Ten Years of Stars Above
The whole thing started with a silly, harmless little role-playing game on the TV Tropes forum, though the fanfic didn’t officially start until almost a year later. I stumbled on it by chance; I did a search on TVT for Kagami Hiiragi from Lucky Star, my #1 Best Girl of Best Girls. Her name was in the title of the RP, and it had a small but dedicated page listing its tropes. Intrigued, I tracked down the forum thread and started browsing through the posts… and I was delighted to find that the person playing as Kagami had captured her character almost perfectly. On a whim, in hopes that I would get to interact with her, I joined in and started posting. Keep in mind, I had had some extremely negative experiences in group RPs in the past, so that I made such a quick decision to join this one should tell you something about the skill level of Kagami’s player. I was welcomed with open arms, and I spent a few months happily engaging in shipping shenanigans with the rest of the group. As I said, the thread was all very silly, comedic, and almost entirely plotless. In the meantime, I struck up a friendship with the Kagami player, Ashen Dream.
Then one afternoon in early 2011, I came home from my part-time job tired and irritable after a frustrating day. To blow off steam, I decided to introduce something to the RP that had never been seen in it before. I took the months-long running gag about Kagami and her twin sister Tsukasa being “the center of the universe” (because what little story there was up to that point revolved around them) and I made an honest-to-god plot out of it, complete with the sudden appearance of a horrible monster that attacked the twins, a development that was played for as much drama as I could get out of it.
Again, this was completely unlike anything that had been seen in the thread up to that point, a 180 from its usual insanity. It was my way of venting my frustration after a difficult day, so I expected it to be just a one-off thing. Instead, in the RP’s discussion thread, I was surprised to find widespread praise for my contribution, and a number of players asking where it was going to go from there. The seeds were sown. Ash and I began collaborating on future events, culminating in an epic battle against a ravenous horde of extradimensional monsters. After that, I thought I was done. This was around mid-March of that year.
And then Puella Magi Madoka Magica happened.
I’ve written before about the profound and personal impact PMMM had on me. I’ve written before about how despite hearing that it was “dark”, I checked it out anyway, both because buzz about it was growing and because some of my favorite people in the industry were involved in it. I’ve written before about how in a span of 48 hours, I went from mildly curious about it to counting it as possibly my most beloved anime series ever. The instant the credits finished rolling on episode 10 (the latest one at the time), I knew that I had just seen something that I would remember forever… It was the same feeling I had the first time I finished watching Princess Mononoke, a massive headrush of awe and new inspiration that’s only happened to me a handful of times. I was a devoted fan… and Homura Akemi (whom I remember initially dismissing as “just another edgy, emotionless type, a Rei Ayanami clone” when I started the show) was now one of my favorite characters in all of fiction.
So in the weeks-long interim between episode 10 of Madoka and episodes 11 and 12, caused by the devastation of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, I had to satiate my fervor for the series somehow. Introducing Homura into the RP seemed to me a natural step, so I did. Likewise, having her interact with Kagami struck me as totally reasonable… my two Best Girls kicking ass together? Of course! Never mind that PMMM is a dark psychological drama / cosmic horror series and Lucky Star is a slice-of-life schoolgirl comedy. Never mind that both series have almost nothing in common aside from sharing one voice actor (my beloved Emiri Katou) and revolving around casts of Japanese schoolgirls. I wanted it to work and Ash was game to try, so we resolved to make it work. And soon we found that not only did the two click together in the weird little story we’d developed… they had chemistry that neither of us could deny.
Many of the other players disagreed. They didn’t much like the darker tone we were pushing, or that having Kagami and Homura as a couple threw a wrench into their all-but-confirmed-canon relationships with Konata and Madoka, respectively, in their own series. This conflict with the other players eventually led me and Ash to part ways from the RP in August of that year, and that should have been the end of it.
And yet. The ideas we had come up with still had so much appeal. We had the basic workings of a potentially great story here, and we felt that it would be a waste to let our hard work fall by the wayside. I don’t recall exactly, but I’m pretty sure I was the first to suggest turning it into a fanfic. I do remember saying to Ash: “If we’re really going to do this thing, we need to go all in. This won’t be just another lazy mashing together of the two series… it needs to be epic, as awesome as possible.”
We talked it over for most of the following month, hammering out a rough path forward. Ash decided to write an original story called Nil based on the framework of the plot. Meanwhile, I resolved to take the plunge and go ahead with the first chapter or two of the fanfic, gauge the reaction from the readers, and decide what to do from there. Ten years ago today, I hit the publish button for Chapter One of Stars Above… a placeholder title which I thought had a nice ring to it. At the time, I had a very rough idea of where I wanted the story to go, but my approach was “make it up as you go and see what happens”.
That all changed when Ash emailed me with a new concept. We both knew that PMMM’s story was loosely based on Goethe’s Faust, she said… so what if we based ours on Dante’s Inferno?
I mentioned a few paragraphs back that there are rare and wonderful times when the dam bursts in my head, and a tidal wave of inspiration and ideas washes over me all at once. Ash’s email was one of those times: almost instantly, I had a real framework for the plot, I had my villains, and I had my ending. I’ve learned over time to trust my gut instinct as a writer most of the time, but this time that instinct was screaming at me: “This is perfect. Even if you plot for years, you will never come up with anything better than this, so go for it.”
