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How much of your story is "original"?

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ChaseJxyz

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I'll preface this with "yes I know 'originality' is a very vague concept," so the definition I'd use here is "something that came from your brain and not intentionally inspired from somewhere else."

My main WIP, to me, feels mostly original, in that I came up with the setting, plot, and characters are things I came up with; the only thing that I feel like I've taken from elsewhere is the "visual" design of some characters, but everything else is so different I don't think anyone would ever notice it (besides some phoenixes that have patterns/colors like some real bird species). Meanwhile, with another WIP, 4 characters have similar personalities/details to characters from a specific story. The themes and parts of the tone are heavily inspired by another story, and honestly, I would be very happy if someone said "Wow this is just like X!" since I look up to X so much. But I also feel that if someone says "Hey, isn't this just [character] from Y?" then I'd feel like a fraud, as these characters aren't wholly (like 95%+) original, they're ~10-60% original.

I'm very familiar with the "and great writers steal" quote and I know that the more you work on a facet of your story, the more it becomes your own original thing. But is it common for other writers to be plucking things from different stories and using those as a base/template for their story? Does that happen a lot or a little? Or to put it another way: if your job is "recipe writer," is it more common for you to start from scratch and use your general knowledge of food science/what tastes good to come up with each step on your own? Or do you start off with someone else's recipe (could be grandma's or from the can) and you alter it until it's what you want it to be?
 

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My projects usually start with genre inspiration, often after I encounter something I really like. The current project I'm querying was inspired by the resurgence of giant monster movies (and my lifelong love of them). The book I have a chapter for and a query in SYW was inspired by Netflix's Dark, even though it has almost nothing to do with it, conceptually, outside of 'mystery with small town and paranormal stuff happens'.

My next project is going to be my first out-and-out space opera, since me and the husband have slowly been going through Babylon 5, though premise-wise, there's really nothing connecting the two.
 
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lizmonster

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I don't really know how to answer this question. Certainly I write SF because I was raised on Star Trek, but despite loving the show I thought it got a lot of things wrong. I'm not sure if my stuff is so much inspired by Trek, or just a result of my own thoughts about the sorts of social questions that come up when one is positing a (mostly) successful future society.

I wrote mystery for decades before I turned to space opera. It wasn't really a deliberate change. I both stole nothing for my mysteries, and drew from every detective show I'd ever watched.

I dunno. None of it's on purpose. I steal from everything in my life.
 

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My sci-fi setting is an extrapolation of current issues such as global population, climate change, advances in technology and such. I might use names inspired by other works, but the characters, settings, and such are my own, to the best of my knowledge.

Given I have a reading base of four decades? I might use influences I am unaware of.
 

MaeZe

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All of mine is original as far as actual story elements. I can't even find a loosely related comp for my query.
 

MaeZe

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My sci-fi setting is an extrapolation of current issues such as global population, climate change, advances in technology and such. I might use names inspired by other works, but the characters, settings, and such are my own, to the best of my knowledge.

Given I have a reading base of four decades? I might use influences I am unaware of.
We all do that. I happen to have taken a lot of things from my real life experiences but there probably are bits and pieces from books I've read as well.
 

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We all do that. I happen to have taken a lot of things from my real life experiences but there probably are bits and pieces from books I've read as well.

Yes. This is what storytelling is, isn't it? We take something we know about the world, something deeply personal, and we wrap fiction around it so we can explain it to everybody else. Stories don't appear in a vacuum - they're built on everything we've experienced in our lives - but each one is unique, regardless of where its elements originated.
 

Iustefan

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Philosophically, none of it. Everything I think, and thus write, likely came from somewhere or someone else, in part or in whole, and all I am doing is re-arranging it. Unless we count creativity as just re-arranging things into something newish.

Realistically though, or how it feels to me, all of it just wells up out of some primordial sludge type place near the back of my brain. If that's not creativity then nothing is.

To better answer this question, I think it is normal to have lots of influences, and I don't think it's a problem at all to steal from them and turn it into something new-to-you.
 
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Woollybear

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Hi Chase,


But is it common for other writers to be plucking things from different stories and using those as a base/template for their story? Does that happen a lot or a little? Or to put it another way: if your job is "recipe writer," is it more common for you to start from scratch and use your general knowledge of food science/what tastes good to come up with each step on your own? Or do you start off with someone else's recipe (could be grandma's or from the can) and you alter it until it's what you want it to be?
I found Harry Potter derivative of Narnia (and JKR has called CSLewis an influence) and I found Eragon hugely derivative of Pern (and I believe Paolini and McCaffrey have both acknowledged this and are content with it.) These similarities annoy me, personally, although others assure me the work I thought was the original piece is derived from something earlier which I haven't read.

In writing clubs, some fraction of folks come in with their own project having cut their teeth in RPG/fan-fiction. I would say that their past experience shows in their excerpts (it can read like FF), and FWIW I don't respond as well to those excerpts--not until the writer can move the story into newer territory. I sometimes encourage such writers (who are often younger) to push themselves so that they are less reflective of ... for example, the episode where Sam gets demon powers so that he can cast the demons back to hell... except for his girlfriend demon. Because if they don't, everyone is going to recognize their story.

