All the Good Ideas are Old Already

19 08 2010
It's Arguable Whether I Had Any in the First Place

Image by Lucia. . . via Flickr

‘Originality is merely an illusion.’ ~ M.C. Escher

Originality is something of a pipe dream. I worry that what I’m writing looks too much like somebody else’s work. I like something of theirs and I have to work hard to make it different and my own. I don’t feel like I’m copying, but I worry that someday some reader will think, “well, he just lifted that from so-and-so.” I don’t want to get into too many details about some of the projects I’m working on until they’re closer to fruition, but I know that there’s an element that is similar to a movie that came out a few years ago, a movie based on a book that I’ve never read. It’s not identical. It’s not even close to identical and in fact, I had the idea all by myself while driving several years ago before the movie or the book even came out. But because there’s a common theme, I worry. Worrying, my friends, is what I do.

This is something that has always plagued me in my academic writing, too. There, at least, I always felt I had a somewhat novel approach, but part of the discipline in academic writing is that you recognize that your observations, your thoughts come from standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before. A professor I had in Germany once told us in class that it’s the most useless worry. “Just cite everything,” he’d say, “you’re lucky if 5% of what you write is new.” The tradition is centered on the literature survey and good papers cite often and cite well those who came before and led to something that is only new by a small degree.

For some reason, we expect a lot more from our fiction and, when I consult the logical side of my brain, it seems clear that that’s a really unfair standard. All the good stuff was used up a good 2,000 or more years ago. The Roman playwright Plautus took most of his ideas from the Greek Menander. Shakespeare “borrowed” his plots from an array of sources, including Plautus, the Greeks, and various other historical sources. Contemporary authors do it all the time. How many vampire books are there now? They all tip their hats to Anne Rice. I mean, Lestat sparkled before sparkling was cool. Anne Rice came from Bram Stoker, who came from other storytellers, and so on. Jonathan Franzen is influenced by DeLillo and Pynchon. End of the day, it’s not plagiarism.

I’m grateful to Orson Scott Card’s rendering of it:

Many writers, however, far from borrowing or seeking to be “influenced,” are desperately afraid of inadvertent influence to the point of paranoia. Since every good idea has already been used, getting too anxious about such chance resemblances is a waste of time.

Here’s my rule: Any idea you really like that absolutely works for your story is your idea, no matter who else might have used it before. The only limitation on this is what the audience will stand for – if you end your novel with the hero standing before a fire and the only way the ring gets thrown in is because someone else bites off his finger and then falls in, well, your audience is likely to be a bit disgusted – the resemblance is too close, the source way too well-known. Only if your intent is humorous can you get away with it.

You should not be penalized for having read widely, however. If your story has elements that you recognize as being similar to a book by someone else, so what? As long as it’s your own story, and those motifs feel important and true within the context of your work, they’re your ideas now.

The moral of the story is to worry less about those influences and old stories we have bouncing around in our heads and more about making those things our own. There’s always a fresh twist and an authentic voice to be given to whatever and, really, I think a part of the human experience takes a little comfort in know that we’re not being bombarded with the terrifyingly new every five minutes.