The #1 Tweak to Writing Truly Original Stories and Characters

The 4 Tweaks to Writing Truly Original Stories and Characters

The process of writing original stories is shrouded in mystery.

Occasionally, as part of my daily Writing Question of the Day (#WQOTD) on Twitter and Facebook, I’ll ask, “What makes your story original?” It’s a question that tends to get fewer responses than normal, and the responses I do receive are often nebulous or downright uncertain.

Every author wants to write original stories, but most of the time, we’re a little confused about how to get ‘er done. There are a couple of reasons for this.

1. This one’s the shocker: originality is actually much less crucial than you’ve been led to believe.

2. There doesn’t seem to be a definable process for creating originality (i.e., you either come up with an original idea or you don’t).

Today, you’re going to learn how to make reason number one work in your favor, and then how to initiate that elusive process to write original stories and characters.

How to Be Comfortable in the Bubble of Un-Originality

Want to know the reason so many authors have trouble answering my #WQOTD about original elements in their stories? Because they’re not writing original stories.

Want to know why they’re not writing original stories? Because they don’t want to.

And that’s okay.

There’s nothing new under the sun, and most of us are fine with that. As we covered a while back in our discussion of “the re-readability factor,” most readers love experiencing the same story over and over again. Same goes for authors. Often, we harvest our initial kernel of inspiration from the work of another author whose story we love. You put the book down and think, “want to write about sparkly vampires/Muggles/post-apocalyptic girl warriors.” How many fantasy authors got started because they wanted to stay in that same magical place to which Tolkien introduced them?

Twilight Stephanie Myer Harry Potter Philosopher's Stone JK Rowling Divergent Veronica Roth

Just as importantly, how many readers keep riding the cyclical trends all way to the end, simply because they love the re-scrambled repeated elements? Yes, they want a slightly new take, but more because they want the opportunity to explore different aspects of this same idea.

Which is all to say: if you’re having trouble identifying your story as something completely new and ground-breaking, don’t worry about it too much.

How to Push the Boundaries of the Bubble of Un-Originality

For all that readers are happy to keep gobbling more of the same delicious meal, they’re also–somewhat contradictorily–always in search of the next new thing. When something truly fresh and original sweeps onto the scene, it’s like a cool breath of fresh of air. Once its come, I often feel like I’m blinking myself awake–like I just got to experience something I had been wanting for a long time without even realizing it.

Original ideas tend to roll in cycles. Readers and authors alike are content to live within that bubble of un-originality for a while. But then the trends begin to evolve. They start pushing at the walls of the bubble, poking, prodding, and expanding, until suddenly they burst through and something new and exciting rolls forth–and creates a new bubble within which everyone’s stories live for a while before the cycle repeats.

If you want to be a innovative artist–and, not coincidentally, if you want to hang out in that lucrative zone of the next great genre trend–then the best thing you can do is constantly challenge yourself to think past your own comfort zone. You want to write about post-apocalyptic vampiric Muggles? No problem. But don’t stay in that spot just because it’s comfortable and enjoyable.

4 Tweaks to Consistently Creating Original Stories

Believe it or not, there is a process you can use to challenge your own originality and tweak your story into something that offers a new and entertaining slant on old ideas.

Here are four steps.

1. Understand Your Genre/Topic

It’s kinda like the old truism: “Before you can break the rules, you must understand the rules.” It’s useless to embark on a story you find new and exciting without first understanding its place within the library of existing books.

Dreamlander NIEA FinalistFor example, when I first started writing my portal fantasy Dreamlander, I hadn’t yet read enough fantasy to understand what concepts had already been done to death. I was having a ball with my classic medieval world, complete with classic fantasy creatures, such as dragons, elves, and brownies. Around the time one person challenged me to create something unique, another challenged me to read widely in the genre.

So I did. I asked for fantasy recommendations and read every single one of them. My understanding of the genre changed completely. Now that I could see what elements had already been overdone, I could also see the blanks in between that were still waiting to be filled in.

I replaced my dragon with the angelic Garowai, the elves with the Viking/Native American-inspired Cherazii, and the brownies with the symbiotic Reivers–and the story became so much the better for it.

