I’ve had my eye caught repeatedly by the covers to Virginia author L. Jagi Lamplighter’s Prospero’s Daughter series, which borrows from Shakespeare’s The Tempest and other classical sources to create a robust modern fantasy. But not all sources of inspiration and creativity and setting are so easily borrowed from, as she writes here for “The Hardest Part” guest column series.
The Hardest Part: Filing off the Serial Numbers
By L. Jagi Lamplighter:
When I was twelve, I started my first novel. My father distributed movies to television stations, and I occasionally worked for him, stuffing Gumby dolls into envelopes and other odd tasks that the children of film distributors are called upon to do. Because of his work, though, I was very familiar with copyright laws and the fact that it was not legal to write about other people’s characters.
Armed with this information, I very carefully put in hours of work to invent my own stuff, rather than write in the worlds of favorite authors, as friends occasionally did.
I was tremendously conscientious about it.
You would think that I would be the last person in the world who would find myself, almost forty years later, having to ‘file off serial numbers’ in order to write a story. But no, here I am, writing more than one series that—at first anyway look—dangerously skirts the line of being called fan fiction.
So, you might ask: how did I come to this sad state of affairs?
(In case anyone is not familiar with the term. When a thief steals an object with a recorded serial number, he has to file off the number before he can sell the stolen goods. Otherwise, it could theoretically be traced back to the original owner. In writerly terms, ‘filing off the serial numbers’ is code for taking a copyrighted character or background and changing it enough that it becomes legally possible to use it.)
Alas, I made the fatal error of falling-in-love with and marrying a roleplayer.
While I carefully made up new things every time I made up anything, my beloved husband was exactly the opposite. To make it easy for him to moderate, he stole as much as possible from books and movies that he and his players had read.
However, he didn’t just stop there. He used his own ingenuity (he’s an author, too) to combine the ideas in new and clever ways that were extraordinarily entertaining.
So entertaining that 27 years later, the game is still being played. And this game spawned other games, designed on the same principle.
The result is that I poured over twenty five years of work, imagination, love, and time into dynamic and creative projects that were both entirely original—and based on other people’s work.
Our main characters were original. Our adventures were original. Our take on the ideas were original.
But the actual background structure and Non Player Characters (NPCs) were all borrowed from other authors.
So when I wanted to go write up these story ideas we had put so much time and energy into, I ran into a wall—a wall called copyright law.
A sad and ironic place to end up for someone who had once put such a high priority on originality.
Where those other authors happened to be Homer, Ovid, and Shakespeare, I’m fine—peachy even. Miranda Prospero, the main character in my Prospero’s Daughter series, was borrowed from Shakespeare’s Tempest. That actually turned out to be a plus. There are people who read the series, who otherwise would not have, precisely because they like Shakespeare. The idea of Miranda in an urban fantasy setting, with humor and mystery, intrigues them.
But in other cases, the task becomes much harder.
The problem is: you can’t just change a name you’ve been using for years at the drop of a hat. Each name has all sorts of ramifications…many of which the players or moderator may have made something of. So finding the right name to reflect the character becomes a real challenge.
If you change one thing, you suddenly uproot a dozen other things that were derived from the first thing.
And some names for people or things are very, very, hard to change!
My as-of-yet unpublished Visions of Arhyalon series takes place in a multi-verse that borrowed many, many aspects from many different sources. Over the years, I have come up with good alternates for many of the borrowed aspects on that game, most of which were only tangentially based on the original ideas anyway—as we had veered off in some new direction long ago.
However, one thing continues to elude me.
In the original game, the center of the multi-verse was based, in part, on Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber. In the Amber series, there is a device called the Pattern that controlled the universe in some fundamental way. Toward the end of the series, the main character, Corwin, draws a second pattern, creating a second universe.
Our long-time running game was based on the idea that the main characters—modern Americans—had this power: to draw patterns and make worlds.
