I got a great comment on a previous blog post from Serdar Yegulalp about what exactly we mean when we talk about a writer’s quality of “imagination.” This is one of those terms that we all think we know what it means until we go through the process of trying to pin it down with a definition.
At first, one thinks, it should be obvious by way of example. In the first draft of my response to Serdar, I wrote down what at first blush was the most obvious example from my writing group: “Goblins have captured princess from local kingdom; errant knight must redeem himself by going to goblin caves and saving her.”
However, just in looking at those words, it is obvious that they do not support my claim. To illustrate that point, if I were given that as a prompt and forced to write a story against it, I would find ways to subtly subvert the sexism, I would give the goblins a real culture, I might do all kinds of things with the knight and princess characters. Knowing me, I would make their world really, really different from the prototypical Tolkien-esque fantasy world in many ways. It would not be my favorite piece, but I would be able to call it “not bad” at the very least. Most importantly, it would be mine.
And therein lies the rub. The crummy summary would apply just as well to that story I had hypothetically written as the one from my writing group that I’ve deemed as lacking “imagination.” Clearly, I would have to go looking for imagination somewhere else.
In the end, I think “imagination” and its lack can only ever be a subjective evaluation. Every writer will take their life experiences and the worlds and characters they’ve read as the raw material for their own stories. “Imagination” to me is whether the composition of those elements feels to a reader as though the writer has lifted those things out of other works and jammed them together as is, or, alternatively, the writer has formed those materials into an experience that feels new and fresh, like something that could only come from them.
That got me thinking: What is the crummy, reductive summary of each of my novels? That exercise was highly amusing:
Voyage Embarkation: Sliders, but with a gay teenager and his brother.
Insomnium: An Alice in Wonderland/UnLunDun mash up, but replace UnLunDun’s Marxism with characters working through their various personal issues.
Alterra: A “going away and coming home” story combining the personal development elements of A Wizard of Earthsea and the social commentary aspect of The First Men in the Moon. Also a love story.
Schrödinger’s City: Boy meets girl. Boy falls in love. Boy loses girl. Boy also causes the universe to start falling apart. These events may or may not have happened the way they did because the reader witnessed them.
The Other: The West Wing meets random 1990’s political thriller with strong overtones of the 2016 US presidential election. With mutants!
Intersection Thirteen: The parallel universe version of The Day After Tomorrow combined with the “uncovering a government conspiracy” aspect of The X-Files. And books. So much discussion about books!
When the Gods Wish to Punish: Cube, but with psychological horror rather than gore, and replace the libertarian-baiting government conspiracy aspect with a character recovering his damaged interpersonal relationships.
It is my opinion that each of my novels transcends these crude characterizations, but that doesn’t diminish the enjoyment I derived from the exercise.
The point remains that anything can be reduced to an archetype of something else or a simple, common plot thread. What matters is how the writer executes their vision.