Allara and the Garowai

Fan art of the Garowai by Jennifer Garrett.

This prerequisite of understanding your story’s background also applies to realistic facts. If you’re writing about World War I or race-car drivers or a five-star restaurant chef, you must understand that world inside-out. Literature is so full of romanticized clichés that sometimes the most original thing you can do is write the facts and nothing but the facts.

2. Figure Out What Your Story Needs

Let me tell you what originality is not.

As we talked about on Friday, originality is not sticking in every cool new idea you can think of just for the sake of cool newness. (There’s a reason Amish Vampires From Space was conceived as a farce!) Originality worth its salt must be more than merely original; it must contribute to the story in a meaningful way.

Take a minute to sit down and ask yourself: What does my story need?

For example, in outlining my historical superhero work-in-progress Wayfarer, I wrote a list of all the potentially interesting aspects inherent in:

  • My hero’s powers
  • My antagonist’s powers
  • The origin of those powers
  • The Regency period’s high society
  • The Regency period’s criminal underbelly

Wayfarer Scrivener Originality List

Then I tried to figure out two things:

1. How could I take advantage of each of these things in a unique way?

2. What original aspects were latent in these things and had never been used before?

Not all the ideas I came up with were great; not all were entirely original. But it was a fun exercise that forced me to think outside the box.

Storming 150-255I did the same thing when planning the aerial fight scenes in my recent historical/dieselpunk novel Storming. I wanted to come up with battle scenarios and plans that were out of the ordinary but that fit in perfectly with the needs of the story. It helped that the antagonist and his weapons were unusal enough to eliminate common solutions right out of the box. (Of course, my technical advisers made me cut some of my favorite ideas for the sake of realism–but you can still find them in the book’s Bonus Features, accessible via the link in the back.)

3. Add Multiple Layers

This is my all-time favorite method. In fact, it’s a required step for me in creating stories, even when I’m not consciously seeking originality. Most of my ideas start out pretty one-dimensional. (Often, the initial idea is one of those kernels gleaned from someone else’s book/movie/song, and if I were to just take off and run with it, the resultant story would either be fan fiction or plagiarism.)

In order for these little inspirations to turn into actionable stories, they have to collide with several other layers of inspiration. Mentally, I collect ideas as if they were shiny pieces of sea glass. Every now and then, I run my hand through the treasure chest, come up with a handful of unrelated pieces, and look for ways to fit them together in unexpected and interesting ways. As soon as I can combine three or more interesting pieces, I have a story–and, usually, not just a story, but an original premise.

sell more books steve millerIn Sell More Books, J. Steve Miller commented that:

Successful actor Johnny Depp once said that when he takes a part, he not only learns the lines and does what’s expected, but he tries to add “that little something extra.”

Depp’s iconic pirate character Captain Jack Sparrow was originally conceived as a vehicle for Hugh Jackman (and even named after him). Although Jackman would undoubtedly have been fun in the role, I can’t help feeling he would have played the character a little (or maybe a lot!) straighter than did Depp. Depp looked for an extra layer in a role designed to be simply a comic turn on a classic pirate archetype, and he transformed it into one of the most memorable and iconic characters of the 2000s.

Hugh Jackman Johnny Depp Captain Jack Sparrow Pirates of the Caribbean

You can do the same with your own characters and premises. Don’t settle for the “flat,” expected idea that first occurs. Come at it from interesting angles and add unexpected complementing pieces to create something exciting and innovative.

4. Challenge Your Own Expectations

This is the hardest step, but also the most important. Why is it hard? Because it’s incredibly easy to allow our imaginations to settle into comfortable routines. We throw in a car chase or a romantic subplot just because that’s what every other story is doing. The hero always has to win; the bad guy always has to lose. The good guy has to do only good things; the bad guy has to do only bad things. It’s expected. We expect it.

Secrets of Story Well Told William MartellIn Secrets of Story: Well Told, screenwriter William C. Martell reminds writers:

[W]e want something that is different than anything we have seen before… and that requires imagination. … One of the problems with battle scenes (like in that endless fight at the end of Man of Steel) is that they can be bland and repetitive. A battle scene needs imagination. Winning a battle by sheer physical force is dull, your characters need to be clever. The how is critical–make sure how things happen is different than what we have seen before….

