As a writer, I am obsessed with being original; this thorn in my brain to have new ideas, better ideas. To be unique. Just like everyone else.
This is why it’s a kindness that I read this article. I’m going to quote it because this is an post about unoriginal ideas.
Yes, the muggles are just like the terrible adults of Roald Dahl fiction; the foul-tasting magical candies come right out of a Monty Python skit; and wearing a horcrux that must be destroyed while worrying about its own corrupting influence on your soul sounds a lot like Tolkien’s one ring to rule them all. But those elements are not why people like Harry Potter. Instead, the Harry Potter universe is filled with rules that are constantly broken in the interest of equity. Time and time again, Harry and all the likable characters of Hogwarts break the letter of the law to fulfill the spirit of the law. The best kind of wish fulfillment made all the better by the intensity of the defeated evil.
Indeed, compare Frodo’s trip to Mordor while wearing a corrupting ring with Harry Potter’s wearing of the horcrux. Frodo knows that carrying the ring is his burden. That it cannot be passed to another. Although Harry is facing an evil as great as Frodo’s, he shares the burden by altering the wearing of the horcrux between his two companions. Yes, the similarities are apparent, but it’s the distinction that holds Harry Potter’s specific charm.
J.K. Rowling taught me that using influences in a novel is a lot like using sampling in music. It’s absolutely fine to lift riffs and hooks from other songs as long as they are referential building blocks of your work instead of being the appeal of your work. For example, the “When Doves Cry” sample is the only good part of MC Hammer’s “Pray.” The “Under Pressure” riff is the only good part of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby.” But take a song like “Jackass” by Beck, built around a sampled loop from Them’s “It’s All Over, Baby Blue.” It stands completely on its own terms.
Rowling liberated me so much that when I wrote my serialized novella Notes from the Internet Apocalypse, I had great fun incorporating elements from Douglas Adams, Herman Melville, Franz Kafka, Dennis Lehane, Chuck Palahniuk, George Orwell, David Bowie, George Romero and Scott Kosar, confident they were only cultural shortcuts enriching the story instead of stealing its individuality. So yeah, sorry, J.K. I was wrong.
There is no original idea, only memorable expressions of an idea. When I think of the most memorable books I’ve read, they all play by these rules. Even the books we consider original draw on ancient mythology and cultural tropes. You have to use them because they are in your head. They are literally part of you. This is why tvtropes exists! You can never get away from them unless you live in a hut in the Canadian wilderness after wiping your brain clean in an Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind but with all of society instead of one person.
This obsession with originality gives me headaches, quite literally. It stunts my writing productivity, and maybe it’s at the center of the bundle of fear all of us carry around inside. But that fear? All it needs is to take a breath, and the knots that keep me tied and unproductive untangle. I can breath. I can explore and find influences. I can begin to push barriers and find my style, my voice. This is why I made a concerted effort to try and write more ‘reactionary’ pieces in my blog. I want to focus on analysis and understanding and not throwing out grand, wild ideas. I need to understand before I can use those ideas. This doesn’t mean I won’t ever write anything with some original posturing, and I tie up ideas and themes with my own conclusions.
The cliche goes that the story is in the telling. What you mean is what you say, just as you’re defined by what you do. It’s how you work ideas together, mold plot, and live your life. What we take for originality might be the ability to push past the wad of fears and all consuming duties and distractions of daily life. The people we remember are those who have shouted long and hard enough for their ideas to break into our minds. There is no original idea, only memorable expressions of an idea.
And because I love this video, here is J.K. Rowling’s commencement speech from Harvard circa 2008.