I don't use 'recipes' from other books, but I do look for archetypal characters and archetypal settings and themes and ask if I can use those same devices. As an example, there's liminal space--which is sometimes but not always a portal--in Narnia (the wood between the worlds), in Doctor Who (the phone booth), the bus stop in HP7, and so on. I made a conscious decision in my novel WIP to add a liminal space because it is useful to provide "a period of discomfort, of waiting, and of transformation. Your characters' old habits, beliefs, and even personal identity disintegrates." I questioned whether I should add this fantastical space, since I try to stay in SF not F, but in the end chose to add it.

So, when I read a book and find myself going 'ooh, I see what they did there' I wonder if I could apply the device to my own world.

(But, hopefully, I will never re-write that episode of Dr. Who where the stone angels are crying and if you see them something really awful happens. Or whatever.)

Your world feels very original to me. :) If there is source material, I have not read it!

(In future projects I plan to look at The Princess Bride specifically for clues on using an omniscient narrator character, and Rudyard Kipling as a possible inspiration for more lush language.)
 
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Al X.

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As an action adventure writer, in terms of the basic plot, pretty much everything has already been covered in one form or the other, some many times over. It's how the characters deal with the various situations that makes it interesting, or not. The penalty for coming up with an 'original' plot is that you have to really stretch things way out there, impinging on sci fi and fantasy, which is a put off for the genre.
 
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Albedo

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If we're to be honest, just about everything I write plot and setting-wise is a mishmash of stuff I've liked from elsewhere, and/or a inversion of genre tropes I don't like. The only things that are mine are the particular hairball of elements my brain coughs up at the time, and the voice I use (which I'd be arrogant enough to call distinct, though even it is largely a collection of literary tics I have absorbed from other, better authors).
 

Albedo

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(I say coughed up, because that's basically how my brain rolls. I don't plan out a recipe at all. I don't actually know what's going to happen in the story before I write it. Gotta let the subconscious do its wicked work. But when I'm done, then I can see the elements all laid out.)
 

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I consider everything I write to be original, even if I’ve been influenced by other creators.
 
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Fuchsia Groan

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The ideas that inspire my writing tend to be a little weird and out there. I then work to fit them into a recognizable genre framework that might actually be marketable. Even when I'm striving to be more conventional, people often tell me my stories and characters are "weird" (which all too often means unrelatable).

But "weird" isn't necessarily original. I've never written a pastiche or repurposed fanfic, but everything I write is influenced by other works. Someone on these boards pointed out the resemblance between a book of mine and an old X-Files episode I'd forgotten about, and they were totally right! The premise was similar; the stories went in different directions. It was a subliminal influence, something I wasn't consciously thinking about but that had made an impact on me.
 
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ChaseJxyz

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(But, hopefully, I will never re-write that episode of Dr. Who where the stone angels are crying and if you see them something really awful happens. Or whatever.)
Fun fact: There's this massive collaborative fiction project called the SCP Foundation (government files for various paranormal/spooky things), and the first one, posted on 4chan's /x/ board, is about a statue that does just what those angels do. So lots of people think the idea is from Dr. Who....but the original post was made before that Dr. Who episode ever aired.

A number of you mentioned that you write to "fix" or "invert" things you've found haven't worked for you, which made me realize I do do that a fair bit. But it's either "I'm going to make this queer because there's no cis/het explanation for this" or "this specific game mechanic/puzzle pissed me off so much I'm going to make sure I never do that myself." Most of the game design document for my visual novel idea is stuff like "no memorization puzzles, no 'okay listen to this tune now here's a piano I need you to recreate it perfectly' puzzles."

But stuff like that feels more "mechanical"/technical to me, while things such as "my main character is also a detective who is incredibly unsure of himself and has an inferiority complex" or other creative decisions feel more like taking from elsewhere. But also maybe I'm focusing too much on the similarities than the differences.
 

lizmonster

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But stuff like that feels more "mechanical"/technical to me, while things such as "my main character is also a detective who is incredibly unsure of himself and has an inferiority complex" or other creative decisions feel more like taking from elsewhere. But also maybe I'm focusing too much on the similarities than the differences.

Character is an entirely different experience for me than worldbuilding. They're entire people in my head. I couldn't always tell you how they got that way.

The only "borrowing" I'm aware of is for one MC, who's unusually, distractingly good-looking. Years ago I read an interview with Carol O'Connell, a mystery writer. The interviewer asked her about Kathy Mallory, her protagonist, who is a devastatingly gorgeous woman who's psychologically pretty shattered. O'Connell said she wanted to make Mallory beautiful because it gave her a power to counterweight her significant liabilities.

My MC is professionally accomplished, but emotionally a bit of a train wreck (definitely a detective fiction archetype). So I made him beautiful, because I liked O'Connell's reasoning. The rest of him is pretty much me, although I'm less messed up (and less beautiful :)).
 