Well, it’s easy enough to present the world-making power in a new way. The way we used it really had very little to do with the original. But changing the word has proven to be the hardest task of any I have undertaken in writing.
You see: our characters could walk the Pattern. They could draw a Pattern. They could change the laws of nature by “putting up the Pattern”. Things from outside the universe could be enpatterned. Archmages concerned themselves with “Balance and the Pattern.” And when you tried to move from world to world, if you weren’t clever about it, the Pattern tried to stop you.
Quick! Find a word that can be used in all those different ways!
So the question becomes: do I think I should have to do this? Do I think copyright law is a good thing?
Yes. I do. For two reasons:
One: as a writer myself, I respect the rights of other authors to control the ideas they worked so hard on—the source of their livelihood.
Two: because what the reader comes to a book for, especially in the science fiction and fantasy genre, is: awe and wonder. They come to encounter something new.
It is okay to remind someone of another book…but the reader comes to a new author to be entertained by new ideas. At the very least, we owe our readers to rethink why things are the way they are and find a way to present them in a new light.
My current series, The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin, started as a fan fic roleplaying game. I fell in love with the idea behind the game—not the copyrighted part, mind you—the part my friend the moderator invented himself. But to write up the story, I needed a new setting.
This in itself did not prove particularly hard. What caused trouble was that I had to either keep those aspects of the original that contributed to the ongoing plot or make major changes. In some cases, I sacrificed the original story and made changes. In others, what I ended up doing was entirely rethinking why each aspect fit into my background world.
The result is a magical world that is like others, and yet has its own definite character. I will give a brief example:
My main character was a broom jockey. She spent a tremendous amount of her time and attention flying her broom. Now, many stories have witches on brooms. But the one that kept occurring to me was the Japanese anime: Magic Users Club, where the girls felt that the brooms were uncomfortable, so they went to the sewing store and bought cloth to make soft broom covers.
I kept thinking: Who in their right mind would ride a bicycle by sitting on the bar?
Wouldn’t they want a seat?
What if the modern brooms were as close to old fashion brooms as our modern bikes and cars are to old fashion bikes and carriages?
The brooms in my story now have handlebar, seats. and footrests, like a bicycle. What’s more, they don’t even bother with bristles on the back anymore. They have wooden or metal fans that are used for steering and balance. This allowed me to create a number of kinds of bristle-less brooms—and for my character’s old fashion Steeplechaser to have distinct differences from the more modern Flycycles.
This added character and charm to the background, distinguishing it from other works.
I have had people tell me they like my magical world better than the original that inspired it, because of the explanations I have included. While flattering, I personally do not agree. But I am grateful that they are noticing and appreciating the thought I put into why things are the way they are. Thought that I would not have bothered putting in, had I lived in a world without the limitations brought upon us by copyright law.
So, my conclusion is: filing off the serial numbers may at times be exasperating, but the result is worth the effort.
Now, if I can just find a replacement word for Pattern.
L. Jagi Lamplighter is the author of the YA fantasy: The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin. She is also the author of the Prospero’s Daughter series: Prospero Lost, Prospero In Hell, and Prospero Regained. She has published numerous articles on Japanese animation and appears in several short story anthologies, including Best Of Dreams Of Decadence, No Longer Dreams, Coliseum Morpheuon, Bad-Ass Faeries Anthologies (where she is also an assistant editor) and the Science Fiction Book Club’s Don’t Open This Book. When not writing, she switches to her secret identity as wife and stay-home mom in Centreville, VA, where she lives with her dashing husband, author John C. Wright, and their four darling children, Orville, Ping-Ping Eve, Roland Wilbur, and Justinian Oberon.
Her website is: http://www.ljagilamplighter.com/
Her blog is at: http://arhyalon.livejournal.com/
On Twitter: @lampwright4
Read the first four chapters of The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin for free: http://www.ljagilamplighter.com/chapter-one-the-treacherous-art-of-making-friends/
The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin on Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/The-Unexpected-Enlightenment-Rachel-Griffin/dp/1937051870