The pen is only mightier than the sword if the sword is made out of papier-mâché.
It’s no secret I play Skyrim now. Since buying the game it’s been a regular part of my life,
to the point that some of my dreams have been very Skyrimmy, both in terms of content and perspective. As I addressed in my post about Skyrim’s surprisingly complex politics, I am THAT gamer. I’m the gamer who reads all the in-game books and weighs the options carefully before ever choosing a side. I’m the gamer that initially turned down a quest because it required my character to beat up someone she had just helped, and that made me feel bad. I’m the gamer who stopped hunting because the sounds of elk dying made me sad. So it should come as no surprise that I would also be the gamer who spontaneously writes flash fiction based on the imagined reactions of her characters to everything that happens.
Currently I have five official Skyrim shorts, and one short I can say was inspired by it, but this separation between being “inspired by” and “fan fiction of” got me thinking: What really defines the difference between the two?
Before the emergence of Fifty Shades of Grey, I noticed less scrutiny given to where a writer would pull their inspiration as long as enough details were changed that it could be called an independent story. Since it could be said that Fifty Shades follows this model, though, I’ve noticed an upswing in readiness to dismiss something as being “fan fiction” based on the source of inspiration, rather than the content or purpose of the prose.
I’ve always been very proud of the fact that I’d never felt compelled to write fan fiction, that my worlds and characters were all my own, so when I took an event in Skyrim and twiddled it around to fit Eleasia, there was a part of me that shuffled around in shame. In the back of my mind was this tiny voice that said “Fifty Shades of Grey, dude,” (my inner voice is a surfer) and despite telling it to gtfo and shoot the curl, I couldn’t entirely shake it. If I said nothing, no one would know and my story would stand on its own merit, but if I said “This was inspired by Skyrim,” I worried that it would suddenly be perceived as little better than fan fiction, and when I can’t bring myself to like fan fiction in general, it’s not something I would ever want associated with my serious work.
It wasn’t until I sheepishly, and self-deprecatingly said I had “Fifty Shaded” something from Skyrim, and then proceeded to defend the prose, that I really saw the biggest differences between the two.
To start, the most obvious indicators of fan fiction would be the use of canonical settings (Hogwarts, Middle-Earth, Tamriel, Terre D’Ange, the Death Star, the USS Enterprise, etc.) Within these settings are often canonical characters, but they may not be the focus, as often the use of fan fiction is to allow the writer to feel like they’re a part of their favorite settings, so they create an OC (original character), and this is your basic Mary Sue. The writer, and by extension the reader, can step into the character-vessel and ride them around the narrative, which is usually something that comes off as being self serving and lacks dimension and depth in order to feed something in the fan.
But what if you change the names of the characters and locations, add in some original characters, and come up with your own plot for them to follow? What might prevent it from stepping fully outside the stigma of fan fiction? My answer would be the writer’s intent. If a writer changes these elements but continues to write as if the characters are the same as they were in the original source, it’s still just fan fiction in the end. It’s still an outlet for the writer to pretend they’re having adventures with their favorite characters, which is often (though not exclusively) the drive behind writing them in the first place. It’s the literary equivalent of watching a Steven Segal movie: No matter what his character’s name is or what the plot tries to tell you, he’s still just Steven Segal punching stuntmen in the face.
How can you determine how much of your inspiration is inspiration? Well, what have you been inspired to write? Can it be boiled down to a theme? If it’s a scene, what could you say is the simplest motivation behind it? If you can say “It deals with the struggles of overcoming emotional apathy and learning how to share inter-personal bonds,” or “It addresses the complications that can accompany mental illness” then okay, you’ve got valid inspiration. If your answer sounds more like “I didn’t like that Legolas never had a girlfriend,” or “Harry Potter, but with schizophrenia” then you’re still trapped by the shadow of fan fic. And really terrible fan fic, at that.
Most writers, I think, are not in danger of crossing into making lazy variations on established works, but that doesn’t stop some of us from wondering or worrying that a source here and there might have too much influence. As long as you can identify the underlying theme and use it to tell your story, you shouldn’t be in any danger of letting the source of your inspiration become the only thing people see.
If you want to know what Skyrim inspiration looks like, go back and read The Retriever’s Body from Friday. For contrast, here’s some unapologetic Skyrim fan fic. You’ll love both.
She agreed to meet Farkas at Dustman’s Cairn, but whens she turned to inform Vorstag of their change of plans, he had vanished. She searched the city, such as she could, until continued searching would mean delaying her meeting with the Companion. Concerned, disheartened, and a little apprehensive, she left Whiterun.
With Artax saddled and ready, she headed down the main road to the West, thoughts of Vorstag lingering in her mind. It was therefor, with no small amount of irritation, she instantly identified the lazy gait of the mercenary as he sauntered through the spreading evening gloom.
That idiot! She thought venomously, spurring Artax to intercept him. She dismounted to the jingling chorus of her elven armor, an acerbic quip at the ready as she confronted him about leaving so abruptly.
“I’d happily fight at your side,” he said, his pace hardly slowing, “but it looks like you’ve already got a companion. Get rid of him, and I’ll gladly rejoin you.” He turned from her and continued down the road, she knew, toward Markarth; his home. Not once did he look back. Not once did his step falter.
She was stunned. Her heart raced, and it ached. Her mind swirled in silent chaos as she watched the light of his torch bob into the distance until it disappeared around a bend, and once again all was night.
An ultimatum. The thought echoed through her mind again and again. An ultimatum. How dare he issue an ultimatum! He had no right! He —A dull throbbing in her chest emphasized the hollowness growing inside her. The thick steel walls she had felt so easily melting away while sharing his company began to rebuild themselves around her heart. As she stared into the night, her jaw slowly set and her resolve da
And so, let him leave. The arrogant beast can go back to his inn and live out his days as the unscrupulous sell-sword he was when I found him!
I don’t need him.
The thought was a hiss that burned her, cauterizing the ragged, bleeding edges of her trust.
She didn’t need him. She would never need him.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Adalind is an international literary sensation who believes men over 6’4″ are actually just midgets in a man suit, no matter how convincing their totally sweet spin kicks are.
For more of her completely non-derivative writing, check out “Don’t Let Her In“, the weird fiction tale about a quiet hamlet in Eastern Europe consumed by an ancient evil. “Pitch-perfect with elegant language and ‘missing pieces’ that drew me in and kept me thinking about it afterwards.” – John Fiore.
“He had dreamed over and over again of rushing toward some great precipice, over which he knew he must fall, but every time he approached the edge he was sent back to find it again. He wondered if that’s what the others had dreamed when they Faded, only nothing had stopped them from falling.” – The Last Tower, available on Smashwords in September!