In seeking originality, familiarize yourself with archetypes of plot and character. Learn to distinguish between prototypes and stereotypes. Chris Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, is a good place to start. Explore the work of Joseph Campbell as well. Read mythology. Read the classics and ask yourself what elements in those plots have worked well enough for them to stay in print for 100, 200, or even 400 years. Jane Austen is currently riding a renewed wave of popularity. What in her stories appeals to today’s fourteen-year-old girls with nose-studs? Something obviously does!
And who dreamed that there would ever be a book like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies? Seth Grahame-Smith, that’s who.
You don’t want to imitate, but it’s okay to emulate. Reach behind the cliches and tired old storylines. Study their foundations until you understand their plot dynamics.
Why, for example, does Hamlet still enthrall us? Sure, sure, it has murder, madness, and adultery — the juicy elements that sell tickets. Still, the premise is an archetype, which means writers can adapt that basic story of twisted obsession and jealousy into any setting or era.
Excuse me a moment while I admire my favorite moment in the play. It’s when Hamlet opts not to murder his uncle while the man is praying, lest his uncle’s soul go to heaven. That has to be one of the most chilling decisions in fiction. Watching the play, we wonder which man is truly the evil one as the whole plot begins to twist.
So is Michael Corleone in The Godfather saga Hamlet’s younger cousin? Yes, I believe so. We know when Michael steps over the line to become a ruthless killer. He does so to avenge his injured father, whom he loves very much. But that’s only one reason, isn’t it? What we’re witnessing as the movie unfolds is the emergence of Michael’s true character as a predator and master strategist. And, like Hamlet, he slowly destroys his own soul.
What makes the villain Hannibal Lector original is not that he kills people or toys with their emotions or manipulates his mental patients into becoming serial killers or that he’s a horrific cannibal, but rather that he is a lethal combination of all these monsters. Plus, he’s masked as an erudite, sophisticated, artistic man of high intelligence. He’s someone we could really talk to, if we weren’t so afraid of him. We’re drawn to his aesthetics despite our horror. Like the magnificent tiger in the cage at the zoo, Lector’s so pretty we want to pet him, but woe to us if we do.
So in your own work, what unusual combinations of factors or qualities can you create? Are they a plausible combination that makes sense with the character’s internal design or background?
Once that shy little concept comes slinking into your mind, don’t dismiss it. Don’t fear it. Don’t snicker at it. Above all, don’t ignore it.
Instead, believe in it. Nurture it. Dare to use it. What have you got to lose?
And one day, your readers will marvel, saying, “That’s so simple. Anyone could have thought of it.”
But no one did, until you.