I read voraciously as a kid and teenager, although I had a tendency to stay in a comfort zone of familiar books and authors. One of the most influential authors, both on my writing and on my general outlook on life, was Robin McKinley. In fact, she wrote pretty much my favorite book of all timekee. Here, I’ll describe it for you:
We meet a young woman who’s something of a misfit, although she has strong family ties. She gets swept up against her will into a new exotic world and befriends its brooding, magical ruler (who’s quite a bit older than her). In this new world, she discovers that she has position, power, and purpose: to save her new home and its prince.
I am referring, of course, to Beauty, though you may have been forgiven for thinking I was referring to Rose Daughter. Or The Blue Sword. Or The Hero and the Crown. Or Chalice. Or Sunshine. Only the first two are actual retellings of the Beauty and the Beast legend, but the others all pretty much riff on it. This basic format can be seen in her other retellings, of Sleeping Beauty and Donkeyskin and even Robin Hood. For nearly forty years, McKinley has been coming back to this same well.
And it works.
See, there are multiple elements that go into making a unique story. Plot is just one of them, and it’s probably the one most likely to get regurgitated. Though theories differ about the exact number of original plots in existence (one difficult to confirm quote goes as low as two), there are certainly common structural threads that run through the tales we tell. If you demand pure originality in your plots, you’re going to be sorely disappointed (and it’s a fairly new concept anyway).
What keeps McKinley’s novels distinct from each other is the details. The characters may be filling similar roles, but as individuals they’re quite different, and the dynamics between characters vary as well. And, of course, the world-building sets each apart; Damar looks nothing like Willowlands looks nothing like Sherwood. The stories may hit the same beats, but they get there by different means and provide different experiences along the way.
Sometimes I worry that, as an author, I’m repeating myself, since I see a lot of common themes and situations in the manuscripts that sit in various stages of completion on my shelf. But you know, that’s okay. There’s nothing new under the sun, and some people might call the use of such pet tropes “consistency” and “good branding.” Just because one component is familiar doesn’t mean that the whole thing will be. It’s about finding a fresh take, leveraging that familiarity into a unique spin.