When “Borrowing” Ideas Goes Wrong

My literary vice is fantasy. However, the problem with the fantasy genre is a lot of people lack the imagination for writing it. So what you sometimes end up with are these hybrid-story mashups that involve things like real-world settings, weird takes on ideas, and thinly veiled creative-thievery.

Now, I’m all for a literary heist. I borrow ideas all the time, from all over, but I make it a point not to stop once the idea has been borrowed. After all, coming up with a “new and different” idea isn’t the same as coming up with a good one.

Borrowing Doesn’t Replace Creativity

Borrowing from a bunch of places and sticking it together isn’t a free pass for creative thinking. You might think taking Greek mythology and setting it in a modern-day big city might sound cool and different: it’s not. It’s two very common ideas mashed together, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to come up with. Plus, I guarantee it’s been done before, and probably by a more imaginative writer.

That’s not to say a story borrowing Greek mythology and set in New York City can’t be pulled off. I’m saying that if you stop the creativity there, you won’t have a chance in hell of succeeding. It needs more than just those two things. And just so you know, borrowing a third element from somewhere else isn’t going to help you either. It’s going to have to come from you and your brain, so if you don’t have the imagination for it, stick to a less inventive genre. No shame.

“Scientific” Fantasy

Another weird thing authors do that I will never understand is take a common fantasy idea and turn it dystopian, or set in the future, even if society has regressed in history or stayed weirdly the same.

What this says to me is, “I was too lazy to imagine how cause-and-effect would impact my future society, so I’m just going to fall back on something familiar, say it’s in the future, and let my reader deal with making sense of all that.”

A great example is a self-published novel I once tried to read about werewolves- except that these werewolves were the result of a virus that killed off most of the world’s population and turned any survivors into werewolves. Other than that weird science-y thing, the werewolves were exactly like normal werewolves. They still clashed with vampires (who resulted from a separate strain of the same virus), still shifted forms the same mythical way, and still had a thing for the moon.

So, what’s with the bizarre science origin story? What’s the point? I didn’t need a real-life explanation of where these creatures could have possibly come from to make the story real. That’s the point of fantasy- it’s not real.

If you want to switch the werewolf narrative up and make them more science-y, do the work and imagine a werewolf made through science! And, for the love of espresso, stick with the science stuff the whole way through. Use what you know about biology, do research, and design a better monster. Don’t just borrow straight from mythology (which is the opposite of science) and call it a day. That’s lazy.

Castles And Swords… But In The Future.

Another example (though I did really like this book up to the jarring explanation halfway through) is this high fantasy series I once read involving a Fae society. The world-building was cool: they rode horses, lived in castles, were ruled by kings and queens, and fought with swords and magic. And then, around book 3, the author lets it drop that this made-up, medieval world is actually located in what was once North America, humans are extinct, and all the magical creatures (fairies, elves, etc.) are evolutionary descendants of man.

I’m sorry, what?

Okay, first off, how am I expected to believe that when it’s wrong? That’s not what fairies are! You can’t take something with a rich, well-established background (which most fantasy readers are pretty familiar with) and totally rewrite it to fix your weird, cut-and-paste agenda. I don’t care if “YoU’Re tHe AuThOr AnD iT’s YoUr StOrY.” Hack apart your own ideas, Dr. Frankenstein, leave the rest of us out of it.

Secondly, when authors pull shit like this, I feel lied to as a reader. Why? Because I thought I signed up for high fantasy. So what’s all this about being real all of a sudden and in the future? Sorry- did you say evolution? No, it’s not a “clever twist,” it’s sci-fi. You hoodwinked me.

A Magical PSA

For the record, the idea of evolving magic makes zero sense. Magic came before we understood how the world worked, so we’d blame it when something weird happened. Magic can’t come from science. Once you give a science-y explanation for how a magic ability works, it’s no longer a magic ability. It’s just an ability. It doesn’t go backward.

Please stop mixing science and magic unless you’re sure you can pull it off. I’m begging you. Stop.

There’s nothing wrong with borrowing conflicting ideas to make a story interesting, but it’s not as easy to pull off as a lot of people think. It should also never be used as a substitution for thinking up “new” ideas. If you’re going to mix oil and water (like science and magic), you need to do so with a skilled hand and a lot of creativity.

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Moira is a self-identified space cadet currently trapped in the desolate wasteland of Upstate New York. She was first published at the age of nine in an anthology for children that still lives permanently on her bookshelf. Her hobbies include wine, television, and overthinking everything.

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