable. The whole reason the genre is called ‘fantasy’ is that you can do anything you damned well please. Fairies aren’t real, so there are no actual rules regarding how they can be portrayed. There are only perceived rules.

That said, you can’t go about writing about amphibious vampires who feed on gelatin and thrive in the sunlight and still call them vampires. There is a certain essence to ‘vampireness’ that must be respected in order for your contribution to the vampire genre to have meaning. To figure out what that is, you need to really sit down and think about what a ‘vampire’ really represents. I, personally, find vampires cowardly and pathetic creatures–slaves to their baser instincts and self-absorbed parasites too terrified of their own mortality to accept it. Now, if I take that idea (what I consider to be the thematic core of vampirism) and filter it into a vampire character that picks and chooses from the mythology in accordance with the overall idea, I’m going to wind up with something that is both vampire and not vampire. My vampires won’t be heroic or even anti-heroic. They will be irresponsible, cowardly, ruled by fear and lust and hunger. They will probably have only false bravado, not the firm confidence of Dracula. I will probably give them an aversion to sunlight, but not for the same reasons everyone else does. I won’t have them working in large family groups. I won’t have vampirism be a disease or a contagious curse. You’ll know they’re vampires, but I’ll be using them in a different way and for a different purpose. They will remake the old into the new.

The above is what I think fantasy should always seek to do. Take a bit of the old, but don’t enslave yourself to it. If you want to make fairies more like regular people with regular jobs, then do it. Who cares if that isn’t the trope? Tropes lead you to predictable stories, boring characters, and forgettable writing. Take the tropes and break them. Make up your own rules. Twist the ideas around into something new–something of your own. It’s okay; you’re allowed to do it. Not every werewolf is killed by silver bullets. Yours can be different, new, interesting–they can go from the mundane to the fantastic.

That, after all, is where we fantasy fans all want to be.