The Line Between Fanfiction and Inspiration

I am not the first author to write a book based on a roleplaying campaign. There are countless examples of fantasy and sci-fi novels where the author drew from their own Dungeons and Dragons – or other tabletop – campaigns for inspiration, the characters and some of the plot inspired by their experiences.

Protos, as you may or may not know, is similar. Some years ago now, I created a character in a live roleplaying system with whom I fell so in love that at points I preferred being her to being myself. Words cannot truly express the difference she has made to me, to my relationships with my friends, to my creativity, and to so much more.

I am writing a novel about her. Some of her friends, enemies and other companions are also from that game – or rather, they were.

Because what I am doing primarily this year in Nanowrimo, in transferring from one draft to another, is removing most of the traces of that link from the novel. The first draft is not in the same setting – that is the one thing that has always been different; the only similarity being that it is based in the British Empire just after the Napoleonic War. Otherwise, however, it was almost identical in all but plot.

In that draft, the character names were the same. Some things about them had changed, but if you read it and knew even the slightest amount about the game by which the story was inspired, you would recognise them. I wrote in this vein for over 50,000 words – and then, spotting it over my shoulder, my fiancĂ© asked if that was really what I want to do.

“What you’ve got there,” he said, “is kind of…LRP fanfiction.”

I bristled, but eventually came to realise that – well, he was right. I had made some minor moves towards changing it, but really I hadn’t changed it much at all. I’d just taken the characters and put them in a slightly different situation, in a slightly different world. To anyone who knew anything, it read as fanfiction. Because it was.

Now to be fair, I love fanfiction. I grew up writing it. Fanfiction is the reason that I am good at writing – it is where I got all of my practice. After I was most ill, writing fanfiction about LRP games is what renewed and returned my love for writing at all. But I don’t want to publish fanfiction. I want to publish a novel that is new and that is mine – my inspiration just happens to be from a game.

And it’s a fine line between fanfiction and inspiration. Inevitably, anyone who reads Protos and has come to that LRP game is going to recognise me, and even themselves within it. I don’t mind that, nor would it be possible to prevent it whilst still writing a novel about this character – which I remained determined to do.

So I spent a year thinking, amidst working to publish Mundane Magic, about how I would change it. How I would fix it. How it would become a novel in its own right, and no longer a glorified piece of fanfiction about myself and my friends.

I started changing things. First, I changed all of the names. I changed the race and gender of one of the main characters. I changed her background, her history. I changed the plot dramatically – not in content, but in pace, spreading the main threads out over more of the trilogy than I had originally intended. I made hundreds of changes – and I still hadn’t written anything. I still didn’t quite know if it would work.

Then November came, and it was time to start writing. I knew what I was doing; I just had to do it.

Within a few sentences I was already writing the previous names instead of the new ones. Two weeks in I am still sometimes writing the previous names. It’s frustrating, but every time I do it I am reminded that this novel is becoming something of its own. That it is becoming better and better as I change more.

If I hadn’t spent this time rebelling against the original source of inspiration, there are a lot of things about the novel that would not be as good as they are promising to be. Even at this early stage, I am actually – astonishingly – proud of what I am producing. I haven’t felt this way since Louise returned the final version of Mundane Magic to me.

That, more than anything, shows me that this is what this novel needs.

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