Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Go right instead of left every so often

    There is nothing new under the sun so trying to be original is an exercise in futility. That doesn't mean, however, you have to be derivative. It's a thought that occurred to me while I was writing an Irish character named Shannon O'Reilly.

    She's already got strikes against her. She's got red hair, she's violent, and her name is so Oireland it hurts. I then decided to do something unexpected and give her blue eyes. I then decided to make her Protestant instead of Catholic.

     This was noteworthy to me because the character originally in my head was a stereotypical redheaded, green-eyed Irish Catholic. You know, despite the fact red hair with green eyes is pretty damn rare in real life. I decided to make just a adjustment because it was so overdone. The result was the character felt more authentic to me. A minor change but, to me, an important one.

    I think more people should do this in their writing. Make a character Jewish, black, or Hispanic if you've initially envisioned them as a Caucasian Christian. Don't have a female character described as beautiful even if she's the love interest.

    Shake things up just a little.

    Really, when writ large, it can totally change your perspective on writing. I think this is the heart of making something "new" in the world of published fiction. My desire to write a spy novel, for example, was frustrated by the fact that I know almost nothing about real-life espionage. I also wanted to write something silly and exciting. I like James Bond movies (I have the whole set except for Quantum of Solace) but James was copied so many times he became a parody of himself by the Roger Moore era.

    Which is why True Lies is so awesome.

    True Lies is, according to the producers, a James Bond movie they created because no one was making movies in the franchise anymore. This was during the lull in the series after Timothy Dalton's well-acted but financially unsuccessful films The Living Daylights and License to Kill. Arnold Schwarzenegger plays, essentially, James Bond but the twist is he's a happily married family man.

    The dichotomy goes on to inform the rest of the movie. While True Lies is partially a comedy, other franchises went with the same basic change to great success. Alias is a James Bond story with the protagonist being a female with a spy father. Chuck is about an average guy regularly sucked into the world of international espionage.

    It occurred to me that virtually any tired old premise could be improved by just changing one or more elements and seeing how the dice fall. Let's take the generic Sherlock Holmes premise. A master Detective and his physically capable but less savant assistant solve crimes of an unusual nature. Now let's set it in a fantasy world like J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth. It occurs to me that I might want to read this story.

     Really, this is a tried and true method of creating something unique. The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars are both adaptations of samurai films. Let's adapt The 47 Ronin from Japanese literature. The premise is a bunch of samurai are orphaned when their lord is forced to commit suicide due to the actions of a jealous rival. You could do a contemporary story about a group of Iraq war veterans out to revenge their former commander after he's framed.

    You don't have to do this. If you want to do a straight James Bond story with a tuxedo-wearing playboy spy, only changing the name and some cosmetic details, it's possible to write it well. Just be sure to make the character your own in some way and good things will follow. At the end of the day, you're writing people and if you treat them as having their own motivations and attitudes, you'll never go wrong.

     Still, I'm glad I changed Shannon's eye color and decided to mix-up my spy novel idea.

    Maybe I'll share how I decided to change it someday.


  1. Well, Kurosawa was just taking golden age westerns and Shakespeare and putting them in shogunate era Japan. Then those got recycled into spaghetti westerns.