Monday, November 5, 2012

Creativity from Constraints

Once more to the guest posts, dear friends!  Today's commentary features John Perry, author of too many popular works of ponyfiction to list here, including one (Rest Stop) which I've already reviewed on this blog, and another (Trains, Carriages, and Airships) which is upcoming.  Click below the break to read his thoughts on... well, it says it right there in the title, doesn't it?


I can’t tell you how honored and giddy I felt when Chris asked if I would like to do a blog post here. I’m a big fan of this blog and the intelligence and thoughtfulness its readers consistently display. And though I don’t comment very often (because if I did, most of my comments would just be “I haven’t read that story yet” or “I agree with you 100%”), I’m a regular reader. So I was thrilled to have this opportunity.

Chris offered me pretty much free rein to talk about whatever I want, so long as it had to do with the fandom or writing. But what could I write about? Well, Arcanium and Inquisitor M already did a great job talking about this fandom, so I figured I could leave that alone. Should I write about what makes a good comedy? Or maybe I can write about my idea process? Or maybe about my favorite stories? Or…gosh, there’s just so much I could write about! I don’t even know where to start!

Which is the perfect lead-in to the subject of my post: creativity from constraints. I think this is especially relevant to fan fiction because a lot of fanfic authors are trying writing for the first time, and in these formative years new authors need help figuring out what works for them and why. And sometimes having the most flexibility leads to the worst results, as counter-intuitive as that sounds.

Now, like a good academic who wants to sound more credible to his peers, I’m going to start off by quoting someone famous and respectable:
“I’m a real believer in that creativity comes from limits, not freedom. Freedom, I think you don’t know what to do with yourself, but when you have a structure, then you can improvise off it and feel confident enough to kind of come back to that.”
- Jon Stewart, in an interview on Fresh Air

Here, Jon was specifically referring to the day-to-day routine in making an episode of The Daily Show, distilling the day’s news headlines into a few comedic skits. But the larger principle is one that’s pretty easy to apply to fan fiction, and it manifests itself in virtually every aspect of it, from the plot to the characters you choose to how or when you write.

Of course, this debate over constraints vs. freedom isn’t new to art, and which side you’re on depends on your own personal inclinations. Some people are just naturally creative when they have no or few restrictions, while others (like myself) need some kind of pre-existing structure to work with. The kinds and extent of these limits is also a major factor. But I still think it’s useful to talk about, because it says a lot about how you think as a writer.

Firstly, it’s worth pointing out that any fan work is by its very nature a derivative work. Even if your MLP story uses original characters and employs a completely different tone from the original work, chances are you’re still doing things like, say, setting it in Equestria, or incorporating magic and other fantasy elements. At the very least, your MLP story is going to have ponies in it (and if it doesn’t, you’re trying to appeal to the wrong fandom).

This is the great thing about fan work: it allows a potential artist to fulfill that creative urge by giving them a place to start, a canvas framed by a few overarching elements (e.g., PONIES!). I think this must be what distinguishes works that have huge, loyal fanbases like Star Wars, Harry Potter, Doctor Who, or Friendship is Magic. It’s not that these works are the best; it’s that they give their audience a great world to play in. Me, I can name several cartoons off the top of my head that I think are far superior to FiM, but none of them inspired the creativity in me that FiM did.

So let’s say you’ve taken the plunge into one of these huge fandoms. It produces tons of great fan fiction and has a large audience hungry for more. Now you know where to start, but with what? There are still so many possibilities open to you. What in the wide, glorious universe of this fandom are you going to write about? This is where fan fiction prompts can be your saving grace.

Strangely, even though I’m someone who finds creativity in limitations, I don’t usually take advantage of fanfic contests or prompts. I think the reason why is because I have just enough energy to finish one story and then feebly grasp an idea for my next, like a kid slowly making his way across the monkey bars. In fact, I’ve only participated in one fan fiction contest. But that one time was the very first pony fic I ever wrote. Granted, it was very bland and poorly constructed, so much so that I’ve done my best to banish it from my memory (fortunately there were a lot of entries for that particular contest, so I think I’m safe from anyone discovering it and using it to blackmail me [yes... completely safe... -Chris]). But that contest allowed me to try my hand at writing in a fairly low-risk way, which was a much better first experience than writing something amateurish and trying to submit it to EQD would have been. If you’re ever stuck without a clue of where to start (like me when I was trying to figure out what to write for this post), it’s a great way to get the wheels in your head turning.

One area where I’ve given a lot of thought to the matter of limitations is in what kinds of characters I use. With original characters, the advantage to them is that you have complete freedom over their creation. However, the disadvantage is…you have complete freedom over their creation. And creating a good character from scratch is really hard. You have to consider whether they’re compelling and believable, and even after you’ve got your character established you have to make sure your portrayal of them is consistent as the story progresses. This is why I really admire writers who are at ease with using original characters and are good at it. This is also why OCs have a bad reputation in the fandom, because a lot of new authors don’t appreciate the difficulty that goes into creating something from scratch. I’m always baffled by new authors who want to use OCs, just because using OCs brings me so much stress. With freedom comes responsibility, my friends.

