Greetings once again. Today, I want to discuss an aspect of writing that can prove both a blessing and a curse- being different. There are generally two schools of thought when it comes to popular writing; you can follow the trends, or you can do something against it. In general, it’s considered better to be different, as the large number of failed Harry Potter knockoff adaptations has shown in the last few years. But if you do want to be different, there are certain concepts that must be understood and observed; including one central rule- being different is not the same as being good.
Being different can have many meanings. The most identifiable one might be going against a popular trend, which can have positive and negative results. Being different will make you stand out, and may please an audience that is unhappy with the current trend. But it also means you must work harder to get your work out, since it is unlikely to please the masses at first. This was generally the approach I took with Lightrider- despite advice from others, I had no desire to write another young-adult fantasy story or supernatural romance; I desired to write something that might be enjoyed by those audiences, but more adult sensibilities (for example, an unknowing adult hero instead of a child ‘messiah’ figure). That question of what should be different is vital, as it will decide the tone, feel, and general ‘being’ of your book.
As to what they can be, it can be anything from character roles to tone. For example, horror comedies such as Tremors or Arachnophobia stand out because even though they are scary, they have several humorous moments to balance them out. Gremlins especially took advantage of this by having several frightening Gremlins that still managed to be funny through their behavior, or the classic movie theatre scene where they sing along to “Heigh-Ho” from Snow White. Characters can also benefit from being different- a classic example would be Shylock from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Shakespeare’s presentation of Shylock as a villainous Jew is accurate for the time period. However, Shakespeare also has Shylock comment on his status, bemoaning that his actions are only what people expect of him, and that he has little choice but to follow society’s beliefs. Indeed, his forced conversion at the end makes it hard not to feel sympathetic to his plight. A more modern example would be The Dude from The Big Lebowski– a character that has no purpose, skills, or direction, but is the central character due to his innate coolness, lackadaisical attitude, and wit. This is a character that should be a side character at best, but the film focuses on him with hilarious and even dramatic results.
With all that said, there are two things that link these varied tones and characters- purpose and logic. Simply having these differences to simply to just make them different, even if it doesn’t need it, destroys any real meaning those differences might have caused. One example could be Tim Burton’s remake of Alice in Wonderland. This version removes the ‘wild road trip’ element and replaces it with a traditional ‘chosen one’ story. While this does make the film stand out, it also takes a more fluid and unpredictable story, and replaces it with a more standard one, which despite the oddcap moments, simply feels rehashed and tired. I have also had the character concept explored by my ongoing personal arguments with friends over Disney’s Frozen (which I promise to stop citing).
In this argument, I took the stance that Elsa, the antagonist of the story (but not the villain), is a sympathetic character until the point where she lets her fear prevent her from even trying to undo the damage she caused. My friend’s point was how this made her different from previous Disney heroines in that she was not the perky princess that was gung-ho about solving problems (a role filled by her sister). I concede that point, but by giving her that difference, Elsa ironically embodies the worst trait of Disney Princesses- the ‘locked in a tower’ syndrome. By not wanting to even try to help, Elsa is now someone sitting in a room alone, waiting for someone else to solve her problem for her. Her difference makes her less of a character and more of an obstacle to overcome, while giving the audience a character they should avoid becoming rather then someone they should emulate. So in trying to be different, they created a character that not only loses audience sympathy but creates a negative role model in the Twilight mold of a girl that must BE helped because she will never do so on her own.
Being different can be a tremendous boon to writers. It allows them to come up with ideas and concepts that allow for their own freedoms. However, it can make them work harder to push their ideas, and being different can be mistaken for being good. Writers need to remember that if they have a different idea, they need to flesh it out and make sure that it brings something that works because of clear, well thought out ideas. Being different only works if it brings us something good- a broccoli-crème donut is different, but how many people would really want it?