No Writer is an Island

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“Be careful. You don’t want your work to be derivative.”

I’m not part of the camp that says there’s no such thing as an original idea (there must be millions out there crawling around!) but it’s hard to pretend that ideas don’t come from other books, movies, games, and comics that have already been published. If you ask me, there’s nothing shameful about picking and digging through existing works for inspiration.

Drawing inspiration, of course, is very different from “paying homage to” or “borrowing ideas” or “lifting characters from.” There’s a work that is derivative and then there is a work that is unoriginal. Derivative, I would argue, is nothing to be ashamed of when done well! Can’t we say that most modern and post-modern fantasy is derivative of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Lord of the Rings/Middle Earth? And does that immediately devalue every fantasy novel, story, or game created since 1937?

I was given the above warning when workshopping a fantasy novel. I’ve spent countless hours world building for this piece and working hard to subvert traditional fantasy genre expectations and create races unlike those I’d read about before. When I was warned I might be too “derivative” I came to a realization: maybe that’s not such a bad thing. Some of the best told stories aren’t original ideas anyway.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet might be the best example of a derivative work that stepped out and away from its origins and paved a new path through the craft of writing and creation of memorable characters.

In no way do I or any respectable writer condone plagiarism or the taking of other writers’ ideas. BUT don’t let the fear of being labeled “derivative” scare you away from the ideas that move you the most.

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