Lord of the Rings. Hunger Games. Star Wars.
What do all these have in common? They’re wildly popular books and movies.
However, with such attention come with one huge downside, what I’m going to term the tragedy of popularity. What does that mean? Let’s look at three examples.
1. Hunger Games
Before it was published, how many people knew of and loved dystopian fiction? I can’t give you exact numbers, but I can say with confidence that the pool of dystopian fans flooded and rapidly became an ocean thanks to the Hunger Games craze.
For a few years, it was the thing. Everyone wanted to read dystopian fiction, especially if it was YA. And included a female heroine. The popularity of Hunger Games gave rise to numerous authors who jumped on the band wagon with gleeful abandon—some with more success than others. Popular series’ like Divergent come to mind.
When we see success, we want to emulate it. Being an author is hard enough already. Don’t we deserve a bit of a break? A boost to make our publishing dreams a reality? Why not cruise along in the wake of a phenomenon?
The downside is that after a while, the stories blend together into a dull buzz of sameness, instead of branching out with new melodies and harmonies that keep the tune distinctive and appealing.
After all, how many teenage girls do we need to see saving their country from oppressive governments?
2. Lord of the Rings
Turning to fantasy, Lord of the Rings is another example. Tolkien basically started the epic fantasy genre. He put fantasy on the map and changed the landscape of publishing, much to the delight of millions of adoring fans. But…
We all know what happened in the wake of this runaway success.
Rip-off stories. Derivative tales. LOTR wannabes. The market became flooded with stories that were so intent on cashing in on the popularity of Tolkien’s work that they ignored the need for novelty. Lord of the Rings was successful because it was different. It gave people a new adventure, a fresh perspective, a unique story.
Then the barbarian hordes rushed in, thinking to accomplish the same feats…and fell far short. Fantasy fans don’t want a story that’s Lord of the Rings with a different paint job and title. They want the same experiences Lord of the Rings gave them, but in new ways.
I have personal experience with this. My first fantasy series was LOTR-inspired…waaay too much so. My thinking went along the lines of, “People love LOTR, so if I write the next LOTR, people will love my stories.”
Note to self: O the foolishness of youth.
My siblings kept telling me it wasn’t that great, but it took the firm suggestions of a professional editor to make me realize copying Lord of the Rings was actually the worst thing I could do. Since then, I’ve focused on being as creative as possible, taking inspiration from dozens of sources, and writing stories that stay true to the roots of fantasy without becoming derivative.
Another area that falls prey to this problem is the movie industry, particularly with the surge of superhero films in recent years. Storytelling, by nature, is formulaic. There are only so many basic elements at your disposal. The genius is seen when a filmmaker or novelist can take those mundane elements and transform them into something magical.
Unfortunately, the need to be popular, to listen to the siren whisper of trends and line pockets with as much cash as possible, has led away from the creative side. Or so it seems to me. For all the sci-fi and fantasy movies Hollywood churns out, how many strike you as compelling in their uniqueness?
We get the same type of story, only with a different cast, different director, different setting, and so on.
The Need for Originality
Why is popularity a bad thing? It’s not, strictly speaking. The ebb and flow of the market’s demands is inevitable. Certain types of stories will bask in the spotlight for a time, usually led by a scintillating breakout series that paves the way for the rush of crazed fans (and cascades of money) to follow.
The problem—the tragedy—is the lack of creativity and originality such trends unintentionally cause.
Brandon Sanderson is a writer extraordinaire, and one of the major reasons why he’s my favorite author is because he manages to create the sense of familiarity fans crave without venturing into the dangerous land of been-there-read-that. He strikes a happy balance, which makes for some incredible stories.
That’s what popularity diminishes.
Where are the compelling ideas? The themes that make us think and the fresh plots that keep us riveted because, unlike so many movies or TV shows, we have no idea where they will lead?
Where’s the spark of pure creativity needed to craft robust, compelling narratives? Sadly, it’s been buried beneath popular demand. This is painfully apparent in Hollywood. People want action, explosions, buff heroes and kick-butt heroines.
Original ideas, infused with creativity and the bold daring to go where no story has gone before, have slowly been shoved. The book and film industries are businesses, after all. People need to earn a living, which means they need to tell the stories audiences want.
It’s a frustrating reality, and one I’ve struggled with as a writer myself. But consider this: the most popular stories are usually results of the author wanting to create a story he or she would want to read.
Stories that don’t stray too far from the safe pasture of proven formulas aren’t going away anytime soon, but I hope books, movies, and TV shows all receive a shot of creativity. The willingness to think outside the box and keep us fascinated with new ideas.
Ideas to allow our minds to soar. To make the impossible seem real. To snag our attention with something completely other, yet hauntingly familiar.
After all, that’s the fun of speculative fiction.
Do you think popularity is a bad thing? Is there anything we can or should do to change the trend?