Friday, May 7, 2010

The Originality Trap

For years now, I have heard fans of the traditional "Tolkienquese" fantasy novels lament the repetitive themes and exhausted archetypes of the genre. They are tired of the same old hero-vanquishing-evil and want something new, something more real, more believable. Which to me sounds like someone saying they love chocolate, they just wished it had less chocolate in it, and maybe tasted more like vanilla. Many writers struggle to appease, whether that means turning an old theme on its head, or going for the gritty and morbid. Over the last few decades this trend has resulted in fantasy going dark. Evil often wins. Heroes don’t exist.

This happened before.

The motion picture industry turned out happy endings for decades, then in the Sixties things began to change. Gritty, realistic, films began to pop up and anti-heroes like The Man With No Name arrived in the Italian western. The trend solidified in the Seventies, with moviemakers like Scorsese, De Laurentiis, Coppela, and Kubrick who often focused on complex, and unpleasant themes. It was theorized that the public was tired of the old good-triumphs-over-evil stories because it was so out of sync with the realities of the American experience during the age of Watergate, the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement and the Sexual Revolution.

Then Star Wars debuted in 1977 and everything began to change.

I remember seeing Star Wars the weekend it debuted. I wasn’t expecting anything and I was debating between it and the cartoon movie Wizards. Only one early review for Star Wars was out, a small block article in The Detroit News that slammed it for being unoriginal and using just about every movie cliché that existed, but did add, that it was surprisingly entertaining. It was the comment about movie clichés that tipped the scales for me. I never cared for the gritty realism of Midnight Cowboy and Taxi Driver. I liked the old films, the ones I saw on tv that I was too young to have seen at a theater. When the movie ended and the credits were rolling, I had one thought—-so that’s a movie.

I saw the same scenario play out to some degree in the fantasy book world. This time it was a novel series by a new author who made the unforgivable mistake of writing a hero-story using every clichéd trapping available. It was actually the tale of a young boy destined to defeat an evil dark lord and save the world from destruction. It even had an old mentor wizard guiding him as well as a mottle crew of humorous sidekicks (not unlike Star Wars.) According to the professed mentality of the consumer, the books should have been laughable. In serious times, people don't want trite tales of do-gooders with happy endings. They should have been panned as the worst kind of old-fashioned echo. Instead, there is a Harry Potter theme park in Florida now.

So I have to wonder—what’s the deal?

An aspiring writer friend of mine was working on a book in which a talking cat plays an important role. He presented part of his story to a writer’s workshop and the overwhelming response was that the talking cat was cliché—a tired device as old as Alice in Wonderland. He was depressed afterward and over drinks asked me if his story was even worth pursuing anymore, as it wouldn’t work without the cat. I told him that the cat doesn’t matter. All that matters is if the story is good and if it is well written.

You see, I don't think people so much hate to read the same type of story, they just hate to read bad stories. There are an infinite number of ways to combine old ideas to create new books. If the plot is good, if the reader cares for the characters, if the setting feels real, then it doesn’t matter if it’s about talking cats, or boys destined to defeat an evil dark lord. And trying to write a completely original story is sort of like trying to compose music with all original notes. It’s not necessary, and I’m not even certain it’s possible.