One of my all-time favorite movie scenes happens at the beginning of the Climax in Kevin Costner’s western Open Range. Throughout the story, there have been hints of the coming showdown between ex-gunslinger protagonist Charley and the antagonist’s brutal hired killer Butler.

In most stories, this showdown would have been saved for the penultimate round and dragged out. Here, viewers are surprised (in an entirely sensible way) when Charley opens the fight by immediately and proficiently killing Butler with one bullet to the head. It’s an entirely simple subversion of the expected that both fulfills its story’s needs and creates the opportunities for interesting insights into the characters and situation.

Charley Shoots Butler Open Range Kevin Costner

With every character you create and every scene you write, train yourself to stop and ask one question: What if I did this differently? More often than not, you probably won’t do it differently, but every once in a while, you’ll find the opportunity to completely shake up your story and create something that will stick in readers’ minds forever.

Creating original stories and characters is rather like panning for gold. Most of the time, you’re going to come up with pretty much the same results as everybody else. And that’s okay. (How many Batman renditions are we looking at right now, after all?) But the longer you keep at it, the more likely you are to strike gold once in a while and come up with a truly original and wonderful new idea.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! What tricks do you employ to try to come up with original stories and characters? Tell me in the comments!

The 4 Tweaks to Writing Truly Original Stories and Characters

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. To come up with different characters, I go back to my life and remember the people I grew up with. Or, sit at a restaurant or mall and inconspicuously watch people walk and observe how they act.

    To come up with different scenes, I’ll rewrite a scene a number of different ways and see which one fits best in the storyline. Unless, of course, I can come up with several scenes in my head that I like.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is why it’s important for writers to get out there and live. As much as we can gain from other people’s stories, the only place we’re truly going to find originality is in real life.

      • I agree, and, in the absence of our Owen adventures, should health or finance limit us, we can talk to people wherever we go, and we can read everything we can get our hands on. Library cards and books are free too. ? Peace and love K.M.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          That’s the magic of the era we live in: information is at our fingertips through so many different media.

  2. I suggest to beginning writers who are caught up in the struggle to be creative and different that they consider owning the cliche which hounds them. Sure a school needs a quarterback and a cheerleader etc. Even schools with have nothing to do with what school on earth is like call up the same tropes. Instead of trying to avoid them, make them yours. Work the quarterback until he’s not longer an emotionless jock, but bursts painfully into multiple dimensions. The deeper we dig into who and what we write the more likely we are to catch that gleam of gold.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Excellent advice! The moment you make something your own, it ceases to be a cliche and becomes original simply through your own personal interpretation and touch.

  3. John M. Carr says:

    This post is encouraging. It’s taken me about a decade, but I think I finally have enough layers of inspiration to be original. It also helps that I’ve been ruminating over and experimenting with a single core concept this whole time.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      In my experience, true originality is all about the layers. The more layers–the more juxtaposition–the more dichotomy–the deeper and more complex the story becomes.

  4. I know Les Miserables is crazy popular, (I, for one, love it) but is really sad frowned upon? Most of my story has a very serious tone. It ends happily, but it’s kind of depressing getting there. Is that bordering more on unusual or just me being a sappy, sadistic writer?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Not at all. And Les Mis proves it. It’s an enduringly popular story *because* of the torments the characters go through and (in this instance) overcome. Characters can’t be overcomers unless you give them something to overcome.

  5. Wow, I never would have imagined that Dreamlander could have had elves, dragons and brownies. Just imagining it is weird. I love your originality.
    I’m actually trying to figure out something original and amazing for my own story. The world seems a little flat. This and your last post have been useful.

  6. I have a ‘work-on-the-side’ that has fallen into the fantasy genre, quite by accident it seems, but as it develops it is getting harder and harder to find my originality. I have also taken to reading more fantasy novels, and re-reading old ones, just to get a sense of the style that writers like yourself have employed. I did feel that it was cheating a bit, so thank you for relieving me of that guilt! The more I read, the further I challenge myself and the more I change in the story to give it an element of the ‘unexpected’.
    I have even started playing with the outcome a little, finding the element of surprise in each little twist and turn. I really have to thank you for all your words of wisdom in this area. Reading your books and blog has done wonders for my own writing.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      No, it’s not cheating at all! We need to understand what’s worked (and hasn’t worked) for other authors, as well as what elements *we* enjoy reading.

