Friday, June 22, 2012

Stories About Ponies Are Stories About People

And now, it's time for a few guest columns.  First up, we have the inimitable Cold in Gardez, author of too many great fanfics to list (though you can check them out for yourself on his fimfiction page), who has provided some insights into what makes for a story, pony or otherwise, work.  Also, he's got a few fanfic recommendations, some insight into modern politics, a bit of self-inflated humor... look, he's pretty much produced the total package in terms of guest posts.  Find it all, after the break.

When Chris offered me the chance to post a guest blog, I knew immediately what I wanted to write about: myself. So get ready for 20 pages of fawning, adulatory reviews of the entire Cold in Gardez canon!

Wait, that's not what you're here for? Are you sure? I mean, we're talking some Grade A story meat here. Well, how about 10 pages of reviews... Still no? Okay, fine, have it your way. We'll go with Plan B, “Stories about ponies are stories about people.”

“What the hell does that mean, Gardez? Are you talking about HiE fics?”

Ugh, no. Well, technically yes, I'm talking about all stories here, but let's pretend HiE fics don't exist for the next few minutes. They're almost always full of pandering and wish-fulfillment fantasies rather than actual stories.

And we're here to talk about stories. So buckle up.


The fine people at Hasbro and Studio B have done us a wonderful favor: they've provided us with a lush story world, memorable characters with strong, distinctive personalities, and enough background for us to explore for years. It's a wonderful world to adopt as a writer.

When you pick up your pen (or keyboard, in our case) with the intention of creating a story, you might have all kinds of goals in mind. You might have an idea for an adventure, and cast the ponies as heroes and villains. You might want to create a backstory explaining the creation of Equestria and how the princesses came to rule. You might want to explore one particular character by putting them in a difficult or even terrible situation and seeing how they react. You might just have a good joke in mind, and want to get some laughs.

I've done all those things. Some have worked better than others – for some reason people seem to like my comedies. If you're curious, the secret to my comedies is simply: create an absurd situation, put otherwise rational actors in it, and see what happens.

All those things are well and great and true. If you can make someone smile or distract them from the cares of this world for a little while, you've done a good thing. You are an author.

But what if you want more?

What if you want your stories to mean something? What if you want to write a story that sticks in someone's head, long after they power down their computer for the night?

Well, now you have a new goal. You're trying to make the reader ask a question about what it means to be human.

That is the ultimate goal of writing. It's why books like “The Grapes of Wrath” get studied in literature classes instead of something more exciting. It's why Shakespeare is still studied a half a thousand years after he lived. Immortal scenes like Hamlet's soliloquy, “To be or not to be,” force us to confront the value of our lives weighed against life's inevitable suffering.

That's kind of ambitious for someone who writes about magical ponies, huh? Well, chances are, none of us are going to be the next Shakespeare. What we can do, though, is write stories that are meaningful to us, and meaningful to the huge and diverse community of MLP:FiM.

Let's see some examples from a few of my favorite stories.


Device Heretic's Eternal is one of the better known stories in the fanon, and for good reason. It's well written, enchanting, ambitious, and tugs at our hearts with a bit of shameless sentimentality toward the end.

I won't spoil the plot here, but the basic premise of the story is the concept of immortality, and what it means for beings like Celestia and Luna to watch everything else wash away in time, but to live on themselves. Can beings who exist on such a fundamentally different plane as mere mortals still form connections such as love? Should they even try, knowing how all such relationships will end?

During the course of the story, Twilight has to make a choice: try to help her mentor, Celestia, and perhaps find some closure for herself as well, but at the cost of extreme personal risk. Numerous times she is badly hurt, both physically and emotionally, but she always presses on. Every time she is confronted with a choice to stop or continue, she chooses to continue.

We call this a “morally significant choice.” Forcing your character to make a morally significant choice is often the bedrock of a story. It's what puts character ahead of setting. It is fundamental to good story telling.

Morally significant choices involve risks. To use an extreme example, jumping on a grenade to save your battle buddy is a morally significant choice. But they can also be the choice between speaking up when you know something is wrong, or merely staying silent and avoiding friction. Virtually every one of Shakespeare's tragedies was founded on one of these choices:

In Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark has to choose between pursuing vengeance for his father or letting the past lie dormant. He chooses vengeance, and everything that follows is a consequence of his choice. Everyone he loves dies because he chose vengeance.

