First things first: there’s no such thing as an original story.
What do I mean by that? Simple: all stories spring from the minds of their creators, but the thoughts and concepts which a creator assembles into a concept for a story, or a character, or a plot twist, have to come from somewhere. Maybe they were inspired by something similar in another story. Maybe they got the idea from a historical anecdote, or a piece of trivia they remembered, or a set of genre conventions. Maybe the source is a little less clearly defined, an idea snatched out of the viscous soup that is human thought and creativity. Yet even in this case, if that concept was plucked out of those thoughts, then something had to put the components of that concept into those thoughts to begin with. Therefore, all story concepts spring from other stories, taken apart and reassembled by the creator’s own artistic sensibilities.
However, this doesn’t mean a work can’t be considered ‘unoriginal’ or ‘derivative’, though those wouldn’t be the words I’d use for it. A story which relies too clumsily and too obviously on a single well-known source could be considered an inferior copy at best, and plagiarism at worst – just as a story put together poorly from many different sources can seem patchwork and incoherent. Likewise, supposedly incongruous or overused sources and inspirations can still be the basis of an excellent story. Ultimately, the difference between a good story and a bad one doesn’t lie in the sources they draw inspiration from, but in the way the creator puts them together, and that can only be determined by whether the creator understands the sources they are using or not.
Understanding a source means different things for different types of sources. When looking at genre conventions, it means understanding why those conventions were established and by whom. When looking at historical sources, it means not just having some knowledge of the cultures you’re drawing from, but also understanding the political, social, and religious contexts those cultures existed in. Even something as “simple” as personal experience needs to be put into its wider context. By understanding the worlds which surround the sources you plan to use for your story, you understand the shape of that source, and as you understand the shape of that source, you begin to understand how and where that source might fit with other sources.
It also means looking at sources critically, both in the way that they’re presented, and in the way that you use them. It’s not enough to use a genre convention because other popular works use it, or to use a historical setting simply because its surface aesthetics ‘look cool’. Certain creators are certainly well-enough known for using their work to grind personal axes (I’ll admit, I can be one of them), but that doesn’t necessarily make for a good story. When you look over your source material, try to figure out what fits in your story and its setting and what doesn’t, then replace the parts which clash with the story you want to tell with ones from other sources which might serve better. Likewise, remember that your sources also originated from prejudiced and imperfect perspectives.
History often carries biases, especially early histories which are more fictional narratives themselves than a retelling of truth. The authors who coined genre conventions often did so for their own reasons, which means that some of those conventions may not fit in your story the way they fit in theirs. For example: Tolkien justified the attitudes of his elves by making them the last holdouts of a long and proud imperial history which he then wrote out in full. To simply take the surface elements of that now long-codified genre convention into a setting where that is not the case is the sort of worldbuilding that makes a setting seem shallow: it’s proof the author didn’t think through the implications of the genre conventions they were using.
What all this really boils down to is the necessity of having a deep knowledge of your sources, especially in genre fiction. A great deal of bad science fiction and fantasy is bad because it blindly copies the conventions of its genre without having any more than an aesthetic understanding of what those conventions actually are. It’s the genre fiction equivalent of paint-by-numbers, and it leads to a fading, but still common impression of fantasy and sci-fi as a cheap, derivative genre clinging to old assumptions and conventions – particularly those from those times, places, and societies more misogynistic and racist than our own.
That’s never really been the case, of course. There has always been innovative, well thought-out sci-fi and fantasy, and there still is today, from people who draw upon histories, social issues, and personal relationships with which they are intimately familiar with to draft brilliant stories. Yet even so, the pitfall of sourcing without thinking still leads writers to write bad genre fiction, and the result not only damages the reputation of those writers and their body of work, but that of the genre as a whole.
This means if you’re looking for sources of inspiration, it helps to pick ones you already know. I have an academic background in history, so I tend to use historical events and past societies as inspiration for my work. Ian Fleming wrote his James Bond novels based on his experience as a naval intelligence officer in the Second World War. Tolkien’s own experience as a junior officer in the First World War may not have served as direct inspiration, but it comes through in The Lord of the Rings trilogy in a myriad of ways, from the description of Mordor, to the way that the relationship between Frodo and Sam echoes that of a British junior officer and his batman, or soldier-servant.
Of course, it’d be hard to write fiction based solely on personal experiences and academic background. Sooner or later, it becomes necessary for a creator to step out of their comfort zone, and that means drawing inspiration from experiences and fields which may not be familiar. In those cases, a creator should always approach their source with some level of humility, especially in regards to other eras and cultures. A creator should be willing to accept feedback from those with more experience or knowledge in those fields (if possible, they should consider hiring a consultant with the relevant experience to look over their work), and more importantly, a creator should be willing to accept that their initial preconceptions regarding a time, or a place, or a genre convention might have been incorrect, and adjust their work accordingly.
There’s obviously quite a bit more to it than that, but the advice I’ve given here should be enough to outline an approach. However, do note that this is all generalised stuff. There’s a lot more I could say about using genre conventions or historical societies in particular, but that might be something for another column.