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.