Is Imitation Integral to Fantasy?

Eragon (film)
Imitation run amok?

As a twelve year old boy I resolved to write my first fantasy epic.  Through months of toil I hammered out a draft and set it aside. When I returned to it, I was surprised to discover just how unoriginal it was. The plot borrowed heavily from The Lord of the Rings, with strong shades of Star Wars. The dialogue and description sounded too much like C.S. Lewis. And worst of all, virtually every fantasy cliché surfaced at some point in the tale.

In other words, it stunk. But in retrospect, this was a necessary stage in my development as a writer.  Without consciously realizing it, I was imitating the masters – albeit poorly. But by imitating them I was learning how to write. Then, and only then, was I able to move forward and find my own voice.

Imitation in Fantasy Fiction

For most of us, imitation is a necessary part of the learning process. This is the case when taking up any new endeavor.  The problem is when we get stuck in the imitation stage, and don’t progress beyond it.

We recently published an article entitled Who’s Killing Fantasy? You Are! which highlights the negative impact of clichés on fantasy fiction.  The discussion which it sparked has been fascinating. Some commentators agree that too much imitation is harming the genre. Others argue, however, that a certain degree of imitation is necessary for the genre to maintain it’s essence. This position was best articulated by author Aiden Sawyer:

The essence of fantasy is not in the creation of new creatures or worlds but in the foundation of fairy tales, mythology, and magic. It’s strengths are in its cliches, nobility, honor, valor set against darkness and evil.

The genre is built upon archetypes and mythology, which is one of the reasons that I love it.  It is a reflection of countless centuries of human longings and fears.  There is something familiar and comforting about that.  Perhaps too much originality, if such a thing is possible, can subvert the soul of the genre?

The Beginning Stage

Yet there are alleged cases of imitation gone too far. Some critics claim that Eragon, to name one example, is a blatant ripoff of Star Wars. Others have argued that The Sword of Shannara borrows too heavily from Tolkien. Having read neither book, I can’t judge the accuracy of such accusations.  But in any case, no one can deny that fantasy fiction is rife with tired clichés.  And that is a problem.

Imitation is supposed to be the beginning stage of our journey as writers, where we learn the basic elements of storytelling.  After gaining experience we are meant to move from imitation to innovation. Once we understand what works, and why it works, we develop the confidence to try new, daring things. That’s where the clichés end and greatness begins.

But is it possible to go too far in the pursuit of innovation, and lose the essence of fantasy in the process?

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Darlene
9 years ago

 My nephew was reading a book a year or so ago he referred to as “Eragon.” I thought he was saying, “Aragon,” as in Catherine of Aragon and thought it strange that he’d be interested in that story at such a young age. Now I know. Thanks for keeping me informed about some of the fantasy literature.

Piqued
Piqued
10 years ago

I find myself becoming increasingly infuriated when I find unshameful immitations in modern fantasy. Keeping fantasy fresh is the only thing that is stopping it from being ground into the dirt, and if that means branching out from what is commonly accepted as ‘fantasy’, then so be it.
I for one am glad to see it being kept alive.

Antonio del Drago
10 years ago

Thanks everyone for sharing your thoughts.  You’ve all raised great points.

katekrake
katekrake
10 years ago

Erin makes an excellent point with the Hero’s Journey.  There are numerous studies of folklore (and I’m thinking Vladimir Propp here, but there are others besides him), that claim there are a limited number of story types upon which all folk tales – and some go so far as to say all stories in general – are based.  Since the fantasy genre is rooted in these traditions, I don’t think it is possible to cast them all of completely.  As I mentioned in my response to Who’s Killing Fantasy…, a genre is a category marked by recognisable elements, if a work abandons all of the elements of fantasy, then it’s not going to be fantasy. That’s where the pursuit of innovation would have gone too far. But I’m not saying that everything should imitate something else in order to remain in the generic bounds. Seems true innovation takes something old, and turns it upside down, or inside out, or whatever – something new is seen within a convention.  Once, a human/vampire love affair was a novel idea.  Now? Yawn!  Exactly as FeyElvenWarrior said, fantasy is an evolving thing. And the only way to evolve is to innovate (or mutate?!)

Lars
10 years ago

there is is difference between a cliché  and good stealing. taking aragon. the writer did not steal good enough which made his story a cliché.

sure there are a lot of things that have already been done. but if you steal the idea well enough you can make it into something of your own. there is nothing wrong with that as long as no one can notice.

that is something aragon could not do.

