The Trouble With Imitation In Fiction

So first of all, I want to make one thing very clear: getting ideas and inspiration from other media is not bad. So long as you're not just copying somebody else's work note-for-note, there's nothing wrong with it. The idea that your work should be completely untainted by any external influence whatsoever just isn't realistic. Media has been inspired by other media for as long as media has existed, and if you think your own favorite works aren't inspired by something else somewhere, you probably just don't know what their creators were into.

Again: Being inspired by other media is fine and good. If something in another work fires up your imagination and makes you want to write, then use it!

What I am here to do is address the belief that imitating popular works is the best way to produce "good" work yourself and explore why this isn't necessarily the case, and why there's just no magic shortcut or formula to success.

First uploaded: March 26, 2021.

Table of Contents

Imitating popular works doesn't mean your work will be good.

Many writers, especially young and inexperienced ones, assume that if a work is popular, then it must be good quality. Of course, everyone talking about how great a particular work is are absolutely contributing to this perception. We hear everywhere how great this work is and how cleverly it uses archetypes, or subverts expectations, or tugs the heartstrings, or just whathaveyou. This tends to build up the impression that the work is exceptionally good, and therefore, that it ought to serve as an example to any aspiring writer.

But as many people who have been on social media for awhile can tell you, popularity and praise don't actually mean as much as many of us want to think. More than once, an immensely popular tweet has turned out to be stolen from another account, where the original tweet just didn't get all that much attention. Members of marginalized groups are often held to higher levels of scruntiny and go unforgiven for perceived wrongs that anyone else would be let off the hook for in a matter of weeks. They are often cruelly dogpiled and harassed in ways that no one else would be, while those are relatively privileged are given praise and accolades for mediocre performance. Actual skill and talent often has so little to do with anything that it can honestly be very discouraging after awhile.

In terms of actual writing, Joss Whedon is great example of popularity not meaning as much as one might think. Back when he still had massive amounts of goodwill as a progressive feminist, he could do no wrong in many people's eyes. But as allegations of his cruel behavior came out and he lost that goodwill, it became more obvious to many that his works often had a certain mean-spiritedness about them.

Joss Whedon seemed to have a particular set very uncomfortable fascinations, such writing as adult women who behaved like children, or women whose ages were left vague enough that we could easily imagine they weren't yet adults even as the narrative and camerawork suggested that they were fine for adult men to desire - the focus on River Tam's feet and the treatment of Wanda Maximoff in Age of Ultron being a couple examples of this. He seemed to enjoy subjecting women to brutal hardships and tortures. Sure, sometimes they got amazing new powers or skills out of it, but nonetheless they'd still been tortured and dehumanized. Of course stories often feel more rewarding when you feel like characters actually earned their abilities, but there are plenty of other ways to do it, and it doesn't seem that he put a lot of thought into exploring them.

More people also began to feel that his style of writing dialog, which had often been considered cute, funny, and quirky, was actually just a form of bad writing. More people began to see it as pointlessly rambly and devoid of any actual substance. This isn't to say that it was genuinely just bad writing all along, but rather that people's perception of Joss Whedon as a person played a huge role in how they perceived his writing. (And I'm just going to state right now that calling all rambly, semi-nonsensical dialog "bad" is actually ableist, because there are certain mental conditions and disorders that can make some people more prone to just talking this way.)

The allegations against Whedon cast all of his work in a harsh new light, and made a lot of people feel like they'd been giving him far too much credit. Oh sure, he'd given us Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but what was up with Drusilla? How are we to read his "dramatic" character deaths after hearing that he apparently liked to torment people just for the sense of power it gave him? The Dark Willow storyline was popular at the time it came out, but what are we to make of the fact that Tara was fridged in order to make it happen?

Again, the point is not to comment on which elements of Whedon's work may have been objectively bad, but to highlight how big of a role that subjective perception played in his success and fame.

