Six impossible things

Originality, Fanfiction, and a Few Other Things

Originality is something that is prized in modern-day fiction, at the very same time it is proclaimed to be impossible. You can find innumerable web pages and writing books that tell you solemnly that “there is nothing new under the sun,” that “there are no more original stories… everything written today is a sort of riff on previous stories,” and that “you can’t come up with a basic plot that has never been done before.” And then, in the next paragraph, these same essayists go on to say “but it has never been done your way,” or they talk about the “appealing freshness” of the latest retelling of “Beauty and the Beast,” or assert that originality is the (totally impossible) only way to achieve distinction in fiction.

This leaves a lot of authors in a bind. On the one hand, originality is held up as an absolute, fundamental prerequisite for high quality writing (and this is further reinforced by the attitude of modern society toward plagiarism). On the other hand, any author who stops to think clearly for more than a few minutes will have to recognize that after some four thousand years of recorded human history and storytelling, finding an original story to tell, or something new to say about the human condition, is going to be nearly impossible.

People have different reactions to this realization. Some are completely horrified whenever they (inevitably) discover that someone else has written something similar to their story, to the point of destroying whole manuscripts. Others come to an uneasy detent with the whole idea – a sort of head-in-the-sand, don’t-ask-don’t-tell approach. Still others blithely ignore the whole issue, or pretend to (apart from the occasional 3 a.m. crisis of conscience).

There is, however, one group of writers who are totally untroubled by the whole modern idea that complete originality is some kind of benchmark for quality. I refer, of course, to writers of fanfiction.

Fanfiction, as I have pointed out elsewhere, can be looked at as a sort of map of various alternate routes through the implied decision tree that the original writer used. The whole point is that it’s not purely original in itself; it has to have something to be an alternative to, or an expansion of.

There is a lot of very good writing in fanfiction. And plenty of bad, too; Sturgeon’s Law most definitely applies – 90% of everything is crud. But that last 10% can be very, very good, and in at least some cases, I think one reason is that the writers do not have to angst about “being original” – at least, not as long as they write fanfiction.

And it isn’t new, not by a long, long shot. From where I sit, I can see an entire bookcase full of fiction dating from the twelfth century to the present, all spinning off from a few scraps of history and legend pulled together into The History of the Kings of Britain by Geoffrey of Monmouth. For the next three centuries, authors from Britain and France to Russia retold and expanded and elaborated the Matter of Britain in ways that a modern reader of fanfiction would recognize instantly, until Sir Thomas Mallory pulled most of it together in the Unified Field Theory that was Le Morte d’Arthur. Going farther back, one could, I think, make a good case for Virgil’s Aeneid being Homeric fanfiction.

The best retellings and reframings can stand on their own, but a knowledge of the original story makes them richer. You don’t have to be familiar with Romeo and Juliet to understand and enjoy West Side Story, but knowing Shakespeare adds a level of appreciation to the modern play. (And of course Shakespeare was adapting and retelling a couple of earlier stories that nobody would remember if they weren’t his sources. Nobody complains about plagiarizing something if your rewrite is better than the original…)

All of which leads me to the conclusion that the urge to retell and reframe existing stories is a fundamental human impulse that comes right along with the one to tell stories in the first place. Originality is not the be-all and end-all of literary quality; it is simply one of the many and several ingredients that writers use to create stories. Some stories need more of it than others; some need it in particular places but not in others. Ringing changes on familiar stories like Cinderella can be fun, and just as “original” and creative as making something up out of whole cloth.

13 Comments
  1. Every story needs to start somewhere, right? And it’s like a bouncy ball, if you throw it, it’ll just go wherever you throw it, but if you throw it at a wall it’ll bounce off, and if the wall is uneven, it could bounce in any direction, even surprising the thrower. What I mean by that is by having a place to start, to work off of and respond to, you can get something much more ‘new’ feeling than what you might be able to make up out of whole cloth. Because whole cloth isn’t new either, it’s a distillation of your experiences and the narratives you’ve been told. Being conscious of your influence means you can control and critique and make things new again.

