I’ve done a lot of thinking lately about what it means to be original in speculative fiction. As we all know, short story editors and agents and book editors are swamped with submissions, a virtual Eiffel tower of words. Though there’s a lot of advice about how to stand out from the herd (does that mean you just get eaten sooner?), one of the things you hear a lot is that you don’t want to be like everyone else. When the crowd is spewing angst-filled teenage mating rituals, be the one writing about aliens living in underground lava lakes, worried about global cooling. When others are coming up with the 10,000th vampire variation (no, but mine really has a sensitive side!), be the person writing about mutant microbes steering the human race toward nefarious ends. Do something different.
To me, speculative fiction is about imagination. Without the ability to stretch the boundaries of what is possible, it kind of loses its point. Now, despite my pithiness, I really don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing about vampires, and I can definitely see the appeal of fan fiction--why not spend more time in a universe you’ve come to love? But my predilections are elsewhere, and even if they weren’t, they tell you that you have to be different to get noticed. To some extent this is bullshit. Agents and editors want to see something different, but not too different. I’d guess that most agents are still interested in paranormal teen tales, even if they’re getting tons of them, simply because they’re still selling (actually it’s more than a guess). But if you fight to get noticed in a very crowded idea-pool, you’re going to need something amazing to get noticed, and even then there’s a large element of luck involved. So why not do something totally original? If nothing else you won’t have that “standing out” problem, and IMO, it’s so much more fun to write.
So to the heart of it: What makes something original? In far-future space tales, or in secondary world fantasy, it’s a little easier to define. Take a planet (fantasy world) as a blank sheet of canvas. Give it some characteristics that are different from the place we know. Higher gravity? Lakes of liquid methane? Magic bubbling up from undersea volcanos? An ancient race that left cryptic messages in the swamps and machines that spew magic into the air? (actually, this occurs in my duology Spellgiver). Once you have this basic layering of the world, imagine how the plants would evolve under those conditions. Then imagine how the animals would react to those different plants. Then when you get to the sentient race (humans or otherwise), imagine how their culture would form in this bizarre place. If you do that, and try to use as much logic as possible to get from point A to point Z, you will end up with a fully-formed planet (fantasy world) that will have the feel of originality. It isn’t something you work at, it is built into the DNA of your world.
For urban fantasy or near-future science fiction, it’s harder to define originality. You can’t use the world itself as a metric. Originality has to be built into the characters and the plot. In characterization, one of the things you hear a lot is “subverting tropes”. The football player who takes ballet, or the politician who is naive (yeah, right). But I think the number one thing that makes a non-secondary world story original is an unpredictable plot. Anytime we can see what’s coming a mile away, the plot isn’t really original. Doesn’t mean it’s bad, just not very new. Original characters, original plot, and (maybe) original world. If you can do two or three of those, your tale will be something no one’s ever written before. And isn’t that a great feeling?