Another example of this is JK Rowling, who much like Joss Whedon, had a huge amount of goodwill because people perceived her as a basically decent person with progressive politics. But as Rowling sided more and more with extremely regressive political factions over the last while, the spell was broken and many of us no longer had those rose-colored lenses tinting our perceptions of her work. Elements that felt innocuous enough at first looked a lot more sinister in light of later events. Harry looking at a burly student and thinking, "Hmmm, wonder if that guy has troll blood" hits a lot different when you are aware of the author's current predilection toward biological reductionism. (Whether or not she really held these views back when she wrote the book; and she very well may have not.)

As Rowling gradually lost her goodwill, people were more and more open to seeing the flaws in her work. For example, there's the fact that she constantly uses national stereotypes as character archetypes - EG, the Irish student Seamus Finnegan has a knack for blowing things up. There's the fact that the story seems to want us to think that abusive biological family is somehow better than nonbiological family that isn't abusive. And there's the fact that Harry spends so much of his young life resisting a corrupt institution, only to become part of that institution when he becomes an auror (basically, a wizard cop) in adulthood. And what are we to make of a series that tells us that a school house whose only function is to preserve and amplify the prejudices that create evil wizards like Voldemort can ever be redeemed or should in any way be allowed to exist?

And this is a major problem with assuming that works are good because they are praised, or holding up popular authors as "masters." We aren't considering how praise and popularity influences us to see them in the best possible light and which might be keeping us from seeing a whole mess of issues we probably shouldn't be carrying forward.

We overlook the fact that their popularity isn't necessarily a direct result of the quality of their work, but often the result of being in the right place at the right time, and often as not being the kind of person that isn't highly discriminated against. It's a little strange that the Big Feminist TV Show of the 90's was spearheaded by someone perceived as a man, and a white man nonetheless - are we really supposed to believe that no women (let alone any women of color) of the time had any banger ideas? For that matter, why are we always talking about Buffy as a feminist milestone and not something like Sailor Moon? And don't tell me that it's because Sailor Moon is an anime for kids - the fact that an anime is aimed at children has never stopped Americans from taking it deadly seriously before, and people have been willing enough to weigh Disney films on the merits of how feminist or unfeminist they might be.

Obtuse imitation just creates a mess.

Quite often, people don't understand the intention and meaning of a text as well as they think they do. To explain how this works, let's look at horror. Horror is often mixed with satire, and frequently exaggerates real life problems to more obviously monstrous proportions. For example, a horror film meant to criticize capitalism might feature a product that kills or mutates consumers within a few days of hitting the shelves. In the real world, products are generally (though there are exceptions) put through safety tests just to make sure products won't be immediately harmful, and a lot of product-related harm take years to manifest - for example, health issues resulting from toxic chemical buildups.

In a horror film lampooning the way big corporations will put profits before people basically anytime they can, the exaggeration is fine. It helps draw attention to a real problem in a way that might create a stronger emotional impression than otherwise, which can make for better entertainment. I mean, some people might enjoy watching a slow burn about a product that takes months to have an impact, but it just won't be the same experience as an exaggerated satire.

When someone doesn't catch onto the satire and thinks that what they saw was basically just realism with a few made-up elements tossed into the mix, things get wonky. Where the satire was engaging in conversation with the real world by exaggerating and mocking it, their work just mindlessly imitates what the other story said, and therefore doesn't really say anything. It's the difference between a zombie film that uses a mass outbreak of zombies to mock the apathy and incompetence of the government in a crisis, and a zombie film that just assumes a mass outbreak would happen because it's just what would happen.

Authors who take satire at face value do occasionally try to engage in conversation with it, but because they never really understood the original message, their replies are... clueless, to say the least. I think the most common clueless reply is, "Well, if I were in that situation, then I just wouldn't suck!" Like for example, that guy who thinks that smart people should somehow be prepared to handle anything as outrageous as a zombie outbreak, and thinks he's really being clever when he writes a story in which his "better" characters come out victorious by way of being able to outfight the zombies. (Never mind that in the real world, you simply can't tough guy your way through complete systemic failure; people have to come together as a collective.)

