To Thine Own Self Be True

NachtwachtShakespeare famously wrote ‘to thine own self be true’ in Hamlet. This saying has been ripped from its original context and misapplied for centuries since. Let me add to that mess with regards to the concept of ‘originality’.

Art and Originality

This post applies to people who create stuff. Be it writers, like me, painters, or computer programmers, or anything else creative.

I read Damn Fine Story by Chuck Wendig recently, and one of the things he says is that no story is truly original. Everything’s been done, and originality is overrated. What you might think of as original has probably created in a slightly different way dozens of times. The only thing that a writer really brings to the table is themselves.

For example, I’ve seen Orphan Black called very original. However, if you watch The 6th Day (yes, with Arnold Schwarzenegger) and Dollhouse, you’ll probably see a lot of familiar things. That isn’t to say that Orphan Black isn’t any good. It’s a great show, it’s just not the super original work you might think it is. The point is that what makes it good is not originality.

On originality

Originality is an interesting concept. A work of art of any form is usually praised for its ‘originality’. From the example above we can conclude that a lot of things are not that original.

The more interesting question is really why we care so much about things being original. Here’s a quote from Wikipedia on the subject:

The concept of originality is culturally contingent. At the time of Shakespeare, it was more common to appreciate the similarity with an admired classical work, and Shakespeare himself avoided “unnecessary invention”. It wasn’t until the start of the 18th century that the concept of originality became an ideal in Western culture.

These days, being unique is considered very important. I’ve already written about this obsession with being exceptional and unique a few weeks ago, and it also applies to this concept of original art.

If we turn it around, why would an unoriginal work be bad? There are two things that matter, I think.

Seen it a thousand times

I really loved the first two Assassin’s Creed games. On my first playthrough, when my assassin entered his first city I actually stopped my character in the middle of a street and simply looked around at the scenery. It was utterly awesome. Five games down the line, this magic was gone. It was just more of the same.

At some point, our mind get saturated if it’s fed the same thing over and over again. I can play a new song repeatedly for weeks, but then love grows to like, then grows to boredom.  I could only read two or three books in the Dresden files series in a row before I had to switch to something else for a while. If you look at the ‘Night’s Watch’ painting from Rembrandt in the picture at the top of this article, you’ll see his famous Chiaroscuro style (contrasting light and dark in a painting). It works if you’ve never seen it before, but it becomes far less interesting after the fiftieth painting.

It was William Cowper who wrote ‘Variety’s the very spice of life, That gives it all flavors’. So, we need variety, not necessarily originality.

The Empty Twist

The second reason an unoriginal work can be boring is when it relies on twists and reveals that the reader has seen before.

Fight Club ends with a big reveal. The first time I watched it, I didn’t see it coming until the very end. I loved the movie.

If you’d watch a different movie a few days later that used the exact same twist, then it would utterly fail. A third time and you might walk out of a theater angry.

In other words: Smoke and Mirrors in stories will only work if they are not derivative. The same goes for certain elements of music and art. That doesn’t mean that the twist has to be something that has never been done before. The thing is, readers/viewers/listeners must not see it coming.

The ending of Fight Club isn’t actually that original. In fact, it shares similarities with the movie Psycho. As it does with several newer and older movies. It’s all the same misdirection trick, but the details and setting differ enough that we don’t see it coming.

Back to you

In other words, you can’t be original, but you can style your work in such a way that it feels fresh. So as an artist you need to bring an original style to the table. And style comes from within you. In other words, put something of yourself into your work.

One of the biggest compliments I got after somebody read my short story Hostages, was that she thought it was very clearly my story, written in my own style.

In short, to thine own self be true.

Martin Stellinga Written by:

I'm a science fiction and fantasy writer from the Netherlands