The Power of Influence and the Folly of Originality

As a person interested in creating my own stories, worlds, and whatnot, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what it means to create something “original.” In terms of criticism, I think the word has been so bandied about and overused that it has lost most of its meaning, leavied as it has been against everything from creative works acknowledging their influences to entirely unrelated and unconnected works that coincidentally had similar themes. In this vast, wide world of ours, it is not unthinkable that two incredibly different people might have similar ideas. Not everything alike is a copy or partial copy, and there’s nothing wrong with copying something if you’re planning to build off it.

I’m gonna just go ahead now and say that copyright infringement and plagiarism are bad. You shouldn’t pass anyone else’s work off as your own and even though copyright can be pretty solid, it is still a poorly managed system that is putting power in the hands of large corporations at the cost of small creators, just like every other part of modern capitalism. It is a complex minefield of issues not easily reduced to a blog post by a person with creative experience but absolutely no legal training.

With that “undercut willful negative interpretation arguments” aside finished, I want to add that I think that it’s fine to see something cool and then work on learning to make something similar. Everything from tracing drawings to producing your own fanart to fanfiction is fine and a great way to build skills working on something you care about. I think there is still something to be learned from striking off on your own and trying to do something without rails, but it’s the same benefit you get from creating something unlike anything you’d created before. It forces you to stretch and grow in new ways. I don’t think that fanfiction, fanart, or even tracing is any less creatively worthy than making something up on your own.

Mostly because the later is pretty much impossible. Almost nothing is “original” or without influence. Every single story I’ve ever heard/seen/imagined/consumed is an influence on the stories I’m telling now. Every image I’ve ever seen is an influence on how I try to depict something. Every song I’ve ever heard is an influence on all the aimless humming or beat-tapping that happens when I’m driving, walking around, or just silently working at my day-job. Almost nothing I produce is original and I think it is incredibly toxic to emphasize only that which has some probably false claim to “originality.”

I was browsing a fan-community while looking up something for a podcast (Podcast A) I’m listening to and I saw someone’s screed against another podcast (Podcast B) for supposedly copying the one I was researching. They lambasted what they described as a poor implementation of something Podcast A did, criticized the entire recent production of Podcast B, and then railed on for a few paragraphs more about how Podcast B just isn’t good anymore. The comment section was filled with a debate comparing the two podcasts as people argued back and forth about their opinions. A true shitshow, if I’ve ever seen one. As someone who listens to both Podcasts, I think B did a great job taking an idea that A had used and doing their own thing with it. It was similar, sure, but they used the same system. Of course there will be overlap. And they used the system for the same purpose, deepening the overlap. Until, of course, you considered that the basic premises were entirely different and that the different people involved in each one took the thing in completely different directions. If you only like stuff similar to Podcast B, I can see why you wouldn’t like what Podcast A did, but that doesn’t mean it was bad.

If you judged everything by that metric, no Dungeons and Dragons game would be anything but a copy of the latest popular media. Or actual-play stream. Or past D&D campaign. Everything is influenced by everything else and that’s fine. People don’t want things that are entirely new and unfamiliar. New and unfamiliar can be fun, but generally only in small doses interspersed between familiar things. You don’t want an entirely new genre of ficiton, you want a familiar story told in a new way. Different voices, new scenes, altered perspectives. There’s a reason tropes exist, after all. We want to recognize what’s going on, even if we don’t know how it’s all going to play out in the end.

As I write my stories, plan my campaigns, and generally exist as a creative person, I find myself struggling to stay aware of all my influences so I can avoid making anything that’s too derivative. While I tend to be fairly exacting in that effort when it comes to something I might one day try to sell (my various incomplete novels), I absolutely take ideas from everything I can when it comes to my tabletop roleplaying games. After all, I sit in a pretty weird media area compared to anyone except my siblings. Thanks to proverbially growing up under a rock and then seeking to reclaim that loss in my adult years, I’ve got a hefty mix of niche and popular influences that allow me to mix and match in a way that seems to surprise most people I tell stories to. It’s a lot of fun to be able to pull in cool ideas from other stories I’ve enjoyed, mix them all up, add in a few dashes of worldbuilding, throw in a couple twists, and produce something everyone can enjoy that is usually far enough removed from its influences that even people familiar with said influences don’t realize it unless I point it out.

I just wish people could get away from this idea of originality being the pinnacle of creative achievement. It is incredibly stressful to have anxious thoughts that I’m compromising my creativity whenever I toss a side game into a TTRPG campaign I’m running because a bunch of people on the internet got mad at the rest of the internet over an entirely unrelated podcast doing something similar in theme to what I want to do. Not that I expect my TTRPG campaign to ever be publicly available, of course, but the thought is planted in my head and I’ve got too much anxiety to just dispose of a weed like that without a great deal of effort. Can’t we all just have fun and enjoy ourselves? Cripes.

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