  7. Ideas always start with a character for me, but as I get around to crafting a story for them, I like to play with story possibilities so that there’s a different spin on the characters’ actions. My plot elements are often (unavoidably) not totally original, but I try to incorporate themes and character actions/responses that are different, and very unique to those characters, and offer my own twist on things, rather than straight-up action and typical themes.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Often, originality is nothing more than a twist that presents a *slightly* different angle on the expected. If we can do this in just one primary aspect of story–plot, character, or theme–it can transform the whole thing.

  8. As you say, Katie, there is nothing new under the sun. No original stories, no original characters – until we make them ours. Until we write out of our own unique voice and life experience, and apply these to the writing.
    WE are the only unique aspect of our writing. All else is an echo of others before us. So we must make our writing our own, not a copy of a genre because that is what we think the genre demands.
    But you are right, too, in finding a twist for our stories.
    You know what I’m going to say here… 🙂
    How about a war story told from the OTHER side? The hero is our historic enemy:- In one novel, a German cavalry officer in the Great War. In another novel, a German general in World War Two… Now there’s a twist.
    No need for any ‘tricks’ if the character comes with baggage like that.

    • Lyn, to me, your writing is a good example of how accurately presenting the facts, in careful detail, can turn out to be extremely original (and absorbing).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      These days, when people talk about “originality,” they often think about speculative fiction, in which the original element is something supernatural or (strictly speaking) unrealistic. But originality is important in every genre, even those based in true events. Your premise is a great example of how this is done in “realistic” stories.

      • I didn’t really think of ‘realism’ versus ‘speculative’ as pertaining to ‘originality’.
        Is that the problem of much of the fiction being written right now? A concentrated search for originality? Vampires and werewolves? Aliens attacking the world? New and better ways to blow up the world? New and better ways of saving the world?
        I’ll stay with realism. I know the rules. 🙂 🙂

  9. From the day he was born, he yearned for adventure…old Captain Jack, giving them what for…he’s the pauper of the surf, the jester of Tortuga, but is Davy Jones’ locker what lies in store….

    Needless to say the Pirates of the Caribbean series is “The Tale of Captain Jack Sparrow’ because of all the characters therein, he (or arguably Johnny Depp) brought the unique personality traits and values to the character. As opposed to Elizabeth and Will which while I enjoyed them in context of their relationship with Jack, were extremely predictable even as the writers threw in aspects to try and make them seem less predictable. As in ‘Elizabeth becomes what was it, Pirate King? and Will becomes captain of The Flying Dutchman. The latter, I’m assuming, to avoid the ‘happy ending’ to the romance.

    Love the movies but just sayin’. I would not have been interested in a “Will and Elizabeth’ series without Jack there.

    Instead of thinking of it as ‘There’s nothing new under the sun’ I look at my own writing endeavors this way: “There’s nothing new in the world, but the history we don’t know’. Like any person you meet in the real world, it’s the unique experiences, beliefs, (ghosts in the past) dreams for the future (or lack thereof), so on so forth that make a person, as well as a character, an individual.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      The Pirate movies are, arguably, a mess. :p The reason they work is Jack, Jack, Jack. (And Hans Zimmer’s score didn’t hurt anything.)

      • Exactly!

        And I have jammed to the soundtracks many times but that be not the point!

        The point is shallow characterization is obviously going to produce results that are typical and not creative, but when you really dive deep into who your characters are and discover all their unique intricacies, I feel that opens unique and creative pathways for all aspects of a story.

        I remember really loving that scene in Open Range too, and I would be curious to know what movies lately if any have offered you surprises in regards to character.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          Hmm. *tries to remember what she’s seen lately* :p Well, here’s one: Even though the new Star Wars movie was far from perfect, one thing I really loved was Finn’s character. I love that scene early on when he’s helping Po escape, and Po asks him why he’s doing it. Finn looks him in the eye and says, “Because it’s the right thing to do.”

