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DOES ASKING FOR HELP MEAN YOUR STORY ISN’T ORIGINAL?

July 8, 2020

           Since this question NEVER comes up on the Facebook forums I participate in, I thought I’d address it. While I’ve continually hinted at it, I thought I’d bring it on full force.

            There’s such a thing as independent creativity. Then there’s creativity by committee. When someone asks for help through an on-line forum, I consider that creativity by committee…at least in a way.

            It’s not the same as research. There IS a difference.

            Let’s think about this.

THE FANTASY FORUM

            To be clear, the main forum I get the creativity question on is the fantasy forum. The other forums I’m on don’t usually address creativity questions. With the others, it’s usually about grammar, syntax, marketing, general writing, and research questions. On the other hand, in the fantasy forum, at least half if not more of the questions have to do with specific details about the unique worlds these authors create.

            Should an elf be named so and so. What would you call a wizard who does so and so. If you developed a race based on Japanese Samurai, what would…

            My standard answer is always: “It’s your world. Just make it up. The only key is when you do, follow your own rules and be consistent.”

HAVING OTHERS NAME YOUR CHARACTERS

            When you ask for help naming characters, does this mean those characters now belong to those who named them?

            It all depends on how you look at it.

            In real-world fiction, many popular authors have run naming contests as publicity and marketing deals to generate interest in a book or series. The lucky winner gets their name, whether personal or made up as a character in the next book. In this way, the author still owns the rights to the name in the context of the story, but has pulled off a clever marketing deal to gain publicity and fans.

            When you ask for help over the internet on a forum, obtaining offhand offered names is a grayer area. You can take the suggestions, customize them into the final product, and then hope these totally unknown people don’t try to sue you for using “their creation.” As unlikely as that seems, it’s not impossible in our litigious society. On the other hand, that person may have bragging rights for saying they contributed to your book, especially if you remember and give them credit on the thanks page.

            On the other hand, since you did not pull the name out of the air, it’s not your creation. For some authors, that can be a deal breaker.

BORROWING FROM OTHER CULTURES

            Since you’re creating a fantasy world, that genre is a misnomer, but only partially. Depending on how deep your fantasy is, you could be writing in a half real-world setting, turning it into a sub-fantasy genre. The closer to reality your world is, the closer to the truth your cultural references have to be. So…asking for help through research or on the forums keeps your FANTASY from being totally original in that respect.

            In the same vein, your made up world is no longer made up, because now you’re strapping yourself to something real, and you’re no longer bound just by your own rules. You’re now hindered by something besides just a suspension of disbelief. You’re bound by hard reality, history, and real-world culture. When you ask for help, especially on line, you’re not only relying on others for originality, but also for their supposed expertise. I’d sincerely hope you’ll verify any facts they give you.

            Like research into a real-world setting, you can ask for help with cultural references and still make your story original. However, be prepared for some to call you on whatever customizations you make. Also be careful about cultural appropriation. That’s a big thing nowadays so to me, it would seem safer to just make something up and stay completely away from something you’re not intimately familiar with. You never know who you’re going to piss off. If you make up your own world with your own rules, NOBODY can call you on it unless you break your own rules. You can’t insult anyone or smear someone’s culture, at least not intentionally.

PLOT

            Surprisingly, this one I see a lot.

            “I’ve started the story but I don’t know where to go from here. Please help.”

            Here at Fred Central, I’ve said over and over again, no matter what type of writer you are, whether a pantser or a plotter, NEVER start a story until you at least have A and B. Do not pass GO, do not collect $200 until you know where you want to start and where you want to end FIRST! End of story, both figuratively and literally. If you can’t figure that out first, set the idea aside and find another story to work on. You are going to flounder.

            There’s nothing wrong with B modifying a bit as the story develops, but you need a solid finish line to shoot for or your story is going to ramble and get lost and it’s not going to have anyplace to go.

            Now, if you DO have a B but have written yourself into a corner, got off on a tangent, then maybe you aren’t cut out to be a pantser. That could be your problem.

            Asking for help on the forums will mean others are creating your story for you, maybe not specifically, but in general terms. In essence, they’re ghost writing it for you.

            Is that not making the story original?

            I’d say that’s up to debate because after all, EVERYTHING has been done before.

            Say, you complain that you are lost and have written yourself into a brick wall. Someone comes to the rescue and tells you how to get out of the mess.

            Have they just re-written the book for you? Is it now their story?

            Not really.

            Maybe the plot isn’t your idea, but you still have to write the words. Therefore, what’s left on paper aren’t the helpers words, they aren’t his or her voice. He or she may have come up with the idea, but it’s still your voice. Therefore it’s your story.

            On the other hand, whoever helped you may want credit for helping you.

            That may get sticky for you, the author. The idea wasn’t originally and uniquely yours.

            See the predicaments you can get into by asking for certain help?

            This is especially true for CREATIVE help.

RESEARCH HELP

            Research help is a whole different animal.

            Most authors have no issue with asking for research help. I do all the time.

            This applies to technical issues, NOT creative ones.

            There’s a big difference.

SUMMARY

            You can ask creative questions without getting yourself in an originality pickle. You just have to think first before asking, and make sure it’s not something specific to your originality.

            The intent here is to make you think before you ask. That is all. Asking is the only way to learn, but asking the right questions can also save a lot of grief in the long run.

            Happy writing!

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