I was watching an episode of The Blacklist last night with Kelly and it concerned a cult using medievil torture devices to meter out punishment to individuals they felt were guilty of terrible crimes.
When I was originally conceiving Nameless over a year ago, I had an antagonist who used such devices to molest his victims. Watching James Spader doing what he does so well, I couldn't help but think "Damn, they stole my idea!"
They didn't of course, but it was interesting to see it being done so well. And then I got to thinking, is there such a thing as a truly original idea?
Christopher Volgler wrote a book called The Writer's Journey which I found invaluable when starting out and something I previously touched upon once before in an early blog, but it is so good that I think it's worth revisiting. He (and Joseph Campbell before him in his insightful and inspirational The Hero with a Thousand Faces) believed that every story consists, in one form or another, of a selection of specific character archetypes interwoven into a specific story arc.
In fact, its probably something you already do and don’t even realise. Don’t believe me? Okay, consider these:
1.) The hero is introduced in his/her ORDINARY WORLD
2.) The CALL TO ADVENTURE.
3.) The hero is reluctant at first. (REFUSAL OF THE CALL.)
4.) The hero is encouraged by the Wise Old Man or Woman. (MEETING WITH THE MENTOR.)
5.) The hero passes the first threshold. (CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.)
6.) The hero encounters tests and helpers. (TESTS, ALLIES, ENEMIES.)
7.) The hero reaches the innermost cave. (APPROACH TO THE INMOST CAVE.)
8.) The hero endures the supreme ORDEAL.
9.) The hero seizes the sword. (SEIZING THE SWORD, REWARD)
10.) THE ROAD BACK.
12.) RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR
Don’t think you can fit this around any story? Okay then…
We meet farm boy Luke Skywalker on Tatooine (ordinary world introduction). He meets R2D2, C3PO and Obi Wan Kenobi. Obi Wan tells him of his father who fought in the Clone Wars (call to adventure). Obi Wan asks hi to accompany him, Luke refuses until he discovers his aunt and uncle murdered which then persuades him (meeting with the mentor). Journeying to Mos Eisley, he meets Han Solo and Chewbacca (crossing the threshold) that leads to an encounter with Princess Leia, the Death Star and Darth Vader (tests, allies, enemies). He journeys deep in to the Death Star (approach to the innermost cave), but loses Obi Wan to Darth Vader (ordeal). Returning to join the Rebellion, he joins them in an attack on the Death Star (seizing the sword). Successful in blowing up the gigantic space station, he receives his reward alongside Han and Chewie (the road back). Indeed, in Return of the Jedi, he almost turns to the dark side whilst fighting his father (Darth Vader) which is the resurrection. The lesson Luke has learnt throughout the entire Star Wars saga is about the light and dark sides of the force and how powerful friends and family can be (return with the elixir).
In case you never realised by the way, Star Wars is all about Anakin Skywalker and his fall and return to the light. Everyone also thinks it's about Luke. Even The Force Awakens is about his grandson and a summarised version of his journey (what will come of it I guess we will have to wait for Episode VIII).
Everyone knows the old adage of ‘the villain makes the hero’. You need the overwhelming evil so that the most unlikely good can overcome it. Joseph Campbell knew this, which is why his construct for what makes the best stories can be seen over countless tales over countless years. He also knew you needed specific character types, or archetypes as he called them, to make your stories truly come to life. And they were; heroes, shadows, mentors, heralds, threshold guardians, shape shifters, tricksters and allies.
Using Sherlock Holmes as an example – Holmes is the hero, Moriarty is the shadow or villain, Watson is the mentor with guiding principles, Irene Adler could be the herald who calls the hero to adventure, Lestrade could be the threshold guardian standing in the way of important points, the shape shifter could be Stapleton in The Hound of the Baskervilles, the trickster again Irene Adler/Moriarty and the allies, well Lestrade again, even Adler on some occasions if the circumstances suited her. The character types can be interchangeable. But the fact exists that they are always there in some respect.
Works with Doctor Who too…
The Doctor – hero.
Dalek/Cyberman/Sontaran/Weeping Angel – villain.
The Face of Boe– mentor.
Wilf (Donna’s uncle who ended up being the cause of the 10th Doctor’s regeneration)– threshold guardian
Captain Jack Harkness – shapeshifter
Missy/The Master - trickster
Amy/Sarah-Jane/Clara/Donna/Martha/Rose - allies
Think about it…it works with your story too. Granted, as with anything it may not have rigidly adhered to these guidelines. Stick to closely and your story will be stilted…deviate to far and you story will be lost in a mire of plot holes and inconsistencies. But use it as a skeleton framework to build your story around, and you can shuffle them about, retitle them, delete some, add others and discover the true power held within your story. Power to tell the most wonderful of tales that you hadn’t even realised.
Getting back to my original point, it is difficult, even using the above as a framework, to come up with an original idea or at least it seems so sometimes.
I have the great pleasure of working with and reading some of the work a young lady called Charlotte Teece has produced. The story I have read of hers so far is literally one of the most original pieces of post apocalyptic fiction I have ever come across. It is up there with 'I Am Legend', Emma Slaughter's 'Lonely as a Cloud' and "Children of Men'. She has crafted the most amazing world, full of life, pathos, intrigue and most importantly, soul. Even I was taken aback by the arc of one particular character as I was so invested I didn't see it coming and was shocked and saddened when it did! This lady is definitely one to watch out for, mark my words.
But, an original idea. As an example, Michael Wood, Karen Long and Robert Bryndza have all done it with their lead detective characters. They have taken a well worn archetype and remoulded it into something original and slightly off centre of the norm, enough to make you compelled to enter their worlds and journey with them into the darker recesses of the human mind. These characters are, in my opinion, the most difficult to reinvent. But rather than do the easy 'reboot' of something we have seen before, they took the elements we love from those types of characters, added some new and diverse character traits and character flaws and represented them as the most dynamic of characters. (Cool names too...Matilda Darke, Erika Foster, Eleanor Raven...I definitely would have had that if I had heard it before hand! that said, I came up with Obadiah Stark which isn't too shabby!).
Keep those brain cells ticking over. The original ideas are there, but no matter how original I guarantee your story will follow the above in one form or another, not matter how vague. We do it subconsciously I think, the hero's journey engrained in our minds from Star Wars, the Magnificent Seven, Star Trek, For A Few Dollars More, High Plains Drifter, Smokey and The Bandit and hundreds more.
I remain in awe of all of your authors that I am fortunate enough to call friends, on Facebook or otherwise and consider myself very lucky to be in this profession where even my tales have entertained a few.
Christ, we write things down that others love and enjoy.
Isn't that the best feeling in the world?