And the result, my friends, was Stars Above: thirty four main chapters, two spin-offs plus bonus material, three-plus years of work, 120% of my effort, and one of the proudest achievements of my life. It was the first time in ten years that I’d given my creative all to something that wasn’t Tasakeru, my original fantasy novels… that was almost unthinkable at the time, but look where it got me. We set out to make something epic, and by most accounts we succeeded.
In essence, the above paragraphs have been a very, very long introduction to prepare for writing about what Stars Above means to me, and about the surprising developments that happened over those three-plus years… so please bear with me, this thing isn’t over just yet. Stars Above was a new experience in many ways. I consider myself a hopeless romantic in the dramatic sense, but in real life? Absolutely not. By most standards, I’m a very strange choice to write a story that was intended from the start to center around two characters falling in love. Many readers wrote in to marvel at how we were able to make the relationship work, but if I’m being honest here, speaking as the one who did the majority of the writing: I think I can attribute the success of Kagami and Homura—and all of the cast, really—to the strength of the characters. Talent obviously had something to do with it, but especially with the two main characters… I can tell you that their voices were always crystal clear in my mind, from beginning to end. I rarely ever had to wonder “Is this something she’d say? Is this something she’d do?” because I connected so deeply with them that my first instincts were almost always the right ones. I wrote with the kind of confidence I wish I could summon at will, and the words just flowed out of me until the story was done. Element after element clicked into place like puzzle pieces, and it all came together in ways I couldn’t have foreseen when I started.
On a related note, there’s Desideria, the Second. I’ve mentioned this in other places before, I think, but Desideria was not originally intended to be the story’s main villain. Ash and I wrote about half of the plot with the intention that she would be the second-to-last of the Demons of the Nine to die. She was to be the most visible face of the Nine, and thus front and center for most of the story, before being killed off in a spectacularly gruesome (but satisfying!) manner to make way for the Ninth to emerge as the true threat. Desideria herself derailed that plan; I always intended her as a thoroughly nasty character, but when writing her interactions with the heroines, I actually ended up disturbing myself with the depths that she sunk to. She was one of those rare characters who wrote herself and ended up going in a direction I never expected. Clearly, she struck chords with the readers, too: by the time we hit the halfway point, I was getting comments along the lines of “Desideria is a fantastic villain, but holy shit I hate her so much. I want her to die horribly.”
This, I realized, presented a problem. No matter what awful things the Ninth did, he would inevitably be overshadowed by Desideria, and the final battle against him would seem like an anticlimax by comparison. And yet, I already had her death scene planned out and foreshadowed… As I wrote to Ash in a panic, “We’re in trouble: Desi is a better villain than the Ninth will ever be. I’d have her kill him and take over, but I can’t cut her death scene. What do we do?” It took more than a month to think of a workaround for that problem, but was it worth it in the end? Hell yes it was. I got to have my cake and eat it too.
And oh, that final battle with her. On a frigid late-January weekend in 2014, during which our house was snowed in by a massive blizzard, I had a surge of motivation the likes of which I’d never felt before and haven’t since. In what I can only describe as a frenzy, I wrote something like a hundred pages of the finale in three days, working almost all day the whole time and only stopping occasionally for food and sleep. Fight scenes are normally the bane of my existence because I can’t stop myself from being self-conscious about them dragging, but this one! Once again, my gut instinct kept screaming “Go with this, go with this!” and the results… well, I reread Chapters 29 to 34 again quite recently, and I found myself amazed at how well everything worked. There are minor grammatical issues and things I’d tighten up, but all these years later, I’m still proud as hell that I pulled it off.
That last sentence really sums up Stars Above in a nutshell. For one of the only times in my life, I not only saw a project to full completion, but it turned out pretty much exactly the way I wanted it. I got my epic story, and I got my perfect ending. That so many people told me they got emotionally invested in the story, that over a dozen of them said the ending made them weep… well, I’d call those added bonuses, but that’s vastly underselling it. Stars Above was a gamble from its inception: a crossover between two beloved but radically different series. A continuation of one of those series, which many consider to have a perfect ending. A romance between two characters with almost canon love interests. A collaboration between two creative minds. On top of that, a story that contained mature content, which carries its own set of risks. I started out wanting to tell the story primarily for me (and Ash, of course), but expecting other people to care about it? I thought I knew better than to hope for that.
You all proved me wrong. Every one of you who told me the story touched you, every one of you who wrote in telling me to keep on going because you had to see what happened next… you all proved me wrong in the best way. Without exaggeration, you changed the course of my life. My crazy little idea from a silly little RP thread became something that I consider a personal masterpiece, something I’ll be proud of for the rest of my days.
When I hit the publish button ten years ago today, I had no idea what would come of it. And though many terrible things have happened in the decade since… Stars Above will always be a highlight of that time. I consider it one of the best things I’ve ever done.
Thank you to Ash, for lighting the flame. Thank you to Drake, my beta reader and my best friend, for giving me a fair evaluation of pretty much every word I write. And finally, thank you to all my readers, everywhere. Go forth, and if you remember nothing else I’ve written here, remember the Virgil epigraph I used to open the final chapter: “Omnia vincit Amor; et nos cedamus Amori.” For those of you who don’t know Latin: “Love conquers all, and we, too, must yield to love.”