Ideas, and Why They Don’t Matter
Some ideas come slowly. For example, I’ve noticed that when you seem someone jogging ahead of you in a day-glo vest with reflective tape and a headband with blinking red LEDs it’s absolutely going to be an old person. For a long time I wondered why getting old turns you into the sort of person who’s so afraid of the world they think a car is going to run them down on the sidewalk due to a lack of visibility.
Eventually, just sort of out of the blue, it occurred to me that maybe my logic was backwards.
Other ideas come quickly.
Whether they come fast or slow, it’s really how far you can take them. See, that great idea you just had? Someone else has had it. Several someones. Lots and lots of people.
A Brief Simplistic Look at Literature Through History
In many respects, literature is chained to the same Hero Cycle that Gilgamesh and the Ramayana started on. Disney movies are almost exclusively adaptations of either German folk tales or Shakespearean plays. For that matter, most of the basic lessons and themes from our stories were covered by some guy on a Greek island named Aesop, roughly 2500 years ago. Even assuming he was a real person, he probably didn’t invent most of the basic material.
What’s more, stories go back a long, long, way. We’ve found Homer’s Troy. Studies of the spoken stories of Aboriginal Australians have revealed that they accurately reflect the geography of the regions they currently live. . . before the end of the last Ice Age. See, these stories are not something we invented, they’re something that evolved right long with us. Like us and our technology, there has been a steady accretion of complexity and nuance over time, but it’s like building a pyramid; you’re just through more rocks or dirt on something that was already there.
Genetics and Evolution 101
You throw two parents together, and you get a mix of their genes. Each of them has two copies of each gene, you get one copy from each parent. You are literally half of each of your parents, blended together randomly. All the variability in us as people comes from which particular genes dominate (and how much) when the roughly 30,000 genes your parents have come together. It’s called recombination, and it does interesting things, as you can see:
There are two elements we look at when we’re delving into basic genetics. Phenotype and Genotype. Now, this is important: We each carry two copies of every gene, but sometimes only one copy is expressed. Genotype looks at what’s actually there in DNA, phenotype only cares what shows up. This is why two brown-haired parents can pop out a red-headed hellion without warning. Phenotypically, they were brown-haired, but genotypically they both carried the genes for red hair and brown. Now they have a child whose phenotypically and genotypically a redhead.
Now here’s the interesting bit. Over generations, there are occasionally mutations and changes. Fairly often, in fact, although most of them simply don’t matter or change anything, and most the ones that do change things kill you. But some don’t, and that’s why we evolve. However, keep in mind, we’re changing 1/30,000 of genes in these cases.
Why This Matters to You as a Writer
So what, right? This all very interesting, but what impact does it have on writing?
Because writing works the exact same way. Not even in metaphor, but actually evolves in an analogous fashion (with the obvious divergence in that a story can have as many parents as it likes). You’re not making big changes. You’re recombining preexisting elements into something unique, but made out of the pieces that already existed. The genotype is going to look a lot like all its relatives. . . who are conveniently grouped together on bookshelves by section in most places, but it can have some fairly unique phenotypes. Maybe, if you get lucky, you can introduce a new mutation in there, and it won’t kill your story, and people will like it, and it will get handed down to future generations.
This is also a handy way to look at plagiarism. Of course your writing is going to look a bit like closely related stories, because they’re siblings of a sort, but if your story looks too much like one of its siblings there may just be a problem.
Ideas don’t matter, though. Not really, it’s about the execution. In writing, the ideas are like sex: they’re the easy part, and practically everybody has it. It’s taking those ideas and laboring to create something that can exist on its own, and live on past you, that really matters.