I will never actually copy & paste the scene that I’m thinking of from my old high fantasy series, but wowza, it was just Helm’s Deep almost identically. (I won’t share it because that is some olddddd writing, and I’m not about to subject anyone to that.) For a long time, I had a rule that I was only allowed to write one battle while it was raining because I just wanted every battle to be Helm’s Deep. And while I definitely don’t have this problem as much anymore–partially because I don’t write high fantasy as much anymore, so I’m not in the LOTR mindset of wanting everything to be Middle-earth–it still creeps up every once in a while, and it begs the question. What is the difference between inspiration & impersonation?
I mean, we do actually know the difference, conceptually, but the practice of it is much harder.
the process of being mentally stimulated to do or feel something, especially to do something creative
an act of pretending to be another person for the purpose of entertainment or fraud
I’ve told the Saintsverse story before, but the tl;dr of it is that I went to bed on a Sunday after finishing Crooked Kingdom, and I woke up on the following Monday with a brand new character in my head. At first, Landon was pretty much a carbon copy of Kaz. He was roguish, had that stupid buzzed on bottom big on top hair, dressed all in black, and was overwhelmingly angsty. The rest of Landon’s crew was very similar, too–Miles was Jesper, Vivian was Inej, Madison was Wylan, and Ezra was no one actually? I didn’t have a Matthias & Nina character, and I want to say that the impersonation vibes only lasted for about a week.
It makes sense, though, that I was mostly just impersonating Bardugo when I was first starting out with Saintsverse. My biggest inspiration was Six of Crows, shortly followed by Peaky Blinders, which ended up inspiring a lot of the setting & atmosphere, so, when I first started figuring out these characters and this universe, it was just this weird mashup of Kaz Brekker meets Tommy Shelby with heavy religious vibes and a lot of criminal activity, and that sounds terrifying, actually.
The thing is, if I’d just said alright sounds good and went on my merry way, Saintsverse would be a much different book. It would read almost identically to SOC, or at least echo back to it so much that people would be giving me a weird head tilt of nope. But I knew that I was being heavily inspired by Bardugo & Shelby, so I dug a little deeper and tried to figure out what made them different.
Sure, Landon still has that haircut, he dresses like an edge monster, and he broods a lot, but he’s also very devout, drives a motorcycle because he needs to feel alive (what a moron), he’s got magic that connects him to the earth, he’s really just soft instead of mean, and he’s gay as all hell. I’ll never deny that Landon wasn’t inspired by Kaz & Tommy, but is he either of them anymore? Not even close. Kaz is a spiteful, traumatized little bastard, which is, uh, actually exactly how I’d describe Tommy except swap spiteful with rage-fueled, wow they’re awful, and Landon takes baths with herbs in them and likes oranges and has baking wars with Miles. It’s gross, and I love him.
There are two different books that I think could hold up against both inspiration & impersonation really well as examples. (One of those is not a compliment.) And, look, I get it. Lord of the Rings is one of the definitive works of fantasy, FOR GOOD REASON, and it’s hard to not want to copy it. I unabashedly stick Aragorn characters into every book that I’ve got, even if they get whittled down to resemble something much different. (Does Landon want to be King of the Saints? Hell no! Does he do it anyway because it’s the right and good thing? Ya boy is sad about it, but yeah.) Someday, I am going to write a villainous mlm romance that’s on par with Morgoth & Sauron, just you wait. (Oh my gosh, do it, you won’t, I WANNA!)
There have been many books that have directly copied bits of LOTR, too–I’m looking at you, Christopher Paolini–but there’s one that stands out to me that was very clearly realized it was in danger of impersonating and flipped the script instead.
Honestly, Onyx & Ivory by Mindee Arnett is really more of a love letter to the Rohirrim than anything else. Given that she’s a horse person, I’m even more inclined to believe that half of her inspiration for this duology was just her love of horses, too, but there are definite heavy LOTR vibes going on throughout this story, but in a way that is very clearly inspiration and not impersonation. Because while the people in here are nomadic and their land mirrors Rohan almost eerily, there’s also a lot that’s different. Arnett took that inspiration of the way that the Rohirrim move through the world and are effected by the politics of the grander cities, and she infused it with her own ideas in such a way that both modernized Tolkien’s original concept and expanded it so that it fit in the current atmosphere of high fantasy books.
I’ll forever recommend Arnett’s duology both to LOTR fans and not. These books are exceptional if you haven’t read or don’t enjoy Tolkien’s world, and they stand apart from it in ways that feel honestly above and beyond what most YA high fantasies are doing these days. (This should probably be classified as NA, now that I think about it.) And, if you are a Tolkien fan, this feels like the same kind of overwhelming swell of magic that we feel when that Scandinavian fiddle hits its peak during big, bold Rohan moments.
On the flip side, there’s a book that I don’t really want to promote, but I do want to talk about how much of a mirror it is to Shadow & Bone, so I’m just going to quickly say that Emily A. Duncan’s books have a lot of really terrible issues, and one of the non-important ones is that Malachiasz is literally the Darkling. Not even reimagined, that’s just who he is. Was Duncan inspired by Bardugo’s original trilogy? 100%! She just also copied so much of it directly that it teeters into impersonation, and it’s not a good look.
However, I’m kind of shooting myself in the foot here because there is an example of what reads as impersonation that I really like. Lyra Selene’s duology is, much like Arnett, a love letter to tropes. It’s such a ridiculous, over the top story, and it is literally overflowing with tropes. You cannot go into that story looking for something serious because, although Selene definitely tries to be serious, it’s just so much that it ends up being a little hilarious. I think, too, it’s because Selene is so honest that I like the impersonation in it.
There is zero percent chance that Sunder is not a literal copycat of Draco Malfoy, and you know what? Selene fully admits that. She writes in her acknowledgements about how much she was inspired by Draco’s character, how she’s flailed over countless Drarry fanfictions, and how Sunder (this is definitely not verbatim, but implied) was her fangirl self writing the Draco that we all hoped was real deep down. And Sunder really is the fanfiction Draco that we all collectively dreamt up, but it works! Because the book sits heavily in trope land, because it’s so honest about its absurd levels of purple prose, because it just blatantly says yes I wanted to write a Draco character, it really, really works.
I do think, however, that that’s the only way impersonation is ever going to work. Don’t get me wrong, I love The Inheritance Cycle, but Paolini literally just rewrote LOTR and tried to pretend he didn’t, and it aggravates me to no end. The flip side of that, too, is that Claire Legrand literally copied frame-by-frame Gandalf riding down into Helm’s Deep and dropped it into Lightbringer, and I’ll never forgive her for that. At least Paolini kind of tried to change his impersonation and make it a little better? Legrand didn’t, and it was lazy, messy writing. (More on this later. Next month, to be exact.)
When done right, inspiration is honestly really endearing. The first half of Northanger Abbey continues to make me cackle with delight because Jane Austen so clearly loved Gothic horrors and thought they were a bit ridiculous, and she wanted to showcase that complex love of them. It works so well, and it’s so fun, and I love seeing that inspiration there so much. It’s when inspiration crosses the line into impersonation that it just doesn’t work, so if you’re inspired by a story that has dug its claws into your heart, remember to step closer to your own story and see how you can hold onto that inspiration and not let it go any further than that.