FAQ Friday – Is my story too derivative?
I, not so recently, got an email asking me the following question. I hope my response will be useful to my fellow writers. You can read my last FAQ Friday post here.
Question: I’m absolutely in love with the world I’ve created and have spent years in its building—magic systems, political systems, cultures, races, etc.—but I feel it is not original enough to warrant publication. I have, to a certain extent, trapped myself in the tropes of fantasy—mid to late 13th-century setting, races based off the classics of orcs, dwarves, and elves, and unwittingly I created a nation of people who I fear will be compared to the Seanchan in their intent, if not their culture.
The storyline itself is very original (with the exception of the Seanchan-esque nation), and the few people I’ve spoken to about it have said it sounds exciting.
So I guess my concern is this: do you think I have a legitimate concern in that my work may be perceived as unoriginal and therefore not worth publication? Or can writing style and an original storyline make up for that fact? (Question sent by J. Hirz)
My experience has been that writers worry about this more than they should. Now, that’s not to say we shouldn’t worry about it at all—but generally, readers are a little more forgiving of us showing our influences than we think they will be. The Wheel of Time has some very Tolkien- and Herbert-inspired sections, and is generally considered to be a highly original setting, even if it’s true that the Aiel are inspired by the Fremen.
Harry Potter wasn’t actually that original an idea; wizard schools have been a staple of middle-grade fantasy for years. But her combination of everything together was amazing. So I think you can absolutely take tried-and-tested, well-worn tropes and combine them into something that is greater than the sum of the parts.
My suggestion to you is to write the book. I think that, because you’re aware of this possible problem, you’ll naturally take it in different directions. Then give the book to some readers and try very hard not to predispose them toward what your fears are. After they read the book, let them give you feedback. If a lot of them are saying it feels derivative, maybe see if you can make some things more your own. However, most likely they’ll say something like, “This feels like the Seanchan, but in a good way.”
We are all inspired by the things we read, watch, and love. Learning to take this inspiration and make it into something newly yours is part of the process of becoming a writer. Give yourself that chance, and I think you’ll find a balance you like.