Remember when you were a baby? Me neither.
Still, I know how I must have first learned language: through imitation. We develop language by copying others.
Now I’m assuming most writers aren’t babies. Yet we do retain our penchant for imitation, even into adulthood. And that’s okay! We writers learn and improve by imitating other writers.
The question is, how do we go from imitation to originality? How do we borrow inspiration from other works and make it our own? In this article, we’ll examine some ways to do it.
Allow Yourself to Imitate
I like to describe my earliest writing as Diet Lord of the Rings. I had all the benchmarks: the unlikely hero from a small town, the mysterious older benefactor, the shadowy Evil Lord and his inhuman minions, the epic quest to defeat them. It was all there, and all borrowed from Mr. Tolkien.
Yes, I was aware of these similarities—though that never stopped me from writing them. LOTR was the story I loved most at the time, so I was content to write stories similar to it.
Of course, looking back on it now, it’s a little embarrassing. Yet through imitation, I learned a great deal about writing. By copying Tolkien, I copied his story beats: the call to action, the refusal of action, the crossing of the threshold... I didn’t know the names of these steps, yet they were present thanks to imitation.
I’m sure the same goes for your stories. Whether you began by imitating Ursula K. Le Guin, Terry Pratchett, or any other author, your imitation likely improved your sense of structure and pacing. Like a youth basketball player replicating Steph Curry’s shot, we copy the techniques of our favorite writers.
So I say, allow yourself to imitate. Don’t plagiarize, of course. Add your own perspective and make your work your own. But don’t criticize yourself for creating something derivative. Replicate the shot well enough and you’ll eventually start hitting those threes.
We imitate that which we love most. So if we haven’t read widely enough, we might find ourselves imitating the same thing over and over. That’s not good for creativity!
I encountered this situation in my writing. I loved fantasy and, as mentioned, I drew all my inspiration from the LOTR trilogy. I honestly felt stifled. I thought that was the best epic fantasy series I’d ever read, and that nothing could ever improve upon it. And then I read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire.
I learned so much from that series. I learned that fantasy could be about more than just heroic people. It could be about bad people, complicated people, people who act selfishly instead of altruistically. I learned that fantasy could be based on history, not just mythology.
Granted, for a while my work all resembled Martin’s work. But through that imitation, I learned to build more compelling characters. And, perhaps best of all, my previous assumption about my favorite genre was shattered. Maybe I could create something unique, rather than just an LOTR imitation.
But I didn’t stop there. I discovered the works of N.K. Jemisin, Neil Gaiman, Salman Rushdie, and more. Some of these authors operated in epic fantasy—others diverged into something else. I continued to imitate these authors, learning new lessons from them all. And a funny thing happened along the way: My own original style developed.
I view this like mixing colors on a pallet. If we combine red and blue, we get a new color: purple. Likewise, if we combine enough influences, we get an original voice. Reading widely helps us find many colors to combine.
Find What Makes Your Work Unique
Now that you’ve allowed yourself to imitate a variety of works, it’s time to double down on your voice. What are the common themes in your writing? What is your tone and delivery? What do you care about most?
Perhaps you’ll combine the dry wit of Douglas Adams with the intricate character work of J.K. Rowling, plus the lavish prose of Angela Carter. Through imitation, you’ll discover what aspects of other works feel true to you. You’ll discover new techniques and stumble upon concepts that even your favorite writers haven’t touched yet. It’s a magical and enjoyable process.
Like a baby learning to speak, you’ll replicate the words you hear. Like a basketball player, you’ll copy the jump shot of your favorite star. And, like an artist with a palette, you’ll combine several colors into a vibrant new shade that’s all your own. You’ll turn imitation into originality.