One of the biggest worries that many new authors have is whether or not their work is original. Are they just copying their favorite novel? What if someone has written their idea before? How can they come up with something that’s new and interesting with all of the books that have already been written?
For some people, it ends up being crippling. An author who is writing a book on Yetis who run a magical school for gifted dragons sees that a new book has come out with the same premise and abandons the project for something else. Another gets feedback from her first beta reader and all it says is, “Writing about a magical school feels like you’re ripping off Harry Potter.” Or you have people who can’t even manage a short story without realizing that something in their premise is familiar and throwing it away.
And it seems reasonable to be concerned about originality. After all, you don’t have to go all the way to a copyright violation to make your book seem derivative and boring. I’ve read books before where it sounded like the author actually had Dresden Files open in his lap as he typed. And even following tropes too much can make your book seem dry and cliché.
But striving to be original is its own problem, one that can actually be worse than copying on purpose. As I noted above, it can easily put a stop to your writing or make you feel completely discouraged. More importantly, though, it’s impossible.
There have been trillions of stories told in the history of the world. According to Statista, there were 487 original television series that aired in the US in 2017 alone. Each, of course, with multiple episodes that needed their own story. And Publisher’s Weekly says that there were 1.68 million self-published books in the US in 2018.
If each and every one of those needed to be completely original, there’s simply no way that it could happen. Of course, you might argue that most of them are just derivative and your book will be better because it’s original. But those are just the ones that made it to release. For every tv script or book which is released, there are a dozen that are completed without ever seeing the light of day. No matter how you combine the plot of your book and what elements you put in, someone will have had the idea before and probably started to write it.
So if you come up with an idea where there’s nothing at all in the market like it, which seems completely original, there’s probably a reason for that. It could be that you’re an unparalleled literary genius. Or it could be that someone else has done it and failed miserably because it was a bad idea, didn’t make sense to anyone else, or was just impractical to publish.
An important principle here is Chesterton’s Fence. To paraphrase, author G.K. Chesterton proposed in The Thing that there are two types of people who will be walking through a field and see a fence that doesn’t seem to be serving a purpose. The first group will say, “I don’t know why this fence is here and it’s in our way, so we should remove it.” The second group responds, “if you don’t know why the fence is there, I certainly won’t allow you to remove it!” The first group is the one that is gored by the bull on the other side.
In writing, this comes up often when authors say, “I don’t see anything like this on the market, so it will make my book truly original.” Generally, the reason that it’s not on the market is that it doesn’t work.
A common example is “why aren’t there more illustrations in adult (or even young adult) fiction?” The answer is that readers don’t generally care about them enough to spend the extra money it would cost to draw, format, and print the extra images, especially not at the quality you can manage at a reasonable price.
Another that I saw recently was someone who wanted to write his fantasy “novel” in the style of a history book. Each section would a summary of a major battle or other conflict, with blurbs about different figures and such. It was a very unique approach, but the story is why people would care about those things. Rowling published textbooks about her world, but that was after people were drawn in through Harry Potter. After all, few people buy history textbooks for fun.
If you strive for originality, you’re just going to do things many other people have tried and found didn’t work. As another author recently put it, “tradition is not having to learn which berries are poisonous the hard way.”
Look for inspiration in other people’s work. Read everything you can in your genre (even the books that are bad). If you find out that someone else already wrote your idea, read their book. See what they did that you can do better. The great books aren’t great because they’re original. Harry Potter wasn’t the first book about a magical school, Tolkien didn’t write the first epic fantasy, Moby Dick wasn’t the first story about a monomaniacal hunter.
These books are great because they present old ideas in a new way. All of them had original elements, of course, but what new ideas they do include are incidental. None of the authors were trying to be original, even where they actually were. It was a happy accident.
If you discover there’s nothing at all like your book, that’s when you need to be very cautious, because it probably means there’s a bull on the other side of the fence.