In Romeo and Juliet, the two lovers decide to elope, despite the opprobrium of their familes. Again, everything else in the story is a consequence of that choice.

In the Scottish play, Macbeth betrays and murders his king, because he desires that power. Once again, everything that happens is a consequence of his choice.

Obviously, the consequences shouldn't always be death (much less in pony fics). That was just Shakespeare's thing. For the most part the choices our characters make will have outcomes that result in their growth. Maybe not always happiness, but at least growth.

In Eternal, Twilight chooses to continue her suffering in the hope of helping Celestia. I won't ruin things for you, but her choices are fundamental to the outcome of the story.

The story also ends, a bit bitingly, with a contemplation on death. The value of a life, it says, can be measured in the effect of our lives on those we leave behind. It's an interesting and worthwhile meditation on a fundamental aspect of being human.

And remember what we said earlier? The best stories are the ones that make the reader ask a question about what it means to be human. Eternal does that pretty damn well for a story about magical pastel ponies.


And now for something completely different. Fallout: Equestria.  [Way to steal my thunder, Mr. Gardez.  -Chris]

As long as the entire Harry Potter series, no fanfic has inspired as much comment as Kkat's Fallout: Equestria. The premise is simply too bizarre. Magical ponies who love their friends, mixed with a post-apocalyptic nuclear nightmare.

And yet, it works. In its scope, its ambition, its wild imagination and its nail-biting adventure, it works. It is one of the best stories I have ever read. Not one of the best pony fics or best fanfics – one of the best pieces of fiction I have ever read.

But what makes it so great? To start, it's larded with those morally significant choices we mentioned earlier. The main characters, particularly our heroine Lil'pip, are constantly making choices that risk everything in order to achieve something good. In fact, there are so many choices that they begin to lose their impact after a while. By the end, though, the choices pile up and lead to one of the best climaxes in modern adventure writing.

But, beyond that, FO:E poses a fundamental challenge to its heroes: Do Better. Throughout the story they are confronted with the horrors of the Wasteland, a barren, desolate, brutal world created through the poor choices, incompetence, short-sightedness and general hatred of ponies (and zebras) who died over two-hundred years ago. Centuries on, the consequences of their choices are still ruining the world.

Do Better. The heroes and villains of FO:E have many of the same choices to make as their ancestors. If they embody the virtues the old world tried and failed to uphold, they might have a chance to fix the Wasteland. If they can't; if they do the easy thing rather than the right thing, then the Wasteland rolls on for another two centuries or longer.

The shadows of the past fall upon the present. As I write this, in Afghanistan, I'm part of a war effort that spun out of decades of neglect and poor choices by everyone who has crossed through this part of the world. If we can do better than the British or the Soviets or the Mujahedeen or the Taliban, then maybe Afghanistan will have a chance to be a better place. If we can't – if the Afghans can't hold together the country we forged for them – then the mistakes of the past will proceed into the future.

Can we do better? Every day I ask myself that question. FO:E succeeds as a story because it hinges on that fundamental desire. Even though it's a story about ponies, it's primarily a story about being human.


Finally, a short piece by a friend of mine, Drakmire. I think he's posting a guest blog of his own here, so be sure to say 'hi' to him in the comments.

For Those We Left Behind is a twofold story about something we all have to confront at some point or another: the death of a loved one. It is also about the particular grief we feel when we realize we didn't value someone enough in life, and that now it is too late to change.

One of the odd things about the MLP series is how Twilight grew up. Her parents raised her for a few years, but the moment she displayed a special talent for magic, Celestia essentially adopted her. We only see her parents in a single flashback scene. In short, Twilight traded her parents in for something better and never looked back.

It kind of hurts when you put it that way. And in FTWLB, it's not until Twilight's mother dies unexpectedly that she realizes just how little she knew her parents. She only learns that her parents found a new 'surrogate' daughter to fill the hole in their heart when she returns for the funeral.

This story makes you ask yourself a question: if I lost someone I cared about tomorrow, what would I regret not doing? Should I have talked to them on the phone last week? Visited for a holiday? Told them how much I loved them and appreciated everything they did for me?

Again, the best stories make us ask questions about ourselves. About what it means to be a human. This one succeeds because it asks a question that is simple, universal and profound.


Up in the title I said “Stories about ponies are stories about people,” but what the heck does that mean? Simply put, if you're an author, don't write about ponies. Write about humans who happen to inhabit the forms of ponies. Write about human needs, wants, fears and complaints. Write about the little things that make humans tick. Write about the relationships humans have. Write about people.