Erin Klitzke
Erin Klitzke
10 years ago

It occurs to me that while people are being accused of copying great, sweeping epic stories that they were exposed to throughout their lifetimes, a lot of these tales are actually based on the mythological concept of the Hero’s Journey, identified by Campbell.  While I don’t entirely agree with Campbell’s analyses, I do admit that there is a great deal drawn out of this supposed (I suppose real) archetype.

There’s actually a very good book on the subject in THE HERO’S JOURNEY FOR WRITERS, which has been through several editions now.  Even if you don’t believe what the author’s saying, it’s at least got some interesting ideas.

feyelvenwarrior
feyelvenwarrior
10 years ago

I like this imitation piece a lot. Anyone trying to learn something new usually imitates first and creates second. It is a natural human learning process. Most budding writers emulate others initially depending on what they have read and of this what they like. 

In order to attempt an answer to your question, perhaps to start, we need a good working definition or example of the essence of fantasy. It is possible that most people who read fantasy might consider Tolkien’s writings the paradigm. Others might slip towards Jack Vance in that his boundaries between fantasy and sci-fi are much more loose. 

Does fantasy only encapsulate such things as voracious fire-breathing dragons, purest good vs. blackest evil, primitive medieval technology, and mystical sorcery? Certainly ERB’s Tarzan stories fit this genre well as he possesses inhuman strength and can somehow speak with the animals, but they often feature none of the classic fantasy props. ERB often plowed through new ground as with his jungle hero and others he painted truly inspiring worlds and landscapes never dreamed of before by man (though most marveled and praised his descriptions of the dark continent he actually had never been there). 

Also, most of the early writers were forced by their employers to create unusual new worlds and characters or they would not publish their work meaning less money for these family men. 

Perhaps fantasy is boundless. It borders on many different genres especially with today’s writers. Can we go too far? I tend to think not in that to set a limitation on something is usually to see it broken or surpassed. Fantasy changes seemingly with each decade as someone new adds his or her own twist building upon the canon in the process.  

P.S. I highly recommend reading the first Shannara book if only to have your own opinion on what is considered one of fantasy’s great works.

Bibliotropic
Bibliotropic
8 years ago

I was determined for a long time that I was going to refine the art of writing like Mercedes Lackey, because  loved her books so much and wanted to write something just as entertaining.
Then I got a lot of practice with writing, more experience reading, and now have come up with a style that’s far more of my own than anyone else’s, though I don’t doubt that some comparisons could be made.
There’s definitely an argument that can be made for sticking with the tried-and-true, and an equally valid argument that can be made for avoiding it and bringing something entirely new to the table. I don’t think that imitation is integral to fantasy any more than other genres, but perhaps it does get to the point where so many stories have been told that it’s hard to find something that doesn’t contain elements of something else. But that doesn’t make it stale and bad by default. It could be argued that Tolkien was borrowing a lot from various mythologies when he wrote Lord of the Rings, but that doesn’t make LotR any less awesome and epic to read.
Imitation may be where we all start out, and some people go further from that point than others, but sometimes there’s a story to be told that’s early on the path, and there’s no shame in telling it so long as you’re telling YOUR story, not somebody else’s.

Antonio del Drago
Reply to  Bibliotropic
8 years ago

Bibliotropic Excellent points.  And yes, we can’t forget that Tolkien was borrowing heavily from earlier mythologies, and that in no way lessens the magnificence of his writing.

rocknrollforyoursoul
8 years ago

I recently realized that my first fantasy novel (which will probably forever remain unpublished), despite some good points, was a LOTR ripoff, though I never intended it to be. I think you’re right, Antonio: we start by imitating what we like, but then we have to move on.
 
Funny you mention “Eragon”; I read that book about 7 years ago, and I found it to be not only a LOTR ripoff (Eragon = Aragorn?), but just an awful piece of writing. As an aspiring writer, it drove me absolutely insane that Paolini’s drivel was a bestseller. Professional envy? Yes, no doubt, but I also thought it was just plain bad. I had to scratch and claw and drag my way through it, and never even bothered trying the sequel. When I learned that the guy wrote it when he was 18, it made sense—no one writes publishable stuff at 18.

Antonio del Drago
Reply to  rocknrollforyoursoul
8 years ago

@rocknrollforyoursoul I’ve heard that Paolini has improved dramatically since then, although I haven’t gotten around to reading his latest books.

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