Originality Isn’t Everything

Prometheus watches Athena endow his creation with reason, by Christian Griepenkerl (1877)

This post was inspired by the review in this morning’s Chicago Tribune for the movie Prometheus. The title is a quote from the article, quoting an unknown source. The reviewer (Michael Phillips) gave the film three out of four stars, in spite of its derivative nature. He called it ‘elegant’ and ‘stately’ and said ‘the best aspects of the tale are atmospheric.’ Phillips worries that such factors will be lost on the targeted teen audience for summer blockbusters, and he’s probably right. Don’t worry, I’m not going to bemoan the lack of patience of today’s audiences for atmospherics. I already did that a few weeks ago, here. This time I want to talk about derivation. I promise not to bemoan those who are too quick to cite it. Well, not too awfully much.

“I didn’t steal the story from anybody. I stole it from everybody.”

~Dan O’Bannon, writer of the movie Alien

At my signal, unleash Hell: I perk up for everything Ridley Scott does, primarily because my all-time favorite movie is Gladiator—also derivative, in so many ways. And yet I freely stole from it in writing my trilogy. The movie came out in 2000 and it was undeniably a great influence on my decision to set my work (begun in ’03) in the late period of imperial Rome. There were other factors, of course, and as with almost everything in my work, I look at imperial Rome in an inverted way, from the eyes of those Rome considered barbarians. But hindsight reveals that I shamelessly stole elements. In Gladiator, Maximus is a wildly successful imperial general, who rides with his own equine ala. He is not Roman by blood, but from one of the provinces (Iberia, remember his nickname was Spaniard). He is beloved by an emperor and plotted against by those who see his influence on that emperor as a danger to their own quest for power. Yep, I got one of those. Again, there are differences, but the influence cannot be denied.  Are you not entertained?!

Viewpoints from North and South: I’ve been a John Jakes fan since a young age, and North and South and the Kent Family Chronicles are old favorites. Also read Irwin Shaw’s Rich Man, Poor Man early on. So does it surprise you that I have brothers, one raised inside the fold of imperial power and the other an expatriate, ending up on two sides of a conflict? I thought not. I love exploring issues and conflicts from various perspectives. I had a great time inserting POV characters into situations where they are the outsider seeing the other side in a new light, and sprinkled those situations liberally throughout my work. I’m hoping this influence, learned in my earliest reading, adds richness to my story that readers will enjoy.

Wherefore Art Thou, Lover? Another major element of my story I suppose some might consider derivative is my romance. Yes-siree Bob, I have star-crossed lovers. They long for one another, and yet are kept apart by their duties and societal/clan mores. Of course this goes back beyond Shakespeare, and one could argue it’s a component, in at least some small way, to just about every romance story ever written. My biggest influence in this realm has to be The Far Pavilions, by M.M. Kaye. This was one of those books that kept me up into the wee hours as a teen. I’m man enough to admit it: I was rooting for romance. Oh, how I wanted Ash and Juli to find a way to be more than the friends they were as children. And it was just so damn impossible. And yet… Well, no spoilers here, for those who’ve never read it.

From the Greeks to a galaxy far, far away: Honestly, I didn’t set out to steal from my favorite stories. Most of these influences occurred to me after I finished the first draft of the trilogy. I merely set out to write the kind of story I loved to read, so of course my favorite stories showed up in there. And I could go on and on, finding stories I love and how they’ve influenced my work. I’ve already written a post about how I have warrior chicks, and the influences there, from Jordanes to Steven Pressfield. One of the biggest elements of all is the overriding conflict of my world, wherein a republic has become an empire, and the components of its bureaucracy become a corrupting force willing to exploit fringe groups for profit and power, leading to insurrection. If that’s not familiar to you, perhaps you’ve kept your head buried in the Tatooine sand for the last 35 years.

“There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt.”
~Audre Lorde

Oldest Story in The Book

A good ribbing: In an argument over the movie Avatar, I once challenged a friend of mine to name a story that was totally unique. He pondered for a time before spitting out, “The Truman Show.” That’s an easy one and one of the oldest. A lone overseer creates an entire world and ends up falling in love with the subject he places in it, only to be thwarted in keeping him under his thumb by inadvertently allowing a woman into the picture. Duh. It’s Genesis.

How about you? Writers, what stories have influenced your work? Readers, are you bothered by what some call derivatives in your stories? Do you dare to take the challenge, either to claim your story is totally unique or even to name one that has none? I’m interested.

27 comments on “Originality Isn’t Everything

  1. You already know about my liberal use of Labyrinth! I, too, didn’t realize it until after I was pretty much finished with the book. I think what makes anything unique is the way we combine those elements that made their way into our subconscious. My concern is not using the same elements in the same way over and over again. I’m trying to be very aware, as I start my next novel, with being original with myself.