It doesn't matter, in stories, what shape the characters are. Stories about vampires are ultimately about sexuality and aggression. Stories about werewolves are about our bestial nature, always hiding beneath the surface. Stories about ghosts are stories about our fear of death. Stories about aliens are about the ultimately unknowable nature of other people, into whose minds we cannot peer. All these stories are about people.

Stories about ponies are stories about people. They may be four-legged, in pastel colors with horns and wings, but their desires are our desires. Their fears are our fears. Their stories are our stories.

They are, simply, us.


  1. Looks like our guest spots are off to a great start.

    I loved all the stories you recommended here, and I agree that they fit the theme you are trying to present in this column. I wish I could add more, but...I honestly never used the same mindset when I was writing. I was just trying to stay somewhat in character while still expanding on what the show gave me to work with.

    Maybe I should take this to heart. After all, this idea worked for Eternal, and that's one of the best stories around. Meanwhile, the only thing of substance I've ever produced was My Little Alicorn...

    I think I want to hang myself.

    1. Oooo, I almost read that before I started writing. I think I was put off by that interpretation of Luna, but now I might have to go and read it to see if I can make you squirm!

      Don't worry. You'll have your revenge soon enough...

  2. Without meaning to get in DH's face about it, I still have some issues regarding Eternal. Leaving out the storytelling elements that didn't work for me, I think the whole premise actually undermines your presentation of it as morally significant. Twilight, as a character, is always going to ride to Celestia's rescue, and it makes it hard to see it as a tough choice. That and it cops-out on any sense of consequence. Fun read and all, but I don't think it fits the topic.

    FO:E...over 9000 yeseses! I'll leave the real commentary until Chris' blog post.

    FTWLB: Ahh, yes, read this off the Fiction Vault. As I said there, a little too trim for may taste (although I might just be jealous at that), but a perfect example of the topic at hand. Reflecting on decisions made can be more powerful that following the decision itself, and Drakemire captures that very well. One of the few really short stores that made me take notice.

    In general though, yes, absolutely agree about ponies being people. When we create something, it is naturally imbued with our essence, whether it be ours personally, or society's as a whole. I mean, if Animal Farm can be required reading at school, the mask clearly isn't any impediment to the subject behind it.

  3. Fantastic post, Gardez. It's something that I not only wholeheartedly agree with but something that I think every author should take notice of.

  4. Funny that this should come up today! We were just talking about the Bard on the fanfiction forum yesterday!

    I'd have to argue that comparisons with Shakespeare's plots being any good are probably gonna be kinda silly, since he pretty much plagiarised or *cough* "appropriated" those from other plays. The devices and choices and conflict and shit are not really the most important part of his plays, anyway. The whole dealio with Shakespeare is that the dialogue he wrote is fucking BRILLIANT. Like holy shit.

    Thou detestable maw, thou womb of death,
    Gorg'd with the dearest morsel of the earth,
    Thus I enforce thy rotten jaws to open,
    And in despite I'll cram thee with more food.

    So. Fucking. Badass.

    Also, dick jokes. (The best part of reading Shakespeare, imo.)

    O wall, full often hast thou beard my moans,
    For parting my fair Pyramus and me!
    My cherry lips have often kiss’d thy stones,
    Thy stones with lime and hair knit up in thee.

    XD He's my hero.

    1. I will never understand why anyone likes Shakespeare...

    2. Shakespeare is one of those things where how good it is depends wholeheartedly on how good whatever production you're watching is. His plays are generally open and incredibly vague on just about every detail, so it's easy to adapt the story to whatever mood, message, or setting you want and have to make only minimal changes.

      Now reading Shakespeare? I never really understood the appeal. Reading a play period always struck me as a bit odd, to be honest. Plays are things that should be watched, not read like a regular novel.

    3. Well that's the most sensible opinion on Shakespeare I've read in a LONG time.

    4. "I will never understand why anyone likes Shakespeare..."

      Dude wrote some of the filthiest jokes I've ever seen, and if you can read about descriptions of someone's hairy balls in quatrains and have it be classy, then fuck. I don't know how anything can top that.

      When Mozart wrote that canon about anal licking, my guess is that he probably trying to top Shakespeare. He didn't quite succeed, but it was still a very admirable attempt!

    5. "He's my hero."

