Guest Post: Aaron Piper on Unique vs Original Writing

Everybody expresses their thoughts their own way; and that’s good.
Nobody is truly original; and that’s not bad.

You may or may not have noticed it but the title is a play on Disney’s Wreck-It-Ralph’s ‘bad guy code.’ You see, nobody is truly original.
I can hear the volume level in voices across the wires of the internet rising already, yelling out original movies and books at me, but hear me out.

Stephenie Meyer is Anne Rice, wearing a new skin. The Hunger Games is a worse retelling of a Japanese comic and light novel series called Battle Royal (I will go down fighting on this point of view). Percy Jackson and the Olympiads series is a retelling of classical Greek and Roman myths with a new twist. Even J.K. Rowling has acknowledged that Harry Potter is an amalgamation of many stories from before – there are notable similarities between Harry Potter and Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising plot, a character receiving a scar from an enemy that lets them know where they are from Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea, or a witch school from Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch.

Even this guest post is not entirely original.

Decades ago, a prolific writer by the name of Mark Twain said: “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations.” He illustrated don’t can’t be original, but you do have to have your own thoughts and ideas on the way things should (in your humble opinion) have been done.

One of my favorite young adult series is Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain chronicles, which started with The Book of Three (I, again, will fight Harry Potter fans that it is better). One of the characters in the book has what the reader is lead to believe is an omniscient book, called obviously, The Book of Three. At the end of the series, he reveals The Book of Three is not an all-seeing book, instead it could just as easily be called “The Book of ‘If’”.

And in many ways creative writing is much like The Book of If.
What if that character was in another book, what would he do? What if the villain was more intelligent? What if that happened to in another world?

That’s how truly unique ideas start.

Christopher Booker wrote a book called The Seven Basic Plots, (good read if you’re interested in that sort of thing). In it, he describes the basic plots of almost every story:

  1. Overcoming the Monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Rebirth
  6. Comedy
  7. Tragedy

If Booker is right, and if nothing’s truly original, how do you write a new story? That question is the question that authors, writers, poets and artist have spent their lives trying to answer.

My answer comes from something my 8th grade language arts teacher told me. Mr. Pauff told our class one day: “None of you is original. You are the combination of ideas of every person you’ve ever met, filtered, mixed together, and regurgitated,” Mr. Pauff told us. In that simple explanation, he also explained the perfect way to create something unique.

First, ingest as much as you can, both things you like and things you don’t like. Read with a voracious appetite, watch with equal gusto. Study them, understand why you like or don’t like them. This can be anything, character traits, situations you enjoyed, sentence structure, how the author created flow, the characteristics of the world, whatever, and remember them and discard the unnecessary.

Mix all these together then start by asking “What happens if…?”

And then write, it doesn’t have to be good or bad, just write. If you get stuck, just ask “What if this happens?”

I wrote a YA novel recently (sorry not trying to self-promote, just using this as an example)…

  • I personally found Draco Malfoy the most interesting character from Harry Potter, but instead of writing my own fan fictions (if you don’t know what that is, I kind of suggest you don’t look that up), I decided I would make my version of Draco. (We’ll call him something stupid like Titus Fogg for the sake of this example).
  • I didn’t want Titus to live in Rowling’s light hearted, magic loving world (especially because that is her idea of a magical world). I wanted him in mine.
  • I always liked H.P. Lovecraft, but also found his monsters probably would be more humorous than most people interpreted, so I put Titus in a world where weird and horrible monsters lived.
  • Additionally, I always liked the idea of the magic presented in an ancient (1980s) series called The Belgariad. Magic in it was still affected by the rules of science.

So, I combined all these, an anti-hero spoiled child of a rich family, a world with horrible monsters in present day, and magic that is closer to a science than an art and then I went from there.

It probably is starting to sound like I’m encouraging people to copy other people’s works and there is a simple answer to that, ABSOLUTELY NOT (in fact slap yourself for even considering that).

The way the worlds work may be similar, the characters may be similar, there’s nothing you can do about that, people will always find connections to other things they see. Where you set yourself apart is the way you show your ideas, the methods that convey it, your own thoughts on the world and what exists in it.

It’s not important to try to be original, but it is important to be unique. No matter what you think there is always going to be someone that said it or thought it before, what is important is bringing your own personal way of telling a story, your own soul, to the work. That’s what sets you apart.

About Aaron Piper

Aaron Piper grew up in the cornfields of Ohio, where he discovered books were better conversation partners than most children his age. One day after complaining to a family member too much about a book, they replied, “If you think you could do better why don’t you write one?” The challenge was accepted and many years, a degree in Photojournalism, a Minor in English, and 10 years in the journalism industry later, he published his first novel Titus Fogg. Currently, Aaron lives in Indiana with his wife and daughter (as well as a room full of books).

Blurb: Titus Fogg

Titus Fogg hates magic, and with good reason. Born into a murderous family of cruel and powerful casters in modern Massachusetts, magic has contributed to every bad thing that has happened to him since birth. After finally managing to banish the most likely evil (but definitely dirty-minded) entity called Shade from his body to the sidelines as his shadow, Titus has the chance to have a normal, magic free, high school life. But, when Tess Roe, his classmate, neighbor and model of justice at their school realizes she can see the creatures Titus calls the Wyrd too, Titus must return to the world of the strange to help her. Soon Titus’s dark past comes to light as he must prove that he isn’t responsible for the death of one of Tess’s friends, and the theft of a magical book that could lead to the destruction of Arkham.

Find Titus Fogg on Goodreads and Amazon.

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