Originality is defined as the ability to think independently and creatively. Another way to put this is: To come up with a new story idea or putting a new twist on a familiar story format.
Originality is praised, but there is a conflict surrounding it that must be recognized: The heart of story telling is to talk about familiar things. If an idea is too original the prospective audience will think, “Huh?”, and move on to something more quickly understandable. So originality that is popular has a lot of familiarity mixed in.
This necessary combination explains a mystery that vexed me for years: When new technology is introduced into something like a business or manufacturing process, the result will be new and surprising ways of doing things. When new technology is introduced into an entertainment process, the result will be the same old stories told with different bells and whistles.
The importance of familiarity is the key to this difference.
That said, let’s talk about how to be original.
The challenge in creating original stories is where to mix in the original.
o The originality in Tolkien’s work is his meticulous building of back story — everything has a history. The familiar is the characters working through this rich world he has developed. The hobbits are nice, polite people who are good observers.
o In 1940’s Golden Age science fiction the original was exploring new worlds and new technologies. The familiar was the characters encountering these situations.
o In 1960’s Star Trek the original was introducing characters with different ethnic backgrounds and new roles for authority figures — Kirk is not a “yessir!” military captain. The familiar was the situations they encountered on their strange new worlds.
o In early Harry Potter books (1990’s) the familiar is the British middle school setting. The original is adding magic. In the later stories the familiar is the main characters and Hogwart’s setting. The original is the quirky new teachers and administrators.
o In the 2010’s Swords and Sorcery genre the familiar is the monsters. The original is the gender roles. Conversely, in the Twilight series the familiar is the lead damsel character and the original is the friendly sparkly vampires.
The key is mixing familiar and original. And keep in mind that what mixes will work and what won’t are still unpredictable. …Sparkly vampires, you say?