Ideas and You (AKA, Know What You’re Writing About II)

Happy New Year, everyone, and welcome to another Tales from Outside Comics! The series of posts from someone just like you, still huddled in the corner, reeling from the year that was 2018. What’s old is new again, so what better way to kick off the new year than retreading an idea from the last one, right? Last time I used the title “Know What You’re Writing About,” I talked a bit about the process of writing, a subject I don’t think it’s possible to put a “final word” on. So this is the first (of probably many) follow-ups on that subject.

New Year’s Day is, perhaps weirdly, one of my favorite holidays. Aside from being the collective “birthday” of humanity/society, it’s one of the first holidays that gave me a taste of adulthood, even as a child. All these people, staying up until midnight, trying to give some kind of significance to what ultimately amounts to just another day.

(Which, in a way, is a lot like the act of writing. What is ultimately just a collection of words, we try to insist to others that it’s something significant: a story. Sometimes you’re connected, you’re drinking your mind out with all of your friends, dancing like tomorrow will never come, while other times you’re sitting on the couch at home, merely watching the numbers change, wondering what’s so special).

And yet, even as much as I try to tell myself that, something has certainly happened. Things have changed, often all the moreso because of how much energy we spend trying to tell ourselves just the opposite. And that’s because it’s the annual reminder of incremental change. Where lines blur, and one thing becomes another.

Which, in a roundabout way, brings me to the topic within a topic I wanted to talk about. Last time, I left off saying that a major source of inspiration, a great way to develop ideas, is to read more. Well, today, I want to share a few words on how those ideas emerge; what are the lines between inspiration, allusion, and outright thought-crime: plagiarism?

The inspiration of ideas, it’s certainly tricky. It can be a tightrope walk between being original and simply treading the same ground as others before you. And I think, for me, at least, some of the major tells of inspiration are hindsight and intent.

Let me give you an example: earlier last year, I was working on a sort of fantasy story for a bit, developing a sprawling cast of characters. (Let’s ignore for a moment that the general and inherent idea of the “fantasy” genre owes quite a bit of its current state of being to Tolkien and friends. I want to get more specific.) For one of them, who I felt bad about killing off early, I came up with a sort of workaround, one I was rather proud of at the time. Until about a day or so later that I realized it was quite the similar situation to one of my favorite TV series.

I didn’t let this stop me from including the idea, because that fact only occurred to me in hindsight, plus, I had no conscious intention of “copying” the show in question. It’s all part of the creative process. Ideas are malleable, and can take various forms across various stories. It’d be like saying that anything with a main character suffering from fatal illness was merely copying Philadelphia. Or that any story set in a high school was stepping on the toes of The Breakfast Club.

Which brings me to the idea of allusion; intentionally referencing a creative work that came before you. I think of this as a form of “imitation is the highest form of flattery.” For me, the division between allusion and plagiarism is whether or not you want people to know where the idea came from. (As well as intentionally attempting to make something different and special in its own way.) I’d say, generally speaking, with an allusion, you tip your cap to inspiration, even cite the source of what you’re trying to imitate. On the other side, inspiration is obscured, distanced, discredited. It’s difficult to point out, as I don’t know of many famous cases, (and in the 21st century, it seems to become even more difficult to discern,) but I do feel as if I’d know it when I see it. And if I don’t? Then at least the thief would know, in their soul.

One thing I’ve been thinking of lately, a reason why I don’t see taking inspiration from the stories you love to be such a bad thing (where, in my younger years, I was so obsessed with originality that it consumed me) is because every generation, even every person, needs their “Hobbit.”
What I mean by this (in a rather bashful admission) is that despite loving medieval fantasy stories, I’ve never read The Lord of the Rings trilogy. For me, that original inspiration was filled by The Belgariad, and 80s fantasy series by David Eddings. It owes much of its creative life to Tolkien, I’m sure, but while I was reading it, I had virtually no idea. In a similar way, despite loving RPG video games, I never played Final Fantasy VII as a kid. My sprawling digital epic was The Legend of Dragoon. (Which I was mildly mortified to find out is considered a bit of a joke to certain people.)

My point is, we live in a world large enough for variations on a creative theme to exist. Even if they aren’t first, or even best, there’s still someone that can be inspired by them. And that’s what’s really important, that an audience connects. By no means do I mean this as a railing against originality, merely that it’s hardly the end-all-be-all. If anything, I’m advocating to embrace the similarities within ideas, within creativity and imagination, and let that sentiment inspire you.

Along those lines, this week’s recommendation. Musically speaking, I’ve become a bit of an album person. While I can enjoy a good playlist bursting with variety, I also like the tidal flow of one band creating a larger piece of music. And an album I’ve been digging lately has been Of Blood and Wine, by The Necromancers. (A name that sounds more intimidating than it actually is. They’re most certainly metal, but are much closer to Iron Maiden than Children of Bodom.) It’s only 6 tracks, clocking in at 43 minutes, and it’s great. Sure, it’s hardly breaking any new ground as far as guitars and drums go, but what it does, it does well. Something we should all aspire to.

Thanks for reading, and I hope your 2019 is off to a good start.

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