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    • I loved your Labyrinth post, Lara! Hey, I think this post is derivative of that one. D’oh! There I go again, shamelessly stealing, and this time from a friend! I love the Lorde quote because finding new ways to ‘make them felt’ is what it’s all about for me.

      I think being aware is wise, but Pressfield said somewhere that you’ll be kidding yourself if you think you’re not stealing some aspect of your work. He said he’d rather admit it, and tell those he stole from that he only steals from the best (or words to that effect). Thanks for reading and commenting!

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  2. mapelba says:

    You might like watching this short video series called “Everything Is a Remix.”
    http://www.everythingisaremix.info/watch-the-series/

    Recently I got into a debate about the Hunger Games being a “rip-off” of Battle Royale. I said it wasn’t a rip-off, as the idea of people fighting to the death for the entertainment of others has been around a long time–right, Gladiator fan? 🙂 But my student–21 years old and not well-read–insisted that Hunger Games was stealing from Battle Royale and that the author was lying when she said she didn’t. Sigh.

    I don’t know how anyone can claim to be completely original. We are all creating out of everything that has gone into us.

    You may that I use fairy tales. Last month when I participated in Story-a-Day May, all my characters were from fairy tales. I added my voice to the mix–in the way I think only I can (just like everyone can access her or his own voice), but I’ve borrowed, borrowed, borrowed.

    Isn’t there a quote that says, “Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.”

    Good topic, Vaughn!

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    • OMG, Marta, I LOVED Everything is a Remix! In my junior high and high school years, Zeppelin was everything! Thanks so much for sharing!

      As for Hunger Games, my first thought was it was a riff on The Lottery, the short story by Shirley Jackson, but she was obviously stealing from other great sources, too, to create something truly brilliant. I always like rehashed fairy tales too. My favorite of late is the retelling of the Grimms’ tale Snow White and Rose Red, by Margo Lannigan, called Tender Morsels (have you and I already talked about that one? If so, I apologize). Great job on Story-a-Day, btw.

      Love your last quote. That’s just perfect. Thanks so much for… everything–video link, reading, great comment, and the follow. It’s all really appreciated. 🙂

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  3. ddfalvo says:

    Wonderful post on a topic that drives every writer crazy at some point. I loved the references to your upcoming novels– it was nice to get a peek at what’s in store. Can’t wait until their finished. 🙂

    Barbara Grizzuti Harrison said, “There are no original ideas. There are only original people.”

    I laughed when I read that Genesis was the “first Truman Show” but I wasn’t surprised, the Bible has everything in it. I choose concepts that I believe are less traveled or perhaps forgotten, and then while I’m hammering them out on the keyboard, some new film will appear that has brought one of *my* concepts back into the light and I’m devastated. I’m always saying, “Oh, no! I have that,” like I thought I could own it.

    We can’t own an idea, but we can give it a style of our own. We shape the models, choose the accessories, and set stage. Every designer can make a dress, but not every dress looks the same. I take comfort in that.

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    • Oh, I’ve got such brilliant friends. What a great additions the Harrison quote and your wonderful designer/no-dress-is-the-same analogy, D!

      Yeah, the Bible sort of shows up a lot,doesn’t it. Almost as much as the ancient Greeks. It’s all in the fabric of our mythos here in the western world. I know you and I have already talked about our “OMG, that’s my story,” moments, haven’t we? It stops me for a moment every time, until I remember if it’s out there, and people like it, it’s probably a good thing. 🙂

      Thanks for such meaty additions to the discussion, my friend!

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  4. I was just bemoaning Hollywood the other day, “Don’t they have any original ideas?” But that’s not really fair to Hollywood, because there are no new ideas (though I am tired of Spiderman). I am certain that I have been influenced by all the writers I’ve ever read, if not in a great part, by at least a small part. I don’t think we can avoid it. I get my ideas from books I read, from programs I watch, from articles and blogs. Whether these ideas make it into a story or poem or one of my own blogs, all my ideas come from someone else. But each one of us makes our stories our own from the very first few words of the opening chapter or the first line of a poem or short story. I read Marta’s Fairy Tale Asylum stories all through May. Then the other night I had a great idea for a woman in an asylum. Yes, Marta’s blog stories got me started, but the story I’m writing will be my own.

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    • I am sooo with you on the Spiderman thing. I suppose they could save the franchise, ala Batman, by getting back to the nitty-gritty, but I sort of doubt it. The musical may have ruined Spiderman forever. I think Hollywood’s lacking is the blockbuster formula itself, and the perceived need to rock us out of our socks rather than to provide us with a sound story.