          For just that moment, it’s both an entirely on-the-nose piece of dialogue that doesn’t work–and yet also one that reveals the heart of the character.

          And then the script *allows* it to work by twisting it around off its nose with the next lines: Po’s dry realization, “You need a pilot,” and Finn’s desperately relieved, not-so-heroic admission, “I need a pilot”–which feeds us even more interesting characterizing information about him.

    • I hope that you did not start with something that was sung by Michael Bolton

  10. A couple of thoughts — if you aim for originality, your story may just turn out weird. Tell the truth and tell a good story, and originality may sneak in the back door. If it doesn’t, it’s still a good story.

    I don’t think you force your brain to come up with something “original,” but you can give it the materials to work with. I find that reading about interesting topics — science (especially lay-level physics books like Brian Greene’s), or the Bible, or a good detailed history, or (on rare occasions) law — frequently sparks ideas.

    Even an “original” story is going to have some elements that have been used before, especially in the overall shape of the plot. Better to follow a pattern that works than make up some “original” series of events that doesn’t say something meaningful about the human experience. My story definitely uses some tropes (e.g., love across social classes), but I’m fine with that, because I like those tropes. When plot elements have been used repeatedly, it’s often because they work and are appealing. It only takes a little freshness to bring them back to life.

    The flip side is that reusing elements from other stories without scrambling them up enough can so easily break the narrative dream. If a situation resonates or reminds me of something else I’ve read, it deepens the experience. But the second I feel that I actually recognize an element lifted straight out of another story, I’m reminded that I’m reading fiction. I’m outside the story instead of inside it, and it’s hard to get back in. This is probably something we all need our readers to tell us, because I think it would be hard to judge for yourself whether your homage to your favorite story adds a little sparkle to your story or totally destroys the verisimilitude.

    • Evelyn, adding to your comment …
      If we write the first draft from inside the heart, then it will be original.
      THEN we begin to polish with an aim to a suitable genre.
      Mine are easy: historical fiction. So many other writers find themselves aiming into a genre, perhaps fantasy, only to realise that it wants to turn itself into a sci-fi: and the struggle begins.
      In my mind the story comes first, regardless of where it belongs. Here is where your originality shines. Not in genre, but in story.

      • I so much agree! And if I start with something I care about, what am I really doing, anyway? I start with a picture or an idea or feeling and build connections outward. Whatever I may be borrowing or stealing from other writers, the way all the strands weave together is going to be as different as anyone of us are from anybody else.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      This is excellent! And I totally agree with it. I find that the more interesting facts I feed my brain, the more interesting and varied the ideas that come out of it.

  11. After church on Sundays, we would go over to visit a collection of relatives, each of them quirky in their own special way. There was: the dear aunt who made to-die-for pastry, then turned off her hearing aids to block out the static; the guy with his violin under his arm, ready to play if there was a break in conversation; the adoring brothers-in-law who had coffee with their milk because Aunt Annie’s brew was wonderful and way too strong; her son who always whining because his friend wouldn’t play with him; the dog who sat in the middle of the kitchen, daring everyone to step over him without falling; the upstairs neighbor who would complain a bit about the latest hubby escapade; uncle number one and his car troubles; uncle number 2 (mechanic) who said, “bring the car over,” and he’d disappear for hours to work on cars in his own tiny garage. And these people would probably come out on the continuum of ordinary people… put aspect of some of them together and you’ve got characters!

  12. Hello everyone!

    This is great awesomesauce. I appreciate your call to know the genre you’re writing about first apparently by reading widely in it. So guess what? I’M ENJOYING READING! 🙂 I’m bathing in layers of SUPERSAUCE. they’re are some really talented writers out there. As I said before, writers are the most fascinating people on earth. Why? Because of ther imagination + craft, and originality or non-originality. Just finished Steven Jame’s Placebo, and it blew me away, socks and all. I’ve never read anything quite like it, or in put in the way the he put it. The originality factor was pretty high in my book. Couldn’t put it down.