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maryland

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I tend to work from experiences, taking situations and people and then stretching, modifying and changing them, transforming the material, rather like gardening. Waiting to see what will blossom and what won't work long-term. The result is a piece of work that is original, with very little comparison to any other book. I use reading to learn what not-to-do, far more than to find good bits to pinch!
 
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Ravioli

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My current animal adventure novel is inspired by the animal stories I love. Animals of Farthing Wood, Warriors, Watership Down, Lion King, Journey Home, Spirit, Plague Dogs,...
But they only inspired my work in that it's 1. an animal adventure, and 2. the animals are looking for a new home after losing theirs. Is that enough to be unoriginal? I don't know. These are common themes.
Despite the inspiration, I still consider it deeply my own, because the animal stories I write come from the heart as animals have always been my special interest and "babies". I also based the characters on my own pets. My story is not supposed to be a way to make a buck off of the other works' success, but more of a hommage to them as they've played such a huge part in my life to make me want to add my own on that shelf.


Is it my recipe or someone else's? I don't know. Both, probably. Clearly, many people have similar ideas, but perhaps they have not all read each other's work to get them.
 
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dickson

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Hi Chase,



I found Harry Potter derivative of Narnia (and JKR has called CSLewis an influence) and I found Eragon hugely derivative of Pern (and I believe Paolini and McCaffrey have both acknowledged this and are content with it.) These similarities annoy me, personally, although others assure me the work I thought was the original piece is derived from something earlier which I haven't read.

In writing clubs, some fraction of folks come in with their own project having cut their teeth in RPG/fan-fiction. I would say that their past experience shows in their excerpts (it can read like FF), and FWIW I don't respond as well to those excerpts--not until the writer can move the story into newer territory. I sometimes encourage such writers (who are often younger) to push themselves so that they are less reflective of ... for example, the episode where Sam gets demon powers so that he can cast the demons back to hell... except for his girlfriend demon. Because if they don't, everyone is going to recognize their story.

I don't use 'recipes' from other books, but I do look for archetypal characters and archetypal settings and themes and ask if I can use those same devices. As an example, there's liminal space--which is sometimes but not always a portal--in Narnia (the wood between the worlds), in Doctor Who (the phone booth), the bus stop in HP7, and so on. I made a conscious decision in my novel WIP to add a liminal space because it is useful to provide "a period of discomfort, of waiting, and of transformation. Your characters' old habits, beliefs, and even personal identity disintegrates." I questioned whether I should add this fantastical space, since I try to stay in SF not F, but in the end chose to add it.

So, when I read a book and find myself going 'ooh, I see what they did there' I wonder if I could apply the device to my own world.

(But, hopefully, I will never re-write that episode of Dr. Who where the stone angels are crying and if you see them something really awful happens. Or whatever.)

Your world feels very original to me. :) If there is source material, I have not read it!

(In future projects I plan to look at The Princess Bride specifically for clues on using an omniscient narrator character, and Rudyard Kipling as a possible inspiration for more lush language.)
The Dementors in Harry Potter look to me as if they owe a lot to the Spectres of Indifference in His Dark Materials.
 
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dickson

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I finished a rough draft of my WIP before realizing the central plot element has a distorted, but unmistakable, resemblance to Hal Clement’s Needle, despite being a very different kind of story. A minor element bears a distant resemblance to Spice from Frank Herbert’s Dune. Apart from that, I freely appropriated tropes from Cold War Noir and any number of First Contact tales. Finally, I reworked actual experiences of people I knew in a couple of spots.

I think complete originality in genre fiction must be rare simply by virtue of accepting (with dissent as needed) conventions of a genre.

The point can be generalized. True originality in mathematics is notoriously difficult to achieve. There’s a story about the time Paul Valery was chatting up Einstein at a party. Valero was very interested in what might be called the experience of creativity. He asked Einstein if he had any particular reaction to having a new idea. Einstein said something like “I don’t really know. One so seldom has an idea.”
 
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ishtar'sgate

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Given your definition, nothing I write is original. The germ of an idea is always prompted by something else. The idea for my medieval historical sprang from a book I read about the black plague. My current WIP set in ancient Babylon, was seeded after reading of how armies had destroyed some of the ruins during the Iraq war.
 
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Norsebard

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Interesting thread :)


Hmmm... as a spec-fic writer (of sorts), I'd say I never even attempt to achieve any kind of originality. Pretty much all my stories have been designed to fit into specific genres and follow all the wonderful conventions and/or tropes that exist there. 95% of the fun for me is to latch onto something traditional and put my own brand on it.

Of course, that doesn't mean I'm consciously plagiarizing others.


Norsebard
 

Thecla

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Events-wise, all or none, depending on how you spin it. My work in progress is an historical novel based on real people's lives so it's tightly tied to what they did and where they did it. There's plenty of space round the edges to make stuff up but the stuff I'm making up for them is still stuff that has happened over and over. Just not, far as the record shows, to them. Voice-wise, that's mine, so it's as original as I am.

As others point out, original ideas are hard and fiction follows certain expectations. Novel variations on a theme are likely to be more easily accepted than something truly original that no longer fits the box.
 

Elizabeth George's book Write Away