Dear Story Nurse,
I just read your post on original ideas and the derivative nature of all stories, and loved it. I struggle a lot with feeling like I’m writing “unique enough” stories to justify putting the effort into them (it doesn’t help that I can literally go through my folder of ideas/snippets/starters and pinpoint exactly what I must have been reading/watching when I came up with each idea, so I wind up feeling like obviously anyone else would notice it too—even though logically I’m fairly sure it’s not that obvious and I only notice it because it’s my own stuff).
But in similar vein… how do you create unique, original worldbuilding? The hardest part for me is magic systems—I write almost exclusively fantasy, sometimes scifi with fantasy elements—and I love including magic and witches and sorcerers, but I feel like I can’t create a unique, exciting magic system to save my life.
The example I always go back to is the Mistborn series by Brandon Sanderson. I’ve never seen anything remotely like the magic system in that setting, allomancy (for those who haven’t read it, some people can ingest different alloys of metals and use those to fuel various mental and physical powers; all the powers come in pairs, like Soothing vs. Rioting people’s emotions). If I could hit on something that unique, that original, just once in my life, I would be thrilled. But in the end, most of my magic systems are either bog-standard elemental-based types of things, or more generic “magic just does what you need it to do, albeit in limited quantities or with skill requirements to make it work so it’s not a complete deus ex machina device” a la D&D.
You say that “originality doesn’t mean rubbing two brain cells together until they spark an idea that bears no resemblance to any idea that anyone’s ever had” but on the other hand it feels like, in this area of things, it does mean basically that—and I’m not sure the “file off the serial numbers” approach would work, if only because if you take a particularly interesting existing system (like allomancy) for your “base” to work from, I think it would still be pretty obvious. How can I either figure out how to spark unique ideas for magic systems, or stop beating myself up for not being able to come up with entirely new, unique, original magic systems for my worlds?
I love this question as a counterpart to the question about worldbuilding from real places. There are so many ways to approach the creation of a fictional place.
As I said in my post on originality, what makes your work original is that you make unique choices that no one else would make. It sounds like that’s where you’re feeling stuck—you know your worldbuilding choices are yours, but feel that they’re not “unique enough”. Instead of looking at the word unique (or original, though those aren’t the same thing), let’s look at the word enough.
Sometimes enough means that you cook the same simple dinner or order the same takeout three nights in a row. That gets you fed and frees you up to do other things, like playing games or getting work done. Is your worldbuilding enough to do the job? Does having a basic, familiar fantasy setting let you focus on characters, plot, and prose, which is where you find joy or know you need to do more skill-building?
Sometimes enough means you have a small meal because you aren’t very hungry. Is your worldbuilding enough for your limited appetite? Are you forcing yourself to do more of it because you feel like you have to, not because it’s what you actually want?
Sometimes enough means that you buy a Hallmark Valentine’s Day card for your beloved, because you know they would rather get a sweet, simple card than a bouquet of flowers (allergies!) or dinner out (so crowded and noisy!). Is your worldbuilding enough for your readers? Are you giving them what they personally want, rather than adhering to generic notions of what a setting ought to be?
Sometimes enough means a grade of 66%, because that lets you pass the 101 class and move on to something more exciting and engaging and challenging. Is your worldbuilding enough to get your career going? Will knocking out some straightforward works now get you established so you can more confidently try more adventurous things down the road, once you’ve got a readership and an agent and a better sense of which envelopes to push?
Sometimes enough means coloring within the lines, doing exactly what’s required of you and nothing more, never sticking your neck out, being cautious, being safe. Is your worldbuilding enough to be comfortingly familiar to you and your readers, without making anyone uncomfortable or risking anything? Does trying something different make you feel like you’re tapping into deep scary parts of yourself, or bring up complicated thoughts or upsetting feelings? Do you worry that more experimental stories are less commercially viable?
Sometimes enough means quiet music and white walls and simple furniture, because that’s what creates the ambiance you want. Someone else might call it boring, but to you it’s peaceful. Is your worldbuilding enough for the mood you’re trying to create in your work? Does it give your characters room to play without being a vast expanse, and set up interesting plots without having an explosion on every corner?
Sometimes enough is drawing a stick figure because you’re new at making art. Over time, your stick figures will gain motion, emotion, dimension, detail—but you’re not there yet. Is your worldbuilding enough because it has to be, because it’s the very most that you’re capable of right now? Can you let that be enough for the projects you currently have, while you work on developing your skills for future projects?
