Devil’s Advocate: “Originality” Isn’t Important

(Image inspired by Quote Investigator: Originality Is Undetected Plagiarism)

Originality. It’s a word that is used as the highest song of praise or the sharpest dismissal of any creative work.

The modern age is obsessed with the idea of what is and isn’t “original.” More than once I’ve heard it referred to as “the cult of originality,” and I feel there is no better description.

To be completely honest, I think the whole thing is ridiculous.

Historically speaking, this fixation with what is or isn’t “original” is a modern invention.

In the Medieval Age, originality was, by and large, actively discouraged. When it came to the written word, books had to be copied painstakingly by hand. Although certainly plenty of scribes edited or changed sections as they went (many notorious examples can be found in the Bible), it was considered bad form and either denied or ignored.

This attitude is well illustrated in the Medieval concepts of auctoritas. Translated from the original Latin as “authority,” auctoritas was much more multifaceted than the translation suggests. Although it originally meant an often-cited author, it quickly evolved to mean a passage of text itself, divorced from the writer. Now, this might not seem important, but it underlines a very critical distinction: soon it did not matter who had written a passage, but that the text itself was trustworthy. [1]

The concept of authorship was not important. A common practice was to attribute one’s own words to a “confirmed” source of auctoritas (such as Aristotle), so that the ideas would have merit and be accepted. Medieval authors were not concerned about claiming authorship as much as they were concerned about ensuring the idea was accepted into the written canon.

The idea of one person being singularly responsible for a text was not commonly accepted. Every copy of every book was a product of many, and thus prone to deviation; no one could be assured it was the author’s exact words. Only that, at best, it was auctoritas.

However, with the invention of the printing press, ensuring each copy was identical and exactly the author’s words became possible. That, combined with social revolution in regards to an individual and their rights of ownership, gave rise to the practice of authorship that we would now recognize. [2]

But that was just in the written word, where creators were at the mercy of scribes to copy their work. Certainly originality was held in higher regard in other fields? What of the great visual artists?

Painting and sculpture was as much a business as it was an art, and it was treated as such. Apprentices learned by—horror of horrors!—tracing their master’s work. They were expected to copy and learn their style, both on their own canvases as well as painting minor parts of an existing work. It taught them the trade, and it was good for business: paintings could be completed faster with two sets or hands, or the apprentice’s copy could be sold, similar to how one would buy a print of a famous painting at a museum nowadays.

Leonardo da Vinci himself learned (partially) by copying the style and paintings of his master, Andrea Del Verrocchio. In turn, his apprentices followed that example, and painted alongside their master, copying his work stroke by stroke. (A practice that has allowed us more insight into one of his most famous works, the Mona Lisa.)

“Originality” was not a concern. What mattered was continued improvement. Taking the familiar, and creating a more stunning version.

Conversely, in our modern times we have put the idea of “being original” on a pedestal.

Perhaps this idealization is the natural progression of the emphasis on the individual that began with the move towards the concepts of authorship; each author’s wish is to be truly independent and wholly individual. Or, perhaps it is due to the over-abundance of media and its near limitless accessibility. It’s hard to say.

Certainty there has always been an appeal of novelty, but that emphasis is now near fanatical. And I find that highly detrimental to any creator.

Depending on which theory you subscribe to, there are only 3, 7, 20, 36 or 37 plotlines in the world. [3][4][5] And that’s just the basics of structure. Further similarities can be explored in Jungian archetypes, tropes, or any other pattern of literature and language.

Not a whole lot of room for the truly original when you think about it that way, is there?

But I don’t think that’s such a bad thing. The human experience, while infinitely varied, is limited to mortal comprehension. It stands to reason that there would be some level of unification among the basic building blocks of storytelling.

That said, I think we in the modern age could bear to learn from the masters of the craft of days past.

While the idea of auctoritas over authorship is well and truly defunct (and overall for the better), I feel that many of us as writers need to take a step back and let the text speak for itself. There are too many creators who allow their ego to preclude the authenticity of their work. Their concern is not that what they have written is true, be it in a literal or metaphorical sense, but that they are original. And that is a detriment, to both themselves and the craft.

More than that, I think we, both as creators and consumers, need to embrace the fact that we are standing on the shoulders of giants. Yes, everything has been done before, in some manner of speaking. But that shouldn’t be what’s important. What should matter is that every recreation is a new reflection, an individual take on a matter that, ideally, has learned from its predecessors and takes a step forward. That it better encompasses a new generation, or the voice of the author.

If you have something to say about a subject, your own views and aspirations and experiences, it will be wholly unique to you. No matter how many times the basic plot has been done, or the archetypes been used before, it will be original. Perhaps not never-before-seen, but certainly never before presented as you have.

Obsessively seeking out an idea purely on the merit of it’s “originality” is about as fruitful as a hunt for the Holy Grail. Your time would be better spent finding something that speaks to you, and being honest to that vision.


[1] Follow the Rule(s): Authority and Originality in Medieval Monastic Thought
[2] The Rise of the Author
[3] The “Basic” Plots in Literature
[4] The Thirty-six (plus one) Dramatic Situations
[5] There Are Only Seven Stories in the World

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