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. 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. 🙂

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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!

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

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

  13. 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?

  14. I agree: originality does not mean individuality. An author’s idea can be strengthened even if it is not created in the middle of the inspirational chaos, but is related to more general topics and . But I want to ask you a question. I write fantasy. And in my world the three most important kins are (drum roll) men, elves and dwarves. I do not think it is a shame. Nor a lackness of originality. I think what really cares are the ideas, the themes, the power of meaning that the author concentrates in his works’ world. I cannot visualize my world without its own history, geography, languages, and above all its own characters, peoples, places. I do not consider my world an object to use in commercial operations. I see it how a living creature. So I want to ask you: do you think, for example, having the courage (and the skill!) of presenting a world inhabited almost completely by well-known races like men, elves and dwarves can be a problem by itself today, even if you reach a great level of quality and creative strength? And how do you think this quality and strength can be improved always more? Thank you very much!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      High fantasy still uses all of these tropes faithfully, so there’s definitely still a place for them if done in a new and meaningful way.

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