A story can be born from a simple thing. Look around. Find an object near you. What draws your eyes? What has an intriguing texture? Pick it up. What story is attached to this object? Is it something that really happened? Does your object evoke a memory? Or, does it tug on your imagination in other ways, does it activate a new narrative? Can you create a character out of it? A world? You just, in a sense, stole a story from an inanimate object. Now, this is a simple example because an object, being an object, probably won’t mind. It changes when sentient beings get involved. Stealing little bits of stranger’s conversations, or a shade of someone’s hair. The shape of their necklace, their speech patterns, or their odd favorite food. These are all things they won’t miss. But, is this “theft” always okay?
Grabbing someone’s name or look is fairly harmless. Remembering odd things people say is completely anonymous. Drawing inspiration from other people’s stories however is sometimes problematic. There is the phenomenon of modeling yourself so much after your favorite writer that you start to try and emulate their work a little too much, though sometimes this might be an unfair accusation because there are existing story frameworks that all of us build upon and we must remember that we’re sharing. Then there’s the situations where inspiration becomes appropriation. As writers, and storytellers of any kind, it is important to be aware of the point of view we are coming from and what we can draw from and what is not ours to touch.
I often hear the whole “storytellers as thieves” thing connected to the “all the stories have already been told” thing. Everything already exists so we’re all just taking from the same pool to tell the same stories over and over again. I mean, kind of? Whenever I hear people say there is nothing new or there are no new stories, or anything like that my gut reaction is that they’re pretentious and think they know everything. This is obviously a deeply unfair assumption, and usually untrue, but I still think it’s an incomplete assessment of the situation. Okay, if we’re being honest, I think it’s absolute nonsense. I know when people say it they mean things like tropes and archetypes and established story frameworks like the hero’s journey or fairytale types, and I get that. Of course there are frameworks…of course tons of stories are just the same basic plot in a different mask, but it still bothers me because even if so they are still new. Just because its skeleton is the same shape as thousands of other stories doesn’t mean it isn’t an entirely new creature. As storytellers we construct the creatures that live on the skeletons of archetype and plot pattern, they are pre-made outlines that anyone out there is free to use. To craft the flesh of the story creature is a different step. And who’s to say all the story skeletons have already been discovered? It’s arrogant to claim that what we have now is really all there is.
Are storytellers still “thieves” if you take away the presumption that there is a finite amount of story to work with. I mean…yes. Everything starts somewhere. I’ve had multiple workshop assignments that were just “go listen to random people’s conversations and write down weird stuff.” I like meeting strange people so I can lift parts of their personalities for my collection of secret story trinkets like a crafty little crow flying off with something shiny. And much like a crow, if you wrong me I will remember and I will have my revenge when I make you a universally hated character in one of my books. I’ve used the metaphor of stories as creatures, but perhaps a more effective image is story as liquid. Narrative flows throughout time and space in and out of the minds of storytellers, manifesting differently in each, allowing the storytellers to build upon each other year after year shaping and changing the way the narrative flows, each of us contributing pieces of our own story element collections to the greater narrative.