Writing Reflections: Everything’s New Under the Sun

Writing Reflections is a weekly feature in which I will discuss my own thoughts about writing. Most of what I write is fiction or poetry, and while I am not a published writer (yet!) and make no claims to expertise, I hope you’ll get some use and/or enjoyment out of my musings!

On Originality

The question of originality is something of the bane of a writer’s life. Quite often, new works which take an old theme and twist it are praised for being original, innovative, inventive. Other, less successful works might be tagged as derivative, unoriginal or just plain cliche. But what is originality really? A dictionary definition tells us that originality is: “the quality of newness that exists in a piece of writing; that which has neither been produced before nor derived from any other source.” Or even, “the aspect of created or invented works by as being new or novel, and thus can be distinguished from reproductions, clones, forgeries, or derivative works. An original work is one not received from others nor one copied based on the work of others.” (Thank you, Google.)

At first glance, then, it seems that to be original means to be unprecedented. Unique. And absolutely bloody impossible. How can one be original anymore when everything seems to have already been covered?

  1. Everything is Original. I’ve done a lot of thinking about this, and I’ve come to the conclusion that, in some ways, everything is original. And this is because you are original. Every individual writer has their own unique and unprecedented combination of skill, talent, education, background, viewpoint, opinion and thought process. So, in essence, everything you write – unless you copy someone else word for word – is going to be your own. If it is similar to that of someone else, perhaps you had the same influences and ideas but you are not the same, and therefore your approach to the topic, your plotting, pacing, characters and emphases will all be different. Everything you create as a writer is something that has never been done before.
  2. Nothing is Original. At the same time, nothing is original, and not just because it’s all been done before. Human beings do not exist in a vacuum; centuries of language, culture and history go into forming the environment of each individual person, whose very identity and approach to life then rests on tradition and inherited understanding even if they are not aware of it. Every new thing we create is derived from something which came before it, no matter how indirectly. Human beings themselves operate according to similar patterns, emotions and needs. The only way to be truly original in this context would be to be from another planet, and even then, there would probably be similarities. Therefore, who needs to be original? We’re all part of one great big story: the Human Story. When we read, we want to encounter other characters in this plot of life. The things they share with us make them relatable; the ways they differ from us make them interesting, in ways which are already familiar to us. Different characters (assuming they’re well-written) are just different psyches, all modeled on a human ideal.
  3. Plagiarism is the Sincerest Form of Unoriginality. The only way to be truly unoriginal, I think, is to either copy word for word or directly lift a plot/idea from someone else with the intention of writing ultimately the same thing. As a corollary, the only way to ensure you’re being original is to be true to yourself and rely on your own ideas. You may find that someone else has got there before you. This doesn’t necessarily mean your idea needs to be scrapped: just that you need to work harder to make it your own.

I’m always on the look out for books that are similar to novels I’ve written or intend to write. In fact, I’ve found some of my favourite books that way. It’s made me have to work harder to ensure that I don’t directly copy from them, but I’ve learned from them too, things about my own style and what I like in a novel. Ultimately, I think, true originality is a myth that writers should leave to the critics – instead, we should focus on developing ourselves as writers and not worry so much over whether what we’re producing has been done before. With the depth and breadth of human history to pick from, chances are it almost certainly has!

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