On Originality

With mentions of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

For the launch of The Collarbound, Jeanette Winterson started the event at Blackwells by asking about originality. She asked why I set the story in what was, in effect, a ‘school for wizards’. And yet, she went on to say, the story is different from what’s been done before, and quickly brings us somewhere strange and unexpected. Why did I choose to set it in a place so instantly recognisable, then?

It's a question I have often pondered, and one that a lot of aspiring writers, when starting on their project, also worry about – why write a story if it feels as if it’s been done before?

One staple of fantasy advice is, Do not start your story in a tavern. This advice exists for good reason. Lots of terrible books start in a tavern, out of laziness on the part of the writer, because that’s where they started their last DnD campaign, or because they cannot be bothered to describe a landscape. Obviously editors are wary of taverns, and sometimes discard books straightaway if they recognise that setting on the first page.

Yet The Collarbound starts in a tavern.

And so does another, well-loved book: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Both stories start in a place we know, the staple fantasy tavern, from the POV of a character who has a lot to teach us, who has lived long before they ended up in this space.

 

It’s time for me to confess something: I much prefer the scenes in the tavern in The Name of the Wind, as opposed to the main narrative following Kvath’s adventures.

 

Going back in time and telling the story in chronological order intrigued me a lot less than puzzling it, putting it back together after the facts. I slightly lost interest once I realised I would be given Kvath’s story in the expected order – the story I was interested in was the one being used as a framing device.

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I’ve mentioned before how using tropes to your advantage, especially in fantasy, can be a very effective writing tool. As those of you who’ve been reading these articles might have noticed by now, thinking about how tropes shape a story, and how the writer can use them to their benefit, is something I obsess over.

There are reasons as to why The Collarbound starts in a tavern. One reason is that, aside from the setting, which is familiar, a lot of unfamiliar elements are being introduced. In about 5k words, the reader meets Tatters, meets the voice that speaks in Tatters’ head, meets Isha, as well as three secondary characters (two young mages and the tavernkeeper), and Passerine is briefly mentioned. That’s six characters, three of them major. More than one character per thousand words. At the same time, there are mentions of key worldbuilding plot points: kher horn is spotted, carved into a bracelet on the innkeeper’s arm; and we get to see a mindlink battle.

But hopefully, none of that feels like too much, or loses the reader. The rest of the setting is very familiar. The reader can focus on meeting people because they’re not lost in an unfamiliar landscape. They can take time to engage with the magic system because the way it’s presented to them – a mentor/mentee battle – is a familiar one. They can puzzle over the elements of Tatters and Isha that stand out and make them unique, because they know just enough about them for them to not feel like complete strangers.

The Nest – the place where mages live and learn – serves a similar purpose. It’s familiar, quick to explain. It allows me to focus on what I’m interested in, bringing the reader from a place which is familiar, recognisable, to somewhere strange.

I think there is a balance to be found when writing original plots or relying on tropes. There is an interesting article in Fantasy Hive about finding balance in fantasy writing, which makes a slightly different point but is worth the read. I remember writing a story which – I felt – was truly original, but to be honest, people found it confusing. It didn’t set up clear expectations to subvert, because everything was trying very hard to be different. Because of this, it couldn’t surprise the reader, and tended to baffle them.

The debate as to how original a story should be brings us back to the Hitchcock bomb theory. If you haven’t heard it before, here are the broad outlines: if people are milling about in a room for 5 minutes and then a bomb goes off and kills them all, the viewers will be surprised, but there will be no tension. If you show the viewers there is a bomb ticking under the table, then show people milling about the room for 5 minutes – well, you might not surprise them, but you’ll have tons of tension.

In fantasy, to push that analogy further, if the bomb cannot be relied on to explode, and sometimes turns everyone into kittens, or sometimes gives everyone the power to fly, then the tension drops again, because the reader doesn’t know what’s at stake, what can be gained or lost.

That doesn’t mean the reader should never be surprised. Actually, a good twist is one that, in retrospect, is logical and could have been seen coming, yet manages to be unexpected. Or a good twist can be logical, but subvert an expected trope, thus surprising the reader because it’s going against their expectations, but not against the logical consistency of the world.

For example, the infamous Red Wedding in Game of Thrones isn’t a complete surprise, in retrospect, because it makes sense. Not holding your promises or marrying the person you were supposed to marry generally does have consequences, especially in Medieval-like settings. But reader expectations are that, when the hero throws convention to the wind in the name of love, everything is going to be alright. Because they’re the hero. Because it’s loooove.

So that scene is both shocking – because it’s rare for writers to murder a bunch of characters in one go, because it’s rarer to have the hero killed. But it’s not totally unexpected.

(To tell you the truth, Robb Stark got on my nerves when he made that decision. I was grumbling that he should have kept his girlfriend as a mistress and married the woman he was supposed to marry. I was using the internal logic of the world, and was upset on Walder Frey’s behalf. I remember thinking that only well-loved heroes got away with oath breaking like that. Well, that showed me.)

I think it’s actually more shocking for readers when they thought they knew where the story was going, because they recognise some or all of the elements present, and then the ingredients are not used the way the readers thought they would be.

The Collarbound attempts to walk that line between originality and familiarity. Some elements of the setting are familiar, in part to give me the opportunity to show off the more original elements. Hopefully there are a few surprises, as well as scenes which, despite feeling familiar, bring the reader somewhere new. And I suspect the biggest twists aren’t the ones that come from original worldbuilding – those, hopefully, give us cool “wow!” moments, but not actual surprise – but from those moments where the reader is nearly sure they know where the story is going… before they find out it’s headed elsewhere.

12 May 22