It's All Been Done Before, Right?

2012-Feb-4 -> from the 29-days-of-fantasy department Tags:

I've engaged in a number of conversations with people over the last little while about how "everything has already been written". There are some people in the school of thought that there are no more original ideas, that it's all been done.

Today's guest blogger feels differently, and I tend to agree. Sometimes we get so stuck on an old idea or way of doing things, that we forget what the difference between creating and deriving is. Harper Jayne brings us back to basics, and gives us a lesson on the difference, and how to be original.

But first, a little bit about our guest blogger for today:

Harper is a writer of genre fiction, primarily science fiction and fantasy. As an avid reader and writer from a young age, he loves making contact with others who share in his passion for the written word. He's a former computing journalist and video game writer, and has been writing long fiction full-time since 2009. His debut novel KNAVE will be published in 2012.

And with that, on with the show...

You're here for 29 days of Fantasy so we can assume you're one of those readers who loves a good fantasy read. I know I do! Love those fantasy books. I devour them.

So maybe you're like me, an avid reader of all things fantastic, and consequently you know all about the genre. You know about the ancient dragons and sneaky goblins. You're aware of all the magic swords as well as how brutal orcs are. Not much gets past you after thousands upon thousands of pages of fantasy novels.

But that's kind of too bad, isn't it? That all of our fantasy tricks have been played, I mean. That we authors are just stuck with slapping a coat of paint on an idea and reselling it to you readers? I mean sure, it's really fun to read about new characters with some different set of problems. No doubt. But the heroes are just going to run into orcs on their way to rescue the little girl from the dragon, after all.

Only that's not all there is to it. At least, that's not all there needs to be. While there's a (very special and revered) place for the classic tales which play on all of our expectations, there is still plenty of room for originality in fantasy. Still room for readers to wonder "what just happened?" or "what is that thing?"

So as an author how do you figure out new ways to do things? We obviously have these imaginations, but a quick glance at something like a role-playing game manual will show you that a whole lot of what we can imagine has already been conjured up by someone. So first of all, you don't.

You don't?

You don't reach into a game manual. Or a book of mythology. Or your favorite fantasy novel. Instead you look elsewhere for inspiration and create your own ways of doing things. Sure, some of what you come up with will then be similar to other things you have read or seen, but others will be unusual, and if you're lucky a little bit special.

I once played in a game of Dungeons & Dragons where the Dungeon Master attacked us with creatures that were made of metal spikes nearly a foot long. They were like giant vicious jacks with points. He took great care in describing them. None of us had any clue what they were. Stabby, spiky, iron, pointy, bit less than a foot long... any guesses?

They were Nine Inch Nails.

No, seriously. We were attacked by creatures inspired by an industrial rock group. Now before anyone gets any great band-inspired ideas I feel it fair to point out that Barenaked Ladies have been a part of fantasy literature for a while now. Also, Flaming Lips, been done. Dig deeper if you're going for inspiration in the music business. (And please, no Stay Puft Diddy if your writing swings paranormal.)

I'm writing a fantasy trilogy right now, and as such I've been tasked with the same thing all fantasy authors are. To build a place that has its own rules. Ways in which things work that make sense as a whole. Build the stage and populate it with everything under the sun (and sometimes beyond...) and that means accepting or rejecting a laundry list of common conventions.

One thing that is more unusual about the world I am writing in (notice I do not say unique, as that is a terrible habit to fall into since you are unlikely to have a wholly original idea) is the way I handle race. First off, no elves, dwarves, etc. Also no orcs, goblins, etc. Sounds like a more pulpy swords and sorcery with just humans now, right? Not exactly. Yes, my races are humanoid. Yes they share many characteristics with humans, and they can intermix. However the individual races (there are four, with some significant sub-racial differences in one race) are not so easily associated with human ethnicities. They have their own unique mix of features which makes them human-like, but also not, all at once. (Thus there is no analogue for an African or an Asian, for example.)

Consider this: the coloration of hair and eyes for some of the races exceed human norms. (Straying into genetic impossibilities/improbabilities.) The height and weight factors of specific races also fall outside of what could be reasonably expected from humans. You might start to twitch and demand to see proof that I haven't just cut the points off of elf ears and put bandages on them, but really, the actual list of traits for these races was created, and not derived.

And there's your difference. Creation as opposed to derivation. This is the key concept of the article, so let me elaborate.

Derivation is taking something which already exists and (sometimes slightly, sometimes pretty heavily) modifying it to suit the purposes of your writing. Tolkien's tall and regal elves become shorter and less noble in some works, just as his goblins are given varying degrees of intellect by authors who have come after him. And of course, Tolkien had no monopoly on such mythological beings. Others before him and his contemporaries wrote of such things as well.

This derivation is very common in fantasy. It's also absolutely wonderful and a totally legitimate way to do things. I'm reading something highly derivative right now and loving every second of it. Unless the second half of the volume disappoints it's getting a 5-star on Goodreads. So don't get confused here, derivation and derivative are not dirty words.

