On Writing: Originality vs. Trope

As writers, we’ve had these conversations with our friends, family, readers, even other writers:

(1) Schenectady *
Me: “I’ve got an idea! I’ll write about werewolves.”
Them: “Yeah! That sounds cool! I love werewolf stories!”
Me: “Cool, I’ve got a potential reader!” (runs to office and starts typing away)
Me: (thinking) Hmm. I like this story…but I can’t help but feel it’s been done before…

(2) Bandwagonesque ***
Me: (thinking) Hmm. Wolf Children^ was a really cool anime. It’s given me some inspiration…
Me: (aloud) “I’d like to write a story like that.”
Them: “You mean fanfic?”
Me: “No, my own story. I’ve got a few ideas milling about.”
Me: (later, while writing) “Oh dear. This is a fanfic, isn’t it…?”

(3) I’m a Loner, Dottie, a Rebel ****
Me: “I want to write about werewolves.”
Them: “Oh GOD not another one. They’ve been done to death.”
Me: “They’re a trope, and they still sell. They’ve been written since…well, when was the first werewolf story, anyway?” **
Them: “Yes, but you’re not going to get it published. There’s a glut.”
Me: “There’s always been a glut. I have a few ideas–”
Them: “It’s never going to sell. Agents don’t want it, they have enough of them.”
Me: “Are you an agent?”
Them: “…”
Me: “Then shut up.” (hides in office to scribble in notebook–that’ll show ’em!)
Me: (later, while writing) “Shit. They’re right. Damn it.”

(4) Sell Out *****
Me: “I’m going to write a werewolf story!”
Them: “YES!”
Me: “It’ll be about love, about loving the enemy, about realizing who you really are despite everyone’s expectations.”
Them: “I’LL BUY IT!”
Me: “Hollywood will LOVE this.”
Them: “WE’LL GO SEE IT!”
Me: (wakes up from dream) “Well, hell.”

So yes…my point being, sometimes you come up with an idea where you just can’t win. You can come up with something you think is original, but there’s always something or someone in the background reminding you of those four dreaded words: it’s been done before. Of course, it’s already been proven time and again that your supposed original idea has been written by someone somewhere, either past or present. I’ve done it myself–I wrote my vampire novel Love Like Blood some years back. I didn’t consciously decide to write my own Twilight pastiche, far from it. My novel was taking the idea that the goth music genre really was infested by vampires, and riffing off that. Granted, the end result was far from perfect, and I’m sure it’s going to remain trunked, but the point is that I wrote it despite the dissenting voices.

Recently for my morning words I’ve been toying with a few characters that came to me just last week. I don’t know too much about them just yet, so I’ve been playing around with them, trying to get them to tell me their secrets. They’re being pretty stubborn about it, let me tell you. They definitely have a dark secret, and they’ve repeatedly come out and said they wouldn’t tell me what it was. Not just yet. All I know is that they’re hiding something, partly for their own safety, but possibly for everyone else’s as well. I’ve been building up who they are, little by little, throwing a lot of false hints in there. Were they related to my Mendaihu Universe? Were they something completely new? Were they inspired by the the fact that I’m reading Ransom Rigg’s second Peculiar Children book at the moment? Were they inspired by the fact that I’d just bought (but not yet watched) Wolf Children?

Then, last night, I came up with an image: a black bird, possibly a crow, tussling in the fallen autumn leaves with a black cat. It looks like they’re playfighting, taunting each other.

Could this image be related to the possible dark secret my new characters have been keeping from me?

And it dawns on me–I could very easily turn this into an animorph^^ story. Humans who turn into animals…or the other way around, animals who take on human form. It’s a trope that’s been used in multiple genres, from anime to horror to romance and back again. As they say, “it’s already been done.”

So how to make it original, then? The quick and simple answer, as always, is “make it your own story”. But what does that mean, really? Does that mean I’m using my own words and making up my own plot as I go, therefore it’s my own story? That certainly runs the risk of borrowing already-used (and often overused) ideas, especially if I don’t make myself aware that I’m doing so. No, there’s more to it than that. Could it mean that I took a well-told story and put it in a new setting, like all those fairy tale retellings we often see in Hollywood movies? That’s all well and good, but that runs the risk of being derivative and unoriginal.

So where does that leave us?

Character.

Many writers, agents and publishers will often say “make it your own” when talking about writing a new story in an old trope, but I’d like to think that what they’re really trying to say is to make the characters original, and the originality of the plot and the setting will follow. Create an original character and find out how he or she (or it) fits into your potential story universe. Come up with a character that fascinates you, build on their background, find out what makes them tick, and at the same time, think about their place in your created universe. Why do they feel out of place? Why do they think they’re better than others? Who or what is threatening them?  Why are they threatening others?

My new characters are definitely hiding something, and if my vision from the other night is anything to go by, then I’ve created two further ideas: they’re hiding their animorphism for a good reason, and they’re possibly hiding it from people (or things!) that could cause them harm if others knew about it. But I’ve also created further depth apart from these two points by building character–I’ve created a few individuals who, in their everyday human lives, are deeply creative, have close ties with their community, and upon first glance would be considered your typical townies in a small New England town. They fit in with their surroundings rather than being the weird outsiders, and no one’s the wiser. It’s not until an as-yet-unplanned outside influence potentially threatens their lives. Thus: I have possibly decided to write a story about animorphic people–itself a trope as old as the hills–but I’ve made it my own because I’m focusing on the characters with animorphism, not the ability itself.

Lastly, I rarely think about trying to avoid or follow tropes while I’m writing the story, because that really isn’t something I should be focusing on at that point. Sure, I have it in the back of my mind, but I only consciously think about it when I’m venturing too close to predictability. Otherwise, I’m quite aware that I’m writing in trope. The trick is to see how my characters react within this trope. Therein lies the originality.

– – –


Notes:
* – Reference to Harlan Ellison’s famous answer to questions about where he gets his ideas.
** – Werewolf lore popped up sometime in Europe around the 15th century.
*** – Teenage Fanclub album, 1991. Infamously known for being Spin magazine’s best album of 1991 over Nirvana’s Nevermind.
**** – Song from the Get Up Kids off their 1999 album Something to Write Home About.
***** – Song from Reel Big Fish off their 1996 album Turn the Radio Off.
^ – Really, it’s a lovely-looking anime. We haven’t watched it yet, but it’s won all sorts of awards and just recently came out on dvd. Check out the trailer here.
^^ – That’s animorph–humans with the ability to change to a different animal. Anamorphic deals with widescreen film ratio and how it’s shot.

2 thoughts on “On Writing: Originality vs. Trope”

  1. That was a very interesting and helpful post! I definitely also get the feeling that everything I think of has already been done. Thanks for sharing how to make it original; I will definitely keep this in mind. Best of luck on your project!

  2. You articulated that really well. It’s something I’ve often thought about, that fact that there are no originals stories, just stories we tell in our own way. That’s why I also like to think that everyone has at least one great story in them that no one else can tell. Because no one else would tell it the same way.

    I love the image of that crow and that cat, by the way. I hope you finish something with it.

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