    I guess have to “know the box”, before we can think/write/craft outside of it first right? On one hand I understand writing within the bubble. There are things I know I’ll read or watch expecting the same elements over and over again. But you’re absolutely right about not being too comfortable in our bubble. Either we need to make up a new bubble, or design a fresh way of looking at the old one. I definitely would like to create something original. That’s partly why I came up with my story in the first place. Why not? Let’s go for the gold. I’m sure dragons, elves, magic and superheroes are all cool, but it’s been done a gazillion times over. Readers are looking for that next bubble to take them away. Sounds like the old Calgon commercial.

    Here’s to bubbles!

    Cheers!

  13. Ugh, sorry about the typos. I think my inner
    editor is on vacation.

  14. When I started writing my second novel, I had a minor panic attack when I discovered that there were already so many books about school shootings out there already. In fact, Goodreads has it as a specific genre. What I did was read several of the books out there and took delight in the fact that I was writing mine uniquely from the ones I read.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I think more authors than not experience that panic attack sooner or later. I did when in the outlining stages for Dreamlander I discovered Ted Dekker’s Circle trilogy. Both are based on the idea of parallel “dream worlds,” but other than that, have nothing in common. There’s room in the world for all our ideas, whatever similarities they may sometimes bear.

  15. Catherine L Byrne says:

    I generally find readers don’t like too much originality but prefer a nice, comforting and predictable story with no surprises. Ho hum.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Depends on the genre I suppose, but *many* readers enjoy letting the author take them to entirely new places.

  16. Mark Symms says:

    Actually, originality is not my issue, but believability and purpose, even in the fantasy/sci-fi genre. But this has certainly set my angst at ease a bit, not having to worry about re-telling valid plot structure and making it believable. Thanks.

  17. Love this post, Katie!
    You clearly put a lot of work into this and it show. I think the best part is in how you brought up common points like the selection of genre, then addressed gaps that make ones story unique, hence original.

    Well done,

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Thanks, Rich! It was a fun post to put together. Even a lot of stories that may not be great in themselves have wonderful original aspects to contemplate.

  18. Research (even and especially in fantasy) and being well-read in your chosen genre are crucial.

    As for what constitutes artistic originality, I don’t believe anyone has said it better than Canadian prog-rock legend Geddy Lee: “Originality is when you have so many influences that you can’t tell which — you can’t tell them anymore; you can’t see them anymore — they’ve all melded. And as your confidence rises in your craft, your personality steps in front of those influences and that’s — that forms your voice.”

    But all that presumes what K.M.’s preached over and over again: Learn your craft; do your research; know your genre. (And be well-read and have eclectic interests.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes! I love that. We all “steal” from each other. When we’re stealing from here, there, and everywhere, eventually something new pops out.

  19. Tiny Typo: “You put the book down at think” (and instead of at)

    An easy way to proofread your own posts is to read it aloud. For some reason it forces the brain to really look at each word instead of assuming the word as we writers do.

    Thanks for you help and blog, awesome post!

  20. Colin Orian says:

    My WIP is inspired from the later seasons of Stargate. What makes my story “original” though is that, from what I’m aware, the premise has never, or is rarely, used in YA. Along with that, YA is filled with the cliché of “boy meets girl and they fall in love” but my protagonist believes that it takes time to develop a romantic relationship and his actions show that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Sometimes just taking a common element from one genre and adding it to a different genre is a massive recipe for originality.

  21. I’m nearing the end of my first novel (which will actually be the first in a series–I’m thinking trilogy, but it may amount to more than that), and people are saying it’s a lot like the Hunger Games. I will admit I’ve never actually even been interested in reading the Hunger Games, much less watching the movies.
    Even based off what I’ve seen of the Hunger Games on social media, I fail to see such similarities. I mean, yeah, dystopian society, female heroin, but that… that could really be anything. I get discouraged about it occasionally, thinking it might not be original enough, or that my characters aren’t real enough. All I can think to do is keep writing. I know what needs to play out before I get to the end of this book, and I know how it’s going to happen. It’s still a little confusing, but I’m happy I got this far.
    As to originality, since everyone’s different, I base my characters off friends, frenemies, and family. Except the antagonist. She has aspects of Hitler and a few other evil people in history. The world and society was entirely my own concept, though the system of government I based off that of the US (seriously, who doesn’t do that?).
    The story line I got… sitting up late at night. Also a few of the names I use came that way… It’s always fun to do that. The best ideas come when you’re not even thinking about it, or when you’re brainstorming late at night (late for me is 10:30, don’t judge).
    And yes, I take inspiration from Tolkien. He’s been my favorite author for several years. While I don’t write about magic, at least, not in that way, or elves, or dwarves, I look at his descriptions and think, “How can I describe something like that?” The way he described a waterfall, or music–music is a top priority in my life–or a landscape… It’s amazing. He was a poet by nature. I get a lot of my inspiration from him and Shakespeare, and a little from Riordan (sarcasm lightens up any situation).
    So, I guess the point of my seemingly-pointless ramblings is this: what people say your book is like doesn’t really matter. Make it what you like to read. Write from your own perspective. Don’t be afraid to subtly put your friends, as well as the not-so-friendlies, in your stories. If the character is likeable, and maybe makes it to the end, tell them. 🙂 Your post was helpful, and I’m looking at buying “Sell More Books” now. 🙂

