“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
~Charles Caleb Colton
I imagine that unless you are the most pedestrian writer in existence, the greatest motivation you have is to create something noteworthy, something that inspires emotion -be it praise or condemnation- amongst your readers. I would say this is true about all goals people have, but for writing I would believe that it is especially true: novel-writing is not like a nine-to-five job. Novelists (usually) don’t get paid on an hourly or per-word basis, so their goals shouldn’t be to churn out garbage just to pull in a paycheck.
Yet, too often, this is exactly what seems to happen. From Rowling’s Harry Potter to Meyer’s Twilight we see a noteworthy, often brilliant idea that is blatantly -and poorly- duplicated ad nauseum. A glance at the young reader section at your local bookstore or library yields a landfill of young male/female prodigies going to an exclusive institute to perfect their special and usually secret crafts. A look at the teen section yields an equally appalling collection of romances between an ingénue with a taste for misunderstood and tragic supernatural boys. It’s like going to the grocery store and picking up the 5 lb bag of ‘Fruity Hoops’. It looks like a good thing, but barely qualifies as a tolerable duplicate.
Clearly, it would be easy -although elitist- to dismiss all of these writers as hacks, jumping on an already overloaded bandwagon, all just angling for a quick buck. It’s disheartening to see these copies of another person’s innovation, all cashing in on a good idea. Yet, there is clearly a market for them. And -occasionally- one will twist the new genre enough to itself create something new. But even if there were no commercial profit and no innovation to made by the duplicates, we’re stil left with the question of how much of this duplication is truly represensible and how much is truly unavoidable.
Although grotesquely over-cited, Joseph Cambell deals with this to a large degree in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces and the PBS documentary Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth. To summarize, Joseph Campbell posited that all myths -and fictionalized stories would fall into the category of ‘myths’- revolve around a single story, a single conceit:
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
When broken down enough, all stories follow that same pattern and therefore all myths, all fiction, is a recursive imitation of itself. Every story is about a single protagonist who experiences something that changes their everyday life and are tested, emerging enlightened or improved in someway. Campbell states this is simply our innate need to express what is an essentially universal human experience. All myths (and by extension books and movies) seek to provide this experience because inherently we all seek to participate in it.
I’ve been working on a novel idea which basically boils down to a fantasy concept with aspects of horror and a little steampunk thrown in, taking place in or around what would essentially be a 1500-1600’s alternate Europe and has a middle eastern flavor to it. From conception, it has always seemed something of a mish-mash to me, but the background I’m working around, the mythology behind the story (or stories since this feels to be something I’ll need several installments to truly tell), has been very compelling to me and flowed nicely. Of course, brushing my tale with the same brush I used on all those Potter and Twilight clones earlier, I have to admit that the story has taken on a hint of Wheel of Time both for the type of fantasy and the breadth of the tale. Now, I like Robert Jordan and yield much respect to him; he is a giant in the fantasy genre and his work has its own brand of influence, but that influence is really limited to just fantasy. I read his work and it’s enormously appealing and entertaining, but I never get a visceral reaction to it nor do I percieve any greater parable beyond the narrative itself.
So, this is the question I’ve been posing myself: how to balance a story that is falling firmly into genre fiction yet also provide some deeper experience for the reader. How do I tap into the tenets of fantasy but create something that exceeds the limitations of the genre? How do I create something that thrills like good fantasy does, but also touches that inner need Joseph Campbell says we all harbor. How do I create my own myth?