Once upon a time, a colleague – for ease of reference, let’s call him ‘Bob’ – forcibly advised me that the only inspiration you should ever profess is that which springs from the work itself. In other words, if you’re writing a story, the story itself provides all your inspiration. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? And to a large degree, it is – nothing exists in a vacuum – but there is a useful truth buried deep inside.
There are no spontaneous ideas. Everything needs a spark, a primer for the pump that sets the creative juices flowing. This spark can take many forms: a childhood memory, a scene from a movie, a character from a book. A place, a painting, a line from a poem, or a lyric from a song. It can be almost anything, so long as it provokes the question: What If? What If Die Hard took place on a desolate island, instead of a Los Angeles Skyscraper…? What If the Teletubbies were alien vampires…? (If this last one doesn’t exist somewhere on the internet, I’ll be amazed).
Sometimes, there’ll be one such spark. More often, there’ll be two or three What Ifs – maybe even a dozen – all coming together to set the act of creation in motion. It’s not even a question of embracing them – they’re impossible to avoid. Imagination, like personality, is the product of experience more than anything hard-coded into our DNA. The trick is to harness the energy of those sparks, riding their momentum until your story becomes self-sustaining, until the What Ifs you’re asking aren’t aimed at your sources of inspiration, but at the tale you’re creating. Before long, you’ll realise that some of your very first What Ifs are holding you back, and you’ll jettison or replace them with new questions – questions founded in your own, original, work. That’s the point at which ‘Bob’s’ assertion becomes true: when the story itself is its own inspiration.
But ultimately, does it matter? Well, yes and no. Some forms of writing – satire, licensed fiction, works centred around public domain characters such as Sherlock Holmes, and so on – want (even need) to hew close to their initial inspiration. Other works deliberately wear their inspirations on their sleeve in the hopes of buying into an existing audience – always a risk in an increasingly litigious world. If I’d read any of the current glut of popular young adult series, I’m sure I could name check one or two here, but I haven’t, so I won’t. Instead, I’ll talk a little bit about Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara.
For those who haven’t read it, Sword is famously (notoriously?) inspired by The Lord of the Rings, with not only its characters, but its plot points and themes instantly recognisable to anyone who has a passing acquaintance with Tolkien’s work. Despite some harsh words from critics over the years – chiefly because of that similarity – Sword spawned a sprawling series of fantasy novels and has even found its footing on television screens, courtesy of MTV. What I’ve always found interesting, is that The Sword of Shannara – a story that never really breaks free of its inspirations to become its own tale – is easily the weakest in the Shannara setting. Even its immediate sequel – The Elfstones of Shannara – is more compelling, even though it still borrows heavily from Tolkien. MTV presumably agrees, as they passed over Sword and began their adaption here. By the time you reach The Scions of Shannara (the fourth book, in terms of writing order), the series is its own inspiration, its What Ifs based almost entirely within its own setting – it also, for me, marks where the series genuinely becomes good. Don’t get me wrong, there are bits in the first three books I enjoy (in particular Panamon Creel, Stee Jans and Garrett Jax – all of them characters hard to match to The Lord of The Rings counterparts), but it’s the Scions cycle where Shannara blooms into its own experience.
So was ‘Bob’ right or wrong?
Personally, I think the principle is sound. You should always strive to make unique stories and characters – if only because it’ll inevitably be the stronger for it – and driving your work to become its own inspiration is a great way to do that.
That said, I personally think it’s important to acknowledge my inspirations – even (especially) if they’re not obvious in the finished product. Take a look around this site, read my other blogs, and you’ll see plenty of my influences on display. It would feel wrong not to acknowledge the influence writers like (to name a few) Tolkien, Terrance Dicks, Jim Starlin, Robert Holmes, Bernard Cornwell, Gail Simone, Tom Clancy, Bill King, Alan Stevens, Richard Carpenter, Terry Pratchett, David McIntee, Geoff Johns, Douglas Hill – and yes, Terry Brooks – have had. No, it wouldn’t feel wrong – it would feel arrogant.