Does Originality Exist in Fiction, and Can You Attain It?

Mark Twain (Image provided by Flickr user India7 Network. No changes were made.)
Mark Twain
(Image provided by Flickr user India7 Network. No changes were made.)

“For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily use by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them.”

-Mark Twain

As writers, we can all admit to struggling with the challenge of creating a perfectly original idea. Frankly, it is practically impossible to conceive a concept that has never before been used in the history of fiction. One could sit for hours on end to try to fabricate some authentic story that has never graced the eyes of readers, but part of that endeavor is made in vain.

The fact of the matter is that somewhere out in the vast universe of short stories, novels, plays, and novellas, every central plot structure and theme exists. Whether it’s a premise of vampires and werewolves, a saga of love and loss, or the perils of a dystopian society, the main construct has already been used in thousands of different scenarios.

Take the star-crossed lovers theme, for instance. If Romeo and Juliet was the first example that popped into your head, there’s definitely a reason for that. Shakespeare’s famous tale of forbidden love has acted as a template for countless works that followed centuries later, some of which are considered literary classics. The Great Gatsby and Wuthering Heights are prime illustrations of storylines following two lovers separated by unfortunate circumstance.

Yet in the grand scheme of things, the only ways in which these novels are similar is that they share the fundamental aspect of tragic romance. The location, time period, characters, even the elusive messages behind the text are all remarkably distinct. Essentially, the authors were able to construct a unique piece of literature given one rudimentary tool that all writers possess: perspective.

Think of it this way. All ideas exist already, but it’s how you perceive and adapt upon that idea that makes it “original.” It is more of a subconscious collaboration with other authors, for you are all dipping your toes into the figurative pool of inspiration. How do you think J.K. Rowling came to write about the beloved wizards at Hogwarts? The heroic triumphs of a character who builds from misfortune is nothing new, but it was Rowling’s voice, her ingenuity that made the books, for lack of better words…magical.

So before getting discouraged about how everything has been done, take into account this revelation: it’s not the original idea that counts—it’s how you, as a writer, manipulate that idea into something new and exciting. Your tone, diction, imagination, etc.—all of this is unique to you. When you employ these traits into your writing, you are left with a piece whose originality is sure to show.