The problem with originality

Something I have been concerned about when writing my fantasy trilogy is the notion of clichés. And, also, I have been wary of being too obvious in my writing when it comes to other books and authors who may have inspired me or influenced my writing style. Fantasy, I think, is a genre which has quite a fine line between necessary plot devices and disappointing clichés – those elements that you seem to see in almost every story but without which, sometimes, the story can fall a little flat. Can any idea ever be truly original? How do you achieve that balance?

One of my writing technique books

There are certain things a story, particularly a fantasy story, apparently needs to include one or more of. I have come up with a list, based on my own reading experience and a search online for other readers and writers thoughts on the subject:

  • A young hero – often prophesised as the Chosen One
  • The hero has issues with their father or mother or both
  • An old wise mentor who knows what needs to be done
  • A woman of some importance who needs help/rescuing
  • A love story, with an obstacle placed between the two lovers to prevent them being together
  • A despotic/mad/evil King or leader, and a power struggle between other contenders
  • A magical object, that perhaps only the hero can wield
  •  A journey or quest, perhaps for the magical object or ultimate weapon
  • A magical quality possessed by the hero, that he/she doesn’t know they possess
  • The need to overcome some disaster that happened in the ancient past
  • Fantasy races e.g. elves, dwarves, the undead
  • The use of words from an ancient language
  • Crystals, runes and/or gemstones

None of these plot devices are necessarily bad things, taken individually. My own novels include five or six of the things from this list. But writers have to think of ways of making these things more unique, more individual, different, written in their own style and not that of someone else. I started to think about this more after reading a discussion forum about the Inheritance series by Christopher Paolini, in which multiple people point out that not only do his books contain so many of these elements to be considered clichéd, but he is also being accused of clearly plagiarising the work of other writers (namely Tolkien and George Lucas). I have read these books (didn’t like them very much – too long, too unoriginal), but is this plagiarism? Some would argue yes (particularly when you look at the names of the characters/creatures and certain scenes and relationships). There really is no excuse for copying character names, particularly when you know someone like Tolkien spent a lot of time researching ancient languages before giving his characters the names he eventually chose. Similarities like that are a little bit too hard to swallow as just coincidence.

So although it can be difficult to come up with an idea that really is truly and absolutely 100% original, it is vital that whatever you write, no matter how many of the things in the above list you include, you make it original. Originality often comes from learning the rules and then breaking them – spend a bit of time learning what may be typical of fantasy writing and turn it on its head. Perhaps dwarves could live above ground instead of underground. The hero could be old instead of young. Perhaps the wise mentor is younger than the hero, and isn’t particularly nice or likeable. Such things seem simple, and might upset a few purists I suppose (dwarves that don’t live underground??), who might argue that there is little point in changing something that works, and that perhaps it has become a cliché to complain about fantasy clichés.

What do you think? Can an idea ever be truly original? Are there any fantasy novels you have read that you thought did a good job at putting an original twist on an often used plot device?

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