Monday, January 20, 2014

Are There Really No Original Stories?

I’ve often heard the maximum that writers are simply telling the same old stories over and over again—that there is no such thing as “original” or “unique” anymore. And when I think of all the retellings in the world, all the stories featuring the same ideas or character archetypes as something that came before, this begins to feel especially true.

What makes a story original?

Is it a never-before-seen world? I can think of many “worlds” that felt incredibly unique at the time of their creation—Harry Potter comes to mind. How many children began to wish they’d receive their letter from Hogwarts? But what about other aspects of that story—a boy facing adversity. Good versus evil. The importance of bravery in the face of opposition—

All of these “stories” have been told before from ancient mythology to biblical parables to modern retellings. And even the world of Harry Potter itself isn’t completely unique. The Ministry of Magic, private schools, etc., horrible aunts who blame us for everything, all bear resemblance to  our world.

So if it isn’t the world, and it isn’t the plot/story itself—maybe it is the character?

To have a character that is unique and one of a kind would certainly feel fresh. After all, nothing makes a read more boring than a stock character which we can identify from a mile-away. Yet there are many kinds of characters that get reused as well, particularly in the genres that I love most: vampires, werewolves, fae, succubi/incubi—they are all regurgitated from lore.

So at face value, characters are not necessarily original. Even if they possess unique traits, a unique hubris that sets them apart from another icon, the flaw itself (pride, greed, vanity, etc.) is surely a trait that belonged to another character first. Would it be a combination then?

(i.e. Werewolf + Chaetophobia [fear of hair]= original?)

Or maybe it isn’t the trait itself, the “race” or even the description of the character that makes it unique but rather the character’s perspective. I think of Anne Rice’s The Vampire Chronicles particularly. The reason why her work became so wildly popular was because it took a well-known trope (the vampire) and gave it a fresh perspective—we were able to hear the vampire’s story instead of the victim's. After all, is it not true that if 4 people were involved in a single car accident, we would have four different perspectives of what happened. So maybe perspective IS the key to an original tale.

Then there is the problem of a human wanting to tell a nonhuman’s story.  I’ve heard it argued that something is lost in such translations (in humanizing ‘beasts’). After all, for those who are hardcore fans of vampires as savage, blood-lusty creatures, then Anne Rice’s vampires are too romanticized and weepy. In this argument, we encounter the difficulty of describing the supernatural with human eyes and a human tongue—their experiences, motivations, and beliefs would not be as human as we often make them out to be. And maybe here lies the possibility for a truly original story.

I don’t know.

Are there really no original stories left? Or can a new story be invented at any time—and if yes, how?


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