What Makes a Fantasy Original?

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.

33 thoughts on “What Makes a Fantasy Original?

  1. Michael J. Miller says:

    I love this post! And I’m going to be thinking about it all day. I too have often thought, “Ugh, this is so unoriginal” but I’ve rarely sat down and thought, “Hm, ok, what makes something original as far as I’m concerned?” I love the criteria you outline above (and I totally agree) but I also like that this has given me something to ponder all day today. Yay for contemplation!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      It’s actually kind of difficult to define what makes something original, I think. I’ve discussed this before with people, for instance in light of the accusations Cassandra Clare faced over plagiarizing some of her works. Some fans argued that a magical sword can be used anywhere, for instance. But I would argue, in what context? How similar are the magical swords? How many elements from another book are being used? And then, I guess, you get into the difficult of whether we’re talking plagiarism or inspiration. Maybe it’s a homage? It feels both like the idea of originality is very nebulous–and also not. Like there is a line that can be crossed and most people would somehow intuitively recognize it?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Michael J. Miller says:

        I wonder how much of it the author has a sense of. I can write opinion pieces and analytical or academic essays all day, but I have NO IDEA how someone writes fiction. So I wonder, is there a moment where authors *know* they are relying too heavily on what comes before? Or is it a surprise to them when they are criticized for it? I know I can tell (at least, usually (I hope)) when I’m doing that in a nonfiction piece. I’ve been in the middle of something for the blog many times where I stop and say, “There’s nothing here that’s new/I’m not doing anything worth reading here that others haven’t done better” and then I toss it. So I’m sure there is a line there – even if it’s location varies with the circumstances. But that location is certainly seen differently by readers, perhaps not as surprise as art is subjective. But how do authors feel/find it? I don’t know.


        • Krysta says:

          That’s true. Sometimes when I am writing things, I start to get paranoid. Did I read something similar somewhere else? Where is this thought coming from? Should I scrap the whole work? Once I wrote a poem I liked pretty well, but was so scared I might have somehow gotten ideas for it elsewhere that I ran it through an online plagiarism checker and then made someone else read it to see if it sounded familiar. It come up as not plagiarized and my reader said it seemed original, but the fear is real.

          However, I do think if I started writing a book and I noticed, hm, wow, this sounds exactly like X or if someone said the same to me, I’d have to scrap it. I don’t think saying you were “inspired by X” really counts in that case. And it looks bad, anyway. It’s kind of like how we tell students to cite something if they read it somewhere, even if they thought of it first. You don’t want even the appearance of something sketchy, if you can help it.

          That being said, I’m pretty sure I’ve written tons of posts where I have no particularly added anything original to a conversation. However, I think there is the possibility that you are saying something new to your specific audience. For instance, I have a post on the summer side coming up. And, yes, you can find info plenty of places on that. But tons of people don’t know about it and if I can convince one person to get their kid reading this summer, it’s worth it.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Michael J. Miller says:

            I think that’s true. Just because the idea’s out there doesn’t mean your readers have seen it. Also, I would still consider it “original” to write about on the blog if it’s original to me. Does that make sense? So, for example, I wrote a piece a while back about ‘The Dark Knight Returns.’ “Classic” or not, I didn’t like it. At all. So I talked about why. It was a piece I felt passionate about writing, even though I’m sure I’m not the first negative critique of the story. But there are pieces I find myself writing that don’t seem to be saying anything of merit for me or my readers and those get deleted :).

            I agree on the book writing thing too. I can’t imagine you can spend that much time building a world, giving birth to characters and shaping their lives and not notice it’s wildly similar to something else. So yeah, then you scrap it and start over. Your citation point is spot on. Being that painfully and obviously similar to another story is a form of intellectual plagiarism if not overt plagiarism.


        • Annemieke says:

          I’d like to think an author will catch this in editing or that feedback partners will tell them. There are so many drafts an author goes through that you’d think they’d catch on at that point. Or like I said, I hope so anyway.

          Liked by 2 people

  2. bookwormmuse says:

    This was such a great post! It’s something I have wondered about often as well. I sometimes find a plot too similar or characters too alike other more famous ones and I wonder if there’s any originality left but you made some really good points. So glad I got to read it now!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Yeah, sometimes I read books that all seem to be the same trend and I start to despair! But I think this is people trying to make money off other popular titles and I think there are original stories out there waiting to be told!


  3. alilovesbooks says:

    100% agree with this. I am always on the look out for books that are original but while I know there’s not much a writer can do to create something completely unique they can make common tropes feel different.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Margaret @ Weird Zeal says:

    This is such an interesting discussion! I love it when fantasy books twist a familiar trope and make it feel new. And it’s funny how you can usually tell immediately when a book is copying something else versus inspired by it!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Grab the Lapels says:

    Jackie @ Death By Tsundoku and I are reading a lengthy fantasy series, and one thing that drives me bonkers is a review of the very first book — the very top review on Goodreads, in fact — claims that Arrows of the Queen ripped off Harry Potter. Despite Arrows of the Queen having been published in the 1980s. I love readers, but some of them need to read harder, or something.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. MetalPhantasmReads says:

    Amazing discussion as always! I do like seeing how an author makes a story different. Some handle aspects, like a complex magic system like Brandon Sanderson and that makes his stories different from the rest. Even books set in France that are a trend this year have had different genres (a historical murder mystery and a historical fiction with a fantasy element) and that makes them different enough to be enjoyable and fun to read. I think we need to remember that every story has roots of types of stories we’ve heard, but there’s also a surprise that could be waiting to change things up 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. sammicakes123 says:

    Do you agree with the fact that “no story is original?” A publisher told me this once after I sent them some of my story, and I feel like this is a bit too broad of a statement. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      I don’t think so! I think it sounds very clever and wise to say nothing new can happen, but I think writers surprise us all the time with their new combinations of familiar elements!

      Liked by 2 people

  8. Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

    “No one wants to see the untested youth die in their first fight on the battlefield!”

    *raises hand* I … I kind of want to see this? I’m 100% okay with routing for a protagonist who dies early on and spends the rest of the book as a really bitter spirit, having to try to fulfill his destiny from the afterlife, but realizing that interacting with the living world is exhausting and taxing and being dead really shouldn’t be so much work. *cough*

    As you were describing that storyline, I definitely got Nevermoor vibes, but then I also thought … hold on, that’s really not anything like Harry Potter. I mean, I love them both, but when I was reading Nevermoor, not once did I ever think, “You know, this is a lot like Harry Potter.” Even though the basic premise, if you strip the story to its bones, is mostly the same.

    I think you’ve got a really good point about originality also being subject to how often someone reads that genre. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read reviews on fantasy books that I was sort of meh about where readers touted its uniqueness, while in the breath saying they don’t really read fantasy. And I’m just like, yup, that’s pretty obvious, because it’s almost exactly like all these other books in the genre with maybe one unique attribute. xD Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Krysta says:

      Okay, initially I thought, “Wow, that would be a really short book,” but you got me. I would totally read that story!

      Yeah, if we look at bare bones structure, a lot of things seem similar! But, once you add worldbuilding and characters–that’s where the stories become unique!

      Haha, true. Sometimes it seems like you might enjoy books more if you read less, ironically, because you’d have nothing to compare them to.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Sammie @ The Writerly Way says:

        I’m pretty sure that goes back to the whole idea of taking something that’s been done before and making it unique, though. xD I mean, I know several books/shows that start with the protagonist dying, so its just a matter of finding a new spin and feel for it.

        It does seem to be a weird curse readers suffer. It’s a burden we bear. The more you read, the pickier you get lol.

        Liked by 1 person

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