Originality in Fantasy

There’s a stigma attached to fantasy fiction that the vast majority of it is derivative, whether of Tolkien or Howard, or Erikson or Cook. There are many “parents” of the fantasy genre, and new storytellers coming to the watering hole might despair of ever treading new ground. Has everything already been done? Is subverting the tropes of the genre all we can aspire to do and, if so, how long before that becomes derivative too?

It’s something that’s been niggling at me recently while editing my own urban fantasy novel. There are certainly elements to my novel that I wouldn’t consider original… be that the overarching structure, archetypal character roles, or even some names of things. It is difficult to be 100% original – we’ve been telling stories for thousands of years, after all. So what stops a story from being perceived as derivative?

Just a snapshot of the genre from some of my own shelves

I think that’s the key here. Perception. Every story written today owes something to what came before, has influences that stretch back through the work of other storytellers, artists, musicians, scientists, and so on. I do think there’s still space for genuine originality – it could be argued that to say otherwise is simply a failure of imagination – but the way in which a story is presented, that’s what makes it seem fresh and exciting to readers. At least that’s been my reading experience.

And that presentation can take many forms. It can be the way we frame an idea or dress it up; it can be an inversion, turning something comical serious, or vice versa; it can be subverting cultural expectations or twisting a trope until you find a fresh angle; and it can simply be the way it is written. This last one speaks to me the most. Every writer has their own style, their own syntactical idiosyncrasies and rhythms, their own turn of phrase. It might not be revolutionary, but when the words are chosen with care and purpose it creates a lens through which the reader can see things from a new perspective: your perspective, or the perspective you have crafted.

That’s without even considering what the reader brings to the table. Their own knowledge and experiences will shape their reading of a story, and so much of writing is trying to bridge the gap between the text and reader to convey meaning as accurately as possible. In certain respects it’s an impossibility, but I do believe the gap can be narrowed, allowing the reader to almost “triangulate” meaning. And if a novel has been well-crafted in this way then I think it allows a reader and a story to constantly rediscover each other over time – it’s why I always return to The Lord of the Rings.

So I suppose this post is a form of self-assurance that although I’ve chosen to write an urban fantasy novel, purposefully digging deep into that toolbox, it is more than just a shadow of what’s come before. In a lot of ways it’s a love letter to the genre, essentially the urban fantasy novel I’ve always wanted to read, but in other ways it’s my characters’ story presented through the lens of my own personality and experiences.

I’m excited for you to read it, and excited to see what you bring to – and take away from – your reading of it.

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