The Myth of Originality

The Myth of Originality

All of art is based on a quest for originality. As individuals, we become artists in an effort to highlight new ideas and invent new vantage points through which to view the world. As agents and editors and publishers, we’re seeking the one story the public has never read. And as readers, we’re looking for new experiences, new characters to add to our inner repertoire of literary friends, and new mirrors in which to re-envision our own faces.

In fact, when it comes right down to it, just about everyone on the planet is in search originality. That being the case, you’d think we’d have originality sprouting all over the place. And, yet, that isn’t exactly how it works, is it? Quite the opposite, actually.

Why Originality Is a Myth

In regard to the myth of originality, King Solomon had it pegged a long time ago: “There’s nothing new under the sun.” Every story I write, every character I conceive has already been told in some form or another. I can come up with the most brilliant, far-out idea in the universe only to google it and discover half a dozen authors have already camped all over it. Because we all share the same basic life experiences, it’s little wonder we all tell the same stories. We’re all born. We all survive puberty. We all fall in love. We all grow old. We all die. End of story.

Should We All Just Stop Trying Right Now?

Where does this leave us in our quest for novelty (not to mention success)? Actually, when you think about it, the recognition of unoriginality is a very comforting idea. It means we don’t have to bash our brains out against our keyboards, trying to come up with the solitary surviving new idea. Instead, we get to embrace the freedom to tell our own stories our own way without spending too much precious time and energy fussing about whether or not it’s already been told. Tacked on the bulletin board above my desk is one my favorite quotes from Pulitzer-Prize winner Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark (affiliate link):

There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they never happened.

These stories go on repeating themselves in fiction, as well as life. We’ve been conditioned to believe the only powerful stories are the original ones, but the very fact that life itself is not original means  the most powerful stories are those that appeal to the deep primal emotions within us all. The universal emotions. The unoriginal emotions.

How to Write Amazing, Un-Original Stories

Just because Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist (affiliate link) a couple hundred years before we were born is no reason for us to ignore all subsequent tales of pickpockets and orphans. Patrick O’Brian’s success with Napoleonic naval novels is no reason our own characters can’t sail beneath the Union Jack at the beginning of the nineteenth century. And the sentient hares in Richard Adam’s beloved Watership Down (affiliate link) hardly negate the hundreds of talking-animal stories that have been written in the years since. In fact, these stories can actually influence our work in such a way that our own stories become deeper and broader than they might otherwise have been.

Dorothy Sayers said it eloquently in The Mind of the Maker (affiliate link):

The amount of matter in the universe is limited…. But no such limitation of numbers applies to the creation of works of art. The poet is not obliged, as it were, to destroy the material of Hamlet in order to create a Falstaff, as a carpenter must destroy a tree-form to create a table-form. The components of the material world are fixed; those of the world of imagination increase by a continuous and irreversible process, without any destruction or rearrangement of what went before.

None of this is to suggest we need not strive to avoid stereotypes and overdone forms. If we expect to write decent fiction, and if we expect the reading public to pay attention, we must strive for originality as much as it is possible within the set patterns of our lives and our genres. Read widely, learn what’s been written, what hasn’t, and embrace and build upon the successful forays of others.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! How does your latest story offer originality? And how is it un-original? Tell me in the comments!

The Myth of Originality

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. thomas h cullen says

    The Representative is original at each of the major three levels: story, story-world, and the how of the story being told.

    To the point, where just so many of its individual sentences are like their own stories, existing by themselves on their very own page – its original.

    Its a text to be heard. A presentation, one whose text itself is an actual end reward – not merely the something to act like a conduit.

  2. Toby Downton says

    Ever seen “Everything is a Remix” by the brilliant Kirby Ferguson? It’s a four-part video series that illustrates exactly what you’re saying. I highly recommend watching it if you haven’t done so, you’ll love it!

  3. This is why I did a facepalm at a Cracked article I read the other day. It was essentially talking about how certain heroes or main characters made the situation worse, or some such, and all I could think was; “That is a tried and true plot device to help a protagonist grow as a character.” We use the same routes as those before us because they’ve proven the best option. The protagonist must fall to rise better, more humble, and all that jazz, than before.

    What gets me are authors who write series, and seem to lose the desire to write innovatively about something they’ve already written. Just because you’re introducing this character for the first time in the third or fourth book, does not mean you need to use the same descriptions and phrases, word for word, as you did in the first, second, and so on.

    Keeping things fresh and original in a series seems almost as daunting as doing so with the first, and/or stand alone, novel.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      What you say about authors losing innovation in later books in a series makes me think of Arthur Conan Doyle’s growing boredom with Sherlock Holmes, despite his fans’ enthusiasm. Series are such great seller that I think sometimes authors perpetuate them even when, creatively, they might prefer to move on.

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