Say it with me: There are NO completely original ideas left in the world.
Again? Sure! There are NO completely original ideas left in the world.
And one more time with feeling! There are NO completely original ideas left in the world.
Got it? Good. Now let me explain.
Throughout our recorded history, humans have been fascinated by certain eternal questions: Where are we going? Why are we here? What is love? Does God exist? Who stole the cookies from the cookie jar? …Okay, so, maybe not that last one, but definitely the others. Each generation has dealt with the questions in a different way, but they’ve all done it. This quest shows in their art, their culture, their laws, their mistakes, their successes, and their literature. This means that thousands of people have, for thousands of years, been discussing and dissecting the very themes you have tied through your novel, and you expect pure originality? Not gonna happen.
Rant and wail and cry if you need to. Go ahead. I’ll wait….
Okay. Now that we’ve moved on, we come to the real question: What do we do about it?
Simple. We steal.
A quote sometimes attributed to T.S. Elliot says, “Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.” I agree completely, but it’s not quite as simple as Elliot makes it seem. What should you steal? From whom? How much? Holly Lisle, a fantasy author, advises to “only steal the gem—don’t steal the whole crown.” This comparison is a fantastic place to start, and part of the explanation throws back to my previous article, “Books: How to Read Like a Writer.”
First, you should only steal ideas that send thrills of pleasure down your spine. You’ve just finished reading a book and you think, “I want to do that!” Good! Great! You’ve been inspired! Hold onto that feeling as you go back and figure out why. Was it the relationship between the main characters? The type of civilization? The existence of a particular creature? (This is where reading like a writer comes in handy.)
Second, don’t steal more than ONE idea at a time. At least, not from the same source. That’s called pushing your luck, and, besides, you don’t need more than one good idea to build a novel.
Thirdly, and possibly most importantly, do not use the idea as it appears in the original book. Do NOT. That is called plagiarism, and plagiarism is a very bad thing. Really. So, take the very core of the idea you love, and dress it up as something else. What kind of changes can you make? Anything and everything.
Say the idea that struck you was the male main character’s reluctant participation in events and his strained relationship with his father. Maybe the original set up was like this:
“Richard, having just graduated college, is forced to recognize the harsh realities of life after his alcoholic father bankrupts their family. He knows that he isn’t ready to take care of himself let alone his younger siblings, but isn’t left a choice when their father abandons them.”
But you decide you’d rather write a fantasy novel than something modern. After asking yourself how this would change the situation the characters find themselves in, you end up with this:
“Avaris, the only son of King Liam, is on the cusp of adulthood. His tyrannical father has been afraid that his son would overthrow him, so has kept him in spoiled seclusion. The king gets word of a plot to kill him and put Avaris on the throne; he sends Avaris away to be killed. Avaris must now fight for his life and the safety of a kingdom he cares nothing about.”
Both snippets carry the same basic properties—reluctant hero, strained relationship with the father, and forced action—but would you be able to tell they were related?
I know I wouldn’t.
(For more on this topic, I suggest Holly Lisle’s “How to (Legally and Ethically) Steal Ideas.”)