    For me the impulse to fanfic is the impulse to understand. When faced with a narrative that has many interesting parts, but doesn’t quite make sense, I shape it into a story that will bring out the problems, and perhaps solve them. The other thing I use it for is to understand character. If you really get a character from a show or comic, and you’re able to write her convincingly – not just blandly, but enough so people will comment on how they heard the actor’s voice in their heads, or that they would read about these characters reading the phone book because the dialogue would still be hilarious, maybe you’ve gotten somewhere in understanding voice.

    My latest two novels are both ‘based on a fairytale,’ but that simply means that the characters are at one point in a recognizable relationship to each other – a girl trapped in a castle with a beast upstairs – that this beast is another girl who is mainly beastly through depression and grumpiness, is unimportant for the fairytale relevance, but very important for the rest of the book and all the other plot threads. In the other one the main character consciously realizes she’s in a Cinderella-type situation, and resents it, but makes completely different decisions because she is loyal to her family, and because there isn’t a prince or a happily ever after.

    The thing that excites me about retellings are when by using something old, we can see how much the world has changed, or how people have different viewpoints. Real Ancient fanfiction is Ovid’s Heroides, where he gives all the women from the Greek epics and plays a voice. If there’s a retelling that doesn’t bring the original into question, I find that disappointing.

    • I love the ball/wall analogy! I’m going to steal that someday. 🙂

  2. I think the will to tell stories and the need to hear (or in the modern day, read) stories is encoded in our DNA somewhere. Just as passing on beneficial genes to our descendants is critical for survival, passing on our understanding of the world was/is as well. I think that Dan Dennett made the point somewhere when he talked about memes. I am not just being metaphorical here – I think it may be a part of our biology.

    As for original stories? There are a limited number of plots (some writing class I took somewhere once listed them), but there are still original ways to tell the stories. I think of writing as a flashlight in a totally dark world – the beam revealing a particular view of a landscape. You can try to find the exact spot to illuminate as someone else, but it is unlikely that you will.

  3. Ringing changes on familiar stories like Cinderella can be fun, and just as “original” and creative as making something up out of whole cloth.

    Indeed, yes! My novel Troll-magic is a retelling of East of the Sun and West of the Moon (the title story of that collection), and it was a total thrill to write. So much so that I thought I’d be writing fairytales retold for the foreseeable future.

    Imagine my surprise when my next story centered around a character who made a cameo appearance in Troll-magic. I wanted to explore her culture – the Hammarleedings – and the events of her backstory (that never made it onto the pages of Troll-magic).

    My next novel was about her daughter. And so it has been. I keep finding more elements in the world and among the people I created for Troll-magic that call for a story. I have some fairytale retellings on my want-to-write list, but – so far – other ideas keep jumping to the head of the queue. Just goes to show that – for me – an artist’s artistic life is not predictable. I don’t mind. 🙂

  4. ” When faced with a narrative that has many interesting parts, but doesn’t quite make sense, I shape it into a story that will bring out the problems, and perhaps solve them. ”

    The problem with that is that you may be reshaping them into your own understanding and so missing the chance to meet them on their own terms and understand them, thus broadening your mind.

    • I think you’re missing what she’s saying. One of the reasons my worldbuilding in original universes is so good is because I love/adore/can’t-bear-not writing canon-compliant fanfic that makes the continuity errors make sense. There’s only one I could never fix and I just finally threw up my hands and said Marvel blew it. Someone can’t shepherd someone into an organization they haven’t joined yet, so Marvel just blew it.

      She’s talking about looking at the terms in the original canon and seeing how they could work. In fanfic, you can look at multiple theories in multiple fics but they meet the canon on its own terms. One of the marks of quality fanfic is how well it hews to canon. Could it be canon?

      So yeah. You may theorize outside of fic, and I may theorize inside of fic, but either way, it’s a great way of meeting the canon on its own terms and broadening our minds.