  22. Katie, One of your best articles to date, loved it!

    I think the idea I took away is the one about constantly pushing oneself out of our comfort zone. For its when we are unprotected, lost, even afraid that we *learn* something new about ourselves and the world around us. THEN…we use that to create, create something we didn’t know we could.

  23. WhenI have a shell of a character, I think to myself, ‘who does this remind me of in real life?” And I come up with 3-5 people – family, friends, ex-boyfriends, kids from school, people I used to work with – anyone. And then I meld those people together – the bits I like, the bits I don’t like – and voila! I have a new character. If I get stuck when I’m writing or outlining, I think what would this person or that person do in this situation? And create a list until something unexpected pops out at me.

    In creating original stories, I do almost the same thing. For my first novel, The Second Bad Thing, I started with a woman who had been raped while in college. She never dealt with it. She was mousy and malleable. But it needed something else. So I made a list of 10 horrible things that could happen to her. And I chose the one thing that she was proud of in her life – her marriage. The book opens with her husband confessing he cheated on her. And because she’s trying to figure out her marriage, I gave her a friend whose marriage was falling apart. And a twelve year old daughter – who is very good at being 12.

  24. “Originality worth its salt must be more than merely original; it must contribute to the story in a meaningful way.”

    So what part of Amish Vampires in Space doesn’t contribute to the story in a meaningful way? The Amish? The Vampires? The Space?

    I would say it is all important. 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Hey! 😀 Please don’t think I’m dissing your book. Totally not. I think the whole concept is awesome! (But I’m not wrong in thinking Jeff Gerke’s original idea for the title did start as satire, right?) In fact, the “overkill” of previously overdone ideas is what lets your concept be so original. It’s like the layers we’ve talked about previously in the comments. Take enough layers of something old and–voila!–something new!

  25. Thanks for the response. Yes, the title was a joke that Jeff used at writing conferences as an example of the only kind of Amish fiction that his publishing house would accept. (Typically at those same conferences he would be a tiny island in a sea of acquisitions editors…mostly looking for Amish fiction.)

    Your reference is a little ambiguous, so I wanted to see what you actually meant. No worries, I’m not offended. And even if you were being negative it’s okay. I’ve certainly had worse things said about me and my stories. 🙂 But if I’m going to be dissed, I want to know I’m being dissed. XD

    Thanks for clarifying. Nice to meet you. 🙂

  26. Redd Becker says:

    After a critical scene I interview each of the characters, asking them how they felt about what happened, what they really thought, what they meant to say and more. The answers surprise me, causing a rewrite with more dynamic results.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, really getting down deep into a character, instead of skimming off their surface responses, is where things start to get chewy and interesting.

  27. Elaine Moxon says:

    Once again a great piece resulting in healthy discussion! I write about the hero’s journey – a cliche done many times over. However, choosing the hero is only the start of creating a new character to set my particular tale apart. With each story you can take one character and ‘flip’ them: make a cowboy a monk, or make a male character female and already you can see possibilities for change.

    Amend elements of your very own formulae!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      I definitely don’t consider the Hero’s Journey a cliche. It’s an archetypal story structure that resonates deeply with the human psyche. Just because you’re following this pattern doesn’t mean what you’re writing isn’t original.

