A lot of people get their first introduction into literary theory with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and a not-insignificant portion of those people sort of stop right there. Usually after having skimmed the blurb on the back cover and decided that they’ve learned enough. Because while the book itself is a series of insights into the interconnected nature of old stories, myths and folktales that share symbology and rhythms, what these certain people take away is that every story is the same. Which is an absolute lie.
Using Campbell’s work, you can look at something like Star Wars and draw lines to the myths of old. Here is the mentor figure in Obi-Wan, here’s the call to adventure, here’s this and that and the other. This is because Star Wars is a retelling of classical myth in a different setting. The farmboy-turned-knight with his magic sword is classically Arthurian in nature. Raised in obscurity, he becomes made aware of his regal lineage, tutored by a Merlin figure. Except King Arthur never stormed a fortress to rescue a princess from his own father, and most classical legends lack a planet-destroying superweapon.
Think of stories as creatures. Animals that move and live and breathe. If you reduce any story down to key components, of course they’re all going to look the same. It’s no great feat of observation to compare a set of skeletons and decide that since they all have ribcages, they’re identical, case closed and problem solved. Refusing to look at the whole simply because that’s not the foundation is short-sighted.
Any writer will borrow and steal, and any good writer will do it from a multitude of different sources in very subtle ways. Plagiarism is still a major no-no, but directly lifting lines and patterns from the work of others is cheap and lacking in artistic flair. As a writer, you should be sneaky. Your readers should not even be aware of what you’re doing behind the scenes.
You’re no movie mad scientist, putting together a monster out of bits and pieces with huge visible stitches. The parts should blend together seamlessly, only revealed when and where you wish them to be revealed. But that still requires a scientific attitude and approach, you need to spend time breaking down your inspiration before you can use it to create something new.
The numerous anatomical analogies are there because any given story is a living thing, and stories as a whole are a living thing. The old myths and folktales have such universal themes because they’re old. They’re some of the first steps on the evolutionary path to today’s modern stories, the distant ancestral lines that have mutated and changed into the diverse ecology we see today. If you trace back, you can find where new niches were discovered and the resulting bloom of new fiction into those niches. If you’d asked a librarian about cyberpunk in 1950, you would have been politely asked to leave, but since its inception the genre has changed and twisted from its original form, and is now the formative head of a mighty familial tree of genres.
At the core of storytelling, everything is the same. We are all telling stories about characters, who do things, and these stories begin and end. That is the core DNA of our work, as writers. Our sequence is not genes, but the sequence of events. But it is not what lies in the centre that defines our work, it is everything else along with it. All of our stories are different, even if only in the smallest of ways. Just by telling your story your own way, it is unique and original, and well worth the telling.
So never be discouraged by someone telling you that it’s been done before, because nothing’s been done before. Not in the way that you are going to do it.