      You’re right, Karen, that our ideas and the details of our work come from all around us, and WE are the rogue factor. Our experiences are the weft and warp that produce a unique weave. It’s so cool to hear that Marta’s stories triggered a project for you! 🙂 Good luck with it!

      Thanks, Karen, I really appreciate your support!

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    • mapelba says:

      That makes me happy to read.

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  5. fandina72 says:

    Fabulous post (again!) Vaughn 🙂
    I think one of the reasons there is nothing new is because our ‘issues’ are all the same….we all want love to win in the end, for good to triumph evil, for the underdog to rise, for the enslaved to be free, and for the baddy to have at least one slightly redeeming feature 😉
    As stated in other comments, we all write a version of what has gone into us. I don’t have a problem with that at all. I know I am standing on the shoulders of other fantasy writers to write my novel. Just as they did.

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    • ‘Standing on the shoulders’ is such an apt phrase, Susannah. I know I was not only inspired by Tolkien and others, but in many ways they are the ones who gave us a genre to exploit and explore, and adapt and alter. You are so right, that the core issues never really change. In hindsight I see how my work reflects my views on so many issues, including racism, militarism, religion, the role of personal choice, among so many others. And funny you should mention the baddie having at least one redeeming quality, but I really enjoy trying to make people squirm by seeing something they like in my antagonists. GRRM is a master of this. More richness to the tale, as far as I’m concerned. 🙂

      I know fantastic stories have been around since the dawn of communication, but without those who came before us in the modern age, I doubt I’d be writing the kinds of stories I write. I’m always honored when readers compare me to someone else.

      Thanks for reading and for the insightful comment, and for finding your way over here, sans email (sorry about that).

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  6. I love this post. Seriously, you’ve given me some great insight into your stories, and your trilogy sounds wonderful.

    My latest YA is a horror novel, which if you know how scared I am (I jump at the faintest sound, scare easily), then you’ll know this is somewhat laughable. I’m working on some extra scary scenes right now, and I was out of town for work this past week and slept with the bathroom light on each night. Not sure if that’s sad or awesome.

    I watched a lot of horror movies as inspiration. Also, a lot of “Hauntings” on the Bio channel. I also watch a lot of documentaries on Netflix and pull in different aspects of different cultures. It’s been fun to write, but also quite terrifying.

    Thank you for a wonderful post 🙂

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    • Scared yourself with your own scenes? I vote awesome! 🙂 You sound like my wife. The best example I can give goes back to her childhood (and may explain her phobia). She was terrified by the Brady Bunch episodes where they went to Hawaii (if you haven’t seen them, Greg found an ancient, cursed idol, and they had to return it to some scary caves). Although you’re obviously braver to take on the genre. My wife couldn’t even do the research.

      Thanks so much for reading, for the praise, and sharing about your work, Courtney! Can’t wait to read, although I’m not fond of sleeping with the bathroom light on. 😉

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  7. Tonia Marie Houston says:

    I had to think long and hard about what I wanted to add to this discussion. There is an awesome conversation going on- so kudos to you on a brilliant post. These are the best ones.

    The Hunger Games was mentioned. When I read them I thought of two S.K stories (perhaps he wrote them under the Bachman name?). The Running Man and The Long Walk came to mind. The Running Man is more well known. The Long Walk is a dystopian tale in which children are made to make this cross-country trek without any stops, provisions are limited, the slow and weak die off and there is one survivor at the end. I read this story as a teen and it scared the bejeezus out of me. But even Stephen King borrowed from others and history.

    I have no issue with this subject- there is nothing new under the sun. I realized how this pertains to writing when I read The Writer’s Journey. Human themes, desires, and fears never change.

    I’m writing a YA ghost story. How classic is that, lol? Like Courtney, I’m researching through movies, documentaries, and I love to visit old cemetaries.

    I think I read a great post about how we’re more than writers, we are storytellers. 🙂 We use our voice to make an old story new and relevant again. After all, “if we do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

    So, I’ve come to the conclusion that we are not just writers, but story tellers, thieves, historians, and prophets.

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    • Isn’t it a great discourse, Tonia? I said in one of the comments that I have brilliant friends, and it’s so true. I need to read more of the old King stories I missed. I’ll check out Running Man and Long Walk. King acknowleges his stealing, just as so many other smart artists do.

      I remember. 🙂 We are storytellers, indeed, my friend. And I love your additions. Thanks for being one of my brilliant friends and for adding so thoughtfully to the discussion. Good luck mining your old favorites along with your new research and cemetery visits. Don’t forget to take your shovel! 😉

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  8. elissa field says:

    What a great post, and interesting discussion. It’s especially interesting when you write a story, not realizing you’ve drawn from a classic. I had this happen with a story I wrote, set partly in India. I’d been working on it for six months, had my whole “original” story and characters laid down, and then, when I went into research mode, discovered I had basically retold the Ramayana, a classic Hindu story. Rather than fight it, I think I’ll use it. Let it be the bedtime story being read to the niece and nephew at night, as the plot unfolds.

