When I was writing one of my first fantasy stories, I came across the conundrum that I ask about in the title of this article.
My main character was a young girl from a small village who had been selected by the officials from her government to become a magician’s apprentice. I had the entire story laid out: the character’s initial resistance to her calling, her travels to the big city whereupon she was to conduct her training, the first meeting with the wizard who would transform her. I wrote a good portion of the initial story with few problems, but then I had to explain my main characters magical training, and that’s when my troubles began.
I wondered how I could explain the magic powers I wanted to have in my story, powers that read as distinct from anything else out there. Every author has their own take on magic: J.K. Rowling’s magical realm is governed by lessons in spells and skills with a wand; J.R.R. Tolkien’s magic had a mystical quality that was never explicitly explained; countless other fantasy writers put their own stamp on magic. So how can I write something that won’t look like I’m copycatting my peers and predecessors?
This is a problem that many authors—fantasy or otherwise—run into when they’re writing a new story in a familiar genre. Vampire authors worry that they’ll retread ground covered in the Twilight franchise or the tales in Anne Rice’s southern gothic novels. Romance authors fear that their material doesn’t bring anything new to the table, and sci-fi writers fret about whether or not they’re being innovative enough with their futuristic settings. The anxiety of originality is something that plagues us all.
The thing that I had to learn the hard way is that there’s no use worrying about how my readers might or might not react to my writing. Whether I envisioned a world where magic is held by a few chosen people or if it’s something that everyone possess; it doesn’t matter because it’s my vision. I just had to write the story as I initially saw it and stick with my ideas if I ever wanted to finish it. I stopped worrying about whether or not my story would read as a Harry Potter fanfic and focused on telling the story of a magician’s apprentice as well as I could, drawing on all the experiences in my life as a devoted reader of fantasy.
As writers, we have to trust ourselves to flesh out ideas that initially seem like they’re just a copy of someone else’s work. If we ever expect to write something of our own, we have to push through the anxiety that our work will look too derivative and keep working until that half-baked idea becomes a fully realized story. We have to trust ourselves that we can explain magic or vampires or romance, if we just give ourselves the chance to do so.