I just finished reading “Pack Dynamics” by Julie Frost, which is a paranormal action adventure sci-fi urban fantasy medical thriller. The novel focuses on werewolves and vampires and a veteran with PTSD that finds himself stuck in the middle of some pretty crazy stuff.
One key feature in the novel is killer bunnies. This is not a new concept–heck, there’s an entire game series about that. There’s the horror movie “Night of the Lepus”. There’s the kids book “Bunnicula”. There’s even Monty Python. We’re told continually as authors to be original, and yet we see ideas like killer bunnies surfacing again and again. So how does Frost get away with it?
While some things get used so much they run the danger of becoming cliché, authors can actually get away with quite a lot if they’re reasonably careful. In this case her bunnies are important to the plot, but they’re not the plot itself. They’re test subjects in some mad science, and don’t actually play a direct role in resolving any of the plot. It works in this instance because they’re used in a way that is not so unusual: lab animals. There’s a reason why they’re killer bunnies, and their purpose for being is to provide the protagonists a believable way of solving a serious problem.
So if you’re going to borrow an idea that’s been done before it’s not the end of the world. Just try to make your idea fit your story in a way that’s believable, and see if you can’t tweak it just enough to not look like a direct attempt to borrow someone else’s idea. Had the bunnies gotten loose and started leaping around ripping out people’s throats I probably would have started quoting Monty Python (“they’ve got…teeth! And they can…leap!”) and set the book aside to pick up something else.
But in starting to write this post it occurred to me that Frost actually borrows an even more obvious idea: this is a vampire and werewolf novel! Those are so incredibly not new that I totally missed it! The point, I decided, is that sometimes ideas become so prevalent they become an intrinsic part of the genre–or even a genre unto themselves. There is a specific audience out there looking for vampire and werewolf novels; they’re not about to complain that the idea has already been done–it’s why they’re reading the book!
So the point is you have to be aware of what’s out there so that you can make your ideas as original as possible, but also don’t sweat too much over it. No one worries any more about putting space ships in their sci-fi–it’s not so much an idea as an expectation, or part of the setting. No one will even question it.
On the other hand, turning those expectations on their heads can be a great source of ideas. Could we have a sci-fi novel where everything happens on a planet that has no space-flight capability? We have an entirely new sub-genre growing in the fantasy genre–a genre sometimes called sword-and-sorcery–using early muskets instead of swords!
If you’re concerned about an idea being too unoriginal you might consider running it past some well-read friends. If you tell them you have an idea for an Arthurian legend where Arthur is actually an oppressor trying to move England away from democracy and into hereditary monarchy, and you have this lovely scene in mind where he’s trying to convince two peasants why they should accept him as their king they might be able to warn you what not to do to avoid it coming out like Monty Python–or at least warn you that it’s been done and you’ll want to refine your idea so as to make it more unique.
On the other hand, if they start getting excited about the idea and extrapolating further based on what you’ve given them, you might know you’ve got a winner.
But if they tell you “Sorry, Arthurian Legend reboots have been done,” well… Find out what they’ve seen before and go ahead anyway. For all we know Arthur reboots could become the next “black-powder fantasy.”