Creative Cultural DNA

I’ve been thinking about the cyclical nature of lore this week. About how old stories give rise to new ones long after their initial release.

I have a side idea I’ve been fleshing out that takes its themes from Transformers, G.I. Joe and a few other 1980s sci-fi toylines and their media. My concept is to use their themes as a palette of flavors to craft something new yet retro and geared for a general audience rather than a kid’s one. Not an homage or mash-up of the lore I’m drawing inspiration from, but a story arising from their merged fundamental thematics.

In doing casual research for this, I’m taken aback by the depth of lore flowing from these shows conceived as 22-minute animated toy commercials with some plot tagged on. My focus is on their media generated around the mid-80s, but I find fascination in how small concepts originating from these shows — little creative solutions the writers made to make the stories work amid the demands of marketing executives — so often kept coming back and growing over time.

The frequency that toy companies recycle and revise their product’s media lore without straying too far from what’s sold well before plays a part in this. But I’m sure every cycle of new creators also finds inspiration in, or are fans of, the lore of prior incarnations of the brand. This creates a process where small idea snippets or characters come back after a generation of absence. Growing. Gaining meaning. Where little creative solutions made as throwaway necessities evolve in time to major story elements now considered fundamental canon. The expansive lore of the Transformers franchise is a splendid example of this in action.

This process occurs with all art and storytelling, although we see it accelerated in toyline media. An art teacher of mine always loved to say that none of us create in a vacuum, and I find truth in the phrase. Ideas build on ideas. Old stories inspire new ones that might share fundamentals but differ in the all-important details. In fantasy, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings inspired the genre to blossom with innumerable books derived from his themes and style. Those can range from masterpieces to schlock rip-offs, but regardless, they’ve left an indelible imprint on the genre we have today.

A lesser-known example is how the magic system in the Dying Earth books by Jack Vance inspired Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax to emulate his system for the game. The styling has remained a throughline in D&D magic since Gygax introduced the mechanics to play in 1974. Who knows how many other representations, ideas, and creations in fiction the presence of this methodology has inspired since.

What I’m getting at is that we all encounter ideas sometimes and say, “That’s great! But what if we combined it with this?” We all get immersed in a story sometimes and say, “I love this! But what if instead of that happening, this happened instead?” As creatives we often feel the internal or external push to be “original”, but as the words of my art teacher echo back to me through time, I say again that none of us create in a vacuum: The ideas and stories we gravitate to form our personal creative palettes and building blocks.

The figurative crayons we create with are the same ones we first saw used to draw something else we liked. We keep some close, tire of others over time, and find new ones to add to our evolving collections. But while we treasure the colors, the shapes we draw with them are our own. It isn’t imitation, it’s creative cultural DNA. It’s the experiences we collect through the unique patterns of our lives, and the shared patterns of our generation in concert with the generations that came before, and those that are forming now.

This is the stuff of stories living, growing, and changing along with us. Tolkien and Vance have been dead for years, but their ideas and stories are still in our thoughts and creative DNA along with a multitude of their descendants. Some are even in the crayon collections of those who don’t know of or can’t stand Tolkien and Vance, I assure you.

I find it beautiful. I’ve always enjoyed things that are more than meets the eye.

~Jason H. Abbott

3 thoughts on “Creative Cultural DNA

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  1. Great post! I’ve known for a while that certain stories will come around over and over. How many versions of King Arthur or Robin Hood have we all seen or read? Yet each of them is a unique creation that the author poured their soul into.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. King Arthur and Robin Hood are great example where you can clearly see the lore evolving over time, through the dark and middle-ages and into today. I’m fond of stories in the public domain for that reason: I love seeing how each generation retells and adds to the tales, and being a part of that process.

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