Christmas time has come again. As you wrap your gifts and prepare for a little Christmas of your own, you sip on some delicious egg nog and realize you want to commit to writing a book, script or short story. But where to begin? What story can you possibly write that hasn’t been told before? How do you know if your story will be truly original, or if people will accuse you of stealing your idea from something else?
The solution is simple. Don’t stress about it. Go ahead and write your story and embrace the similarities with another story. Every story ever told is both a unique creation personal to the writer and a blend of elements found in other stories that the writer has consumed at some point in his or her life. You probably will not write a truly original story in your lifetime, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write many truly great stories.
“That’s Just a Christ Metaphor”
Since it’s Christmas time, let’s address the Christ allegory and just how often Jesus really shows up in the popular stories of our day. In order to do so, let’s discover the elements of Jesus’ story that anyone can understand, whether Christian or not.
The figure of Jesus can be attributed with the traits of compassion, humility, respect, forgiveness, power, divinity, kindness and wisdom. Elements of Jesus’s story include divine or unnatural circumstances around his birth, performing miracles, being made for a higher calling, gathering like-minded disciples, overcoming great circumstances through love and sacrifice, and, of course, rising from the dead.
There are obviously more traits and elements in Jesus’ story, but those are some of the most characteristic of the Jesus of the Bible. Now, thinking only about the things mentioned above, who else in other stories can this describe?
How about Aslan in Chronicles of Narnia? Anakin Skywalker, although he turned to the Dark Side, also possesses many of these key elements in his story. Harry Potter and Neo from The Matrix (1999) both have to sacrifice their own lives in order to overcome a great evil and save the people they love. Frodo Baggins humbly takes upon himself a burden of unbelievable darkness, knowing that his life will probably be forfeit by doing so.
So many of the greatest stories of our time either intentionally or unintentionally resemble the Christ story, and for good reason. It’s the greatest story ever told, after all.
Here’s a list of more stories that include a Jesus figure in them, if you want more reading.
People Will Always Compare Stories to Other Stories
Here’s another fact for you this Christmas: no matter how original your story, there will inevitably be someone who finds similarities between your story and another story. This is no secret, nor is it something of which to be afraid. Don’t let it discourage you.
The Baking Analogy
Why are there so many similarities here? How is this not plagiarism? Because, quite frankly, the similarities end there. Think of storytelling in terms of baking. You and a friend both want to make a cake. You decide to make a chocolate cake, but your friend wants to make a confetti cake. When it’s all done, the differences are obvious, but the entire process of mixing and baking the cake is almost entirely identical in ingredients and how it is prepared and cooked. Both are cakes, but one tastes like chocolate and the other tastes like a clown just blew up in your face.
Genre (or sub-genre) determines much about how a story will play out, just like the ingredients and process are determined by the type of good being baked. Yet there can be so many differences between two stories of the same genre/sub-genre. In genres, there can be good comedies and bad comedies just like there can be good cake and bad cake. For sub-genres, there can be good buddy cop movies or bad buddy cop movies just as there can be good chocolate cakes and bad chocolate cakes.
Just Write a Good Story!
This Christmas, as you begin to plan your plot and your characters, just remember that you will never be able to be completely original. Take elements from all the best stories you love and don’t be afraid of looking too much like other stories. If you’re a writer who wants to find an agent or editor, you will be making the comparison in your query letter yourself, after all, to similar stories. (“This book will appeal to readers who like X, Y and Z books”)
Don’t let the fear of being unoriginal stop you from writing something truly great!
For further reading about how to use genre to your benefit, see the recent post about The Dangers of Subverting Expectations.