Only One Story

Fans of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series often complain about or even refuse to read the Sword of Truth series by Terry Goodkind.  They claim that it is too similar, that Goodkind ripped off the idea.  It is true that you can summarize the basic plot for the entirety of each series in the same way.  “Young male protagonist grows up without magic, is sent on a task that exposes him to a larger world, which leads to the development of his latent magic abilities and the discovery that he is destined to fight a malevolent magic practitioner to save the world.”

Okay, so there is a similar story concept at work.  However, all it takes is reading past the first novel of both series to figure out that the basic structure is used in dramatically different fashion by each author.  (In fact, this seems to be a prevalent plot pattern in fantasy.  Re-read that summary sentence.  It sounds an awful lot like the Harry Potter series, too, and probably others that fantasy readers can think of.)

I recently read a book called How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster.  In it, he argues that there is only really one story.  Every story that exists relates to, references, and intertwines with every other story.  Authors often do this intentionally: making a character similar to a more familiar biblical or historical persona, setting up a plot that feels familiar for a reason, or even directly quoting or referencing an existing work.  Even unintentionally, stories reflect other stories.  Unless you are someone who has never ever read a book, heard a story, or watched a movie, you have internalized the tales of others.  This will come out in your writing.

I find myself needing a reminder of this from time to time, when I re-read a book series that has shaped my fiction.  Yes, there are parallels that can be drawn between my first novel and the work of Mercedes Lackey and Jacqueline Carey, among others.  It does not mean that my story is not original, or that my characters are simply re-imagined from theirs.  This is very far from the reality.  But they are both excellent female fantasy authors with strong female protagonists, and as I aspire to be the same, it should be no surprise that my book touches similar themes and approaches character development in a similar way.  It isn’t the same story; instead it is its own tale with occasional echoes of the stories of others. 

In the end, it’s all one story.