Then of course there are people who see stylized Hollywood fights or fantasy weapons in games, and fail to realize that these are created for visual appeal as much as anything. These people often come away with the impression that what they're seeing depicts the height of martial efficiency, and then attempt to repeat it with utter conviction that they are portraying very serious combat that you should take very, very seriously. Personally, this kind of detachment from reality makes me remember a certain dictator who read children's books, and concluded that his generals would perform better in actual combat if they simply studied the books. This is not to say that all of these authors are or will become fascists; but rather that we need to recognize more how a refusal to engage with reality and instead solely rely on thrilling fictional narratives can contribute to some very warped worldviews.

Surface-level comprehension of the source material results in clueless works.

Authors who have only surface-level comprehensions of the works or genres they're imitating - or worse, trying to reply to - results in them creating extremely clueless narratives.

Let's take kaiju films, for example. A common perception of the genre is that it's fundamentally about giant monsters who stomp cities. However, this perception is completely wrong.

First of all, gigantic proportions are not actually required for something to be a kaiju, and not all kaiju are actually huge. The word literally means strange creature, and it's basically equivalent to the English word monster. Secondly, most giant kaiju don't actually "stomp cities" so much as bonk into buildings that just happen to be in their way. Kaiju often embody the fact that nature does not revolve around human needs and wants, and that it will occasionally cause serious problems for us. Meanwhile, the perception of kaiju as "giant monsters that stomp cities" positions them as malevolent entities out to harm us, and therefore asserts that the world does, in fact, revolve around us after all.

The perception of kaiju as "giant monsters that stomp cities" is the kind of thing that can give a writer with low genre literacy the impression that there's some kind of plothole that needs to be filled, or just otherwise leave them thinking that they need to concoct an elaborate justification for why they keep going for cities. And don't get me wrong, if you wanted to make a kaiju that deliberately targeted cities, that wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing. But assuming that this is an element you have to use and explain is just misguided.

In reality, kaiju stories are a lot of things and there's no single way they have to be done. Anyone who wanted to write a story about giant monsters would do well to actually engage with various pieces of kaiju media, so they can see for themselves just how diverse it actually is.

A similar thing to this often happens with superhero media. People sometimes assume that capes and domino masks are so common that they're practically mandatory, that assume that every superhero basically has a city they patrol and protect, and that they all have an arch-nemesis of some kind. Basically, they act as if the most well-known elements of figures like Batman and Superman are basically universal. This kind of thinking can foster an impression that any deviation from this pattern would be subversive, when in reality there's probably already a superhero out there who does that exact thing, and probably actually does it better because the author is familiar with the intricacies of the genre.

I know a lot of people try to avoid engaging with various source materials because they think that if they do, they'll be influenced by them and their works will be less original. In reality, refusing to engage with source materials won't guarantee that your work will be original, because you'll probably repeat a lot of ideas that other people have come up with, and what's more, have probably done better. Additionally, being influenced by other media isn't a bad thing, particularly if you can build on their concepts and spin them in a new direction. The idea that "true masters" or whatever just spin original ideas out of the aether comes from people who lack the media literacy to know who influenced these authors and how.

The "traditional" tropes aren't all they're cracked up to be.

Many people assume that if it appears in a well-known work, or if it appears in many works in a given genre, then the trope is just "traditional" and is therefore just the thing to be done. For example, many people (and I myself have been guilty of this) fall into the trap of regarding Tolkien-style fantasy as "traditional fantasy."

Of course, this overlooks the fact that Tolkien is a modern writer, and a recent modern writer, at that - The Hobbit came out in 1937. For comparison, Superman debuted in 1938, and Batman debuted in 1939. Meanwhile, The Hobbit is itself pre-dated by The Wizard of Oz, which came out in 1900, and for some reason is not considered "traditional." Some fans might try to argue that Tolkien drew from Scandinavian mythology, but here's the thing - The Wizard of Oz is just as rooted in mythological traditions, albeit different ones. The land of Oz is a fairyland ruled by, for all intents and purposes, fairy queens. Munchkins are reminiscent of gnomes and dwarves, and the Scarecrow is arguably a reinterpretation of an animistic talisman.

