Stealing from another house

It’s no secret that I’ve got a bit of a sore spot regarding certain elements in fiction: specifically, I’m frustrated by a glut of fiction featuring Tolkien’s Elves/Dwarves/Men, the standard Vampires/Werewolves civil war, the obsession with Norse and Greek mythology.

It’s not that these elements are bad– not by a long shot. But I’ve seen them so often that I’m getting sick of them.

This morning a philosopher friend of mine came over, and we talked about a whole slew of things (topics always tend to wander when he and I chat), and while we meandered onto the subject of literature, an old phrase came up:

Good writers borrow; great writers steal. 

It’s been attributed to Oscar Wilde, Pablo Picasso, TS Elliot…it’s such a good quote that nobody can keep their mitts off it. But I digress.

The philosopher framed my frustration in terms of the quote, and we wound up with this scenario

(Note: This is all metaphorical. I don’t actually endorse stealing stuff in the real world.)

Living Room - Big Couch
It’s nice, but it could use a touch more Coelho… (Photo credit: TomBorowski)

We writers are a pretty light-fingered bunch. Like I’ve said before, most of what we create is based at least partially off something else. When we see another author use something we like, we can’t help ourselves– we just have to grab it. Some people are careful about the matter; they’ll file off the serial numbers and give it a new paint job, but it’s still got the same base underneath. Some get proud of their acquisition. They proudly announce that the mirror in their front hall belonged to HP Lovecraft, and that at midnight you can see Cthulu reflected in its glass. And that couch you’re sitting on? That’s a Tolkien original, swiped straight out of the Last Homely House.

The latter are lovingly referred to as tributes, homages and allusions, and they can be pretty damn cool… but some of the coolness wears off when you start to notice all your friends have the exact same couch in their living room. After a while it starts to look a bit threadbare, and you’re pretty sure a spring is coming loose underneath the cushion.

This doesn’t change the fact that it’s still a damn comfy couch, and hell if those Elves don’t know their way around upholstery. But it’s starting to look… old. After all, even if Tolkien had some great stuff, but there’s only so much of it, and those sticky-fingered writers have rearranged it those same pieces in every configuration imaginable.

Bay Ridge McMansion 1b
Just look at all those potential plot points… (Photo credit: Whiskeygonebad)

But while Tolkien’s house has been pillaged down to the studs, there’s a whole city full of houses to rob. Hell, a few miles up the road you’ll find a veritable neighborhood full of McMansions, each full of themes and archetypes and symbols and mythical creatures, almost untapped by the kleptomaniac writing population. Maybe you’ll find a better couch for your decor in one of those. Or maybe you’ll decide to keep your classic Tolkien couch, but jazz it up with a Tale of Genji area rug and some Aztec cushions. Maybe your HP Lovecraft mirror would look better with some ancient Nubian wallpaper.

How would your medieval High Fantasy be different if, instead of Elves, one of the dominant races resembled shapeshifting Encantado?  What if your werewolves had more in common with hyenas? And moving past the superficial, what lessons and motifs can we glean from the fairytales of, say, India? There are values systems, fashions, family structures, mannerisms, superstitions, combat styles– many of them unknown and unappreciated in the mainstream.

There’s a whole world out there, my fellow thieves. I invite you to explore it all.

(Note: I fully expect somebody to call me out for encouraging cultural appropriation– namely, grabbing stuff from another culture because it’s nifty, and usually horrifically stereotyping and misrepresenting a that culture and its members as a result. First of all, this happens a lot. It’s not good, but it does. Second, just because a creature/theme/clever anecdote doesn’t belong to your native culture doesn’t mean it’s off limits. There’s such an incredible wealth of stories out there that you would be doing yourself a disservice by only skimming the surface and taking the most obvious details. I find that some of my favorite fantasy cultures/creatures/settings are ones which are not drawn wholesale from another culture, but inspired by aspects of an extant culture/myth/setting, and then advanced and reworked until they are something entirely new. And that’s something I’d love to see more of in the future.)

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5 thoughts on “Stealing from another house

  1. They say there’s nothing new under the sun 🙂 Just the same stories, reinvented over and over. And it truly is difficult to come up with stories that have never been “done” before. It’s those familiar tomes turned on their heads that really delight and surprise us. I think the best trick of all is the author that can make it feel brand new~

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