      Explains so, so much! XD

  5. Dammit Gardez, how are any of us supposed to follow that? : P It's like having Arcade Fire open for your sad two-man indie act. Might as well just pack up and go home, 'cause there ain't gonna be no matching that.

  6. You copied a bit of this from Raven's interview, you cheaty cheating cheater-cheat.

    But I still like it. If someone tries to ask me a serious question about writing it's usually your ideas I steal ¬_¬ And you're totally right. Ponies are just people wtih four legs, and that's how they should be written.

    Well, not literally like that, because then all ponyfic would be some hideous combination of spiderses and arthouse cinema, but you know what I mean.

  7. Let me just say, for the record, that Equestria is anything but a "wonderful world to adopt as a writer".

    I mean, it's a great place to visit, don't get me wrong. The colorful, happy ponies, the mythological creatures, the magical adventures: that stuff is all great. But when you start trying to codify things, write them, suss out what happened when and attempt to make sense of everything, that's when you realize, this is no gift.

    This is a nightmare.

    Between the one-off inclusions, discrepancies between episodes -- I'm looking at you, Mysterious Mare-Do-Well! -- and outright contradictions, Studio B's lack of foresight and planning leaves any fan creationist (who, admittedly, actually cares about canon) in a real jam. It's nerve-wracking trying to keep straight the myriad iotas that pop up during the show, waiting for the wrong person to come along and point out the tidbit you overlooked that suddenly deflates the entire purpose of your fanfic. Good God in Heaven, it's awful.

    I can't wait for there to be no more show so that I can settle down and say, "This is Equestria!" Only then can I write in peace.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Heh, my thoughts exactly. Origin and backstory fics are so much harder when you have to think of a way to suddenly include a whole new race *coughchangelingscough* into your nice clean headcanon.

    3. Oh, Celestia, yes! We need a Unified Pony Theory to explain all the contradictions and illogical chains of events in the show!

  8. "It's why books like “The Grapes of Wrath” get studied in literature classes instead of something more exciting."

    Good sir, are you implying that Steinbeck is not exciting? If so, then I must respectively disagree with you.

  9. Equestria daily has ceased to use star ratings. all star ratings have been deleted. all the already 6 tagged stories still keep their tag. I'm sorry for you. I wished to, one day, have my fic reviewed by you.

  10. Of course:

    Delving into character is something we should all be striving to do in our stories whether we're aiming for the heights of Shakespeare and Steinbeck, the middle ground of Dumas and Wodehouse, or somewhere else entirely.

    And a little of it goes a long way, too: I mean, my absolute favorite character moment in any Pony fic I've yet come across is a couple of paragraphs in the middle of Cloud Wander's altogether splendid "Jeeves and Wooster" pastiche The Rummy Business of Old Blooey.

    The story's a straight-up comedy, but the scene where Barney Trotter, arriving at the Grand Galloping Gala, reaches the head of the reception line and looks up to greet Princess Celestia, that moment is absolute magic. In just a handful of sentences, we get exactly what it means to Barney that Equestria's Sun Goddess is smiling at him, knows his name, and truly wishes him well. It's a perfect little bell in the midst of the typical Wodehousian stumbling and leaping about, and it just lights up the whole story from that point on.

    On the opposite side of things, Applejinx's Trixie's Magic Bit is as X-rated a piece of fiction as I've ever read, but the character moments make it well worth braving the oozier parts--I actually wrote a whole critique of the story a couple months ago when Chris put up his post about "Guilty Pleasures" in Pony Fanfic, so I'll just refer folks back to that.

    For a third example--since, to be honest, the three stories Mr. Gardez cites, I've discovered, largely do nothing for me--I'll mention Twilight's List, a lovely little novella by Kits. The story grows so organically from the characters of Twilight Sparkle and Rainbow Dash that it single-handedly made me re-examine my feelings for the whole idea of shipping in this fandom: used to be I didn't understand how anyone could imagine a romantic relationship between any of these six characters, but now after this story, the concept is starting to make sense to me a little.

    So please: don't just limit your use of the tips Mr. Gardez is offering here to stories that you want to resound down the ages. Treating your characters as if they're real people can spice up any sort of fic!


    1. <3
      I'm glad you found my work, for lack of a better word, convincing.

    2. Oh, more than that.

      It started me thinking, y'see, and when you issued your contest call over on FimFiction the other day, well, I'm afraid I found myself outlining a story... :)

      Mike Again