I’ve spent a lot of time this year thinking and writing about process, habit, and other parts of my creative life. Today, I want to take a little time to think and write about inspiration.
First, let’s talk about what I mean by inspiration. I’m not talking about the motivation to write, or the push to start a project. I’m talking strictly about the ideas side of things. Writing, like most art forms, involves a process that gets you to completion, but the creative idea, the inspiration for the story or character, can come from a variety of sources and through a variety of processes. Said another way, this post is going to be about where my ideas come from, their source if you will, rather than how I get them written down.
There’s a saying that comes up in most writing communities I’ve been in: There are no new stories, just new ways to tell them. This is to remind you that there are so many stories in the world about so many things, that nothing is truly original anymore, it’s all informed by the stories you’ve been exposed to, but also that this isn’t a bad thing, and it doesn’t make your story any less worthy of being written. Only you can tell the story you want in the way you want to tell it.
Most of my examples in this post are going to come from the Western Literary Tradition, because that’s the one I was taught in school and while I’ve branched out to try to read works from other cultures, most of my experience is still with Western stories. Any story about star-crossed lovers is likely to invoke comparison’s to Romeo and Juliet, anything where a character kills their father will bring up references to Oedipus Rex (with or without the accidentally marrying your mother part). Even major corporations do this as they’re making new stories. Take the Lion King movies as examples. The original is a retelling of Hamlet. 1.5 is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Lion King 2 is Romeo and Juliet. I’ve definitely done this in the past. I’ve retold an older story, or at least borrowed heavily from one. And that’s not a bad thing in and of itself.
The special magic I bring to the equation is how I tell the story differently. What’s unique about my star-crossed lovers? How is my retelling of the hero’s journey different from every other hero’s journey before it? (And let’s be frank, most stories can be boiled down to a hero’s journey.) That’s where the inspiration comes in.
I draw ideas from all around me.
When I’m creating a character, I may borrow a piece of their description from a favorite character in a book and a piece from someone I know in real life. I may give them a verbal quirk one of my friends uses, or one of my own. I may put someone in an outfit I saw while I was out shopping, or one hanging in a store display.
When I’m creating the plot my characters move through, it’s informed by everything I’ve ever watched or read. I can use the tropes and ideas that are familiar from a star-crossed lovers’ story to set up an expectation that’s how things will end, and then subvert that idea by letting the lovers triumph and find a happy ending together. When I’m writing an epic fantasy set in a medieval like society, it’s hard not to reference or draw on popular works that have gone before me, like The Lord of the Rings. Even if I haven’t read the books or watched the movie in years, that series is so foundational to fantasy in the Western Tradition, that I can’t really avoid comparisons or overlap because so many other fantasy stories I’ve read draw on it. I may not do it intentionally, but there’s going to be something that could be pointed to as similar.
The same is true for how I create my world. How I decide the magic (or science) of a vampire works in my own fictional world will draw on the original legends, on Dracula, and on a number of different modern vampire novels, stories, and movies I’ve read. This will extend to role-playing games as well. I try very hard to mix and match and bring my own original spin to things and make something relatively unique, but there are some things that are going to overlap simply because that’s what is thought of as a vampire. After all, if they don’t drink blood in some way, are they still a vampire? How I construct the nature of my world (or my vampires, werecreatures, fae, etc) will have repercussions for the plot as well. Dracula would have been a very different book if the character hadn’t had some way to mesmerize his victims.
There are a lot of ways that my characters, worlds, and plot lines come together in unconscious ways. I don’t always realize where the inspiration came from or where I’ve read an idea before. There are also ways that I do this very consciously. Many of my stories are a way of sharing something about myself. A lot of my main characters are women, and a lot of them are white (or would be default read as so in most cases). This is partially because that’s my identity, and thus the one I feel most comfortable writing about. I’m not saying that everything my characters go through is based on my own life, but usually at least a few bits and pieces of the problems they encounter, be they external, internal, or interpersonal, are things I’ve experienced or struggled with.
Another way I consciously draw inspiration from the world around me is trying to add diversity to my cast of characters. In the US at least, most readers will assume a character is white unless there are specific ques in the text telling you they aren’t (like a physical description or a mentioned nationality). My particular writing style is fairly descriptive. I know basically every physical characteristic and detail of my characters if they get any substantial amount of page time, and while I don’t tell readers all of it, I do try to give enough to invoke an image that will be at least similar to my own image of the character. I’m doing to mention hair color and style, eye color, and skin tone. I’m probably going to tell you about the kind of clothes they wear. Something I’ve been trying to be much more intentional about since my first book is to make my fictional world better reflect my actual world in the abundance of diversity it contains. I want there to be a possibility of readers seeing themselves in my books, even if it’s not the main character.
This effort to diversify extends beyond the obvious (in the US) demographic of race (which I need to continue working on). I want to include diversity of socioeconomic backgrounds, religion, gender identity, sexuality, age, and life experience. (That isn’t necessarily the full exhaustive list, just the major ones I focus on a lot.) Sometimes I’m doing this before I even start writing (I tend to have ideas for characters before I have the idea for the plot) and sometimes I look back through a draft and see where I can insert diversity in ways that help give my world more vibrancy. This can involve quite a bit of subtle tweaking to make the changes fit well into the existing narrative, but that’s work I’m happy to do to improve my story. And it’s work I know I could get wrong, so it’s something I want to pay a lot of attention to during my editing phase by getting a diverse range of readers to give me feedback on how well I’ve done portraying various characters in ways to look realistic and respectful.
When you boil it all down, I get inspiration from everywhere. I take inspiration from the world I live in, the stories I’ve read/watched/played, the things I’ve experienced, things others have told me about that they’ve experienced, dreams I’ve had, or artwork I’ve seen. I have a half-drafted novel that came about entirely due to an image I saw posted online ages and ages ago. If I ever published that one, I’ll be thanking that artist for the inspiration, even if I can’t find the original image posted anywhere after all these years.
That may have turned into a bit of a ramble, but I hope it at least gives you a sense of where I draw my inspiration from. Are there specific places you find inspiration or a particularly good story about where you found inspiration for a work? I’d love to hear about it.