Originality in Fiction

I have been writing stories for a very long time now. The first time I put pen to paper as a hobby was when I was only 9 years old. That’s almost 2 decades ago now, I think I’m getting old. Back then I had a little writing club with some of my friends. I thoroughly regret never keeping what I wrote back then, because I bet it’d be the most awful writing I’ve ever done. And one thing I can guarantee you, it wasn’t very original. The few bits I do remember are that me and my classmates would find a hidden underground cavern under the playground and this would somehow lead to a pyramid and then a jungle. A long story short, it wasn’t very good and definitely not particularly original.

This brings me to today’s topic: Originality in fiction. I’ve been workshopping several short stories in the past month, and I think there are some good ideas there. What I ran into, was the fact that most every idea I had already existed in some form when I searched for it. This makes it hard to write something original, but is that really necessary? I did a quick wikipedia search earlier, and I found that J.R.R. Tolkien was not in fact the first person to ever use elves in his fiction. The first ever mention of elves is apparently in a 1924 novel by Lord Dunsany called The King of Elfland’s Daughter. This would make Tolkien the second person to use elves, although we do mostly attribute current day elves to him. And what we know as elves is quite similar to modern-day elves, compared to some of the others of his time. Since then many people have used elves, dwarves, orcs and halflings in their works of fiction and they’ve been playable races in Dungeons & Dragons for the longest time. But that’s stealing, you say. That’s someone else’s concept. And I half agree. I agree that it’s someone’s concept, but not that using it is stealing. Youtube and the music industry could learn a lesson from this.

So why do we take concepts from others, and what makes it right to do so? To look at this more in depth I want to take a look at the Isekai genre in anime. Now, don’t click away just yet, bear with me for a little bit. The Isekai genre started its popularity with the well known series Sword Art Online, which saw a bunch of gamers get trapped into a VR video game where if they died in the game they would die in real life as well. Basically, the genre consists of stories about people going to a different world, Alice in Wonderland style. Since then we’ve had people dying and reincarnating as; Slimes, Spiders, Demon Lords, Humans, Elves, Gamers and many more. This genre has been filled with tons of generic shows, but it’s also been blessed with some fantastic stories that would have never existed if we couldn’t take other peoples’ ideas and build on them. Some of these stories go into the strange, different aspects of moving worlds. One of my favorites, RE:Creators, shows characters from series suddenly showing up in the real world. Not only are the laws of physics very different in their original world, the fact that they can meet their creator, their god, is a very cool concept that I’m super glad the show explored.

So what’s the point of creativity then? If stealing concepts from other people is so successful and widely accepted, where do originality and creativity come into play. The list of Isekai shows I mentioned above were some of the more memorable ones. I’ve seen many, many more that I’ve completely forgotten over time. They didn’t add anything of value. I don’t mean to be rude to their authors by any means, but there has to be something there to make it stand out. I believe this can be done in two major ways:

  1. You take the basics of the genre and polish them to perfection. A decent example is Mushoku Tensei. This was one of the first in the genre to be written, and now that it’s getting an anime adaptation (see my review of season 1 here) is showing us that a polished concept will shine no matter how many others have tried to do so before.
  2. The second one is by putting a spin on the genre, and making something that stands out that way. The RE:Creators show I mentioned in the previous paragraph is a great example of this. Others are Kumo Desu Ga, where the main character is reincarnated as a demonic spider and has to fight and level up before even coming into contact with most of the new world. That is still airing and I’m very excited to see where it goes.

With the anime out of the way I think it’s about time to get to a conclusion. Some of the best concepts and ideas in fiction have already been written. I think it’s unlikely that we can come up with something completely creative and original now that will outshine stories like Lord of the Rings. What I do think is that we can take the concepts that they started for us, and build upon them. Polish them, give them a twist. We can use their building blocks to build our own, different worlds. And in those grand stories of elves and dragons, we can write people who feel real. With real goals, problems and dreams. That’s where the heart of the story lies. With people.

Thanks for reading.

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