Many writers get inspired by watching movies and reading books, which are the stories of other people. It’s easy to fall in love with characters, worlds and concepts from other people’s work. It’s also possible to take this inspiration and turn it into something that is wholly yours.
That’s what I’m talking about today.
In the video (and transcript) below, I share my process for turning these nuggets of inspiration from other people’s stories into my own, original ideas.
One of my favourite quotes is ‘the art of originality is hiding your source’.
It’s usually credited to Albert Einstein, apparently he had nothing to do with it. It was actually said by C.E.M Joad.
Whoever said it is not important, what’s important is the message. That you can take ideas from other people, as long as you make them your own, and in order to make them your own, you hide where you got them from.
Which is a lot easier said than done, I’m sure you’ll agree.
I get most of my story ideas from watching TV shows, films and reading novels. So how do you take inspiration from these things and hide your sources to make them your own?
Most of my stories come from a process called ‘Mary Sue’.
It’s something used by fan fiction writers and is the act of putting yourself into someone else’s story.
For example, if you put yourself into Lord of the Rings, onto Mount Doom with Frodo and Sam.
I do that with every TV show and film I fall in love with, and I fall in love with these things a lot.
The thing is, as soon as I put myself into one of these worlds, my character immediately changes. Let’s face it, if I was on Mount Doom with Sam and Frodo, I’d likely die!
So this is always the beginning of a brand new character which gives me, and can give you, a place to start.
Even you don’t get a character out of this process, you can still end up with a setting, a new world, an exciting new concept or a backstory, just waiting for the right character to come along.
But then how do you get from a basic character, that might still resemble you a little too much, to something completely different and original?
Let’s get a bit more personal…
An example from my own stories
This is how I got a new character for a future book that I hope to be publishing next year, in 2018, or in 2019 at the latest.
It’s a story about space pirates! Because who doesn’t like a story about space pirates.
I’ve had it in my head for a long time and the whole thing actually comes from about four different points of inspiration.
For a while now, I’ve had the majority of characters and part of the plot figured out. There was just one character missing; the engineer. Without that missing piece, I was struggling to put the plot together.
In late 2016, a book and a TV show came into my life that filled those gaps and brought the story together, simply by helping me to create one character.
The TV show was Rick and Morty.
If you haven’t watched it, I highly recommend it. It’s funny, fast, clever and works on many different levels (don’t let your kids watch it though).
Rick and Morty in itself is a great example of creating something original by hiding your sources. It actually started life as a parody of Back to the Future’s Doc and Marty characters. Now, the core basics are there – the old mad scientist and his boy assistant – but the rest is completely original.
After falling in love with Rick and Morty and developing an obsession (which I do regularly – it drives my family mad), I started the Mary Sue process and put myself into Rick and Morty’s world.
The first questions to ask at this point are:
- What do they do?
- What are their relationships with the other characters?
My character was similar to Rick, because he’s the one I’m fascinated with (me and every other Rick and Morty fan). But there are some differences. She’s intelligent, but not as clever as Rick (who is?!), and like Rick she’s not clever in a scholarly fashion. She’s not a scientist, but she builds machines (yes, little bit of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’s Donatello in there). She’s also kind and thoughtful and a little wise.
Once I had that, I worked out her relationships with Rick, Morty and the Smith family, which helped to develop her character further.
To do this you need to talk to your character.
You are allowed to talk to the people in your head. If you’re a writer, that’s fine, it’s fine. In fact, it’s encouraged. Talk to the imaginary people in your head. Or better yet, listen to them talk to each other.
Ask your new character questions about themselves, about their relationships and about where they’re from. About anything!
Personally, I prefer to listen. I have the other characters from the TV show/movie/book talk to my new character and I pay attention to the stories told, the way they respond and how they react to the different characters.
By doing this, your character will develop and, through the conversations, new ideas will emerge. Eventually you’ll have a backstory, new concepts or general ideas that excite you.
If you don’t like an idea, or the way a character is going, simply rewind. Ask the question again and try a different answer.
By this point, my new character was partially developed and had a backstory. But she wasn’t blowing me away yet.
So the next thing I do is put the new character through scenarios. Put them into different situations and see how they react.
Remember to enjoy it, play around and have fun. If something goes wrong, you simply rewind and start again.
This is when something magical happened.
I put my character into a particular scenario. She stood there, ready to make a move when suddenly there was a dragon.
This can happen if you write fantasy. You’ll be walking down the road, you’ll be shopping in the supermarket and BOOM! There’s a dragon. It’s part of life.
This particular dragon was actually a wyvern and I managed to trace it back to the novel I was reading at the time, The Iron Ghost (Copper Cat Trilogy) by Jen Williams (something else I recommend – that’s an affiliate link, just so you know).
Actually, back then Jen Williams was tweeting about Rick and Morty…she’s got a lot to answer for.
So now I have this intelligent woman who builds machines, and now there’s a wyvern (this is also the point I fell in love with her and decided I had to write about her). It wasn’t a conscious decision – this is the magic that can happen when you’re playing with ideas.
The wyvern is technically a new character, so I had to ask:
- Who is this dragon?
- What’s it’s relationship to my new character?
Which helped my character to develop further.
Initially, she started off as a science fiction character. With the arrival of the wyvern, she became more science fiction-fantasy, and the more I thought about it, the more steampunk elements began to sneak in.
That was my light bulb moment. Hang on. She’s an engineer, a science fiction – fantasy – steampunk engineer. And I have an incomplete story that is sci-fi – fantasy – a tad steampunk with a crew that needs an engineer.
So in she went. Again, I asked those question:
- How does she fit in?
- What are her relationships to the rest of the crew?
And with that, a plot began to form.
What are you waiting for?
That’s how one evening on the sofa reading a book or watching TV can turn into a whole new character. Do the process repeatedly and you’ll store up a bank of ideas and where they fit together, stories are formed.
Now, this may or may not sound easy to you. Maybe it’s something you already do, or something you don’t know if you’re able to do.
That’s okay. We all have our different processes. You just need to play around with ideas and find what works for you.
But once you have an element or whiff of an idea, whatever your process, I encourage you to interrogate the hell out of it.
Whether that’s interrogating your new character, existing characters, a world, setting or concept.
Talk to the characters in your head, talk to other people’s characters, stay open and let your imagination do the rest.
Allow the plot or the character or whatever to grow and evolve. Eventually, you’ll come up with something that is just exactly what you’re after and you’ll be able to go from there.
Remember to have fun. Play around with it.