  5. “There are no new stories” is true only on the macroscopic scale, a viewpoint from which, likewise, all humans are the same. There are numerous books on writing that say there are only seven (or twelve or fifteen or ??) basic plots, but there is really only one: Characters are introduced, conflict occurs, it is (or is not) resolved.

    But as soon as you start focusing closer, stories expand into a myriad of different forms, just as human personalities are found to be widely divergent and varied. Whether a work is “original” or not not depends on the coarseness of the filters one applies to the definition.

    • I should have said that “it *can* depend” on the filters. Of course there is a lot of completely unoriginal dreck out there – along with the fantastically fresh and inventive.

  6. I’ve been having a bit of trouble with plots, so I decided I would look at Plautus’ “The Brothers Menaechmi” and Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors” — and maybe write a novel version of my own — to consider variations on a basic plot. I mean, not just in the general “long-lost twins” sense, but in the “Twin A meets the servant of Twin B then Twin B meets the servant of Twin A” level of imitation. I haven’t actually started writing the story yet . . . but it was pretty neat to see how close Shakespeare kept to Plautus in some respects, and how divergent he was in others.

    I’ve never really written fan fiction, except for the fact that my very very first written story was an attempt to write about the mother of David Edding’s Belgarath (which very quickly ended up in a totally different world and never looked back), but I do love taking up legendary or semi-legendary figures and fitting them in. Robin Hood, Scheherezade, Circe, etc. On reflection, I suppose that’s fan fiction of a sort.

  7. I not only agree that the Aeneid is Homeric fanfiction, I think that even some of Homer is Homeric fanfiction. Specifically, book 5 of the Iliad: if you discard the preconception that everything in the texts we have is canonical gold, Diomedes starts looking like an awful Marty Stu.

    Consider the situation: Achilles has just abandoned the field. What’s supposed to happen is that the Greeks start losing, right? That was the whole point. But instead of that, Diomedes starts tearing up the place, to the point that the Trojans say out loud “We’re more afraid of Diomedes than we ever were of Achilles!” Achilles fights a river-god, so Diomedes gets to battle and wound Ares the god of war himself. Diomedes even gets to say Achilles’ best line, before Achilles does.

    Now, I’m not saying that Diomedes here is a self-insert. What I think more likely is that some bard made this up in order to flatter a king who counted Diomedes among his legendary ancestors. But the result is similar.

    • I love that line: “some of Homer is Homeric fanfiction.” Awesome. I wonder if that could happen with a modern serial form?

  8. And then there’s gaming fanfic, where the characters and situations are very possibly original — but the setting, and perhaps the races involved, are from a tabletop (or computer) RPG. Which, though several variations and sea-changes, is how I wound up with a fantasy-romance duology… (I can trace the evolution, too, which amuses me.)

    I even got permission from the RPG publisher to do some short stories which are… Well, they use a few original races, a GM-created setting that’s been sea-changed all to heck and gone from what the original GM did, and some tech and races from the RPG publisher.

    (No dice were rolled in the writing of the stories; it’s rare for an actual campaign to have the right kind of shape for anything even remotely resembling a satisfying plot. Which has not stopped me from giving a few abortive goes at trying to do that. In drabble-sized chapters, yet. *facepalm*)

    It can get even weirder — I’m noodling on a thing that was sparked by a dream I had which was a blatant riff off a certain RPG thingie, and while taking a sandblaster to the serial numbers, I’ve developed politics, Our Dwarves Are Different (…don’t go to TV Tropes! If you do, don’t say I didn’t warn you!), and a really variant magic system. Is it fanfic? Well… yeah, kinda, in the bones. On the other hand, by the time I get through, it’s gonna be a Maine Coon instead of a British Shorthair, y’know?

    Or, swinging back the other side, a whole Alternate Universe thing I did using iconic characters… and RPG player-characters… and characters made up entirely for the AU…

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