So yes, between writing original characters or using established characters from the show, I definitely prefer to work with the ones from the show. That comes with its own set of challenges, namely making sure that your portrayal is faithful to the canon. But that’s a framework I feel way more comfortable under, because the work of establishing personality, traits and all those little things that go into a compelling character has already been done. At that point, all I have to do is make sure I don’t go out of character. However, my favorite characters to use are background ponies, because while they have fairly well-established fanon personalities, giving you a certain framework to work under, you’re allowed a little leeway since they’re not set in stone by canon. It’s why the Lyra in Harpflank and Sweets, the Lyra in Anthropology and the Lyra in Background Pony are completely different characters, but they still all work.

Limitations can also really help in establishing the structure of a story. Probably the biggest mistake a new author can make is to shrug and say “I’ll figure it out as I go along.” The few times I have tried to just wing it, it turned out to be a real nail-biter. I definitely don’t recommend it for the inexperienced. A lot of this just comes down to planning ahead, but that self-imposed framework, where you figure out a basic outline for your story and then stick to it, can do wonders for the writing process. Just like Jon Stewart said above, having that structure that you can come back to and improvise off of can really help.

Speaking of Jon Stewart, let’s wrap this up by getting back to what he was referring to in that quote above: finding creativity under a routine. For fan fiction, this usually means finding the time and willingness to write in your schedule. This plays a huge role in every writer’s process, but it’s one we don’t always think about because that trade off you’ve made, spending time writing rather than engaging in another activity, isn’t something that shows on the surface of your work. So, if you’re the kind of person who’s more creative working under limitations, then does that mean you need to adopt some rigid schedule where you set aside a specific time to write?

Not necessarily. Like everything else in life, finding that ideal place between total limitations and total freedom is a balancing act. For some people a rigid schedule works, but for others (like myself) just because you can set aside the time doesn’t mean you’ll be creative when it’s convenient, and if you’re a procrastinator like me you’ll wind up doing nothing. It’s times like this where I love bringing up the concept of structured procrastination, the brainchild of a modern-day philosopher who shares my name, John Perry (and yes, I found out about this by Googling my own name – don’t act like you haven’t done this!). The elder Mr. Perry explains this better than I could:
The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.
What I love about this concept is even if you’re someone who puts off things until the last moment, you can still take advantage of that and apply a framework to your process (for instance, I wrote this when I really should have been working on a paper for my class). If you’ve ever set aside time to work on your fic and then found yourself unable to write anything, I’d look into this.

As the length of my post shows, I’ve managed to ramble on about this debate and apply it to a wide range of factors. That’s what Chris gets for giving me free rein! This is where I’ll stop and let you pick up the conversation. How do you function under limitations, and how do you apply it in your writing? Share your thoughts in the comments! Plus if a lot of people comment, it might convince Chris that asking me to do this was a good idea.


Thanks for the insights, Mr. Perry!  And on the subject of creativity from constraints, there's something I'd like to mention to everyone before they skip down to the comments and fill our guest commenter with a sense of validation.

I know I'm a little late to the party on this one, but authors: it's not too late to write something for the Hearth's Warming Care Package!  It's not often you get a chance to write fanfiction for a good cause, and doing a good turn for a young child who's fighting cancer certainly qualifies as a "good cause."  The deadline is November 10th, so you've got just under a week.  All the details are in the linked-to press release.  So: go, go, go!


  1. Good discussion!

    A point you raised was the essentially derivative nature of pony words, regardless of how similar (or not similar) they may be to the tone/style of the show. I find this to be an interesting idea because I have long conversations with myself about it far more often than I would like to admit.

    When I began writing pony fiction, I started very close to the show and slowly moved outwards in terms of the connection between my content and the show's. Natural progression, perhaps? However, now I frequently have to stop and ask myself at what point am I so vastly disconnected from the pathos of the show that I am lying to myself by calling it pony fanfiction? If someone writes a novel in a crazy sci-fi setting and makes the characters ponies instead of humans almost as an afterthought (they might chuck in a mention to the Princesses now and then, just coz), can they still legitimately call it pony fanfiction?

    Not entirely on-topic, but I still haven't come up with an answer, and it's bugging me.

    Also, Jon Stewart, marry me. Please.

    1. I'm going to quote ipgd for this, and also straight up Strider's Edge as well.

      "'Why not make it an original story inspired by homestuck instead of fanfiction tangentially barely related to it?'

      because the nature of the whole work is derivative

      the parts that aren’t homestuck are from something else

      he could have stripped the names and passed it as original work if he wanted to, but i think the knowledge of its composite parts and how they relate to the whole has value in itself. what does the label “original” really add to it? is there really that much of a difference in value between microscopically derivative fiction that doesn’t speak of its inspirations openly and a piece that identifies its sources and makes active literary commentary of them

      the concept of originality is all sort of a willful farce to begin with"

    2. “Did any Greek poets before Theocritus write about the countryside? About farming and shepherding and whatnot?”

