What if someone told you they were going to write some young adult books about a boy who goes away to a wizarding school? Would you tell them not to bother, because there was already a beloved series with the same premise?
If it were the early 1990s, you might be talking J.K. Rowling out of writing her Harry Potter series, based on similarities to Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea trilogy. Harry Potter is much different than LeGuin’s classic, and it’s now much more popular, but neither of these things would have been obvious before the Harry Potter books were written and published.
In a similar vein (heh), the huge popularity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not to mention the existence of L.J. Smith’s young adult series The Vampire Diaries, didn’t deter Stephenie Meyer from writing her Twilight series. I suspect she’s glad that she did it.
Sometimes we writers worry a little too much about stories with similar premises to our own. It says in the Bible, “There is nothing new under the sun,” and that was written a really long time ago. It’s even more true now.
I believe that some myths are deeply rooted in our collective unconscious. Magical weapons, resurrection, demons, fairies or “little people,” changelings, ghosts, heroic quests, and other elements show up in stories across the globe.
Certainly, shared stories pervade people’s cultural consciousness. For instance, the Norse sagas, Greek mythology, Arthurian legend, and the Bible have all had a huge impact on Western storytelling.
Beyond our shared mythological heritage, some human stories never fail to fascinate, terrify, inspire, or save us. That’s why they come out in our writing, and why we respond to them in other people’s stories. Willa Cather said, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
Occasionally I’ll hear a writer talk about they want to write a completely original story… and go on to describe a gimmick that I cannot imagine anyone enjoying.
That’s not to say that you can’t do something bizarre, and do it well. I just think the weirdness has to come from a place deep within yourself. If it comes from superficial desire to do something shocking or to show how clever you are, it’s probably going to fall flat.
I’ve written before about how it’s good for a writer to know their genre well, so that they understand how their story fits into it, and so their story isn’t exactly like everything else out there.
That being said, if someone or even a bunch of someones are doing something quite similar, it’s not a reason to despair or to abandon your work.
If you’re already having a low day as a writer, you may exaggerate how similar your story is to someone else’s. You may think things like: Oh no — my heroine is a professional dog walker, just like the heroine in this movie! I’m so unoriginal. I should just give up. That may just be a reflection of your mood and your self-esteem at the moment, rather than a legitimate concern.
If you encounter a story that really is similar to yours, though, that’s okay, too. I think that’s the universe’s invitation to go deeper into your own heart and bring out more of those elements and those things that you need to say that will make your story truly your own.
Have you ever worried about doing something too similar – or conversely, something too niche or unfamiliar? I’d love to hear what you have to say!
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