Tuesday, 18 March 2014

The Originality Complex

This post is something I've wanted to talk about for a while, but never got the chance because I always had something else happening or something came up. But now, after last post's fiction-writing fun I have nothing on my plate, so I figured I'd talk a bit about a curious notion that I've come across, when it comes to writing fiction - and life in general.
See, I have a lot of pet theories about the world, some of which can be summed up in bite-sized quotes: "Everyone is Selfish"; "Perfection is Flawed"; "Stargate is Awesome" & that kind of thing. But today, I'd like to elaborate on a slightly more complicated theory about selfishness and inception. The Word of the Day is: 'ORIGINAL'
Original /ə'rijənəl/ adj. 1. First, earliest: The original binding of the book is very old. 2. New; fresh; novel: An original way of advertising. 3. Doing or done by oneself independently; not derived from another: Original thinking; Original research. 4. Being that from which a copy, translation, etc., is made: The original letter is in the National Library. ♦n. 5. The primary form or type. 6. An original work, writing, etc., as opposed to a copy. 7. Something represented by a picture, description, etc. 8. Someone who thinks or acts for himself or herself. 9. Someone who behaves in unusual or odd ways; eccentric. -originality, n.
For a while now, I've been working on a personal theory. It was based on something I observed in my youth. When we're bored, we do all manner of things which are tedious, sometimes just to alleviate that boredom. For instance, I sometimes organize and clean up my room, pack the dishwasher or wipe down the benches in the kitchen, when I'm bored.
This is a simple thing, I'm sure we've all noticed it. Yet, if my parents would ask me to do that same task, even if I'm bored at the time, I often won't want to. This alone isn't a huge discovery. This is just obvious in the case of chores, someone asks you to buy bread, mop the floor or feed the cat - if you are not invested, you won't want to do it. We don't like doing dull tasks that other people ask us to do.

However, this isn't just about tasks that are unpleasant. For instance, I love writing stories. I love not only the fun of writing, but also being challenged by a story. However, if someone else asks me to write a story in a certain way or offers a story idea for me to write, I find that I am less inclined to want to do it. Even for people whose opinion I value greatly, someone like my Beloved, if she offers an idea for a story, I've found that sometimes I won't be as enthusiastic about writing it . . . even if it's a good idea (not always, but sometimes).
And this isn't just a personal quirk. I see this kind of thing in other people all the time. My Nanna loves reading books, yet when she was bored and I suggested reading a book, she refused. My brother likes playing games, but whenever he's bored and I suggest playing a game, he reneges the idea. And this isn't just about boredom either.

At first, I thought the issue was that we were being asked. I was under the impression that, when asked to do something, we will be less inclined to do it. But that doesn't explain everything. Sometimes, I do do the dishes, clean the benches & write stories for other people. In fact, we often do what people ask us to do, with great enthusiasm. So it's not the asking that causes this paradox of things we both do and don't want to do. But I've come up with a theory to explain it.
Everyone has ideas. That's so obvious, I'm surprised I felt the need to mention it, but there you go: We all have ideas. But something that I've noticed is that we don't like other people's ideas.
I believe the reason why we sometimes don't like doing something that someone else suggests we do, is because we didn't think of it first.

I call this psychological quirk the Originality Complex. Basically, we have a bias towards ideas that are our own. This is why we often don't like doing as we're told. We are selfish after all, so we prefer our ideas over those of others,

I believe that the only reason why we do listen to other people on occasion, is because we already had that idea ourselves before they put it into words. To put this concept in simpler terms:
  "We prefer ideas if we think of them first."
In the instance of doing the dishes, I don't like doing them, but if I know they need doing and then someone asks me to do them, it's really just giving me an excuse to do something I was already planning to do. For you, if someone asks you to eat some chocolate, you'll gladly do so as you always think that eating chocolate is a good idea.
I believe that we agree with these other people only because we thought of these ideas before the other person said it. We were already planning to do the dishes, feed the cat, etcetera, so of course we agree when someone else suggests it. We agree because it's already part of the plan.

[Implicit in this idea is something that I call the Retrospective CorollaryIf a subject's original idea is later found to have been preceded by a similar or identical idea, with an originator other than the subject, then the subject will appreciate that idea less.]

Generally, this makes perfect sense to everyone - it's not news to say "we do stuff if we already want to do it"; however, I call this a complex because I've discovered that we still have this preference towards our own ideas, even if the other person's idea is objectively better.

Children display this perfectly. You ask a child to go to bed, they'll say No even if they're yawning and falling asleep. You ask a child to stop screaming, they'll say no and keep doing it, even if they're running out of breath. The only way you get kids to do anything is by tricking them into thinking it's a good idea - by making them think it's one of their ideas:
  "Why don't we make it into a game?"
  "This is just like playing dress-up."
  "Isn't green your favourite colour?"
  "If you don't, then a monster will get you."
These little tricks to convince action in children, all prey on the child's basic desires, wants and needs. Of course children like games, associate goodness with certain colours and want to avoid monsters; so we can easily convince them to agree to things by making them think that they already do.

This is a concept one comes across in education all the time. When introducing someone to a new idea, we often have to explain it in terms the other person can understand, because new ideas are immediately railed against and people are less willing to accept them unless they can be lead to believe it was something they would have thought up themselves.

In psychology, this is related to cognitive biases like the Mere-exposure Effect, the Overconfidence Effect, the Generation Effect & the Status Quo Bias. In fiction, you might have seen the Glad I Thought Of It trope at play.
In fact, in fiction, this relates directly to the film Inception. In that movie, the characters attempt to make another character break up his father's international energy conglomerate by convincing him that he came up with the idea on his own.

So, why is any of this relevant? What benefit does this knowledge serve?

In my own opinion, knowledge of the Originality Complex helps us to combat it. Because I know that I'm biased, I do what I can to be more open-minded. I've also found that many writers fall victim to this trait. There are some writers whom, if they discover that their story idea is not original, they will refuse to write it,and many writers refuse the advice of others, because they devalue the opinions and ideas of others. It's a good idea to consider ideas, even if they're not novel (so long as we remember that there's a difference between 'moderation of originality' and 'plagiarism').
Understanding, your own biases and selfishness is the first step towards overcoming them. And, in my own experiences, opens up new opportunities and ideas in itself. Because when it comes to life, and stories, total originality isn't as important as a story well told, a life well lived or an idea well explored.

I'm the Absurd Word Nerd, and until next time I'm going to be investigating Original Characters in Fanfiction, because I think it's both apt and ironic.


  1. To be fair to writers, we're also worried about the big P word: PLAGIARISM. When we're accused of not using an original idea, we fear lawsuits and a ruined reputation. Helen Keller became paralyzed about writing fiction after she accidentally plagiarized a work called "The Frost Fairies," for example, and only wrote autobiography during her life. That's why when we find an idea, we work hard to make it our own to establish ourselves with an untarnished legacy.

    1. Unless you are willingingly using someone else's work to write your own, you are not plagiarising. A lot of people think that you can't use someone else's characters, world or themes in your own stories. But that's not true at all. Your just disallowed from using their "words".
      You can't copyright an idea. Copyright is only bound in the words themselves, and a person's ability to reprint them. It doesn't give you control over any of the themes, ideas, characters or story archs within a story. So, if you're worried about plagiarism, don't be! Because it's like murder, you'll know it if you're doing it. Just don't do it, and you'll be fine.


Feel free to make suggestions, ask questions & comment . . .
I would love to read your words.