Be original! It’s one of those rules of writing that as an author, you’re going to hear at least 5,000 times in your writing life, along with such seasoned bits of wisdom such as show don’t tell, write every day, and never, ever be boring or else you’re going to hell. Of course, the longer you write, the more you understand that all of these ‘rules’ have a time and place, don’t mean what they seem to mean on the surface, and frankly, people can get stuffed.
The command “be original!” on the surface sounds like every single thing you write should be 100% unique, a true trailblazing story in your genre, and should emulate absolutely nothing from any other author or story. The problem is, there’s very few original ideas left in the world, and also, if you take a look around you it’s easy to see this sort of absolute interpretation of “be original” is simply not true. Romance novels are built on formula and tropes. Cozy mysteries full of baking contests, gumshoe old ladies, and cats fly off the shelves. John Grisham is still a millionaire despite the fact he (or his ghost writer) just changes out the names of the characters for every book. A lot of fantasy stories have at least one wizard. Readers buy certain genres because they want the familiar trappings that come with it.
Even “unique” stories are not really that original if you break them down. Harry Potter is by far not the only series to focus on kids in school, post-apocalyptic struggle fiction was not invented by The Hunger Games, and though people like to joke that George RR Martin kills off his non-bad guy main characters, that happens in Lord of the Rings, too. There’s nothing terribly new under the sun. Most stories follow a simple formula, whether authors realize it or not: there’s a person (or group of people) the reader should care about, they want to achieve or get something, something is working against them, they struggle and hit a bunch of pitfalls, and eventually some success is achieved. That’s a story. Everything else is window dressing.
So, what does it really mean to be “original?”
Originality means, no matter what genre you write, what tropes you utilize, what details you create, and what template you use, you tell the story in your way. With your own voice. No one else can write what you write, because no one else has your memories, thoughts, feelings, and view of the world in the exact same way about all the exact same things. It means telling a story with your own flavor and bringing your own set of morals and viewpoint to the table. Copying other authors exact characters, worlds, and words is called plagiarism, and isn’t exactly in this discussion about originality because you should never do that and you’re going to get caught.
Be original by being yourself, and telling the same story that’s been told ten thousand times in a way only you can tell it. Rest assured no one has your voice, so you’re not stepping on any toes.
For substantially all ideas are second-hand, consciously and unconsciously drawn from a million outside sources, and daily used by the garnerer with a pride and satisfaction born of the superstition that he originated them; whereas there is not a rag of originality about them anywhere except the little discoloration they get from his mental and moral calibre and his temperament, and which is revealed in characteristics of phrasing. – Mark Twain in a letter to Helen Keller