Often when I write a book review criticizing a story for being unoriginal, readers ask how any story can be original. Authors routinely use the same elements in stories and genres tend to have tropes. There is nothing original left to be said. Even if there were something original to be said, however, many readers enjoy tropes. We read romances because we want to see the shy, awkward single girl find her one true love at the end–not because we are expecting to see her walking away by herself in the rain. We read fantasies because we enjoy seeing the wise old mentor wizard, the powerful dragons, the youth who finds their courage and becomes a knight. No one wants to see the untested youth die in their first fight on the battlefield! So, how do you make a fantasy feel original, even when it seems everything has already been said? It’s all in how you combine the tropes and make them come alive.
To begin with, there is a line between using common tropes and conventions and copying another book. For example, any number of writers have used the wise old mentor wizard we have mentioned before. Many writers have written about schools of magic. And many writers have used the trope of the Chosen One. A fantasy author could use any or all of these and still find ways to be original. However, if a fantasy author were to write a story in which a protagonist found out she was secretly magical, had to go to a hidden magic school, learned there that she was the Chosen One destined to defeat the Dark Lord, and was mentored by a kindly old wizard mentor…well…things are starting to look a little too familiar. The general outline of a plot is starting to emerge and it’s one we all know very well.
The author could still save the story at this point, however, by introducing original details, different motivations, different characters. Some readers might still say, “Sounds like Harry Potter” (which has happened to me when I have described Keeper of the Lost Cities and Nevermoor, though I think they are not much like Harry Potter at all beyond the whole “secret magical world and school” thing). But I don’t think most people would argue that copying was occurring at this point. But if readers are then introduced to a school system with four Houses, a dark forest, a forbidden library, and a caring but somewhat bumbling groundskeeper with a fondness for dangerous animals, the majority of people would probably agree that the book is starting to copy too much. Definitely too much to be considered original.
So the trick is to take common conventions and to use or arrange them in a different way, or to use the details to make a common character feel original. In the first case, as we have seen, you can have any number number of magical schools. But some might be for wizardry. Some might be for Elves. Some might be for people with peculiarities. Some might be for children, some for teens, and some for college students. Some might be for wizards but they only do metal magic or they go to school in the sky. The details change things. In the second case, common characters can be made unique by giving them distinct personalities. For example, even though Dumbledore and Gandalf have been compared repeatedly, Dumbledore and Gandalf are not really very alike–aside from the fact that they are both older males who perform magic. Dumbledore is presented more as a kindly mentor who is then revealed to be a flawed human. Gandalf is a powerful magical being who can be very cranky, but also full of joy. There can be all kinds of magic mentor figures who have different backgrounds, different skills, and different personalities.
For readers, the definition of “original” will vary. Sometimes this may be because readers have read fewer books in a genre or they have not read the work on from which another work is drawing heavily. Sometimes this may be simply because readers do not mind reading the same type of story–or even because they want to read the same story. Even so, I believe that it is possible for a book to feel too derivative or too unoriginal. For a book to feel like it is not its own world, but the shadow of another one.
For me, an original story does not adhere too closely to the general outline of another book. It uses tropes, but in a way that still manages to feel new. This can happen by giving unique details to a world or by fleshing out characters so they feel more like people and a little less like tropes. It may feel like everything has already been written. But authors can still find ways to shake things up.