February 7, 2023

Copycat: does originality exist?

As a child, my love for reading led to my love for writing which in turn led to my first attempt at writing a short story. In primary school I wrote a story entitled, The Fat Cookie, which was, in my mind, a captivating tale about the travels of a chunky choc chip cookie. It followed its trials and tribulations as it rolled through town after town. The biggest danger for said cookie was being eaten by hungry townsfolk; sound vaguely familiar? I’ll admit, it was loosely, albeit subconsciously, based on the plot of The Gingerbread Man, which is a story I had loved. Certainly, I was not the first nor will I ever be the last to “adapt” the story; look it up and there are numerous “adaptations.” At the time, I was thoroughly pleased with my eight-year-old self for coming up with such an “original” idea, however, maybe back then I had unwittingly stumbled upon a universal question still confronting most creative writers today: is there such a thing as an “original” idea?

What makes an idea original? Is it the fact that it has never been done (in this case, written) before? When you think about it, is this even possible? Aren’t we all a product of what we’ve read, seen or experienced creatively? Surely there is a cumulative effect of the countless books and stories we’ve read from infancy to adulthood. Most of the time, we aren’t even aware that we store these ideas for future reference. Most of us, desperately try to avoid this in our work; we push our imaginations to the limit to find original ideas. I’m not talking about blatantly taking other writers’ ideas; I’m sure you’d agree this is utterly detestable. I’m referring to the framework; the skeleton, not the flesh. Perhaps we stick to familiar plotlines because they work well.

However, there are those who believe there are only seven basic universal storylines; common plots that exist in every story. I found this hard to believe at first, but having done hours of mind-numbing textual analysis at university; it was surprising to see how prevalent they are. Here is a summary:

  1. The Quest – hero goes off to accomplish goals, lots of obstacles in his way, won’t rest until he reaches his ultimate goal; think Lord of the Rings.
  2. Voyage and return – a journey, goes away, comes back again wiser; think Wizard of Oz.
  3. Rebirth – protagonist under some kind of evil/dark force, ultimately freed by others or the common redeemer “love” – think Beauty and the Beast.
  4. Comedy – characters in funny ha ha confusion, resolution met when everything has been played out to sometimes ridiculous extremes – think All’s Well That Ends Well.
  5. Tragedy – a tear-jerker, character brings about their own downfall, usually emotional ending – think Hamlet.
  6.  Overcoming the monster – scary force frightening people everywhere, hero seeks to crush said force – think Dracula.
  7. Rags to riches – a “nobody” becomes a “somebody” with pesky obstacles thrown in – think Great Expectations.

So maybe I was on to something when writing my first story all those years ago; maybe I had discovered a universal truth: that we all “borrow” every now and again, even when we don’t intend to. Well, if it’s good enough for Shakespeare…

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