Uniqueness and Originality

So at the moment I’m reading The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, which is a novel that does some interesting things that aren’t done terribly often in novels.  I also just watched the movie Mirrormask (written by Neil Gaiman and directed by Dave McKean) which is a visual tour-de-force with all of the CG imaging done throughout the movie and is brilliant to watch.  I recently finished reading the Leviathan series by Scott Westerfeld which does some interesting things with having illustrations for every chapter.  The Deepgate Codex by Alan Campbell has one of the most unique and interesting settings for any fantasy novel that I’ve ever seen.  During my Fiction Appreciation class my last semester at college, one of the books we read was Tough Guys Don’t Dance by Norman Mailer, which turns your basic mystery story upside down by having the main character blackout and not remember anything from the time of the crime, thereby including himself in the list of possible suspects.

So there is a really long paragraph where I do all sorts of name or title dropping of books I’ve read and a movie that I really enjoyed.  So what’s the point to all of this?  It’s a question that I thought about while I was out jogging for a while (short jog tonight, too cold outside).  How much does the originality or uniqueness of a piece of fiction affect our overall opinion of it?

Trippy movie that is absolutely brilliant.

When I was watching Mirrormask tonight, I was watching it with the audio commentary on rather than just the film audio and it was interesting listening to McKean talk about how many parts of the movie he thought could have been done better.  Personally, I think this movie is absolutely transfixing, especially the first time you watch it.  (The first time I watched the movie my friend Stephanie called me and got a little irritated with me because I kept zoning out and getting lost in the movie.)  As much as I love this movie, really it’s nothing that we haven’t seen before in movies, struggles between parents and children where the child learns a lot about themselves and how much they really love their parents in the process.

The Blind Assassin I’m not going to talk too much about because I’m not done reading it yet, but I will quickly mention that the book is essentially telling 4 different stories at once, which is very difficult to pull off in any kind of fiction (once again, check back for the full review of the book which will probably be posted on Thursday, Friday at the latest).

Alan Campbell’s trilogy had one of the most unique settings I’ve ever seen in a fantasy novel, and I read quite a few of those.  The differences between his novels and a more standard fantasy story were for the most part very subtle.  Instead of having just the god of storms, he had the god of Brine and Fog, the god of the underworld was the god of Chains in this series.  Very subtle differences made a huge difference in the overall feel of these books.  Ultimately I didn’t care for the series (I gave the first two books a 5/10, the third book a 2/10, and the series as a whole a 4/10) but without the uniqueness of the setting I think it would have received a much lower overall rating than it did.

Who doesn't love a living hot air balloon?

When I first heard about the Leviathan series, It was because of the illustrations used in it.  In one of the Writing Excuses podcasts they talked about visual components of storytelling.  Ultimately it was a very nice addition to the books, but I really liked the characters and the overall story and probably would have enjoyed the books just as much without the illustrations (but again, they’re really cool and it’s fun to see pictures of all the strange machines and animals throughout the series).

Lastly, Tough Guys Don’t Dance.  During my class, most of the students didn’t really like the book and I personally hated it (I gave it a 3/10, to date it is still one of my lowest rated books out of the 60+ I’ve reviewed for my blog).  However, the one really interesting part of the book was the idea of having a mystery where the person investigating the mystery was also one of the prime suspects in the crime.  I’d never seen that done before and I still haven’t seen it done in any other book, but it’s still a really neat idea that I would love to see pulled off in a better piece of fiction.

So, now that I’m almost 800 words into the post, I’m going to get to the question that made me think about this in the first place.  When you’re reading, how much of an impact does the originality of a piece have on your overall opinion of the piece?

Now that I’ve asked the question, I suppose I should answer it as well.  I think that having a very unique or original aspect to your fiction can be a big selling point, but it can’t be the only thing that the piece has going for it.  In Tough Guys Don’t Dance the mystery was poorly done, and the book had quite a few scenes that as far as I’m concerned Mailer wrote only to see how profane he could be in a novel.  Additionally, with Campbell’s books, the setting was absolutely brilliant, but the characters were pretty much cardboard cutouts who were doing exactly what the plot needed them to do, and not for any other decent reason.  In Mirrormask I think that the effects were a big selling point, they are easily the single biggest selling point of the movie, but there is still a solid movie with good acting beyond the CG, which makes it stand up beyond just the CG.  The same thing is true of the Leviathan series, the illustrations are a wonderful addition to the series, but the story is very good on it’s own and would easily hold up without having the illustrations there.

For my last example I’m going to mention a book that is easily older than every other piece of fiction I’ve mentioned combined.  During my Literature of Ancient Greece class last semester we read the novel Daphnis and Chloe by the author Longus.  While it may have been a revolutionary story when it was first written, 2,000 years later it is every cliched love story that we’ve ever seen.  Despite all of this, it still works and I enjoyed reading it.  There was not a single line of dialogue or a single line of action in that novel that comes across as original or surprising to someone from a present day audience who has experienced any amount of fiction in the present day.  For one of my papers about this book (it may have been a test, I don’t remember) I wrote that this novel showed me that you don’t have to be original for a piece of fiction to be effective, it just has to be well written.

A unique or flashy gimmick may get a piece of fiction some attention, but it won’t have any staying power if that’s all that it has going for it.  This is why so many action movies are made and then quickly forgotten, newer technology means a bigger explosion, so why should I watch the older movie when the new one has the same story?  This is why Avatar will be forgotten in 10 years when every animated movie made looks better than it does.

What are you going to tell your children when they ask why everyone was so obsessed with the blue monkeys?

Something unique may be needed to get a piece of fiction noticed, but the quality of said piece will be what determines how long it stays in the public eye.  There is a reason that The Shawshank Redemption is still the #1 rated movie on IMDB nearly 20 years after it was released while Avatar is currently #194 (when it first came out, Avatar cracked the top 5 on the list).  There is a reason that I can read the Wheel of Time books multiple times and appreciate them more every time I turn a page.

So there’s my answer to the question.  What do you think about it?  How important is originality or uniqueness to a piece of fiction?

Leave a comment


  1. This only addresses one of your many thoughts above, but I would consider “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” “The Girl Who Played with Fire,” and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” to be mysteries where the prime suspect is working to solve the mystery. I don’t read a lot of who-done-it books, but I really enjoyed this trilogy. Lisbeth was amazing.

    • I haven’t read that series, but I’ve heard that a lot of people enjoyed it. I would imagine that the main character is investigating the crime in order to prove her own innocence, that kind of book I’ve seen before, but in the Mailer book (which again, was a horrible book) he is a legitimate suspect because he doesn’t remember what he did that night, who while he is looking into a crime, he could very well be the one who is guilty, he doesn’t remember.

  2. Atwood is a gifted story teller. I’ve never read Blind Assassin but I did read The Handmaid’s Tale a while back. Nice post, but I gotta say– Avatar was a great movie, regardless of ranking. 😛

  3. hannahrose42

     /  November 11, 2011

    I enjoyed Mirrormask, I think, more even than the person who introduced it to me. I have asked to rewatch it and enjoy it every time. I agree about Avatar — I went to the 3D premiere (by the way, I did not pick 3D… I do not like it!), and ended up falling asleep. It was interesting, but not really worth my time or money, and I never plan to see it again. Back to Mirrormask, I saw it long after it came out, and the effects still amazed me. I loved it.
    The Leviathan series sounds interesting, but I don’t know a lot about it. I’ll have to check it out!

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