Sometimes enough is about what feels like enough for you. That’s a thing only you can determine. But it doesn’t sound to me like any of your concerns about whether your worldbuilding is original enough stem from your dispassionate assessment of yourself or your work; it sounds like it’s about how other people will judge you. Who are those other people? Are they the people you’re writing for? If they aren’t, why does their opinion matter?
If your work were enough—if you were enough—how would you know? What are the signifiers of sufficiency, for you? Is it something you can point to? Or is it an unattainable mirage? Can you see ways to redefine “enough” and put it within your reach? Can you see ways to feel like enough right now?
Let go of the Mistborn series; your dilemma would be no different if you’d never heard of Sanderson or his books, so right now it’s just a stick you’re using to beat yourself. I guarantee you that he can look at his work and play spot-the-source all the livelong day, to a degree that no one else can because no one else has read all the books and seen all the movies and heard all the songs and lived all the history that he has. This is true of every writer. You really can’t know where someone’s ideas come from unless you live in their head. But I promise you that they come from somewhere—usually a lot of hard work and practice, and also reading and watching and listening and living. All those jokes about writers asking “can I use your tragic/funny/angsty life experience in my work” are jokes only because a lot of the time writers don’t bother to ask.
If you wanted to get very picky, you could say that Sanderson’s use of paired magical forces is drawing on the Aristotelian idea of opposing elements (which was Aristotle building on the work of Empedocles) and/or the Newtonian idea of equal and opposite pairs of physical forces (which, like all scientific advances, owes a great deal to both the observation of the world and the work of other scientists). But both of those concepts are so deeply embedded in Western culture that basing something on them is no more unoriginal than using the word the. At some point you need to decide that caring about a concept’s degree of uniqueness is a distraction from getting your writing done, and set it aside like any other distraction (too bad there are no URL blockers for persistent anxious thoughts), and focus on the work.
If you’re a relatively new writer, much of your problem may simply be that you haven’t developed your worldbuilding skills very far yet. Don’t be fooled by the mysticism of inspiration and spark-striking; those moments of epiphany are backed by a lot of learning and a lot of work. The next time you read a story with interesting worldbuilding, look at it as a craftsperson and see if you can figure out how the author did it and what makes it work so well for you. Work with mentors, critique partners, beta readers, writing teachers, agents, editors, and anyone else who can help you level up. Don’t let your impatience over being a beginner distract you from your ability to learn. See yourself as being on a path, rather than stuck in place, and make a plan for moving further down that path.
You seem to worry a lot about about the notion that “someone” (who?) will find your work lacking. To get away from that, it will help to have two things: personal goals for your work, and a sense of who you’re writing for.
If you know who your audience is (and it can be as general as “epic fantasy fans” or as specific as “my brother Jim” or “teen me”), you don’t need to guess what they like or wonder how your book fits into their personal collection; you can research it! For a genre-based audience, do some market research and see what’s selling now in that genre, what kinds of book deals are being made, who’s getting lots of buzz, who’s headlining conventions, which books get high marks from trade publications and lots of stars from Amazon and Goodreads reviewers.
Once you know your market, find your unique sweet spot between the book of your heart and the book that will reach the audience you want to reach. You might be be over at the “I will write formulaic books that hit all the bestseller buttons because all I care about is reaching the largest number of readers” end of the scale, or the “I am driven to write this specific book and I don’t really care if no one else understands it” end, or somewhere in between. You may decide to write a commercial book now and an avant-garde one later. All the options are fine. The important thing is to make some decisions about your goals for your work, so you can then evaluate whether your work is achieving those goals.
If the target audience still feels like a big looming someone who’s judging you in a mean judgy way, create an ideal reader, the way you’d create a character. Give them a name and a list of books they love (which is a fun exercise: what reading habits would set someone up to like your work?) and an exuberant eagerness for books like the one you want to write. The next time you think “No one will like this” or “Everyone will see how derivative this is”, swap that out for “Would my ideal reader think this is great?” and use your concept of them as your guide. If you’re a visual thinker, you can find a photo of someone looking kind and friendly and supportive, tape it to the corner of your monitor or make it your background image, and chat with it when you need a boost. Would you like this scene, smiling person? You look so happy just at the thought of it! I love writing for you!
For your reader, for the imagined smiling person or the real one who will someday cherish every word you write, your work isn’t merely enough—it’s exactly right. And so are you.