Moreover, conflating Tolkien with "tradition" has given us a sense that so-called "fantasy races" (by which I mean the biological speciation of mythological and folkloric beings) is the way to go about fantasy worldbuilding. We don't really consider how modern racism laid the foundations for people like Tolkien to conceive of mythological and folkloric beings in this specific way. If you look back into older mythology and folklore, you will often find that one's form of being can be extremely mutable; for example, a human could die and their spirit could take the form of a dragon, and eventually they might incarnate into a human body again. The whole idea that one's nature is immutably fixed and intrinsically tied to the appearance of one's body is simply a justification of oppressive hierarchies, and racialization was invented in order to codify and systemize this very thing.

Now, I want to make it clear that I am not saying that fantasy races are bad, per se, and I am definitely not saying that you should discard or nuke any work that depicts fantasy races in some way. I think it's a much more nuanced issue than that. I do think it's worth listening to people who have pointed out that orcs embody many negative stereotypes associated with various POC, and that goblins and dwarves have been portrayed in ways that mirror antisemitic stereotypes. I'll also be including some links to some suggestions on portraying various D&D races without so much of the negative stereotypical baggage attached to them for you to check out later.

It's also incredibly small-minded to think that works from the 19th and 20th centuries can possibly define what's "traditional" where ideas that go back hundreds, if not thousands of years are concerned. Even if these authors did a lot of research, they have still filtered and reinterpreted everything through their own personal biases. Additionally, traditions are incredibly diverse and are constantly shifting, so writers will only be able to use as small fraction of what they actually have time to research, which in turn will only be a small fraction of the whole. And of course, writers will lean toward the traditions that support their own beliefs and politics.

Another problem with "tradition" is that most of the tropes and elements people try to defend as traditional are the ones that most encapsulate a patriarchal, xenophobic worldview. This of course ties into the myth that patriarchy and xenophobia have always been the default, and it's only in modern times that things began to change. (By the way, folks: stop saying "traditional" when you actually mean "patriarchal." These things are not interchangeable, and treating them as if they are are only serves the interests of certain political groups.)

Cosmic horror is also an example of a genre that is rooted in deep hatred and fear of the other. I think a lot of people are well-aware that Lovecraft was an incredibly hateful man, but I think a lot of people don't realize how the concept of sinister tomes containing spells to contact dread entities is rooted in a fear of Middle Eastern magical traditions (EG, Solomonic magic); nor do they realize that the very concept of Eldritch abominations is rooted in the demonization of gods and other entities from polytheistic belief systems. (Lovecraft was inspired by Lord Dunsany's The Gods of Pegana, which featured a pantheon of Eastern-coded "gods," which themselves were shaped from uncharitable Christian interpretations of polytheistic belief systems.) To be clear, I'm not saying that writing destructive cosmic entities is inherently bad. Polytheists did, after all, believe in some incredibly destructive entities themselves (EG, the Greeks had Typhon). However, if you simply imitate this type of storytelling without acknowledging and accounting for how the authors' prejudices shaped their worldbuilding and their narrative choices, you risk repeating their bigotry.

It can lead to elements that don't really work in context.

When creators assume that something is "just how it's done," they often end up bringing over a bunch of elements that they don't actually have any use for, let alone any personal investment in using. This can result in elements that feel tacked on because they just don't jive with all the stuff the writer actually wanted to do. While some people might just take them in stride because they're such an expected part of the genre, others might notice that actually, they aren't really doing much of anything for this story.

For example, we often tend to assume that main characters need to be in a romantic relationship by the end of the story. As a consequence, many stories just halfheartedly toss their protagonists into relationships with someone who functionally represents the idea of a suitable partner. Now to be fair, it's not always creators' faults when this happens. Publishers and executives will sometimes pressure them into adding love interests and romantic subplots that they had no real interest in having. However, anytime a story contains a relationship that the creator just didn't have their heart in, it shows. The relationship ends up feeling rushed and hollow, if not completely forced.

