Originality in Creative Writing

“The concept of the pradoxical idea of originality in creative works: Nothing is ever original, but simply repackaged ideas from other fields of interest or re-workings on older concepts.”

Creative pieces of work (writing, artwork, films, etc) are never completely original, yet you should not think less of the work’s creator. Their job, while it is to create something, is not to create something completely new and ground breaking. That concept doesn’t exist in the creative world or any world as one person cannot create something out of nothing (just like the laws governing thermodynamics). The concept of originality is different to every person. If you think of absolute originality, where a piece of artwork has no outside influences than such a thing does not exist in a human capacity as everyone is influenced by the world around them. Creating something absolutely original is like trying to comprehend a possible alien world where nothing is at all remotely similar to humanity. It can’t be done unless it is shown to us, or at least some aspect of it. If you think of originality as one person’s individual input on an idea that has already been around with a splash of the influences that has affected them in life, then you are closer to understanding creative works.

This article isn’t about criticizing authors or artists for their inability to think of something new and inventive, it about understanding that there is no such thing as originality. Artists should be critiqued and appreciated on their ability to blend different influences that they are exposed to during their lives in their creative pieces. With this statement a person could argue that some creative works are original as the ideas that are shown in the work is something that the audience has never come across. The counter argument could be that the audience has simply never encountered the same influences that the artist has. It’s similar to the concept of there being black swans or the platypus to 18th century Europeans. Europeans could not conceive of the idea that swans could be black as black swans were only found in Australia and not unknown to exist until Europeans came to Australia, this later formed the Black Swan Theory. The platypus is another animal that Europeans didn’t believe to exist as specimens sent back were called hoaxes as they looked like bits and pieces of other animals sewn together. If someone had written a story involving these animals before Europeans arrived in Australia then audiences would say that they were original ideas, but reality says otherwise.

Returning back to the influences in creative works is the novel of Frankenstein by Mary Shelly. To her readers during the 1800s, Mary Shelly’s fantastical monster story was something that they had never encountered before. But to Mary Shelly Frankenstein was a combination of ideas that surrounded her at the time and happened to be expressed in a dream. Frankenstein is a culmination of places that Mary Shelly visited, elements of Gothic and Romantic writings that were around at the time, the desire to produce a horror story, as by a competition by her friends, and the experiments of Erasmus Darwin, a natural philosopher and poet who was conducting experiments of putting electricity through dead matter, which made dead human flesh look animated. Mary Shelly simply unconsciously combined these ideas into one and she wrote them down and published it. To this day people continue to use the Frankenstein idea. Multiple movie adaptations have been made, Frankenstein, and Frankenstein-like creatures are found in other movies like Van Helsing and in S02E02 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

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Another concept that has been used for thousands of years is the mono-myth, also known as the hero’s journey. A storyline of epic proportions that are found in many cultures around the world, and can be condensed into 17 stages over 3 sections.These 3 sections are the departure, initiation and return.

Does the above image look familiar? Modern characters and story lines such as Luke Skywalker from Star Wars, Nero from The Matrix, and classic story lines such as Odysseus  or Ulysses from The Odyssey, Frodo from Lord of the Rings, Jesus Christ, Gautama Buddha and even the Lion King. All these story lines have characteristics of the mono-myth, whether it is the hero’s initial denial of tasks, the trials that the journey throws at him or the return from literal or figurative death. Authors such as Joseph Campbell ‘s ‘Hero with a Thousand Faces’ and Chris Volger’s ‘The Writer’s Journey; Mythic Structure for Writers’ go into more detail about this subject. The identification of this story line has led to it being used and over used in modern narratives, to varying degrees of success.

Returning to the idea that people should not be criticized for lack of originality in creative works, but how they present said works does have its drawbacks. While nothing can be solely original, it doesn’t mean an author or artist is allowed to ‘heavily borrow’, aka copy another piece of work or simply do a lazy job. There is a difference between good creative work and bad creative work. I’m going to use the example of Hollywood movies. it appears that Hollywood is becoming lazy with its creativity, investing only in story lines that will make money, leaving creative and unique movies to the independent companies and people. This visual from the Cheezburger website looks at the change in movies over 40 years; please note this does not include movies from other years. It is just a snap shot.

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Over time Hollywood appears to have ‘given up’ and just relied on sequels and book adaptions to give to the public. But then you could say that Hollywood is a business and these movies appeal to the broadest range of people, while more creative stories do not, meaning these movies can extract the most amount of money out as possible. But that is no excuse for sub-standard work, even though some people will tolerate it. But then if people are willing to pay for 2-3 hours of mind numbing entertainment then it’d be stupid not to cash in on it.

Moving onto other forms of creative works I turn to Joannah Underhill. Underhill is painter who paints images that blend science and creativity. Underhill’s website explains that her work explores the relationship between the cellular environment and botanical landscapes with emphasizes on the micro and macrocosms. If someone was to view her work without ever knowing her influences then they might think it was a piece of absolute original work, as they had not come across a painting like this before. But to those in the know they’d see the influences of other artists such as Secessionists Klimt, Schiele, Kandinsky, and Australian landscape painters Olsen and Williams. Not only that but Underhill went through a period of illness, to which she recovered, and this influenced her work greatly as it fueled her fascination with the cellular life and gave her an appreciation of the small things in life. Depending on the type of person you are and knowing what her influences are, you could say that you appreciate the presentation of her creative works as they are a combination of influences designed to create something new. Or you could think less of it because it is a combination of other artist’s styles with a splash of her own. But either way Underhill’s presentation of these influences is done so in a way that it does not copy another person’s work, or steal from it. Her creative presentation is her own style and no one else’s and while there are influences she simply draws upon them and changes it to suit her process.

Science fiction writing is another type of creative process that draws upon other fields of interest to create something that is a worthwhile combination of influences and ideas. Science fiction writing has been around long enough for people to start borrowing ideas from each other to be incorporated into their own work a different way to what has previously been. The idea of cryogenic technology, space ships, new planets, and different life forms are ideas that will be used in creative works for a long time. But how you use those ideas and what you’ll add to them will be your own idea and no one else’s. When the movie Aliens came out it was a revolutionary storyline, but the ideas of aliens, other worlds and one type of animal incubating in another were not original. It was the writer’s way of combining these ideas and influences that made the movie what it is. And not only that, but multiple movies with similar aspects appeared trying to cash in on its success, some were allowed to be released, others had legal issues surrounding them.

Knowing that no one piece of creative work is absolutely original, but simply a combination of the experiences and influences that the creator has experience plus their personal input, it should give the viewer an appreciation into the process and the viewing of the work, whether it be a book, artwork, movie, etc. nothing is ever created in a vacuum, and if it appears to be then it’s because the viewer might have never encountered or know of the influences and background of the artist. While people do criticize writers, artists, etc. on their work, it should not be because it is unoriginal, but to the degree of un-originality.

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