One of the most acclaimed books of modern YA fiction is John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars. Despite this, I somehow happened across a negative review. It was actually a fairly good negative review too. By that I mean the reviewer explained her perspective clearly, without resorting to personal attacks on John Green or his fans, and made points to support her case. At the end I still disagreed, but I also felt like I was disagreeing with an intelligent person, which is so much more pleasant than the alternative.
One of the points she made is that John Green keeps revisiting the same ideas. His protagonists bear a strong resemblance to each other, as do his love stories and their character arcs. At the time I watched the review, I had actually only read TFIOS, so every other one of his books I have looked at through the lens of her point. I don’t know what I would think if I had read them unbiased. But, for the record, I think she’s right. There are similarities across his protagonists and similarities in the kinds of people they fall in love with. That said, consciously noting these similarities hasn’t stopped me from enjoying any of his stories, which has made me wonder, is it really so important for writers to avoid repeating themselves?
I remember, when I was in my early teens, being very offended when a peer said they were getting over the Redwall books because “every one was the same.” I got up and shouted in her face (not one of my prouder memories) that she was wrong, and looking back the reason for my offense was that I agreed and I did not want to. Brian Jacques’ early novels had some real variety, but the longer the series dragged on, the more clear his formula became. A few books after my ugly outburst, I quit the series myself. Ever since, I’ve assumed repetition was a bad thing.
And yet, don’t I often return to the same authors because they repeat themselves? I read Neil Gaiman to experience old fairy tales in a new light that still feels more mystical than ever, and to feel half happy half sad regardless of whether the ending is technically “upbeat” or “a downer.” I read Umberto Eco to experience a conspiracy thriller that is at least three layers deeper than your average conspiracy novel. I read Jane Austen to watch a Regency heroine get a man who should be way out of her league only it turns out he isn’t.
My interest in this question, I should confess, is not completely neutral. I have my own favorite themes, favorite topics, even favorite characters who I would like to dress up in different outfits and fit into as many stories as I can. Even on this blog, there are issues that, once I have discussed them, I don’t want to let them alone forever. I want to come back, and tackle them from different angles.
And there, I think, is the secret. I think that recycling elements is completely acceptable, but there is still a need to use them in new ways. If you are writing a book that is exactly like your last one, with a few scenes switched around and certain characters renamed, that leaves the question, why did you bother? Why am I supposed to spend money on this book when I could get exactly the same experience from rereading the one I already have?
Sometimes the answer is something like (spoilers), “well, this one time the eccentric isolated protagonist wasn’t going to get together with the hot adventurous one because he was seeing her through a lens of his own idealizations and it wasn’t a real relationship to begin with. Before that, the eccentric isolated protagonist did have a real relationship with a hot adventurous love interest, but it was an obsessive one that was deeply rooted in his own insecurities. Instead of learning to see his love interest through a different set of metaphors, he needed to see himself and his life in a different place. Then, after that, I wanted to show the readers what it would be like if the eccentric isolated protagonist and the hot adventurous love interest were perfect together except for the whole thing where they’re dying, because like all writers I am Evil.” Well then, fair enough.
Of course, the answer for what is too self-derivative and what is simply an author’s style is likely to vary from person to person. What do you think?