Another example are writers who have internalized idea that killing off characters is just what you do to make a story darker, more mature, or more "dramatic." But if the writer doesn't really have a solid sense of why these deaths should happen or why they matter beyond that, it can result in a world where deaths constantly happen for ridiculously contrived reasons; or where for some reason it's perfectly normal for people to commit murder simply because they don't have any reason to let someone live. (In reality, people generally commit murder because they have a reason to want someone dead, which often comes down to feeling personally victimized by them in some way.) Additionally, many stories like this arguably just end up asserting that humanity's basic nature is fundamentally evil, which is an incredibly small-minded point of view that says far more about the author than it does about the general state of humanity.

One last example are people who assume that fantasy needs to focus on royalty in some way, even though they have no interest in having their characters really do anything that tends to come with being royalty. Thus their characters never really do anything that uniquely pertains to being royal, nor account for how their royal upbringing might have shaped their worldview, which can create a kind of glaring absence when it never comes up in ways you might expect it to. Now, sometimes the authors do have the character's royal family attempt to step in and make them come home and return to what their family deems a "proper" life, but the reality is that people from all social classes can have controlling, meddling families. Additionally, the assumption that royal families will always be super repressive and generally against their kids actually going out and doing things overlooks how royal families might very well support their children going on adventures if they think it will serve their agendas in some way, such as giving them good publicity and spreading their political reach into new territories.

This is why it's important to ask yourself if you have any investment in a particular idea. If you don't actually like it all that much or don't have any real use for it, then it's okay to just leave it out. Your story will be much stronger if you don't try to force in elements that you don't actually feel like using. It's more important to focus on the things you do want, and to build the rest of your world and narrative to support that.

In closing

Taking inspiration from a piece of popular media isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's no guarantee of success. Privilege plays a huge role in which works get published, produced, advertised, and all that, and when we take off the rose-colored glasses and look at their work from a more critical eye we often see that they just weren't as great as we thought.

Trying to imitate another work when you don't even understand what the original work was actually saying and why it was saying it results in work that doesn't have anything important or meaningful of its own to say. This isn't to say that every work needs to have some important message or anything. However, trying to hold a conversation without making the effort to understand what is actually understand what is being said is boorish behavior, and therefore results in boorish work.

Trying to imitate a whole genre without actually understanding the genre often means you'll end up trying to fill plotholes that were never there or making jokes at the expense of tropes that were never major elements in the source materials, if they were ever really there at all.

The idea that certain tropes are required because they're "traditional" falls apart when we examine how these tropes originated in very specific cultural contexts, some of which are very modern. And when it turns out that these tropes carry a lot of hateful baggage, it's important that we tread very cautiously.

Finally, feeling like you're obligated to imitate other creators means you often feel obligated to include a number of elements you don't actually care about. The fact that you don't care about them will show in your work because they'll end up feeling half-assed and tacked on. However, if you let those things go you can put more focus on the things you actually do care about, and make those things even better.

I hope you found this article helpful. If you liked it, please consider sharing it with your friends and on your social media, and consider supporting me on Patreon. Thanks for reading, and have a great day!

Other pages you might enjoy:

Borrowing & Sharing Ideas In Fiction - When It's Okay, & When It Isn't
"Help! I'm Worried That My Idea Is Too Cliche!" - What To Do When This Happens
How To Become A Creative Writer & Figure Out What You Should Write
"Help! I Need Ideas For My Story/Setting/Character!" - How To Get Ideas For Yourself!

External Resources

Joss Whedon Was Always the Bad Guy
Joss Whedon and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, Very Bad Script: A Wonder Woman Story
How Tolkien Contributes to White Supremacy
Orcs, Britons, and the Martial Race Myth, Part I: A Species Built for Racial Terror
Orcs, Britons, and the Martial Race Myth, Part II: They're Not Human
Rethinking Orcs: How to Add Dimension and Remove Racism from Your Campaign
Un****ing Dungeons & Dragons
Monsters Reimagined: Orcs
Monsters Reimagined: Drow
Monsters Reimagined: Goblins

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