Creation is the act of making something from nothing. Now, we rarely ever create something completely original, but what help classify something as a creation is when it is a mundane list of things that we begin with. So imagine that a writer needs an enemy for their protagonists to face off against, and it needs to be a non-humanoid (as in, not just a "baddie" to be reasoned with) because the plot calls for a very physical confrontation with no real greater meaning. (Of course, there's always a reason for putting a fight scene in, I'm just saying that in this case talking isn't part of the equation.)

So the writer needs a basis. Where does this thing come from? What's it doing here? Is it natural? Magical? Loads of questions. In order to create something you have to avoid "it's a dragon, but purple and it shoots rainbows" because that really is a derivative of a dragon. Nothing wrong, again, but not a creation. It's not something fairly unusual, which is what we are aiming for when creating. Instead, say the author starts with the idea that it's a rare natural beast and it resides in the forests but it is not normally much of a threat to the characters as it only eats much smaller beasts. Instead a character will disturb it, and it will attack.

The creature roared as it was startled by Thumly's clumsy tumble from the low branches. It swung around and lumbered towards him, jaws glistening with the blood and guts of the fish it had been eating before the dwarf interrupted its meal. It's dark brown fur was regular in color but for a lighter patch around its face. Thumly shuddered at the noise, but stood his ground and began to wave his left arm as he drew his sword with his right. The bear came on, thundering across the clearing slowly, but inexorably...

So we see, at this point, it could really just be a bear and the scene would work to establish Thumly as a clumsy but courageous oaf. And there would be nothing wrong with that. But instead, let's say the author keeps pushing for something to reinforce the fantasy world and give the readers a bit of a thrill at seeing something new. So the writer decides this animal is actually ancient and it is mostly extinct. It's also sacred to one character's culture. It's larger than most beasts, and it has bright feathers, even though it has no wings at all. It has a reticulating maw because it eats only once a fortnight, slowly digesting. It normally runs on all fours, but it fights reared up.

See how the details keep piling on? These may all be traits animals on Earth have or have conceivably had, but we're not working with an established base creature here. Instead we have created a whole new (and hopefully exciting) creature by combining different elements. When our creation makes it into the scene, we might see this instead of a bear:

Thumly slammed into the ground and the wind was forced out of him. He groaned and peeked his head up. No more than twenty feet from him was a massive beast crouched down over a freshly slain wild pig. The creature's massive maw was wrapped around its prey but it pulled back as it noticed an intruder. Vibrant plumes shook as the thing rounded on him, their display nearly outdoing the gaudiest clothes he'd ever seen any of the Tanlerian streetwalkers dress up in to entice their clients. It started towards him on all fours but as it drew closer it reared up and extended the four claws on it's forelegs. "Don't hurt it," cried Yalla, her voice nearly a squeak,"there's a year of bad luck in it if you do!" The short, sturdy man grumbled to himself and started to sweat heavily as the beast closed the gap...

So there's something new. It's not a bear, or a dire wolf, or a saber-toothed tiger. It started out from an idea of what the plot needed, and piled on traits which led to the final form. We'll call it the Twenine Dasafantas in honor of this series of blog posts. It's our creation, and maybe one day someone will go all derivative on it's hiney.

So sure, there's nothing new under the sun. It's something I believe is true at least in part. But that does not mean we fantasy writers will always offer up derivative works. We'll still manage to sneak one by you every once in a while. And when we do, hopefully you'll sit for a second and appreciate the work we did in showing you something you hadn't already seen a hundred minor variations of.

In closing, there's one thing I would warn strongly against for all the writers who are reading the series this month. If you are going to avoid being derivative, don't call your creations something that they are not. Nobody can get away with calling a race dwarves despite the fact that they are eight feet tall, have red skin which is made of rocks, and they can't see. Seriously. Make up a new name. Readers will thank you for it. (And your creation will not become a meme which is ridiculed across the net.)

(P.S. If you'd like, you can still call my races derivative after you've read the novels. I won't be offended. They are, after all, close enough to humans, and race is often one of the hardest things to engage in creation with in a fantasy world.)

Not all of my readers are writers, but I'm willing to bet a large number of them are. There are also gamers and open source developers in the mix as well. This article is a good one to have in mind when working on any kind of project, whether it be a novel, a new D&D campaign, or a new software project.

The key to being original is remembering the difference between derivation and creation, and thinking outside the box for inspiration.

Thanks again for visiting my blog during this 29-day event. Tomorrow, I have a VERY special guest appearing, who was very gracious in taking the time out of his busy schedule to write for me. Stay tuned for another great day!

Thanks for reading!

I'm always interested in hearing what you have to say. Contact Me, I'd love to hear from you.

Don't forget to join in on the conversation in the comments section below.


By Tim Moon on Sat 4 Feb 2012 03:29:36 am [ Reply ] Ah! D&D, how I miss thee. Let me count the ways... hahaha! Great article, Harper.

By Harper Jayne on Sat 4 Feb 2012 04:18:47 am [ Reply ] Thank you Tim!

By Norv on Mon 13 Feb 2012 06:40:43 am [ Reply ] Thank you for the reading, and good proof! Yet, it's never an easy task.

Also, my thanks goes to the host of this series, it's well worth following!

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