Have you ever paused to consider how many stories have been told over the course of human history? The number must be astronomical. Narrative is as old as language itself, something that is built into our very being as a species. The ancient Greeks knew that the best way to preserve history is to relay it as a story. Folklore and fables continue to serve as a means for teaching tradition and morality in many cultures, and there is no way to quantify the amount of impromptu bedtime stories and campfire tales told each year.
Perhaps it comes as no surprise, then, if the modern writer should at times lament his or her lack of originality. In a world filled with tropes and archetypes, cliches and story models, how can an aspiring writer hope to stake his or her claim on uncharted territory? It is tempting to break from convention altogether in pursuit of originality, but I would encourage writers to embrace the stories of the past as a treasure trove to which we have unlimited access. We acknowledge that it is good to learn from other authors, but we will not truly benefit from their work unless we are willing to plunder it.
I am not here advocating for plagiarism (most assuredly a mortal sin in the world of writing), nor am I trying to dissuade anyone from coming up with original plots, characters, or settings. Indeed, there are few things as delightful for a reader as becoming immersed in a world he or she never could have imagined with characters that are so fresh they spring from the page. Writers must strive to take readers where they have never gone before with a clear, unique perspective.
However, I am advocating for writers to find things they love in their favorite tales—from childhood picture books to blockbuster movies to literary fiction—and take the best bits for themselves. I, for example, have always loved Greek mythology and find that, when I am writing for my own enjoyment and not to impress others, my characters and plots often reflect the old myths in very obvious ways. The real fun starts when I use my distinct voice and perspective to give new life and motivations to these ancient archetypes, making them my own. I firmly believe that this is how even the oldest and most renowned storytellers developed their tales.
Let us not forget how many wonderful authors have plundered Tolkien’s fantasy worlds, Poe’s detective works, and Shakespeare’s tragedies to bring us inventive new stories that still manage to be unequivocally original in their own right. I suppose I most want to encourage writers who are discouraged to find that they subconsciously employ plot elements or tropes that they have gotten from an experienced author. It’s completely natural (and, I think, necessary) to steal from storytellers of the past. The most important thing is to use one’s own experiences and values to breathe new life into what could otherwise become an uninspired rehash of a story that has already been told and retold.
— A word from guest blogger Jessica Vaughn