      • Agreed — Campbell’s “hero’s journey” isn’t a cliché, just a narrative model to which most of Western storytelling conforms, consciously or unconsciously. This has been the case for millennia (until the emergence of “postnarrativity” via open-ended stories like Lost, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, etc.). The linear, closed-looped, three-act structure of Campbell is only as creatively restrictive or versatile as the artist that’s using it; Homer and Shakespeare and George Lucas worked wonders with it.

  28. Sad to say that, for many years, I was one of those people who didn’t read much because she was afraid of having her originality-potential spoiled. I wish it hadn’t taken me so long to come around to the other side, but now I am reading in earnest!

    Also, a success story! I wrestled with #2 all last week. I had a really cool (original? I think?) idea and wanted to build a story around it, but every story I came up with that had any potential also had no need for my idea. It was just tangential, something I could stick in the background to add something interesting to the world, but not necessary for the actual plot. Finally I scratched all my ideas and thought about how this Cool Idea would affect the world and the people living in it, and suddenly I had a story. Completely different from what I’d imagined, and it forced me to cut out a character, but now I think it might actually go somewhere!

  29. This is a great topic. I’m writing my first novel (suspense) and have written some short stories. In each case, I tend to create characters with traits from real life situations and throw in some imagination. With this mix, my goal is to have some originality and believability. As I develop the story and see gaps, I reevaluate my characters to ensure they are fully developed as well.

  30. Last year, I created a printable for myself in order to do this exact thing: step away from the expected. I had a few arrows going between bubbles, all randomly placed, to prompt me. I had prompts for opposite scenarios, slight variations, character reactions/actions, and “What if?” questions. It really helped me rethink and branch away from the initial idea to find something intriguing and new–at least, new to me!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      That’s a great approach! Sometimes we just need a little guided to push to get us to think outside the obvious box.

  31. I guess this means I shouldn’t be pissed at Batgirl of Burnside anymore? Or any of the government’s secret agents that have been tapping my brain and selling my ideas to other authors? XD

  32. Hmmm. We are all writers here.
    As I read through the comments it kind of hit me (“kind of”? Either it hit me or it didn’t…) that we sometimes get a wee tad careless in our use of absolute adjectives.
    Like “original”.
    It can’t be extremely original, or fairly original, or somewhat original, or very original.
    Like “pregnant”, either it is or it isn’t.

    🙂 🙂 🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Totally agree. There is, after all, nothing new under the sun. We’re all just remixing familiar (and sometimes not-so familiar) elements. At the end of the day, I believe the only truly original stamp any of us can put on a story is our own authenticity as human beings.

  33. Chris Vaughn says:

    I really liked this post. To be honest, I struggle with this quite a bit. I love creating new worlds and bringing characters to life but sometimes the worlds you love just don’ t seem to catch on with readers. That’s where that extra special “touch” comes in. The example with Jack Sparrow was spot on. Depp made that character interesting and you couldn’t keep your eyes off him while he was on the screen. That extra depth and intrigue is what makes people fall in love with characters and want to see more of them.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      There’s always a slightly deeper level to which we can take our characters and ideas. Even just the addition of one or two little unique elements can transform the whole book.

  34. I find that for characters when I have an idea, usually situation, and I keep asking why. Why did they do that? What made them act that why? Why are their actions ok? What if it isn’t? What would make for an inapproritiate (re)action? I love back stories. I’ve always loved to know the why and how of things, and it has continued into stories. If you know the character well, it makes writing them easier, for me at least. I try to know key experiences that shaped their personality and values, and found that I can put them in nearly any situation and usually know how they will act.

  35. I finished reading the first book in a dystopian/superhero trilogy called Shatter Me. I am currently reading the second book, Unravel Me. I want to get the third book, Ignite Me and in my superhero stories, I based Amelia off of me, since I do struggle with some things.

  36. Listen to your intuition. Sometimes your characters will point the way to a different slant on things.

  37. Hannah Killian says:

    Hmm. . .I wonder if this is original: My hero chooses to not pursue a relationship with the woman he loves right away and instead allows her time to get reacquainted, for lack of better word, with her family.

    P.S. You don’t really see that in fiction much, do you?

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