    And btw, I’m a fellow Ridley Scott/Gladiator fan!

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    • Wow, that is very cool about your story turning out to be a retelling of the Ramayana, Elissa! You have a muse with a very international flair and an old soul. 😉 I agree, there’s no sense in fighting it. Funny you should mention bedtime reading for a niece and nephew. Some of my earliest work was intended for just that purpose. As I progressed, the work definitely took an adult turn, so that was out. It’s taken so long to finish, they’re now old enough that I can share it again.

      Glad to hear from another R.S./Gladiator fan. After writing the post, I had to watch it again last night–or at least my favorite chunks. Good Lord, that movie is fraught with great lines and inspiration for me. Thanks so much for reading and for the great comment, Elissa!

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  9. katmagendie says:

    I suppose no one writer or work or movie or situation moved me or influenced me in my novel-writing – not that I can think of – just an amalgam of riches I guess 😀

    I think a lot of my “social issues” stuff is hidden or so subtle as such that most people don’t mention it, really, which is fine by me because that’s not what I’m writing about – I’m just writing about people and how we aren’t perfect and about love and how some can’t love and I believe that to be true and how skin color and place and home and belonging and social status and etc etc are just a part of all the swirling chaos that makes us, us.

    or something like that – shoot, I just write whatever my pea-head spits out *laugh*

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    • One of my favorite things about following everything you do is how naturally it all seems to flow out of you. And yet it always makes total sense to me. For example, that middle paragraph is ONE sentence, with three commas, and, bam, there it is. Makes perfect sense to me. 🙂

      You may not have specific instances you can site, but all one has to do is read a Kat Magendie book, and they know that, as with Tennyson, ‘She is all that she has met.’ And then we get a little piece of that vibrant breadth of life for ourselves. 🙂 So thanks, for that wonderful gift and for reading and commenting today. Have a great Sunday!

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  10. Story Addict says:

    Excellent post, Vaughn. Without other stories, new stories could never be born. We are able to create because we have inspiration. What we are really doing is retelling stories, but changing elements constantly and transforming them into new ones.

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    • Funny you should mention the transformation and change that accompany the process. A Led Zeppelin song came on in the car and prompted me to tell a friend about the post, and about Marta’s Everything is a Remix vid link (2nd comment above). I told him how Zep had remixed all those blues artists, and then how the Beastie Boys and others had remixed Zeppelin into hip-hop. He thought for a moment, and said, “The elements are there, but what a transformation, in both cases. It makes me really happy about remixing.”

      I’m happy about it, too. 🙂 This post and the ensuing discussion have really made me happy about the process of retelling stories. Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Margaret!

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  11. I’m coming late, and this is probably a bad thing to confess for a writer, but I have a terrible memory for specific stories. (The exception would be unless I’ve studied them or reread them extensively.) The upside is that everything feels fresh when I write it. The downside is that my delusions only last so long.

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    • I don’t see a downside to your bad story-memory issue, Jan. There’s been a lot of talk of late about how our muses are really just our accessing our cogitive subconscious through the act of writing, like our brains go into autopilot as we write. If that’s the case (and there’s magic with that, even if you don’t believe in a muse, per se) then your subconscious will just distill and incorporate the themes and elements that moved you as you do the work. Pressfield says the muse comes through the act of doing the work–indeed, because of the work. So you’re golden, because I know what a hard-worker you are. 🙂

      I can’t wait to read your work. It’s bound to be memorable. 😉 Thanks, Jan!

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  12. liz says:

    I’m late as well Vaughn. This may sound silly, but I’ve always wondered whether we as a species have some kind of collective subconscious that holds fragments of stories that are key to our survival. Dragons and monsters and scary things that go bump in the night, for example, could be holdovers from our days as primitive hunters, when anything with teeth or claws was a threat. Star-crossed lovers could have threatened a fragile clan. In the same way that some animals know how to migrate to the mating grounds, without ever having been there before, we keep this primal knowledge and pass it down through generations.

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    • I’ve heard arguments against collective subconscious, Liz, but I believe! And you make great points in support. I felt like I was tapping into a collective subconscious when I first started putting prose on the page. It may have been more profound since my setting is fifteen hundred years ago. I had an outline, but these seemingly real people just sprang forth, and wanted nothing to do with my outline. It’s a magical feeling and phenomena for me, every time it happens, in spite of the nay-sayers.

      And I heard you just returned from a place that would evoke that collective subconscious to consciousness. Thanks for still coming by and supporting one of my closely held theroies so eloquently.

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