      “...yes. Hesiod did, I suppose. But that’s a bit different.”

      I was uncomfortably conscious of Terezi, hunched in her chair, avid, waiting to strike.

      “How is it different?”

      “Well, Hesiod was writing didactic poetry – giving advice to his audience on how to farm or plough or breed goats or whatever. He wasn’t idealising nature, he was actually trying to provide practical help for people who lived in the country.”

      He tipped his head back slightly and began to recite, displaying once more the frightening extent of his memory. I was grateful he’d opted for the English over the Greek.
      “’At the time when the goldthistle blooms, and the chirping cicada
      Sits in the tree and pours forth its clear song unceasing
      From beneath its wings, in the weary summer’s season,
      At that time goats are at their fattest, wine at its best,
      And women at their most lustful – but men are at their weakest,
      Since Sirius scorches their heads and knees,
      And their skin is dry from the heat. So at this time
      Let there be a rock’s shade, and wine from Biblos...’
      Deeply practical advice, I’m sure any farmer would agree. No rose-tinted spectacles there.”

      Terezi laughed. I began to feel the familiar flush of stupidity creeping up my neck and face.

      “Do you know the first description of a countryside scene in Greek poetry?” the colourless voice continued inescapably. I didn’t.

      “Iliad 18,” said Terezi, taking her cue as ever from my silence. “The decoration on the shield of Achilles.”

      “Exactly. The oldest Greek poem of them all. In which we see, among other things, young men and women singing and dancing in a vineyard while a youth with a lyre plays charming songs. Should we conclude from this that the average farmstead in Homer’s time would have employed teams of lissome professional frolickers?”

      “No,” I said, in a desperate attempt to rally, “because Homer wasn’t writing about his own time, he was writing about Achilles’ time, when everything was better and brighter and nobler – ”

      “More ideal, in fact.”

      I knew when I was beaten, and said nothing.

    3. “Do not allow the ancients’ obsession with establishing beginnings, points of origin, founders and discoverers, to blind you to the reality,” Scratch said mildly. “There is little or nothing, in art as in life, that is truly new. Nothing really begins, just as nothing really ends. Every scene we read has been written before, at a different time, with different characters. Configuration is all.”

      “So we shouldn’t bother with modern literature, because it’s just ancient literature done over again?”

      “Not at all. How many people through history have said ‘I love you’, John? It’s hardly a masterstroke of dialogue. Each time we say it, it’s in quote-marks, whether or not we wish to see them. And yet I’ll warrant that if and when you say it to a young lady – or a young man – you’ll mean it quite as much as it has ever been meant, and the recipient would be most unwise to dismiss it on the grounds that it’s not original material.”

      “But you can’t say nothing really begins,” Terezi said suddenly. “Things begin all the time. There wouldn’t be anything if nothing began.”

      “When did you begin, Terezi?” asked Scratch.

      There was a silence.

      “The genetic material which created you came from dozens if not hundreds of other trolls. All the parts of Terezi Pyrope, all the code that makes up her message, existed long before she did. And yet you are.”

      “Then I began when they came together to make me,” she said.

      “But that’s not a beginning. That’s a coming together. That’s a configuration.”

      Even Terezi seemed momentarily off-balance.

      “Allusion, imitation, intertext, mimicry, quotation. Everything that can happen is either a visual or substantive reproduction of something which has already transpired. Life is a game of cards. All of the cards have been there from the start, and they cannot be damaged or destroyed by anything we do. The only power we possess is that of choosing the order in which we play them.”

      I wasn’t entirely sure who Scratch was talking to any more. I shot a glance sideways at Terezi, but she was rapt and attentive.

      “In just the same way, Theocritus leafs through the photograph album of Greek literature, picks out his favourite snaps, and shuffles them into a new order. The configuration he chooses then becomes an image of its own, which future authors can deploy. But that image contains nothing new. It is only the sum of the images that came before.”

    4. Come to think of it, I think I did the same thing, Mystic. Most of my first works were slice of life fics where I tried to hold very close to the tone of the show, and in general as time has gone on I've moved further away from that tone. I think that's a natural progression - as new authors we haven't yet developed the capacities to really mess around with that canon story, and as time goes on we start to gain that familiarity with the characters and setting that we're willing to take it to a different level.

      Sessalisk seems to have taken the "there are no original stories" approach. I'm not going to disagree with that, although I think fan fiction is still distinct not just in that it actively uses characters and/or settings from another work, but it often requires familiarity with that work on part of its audience. A fic where it's just humans turned ponies is not just incredibly lazy, but it fails the audience's expectations. We're an in-crowd, and as such we look for those nods to the canon work, even if they're subtle and the tone is very different.

    5. I have decided that this conversation makes me feel better about my tenuous links to the show's tone, haha.

      Then again, for me, it's write what you enjoy. That's the most important thing.

    6. S'not so much that there are no original stories, but that there are no original ideas. It has all been done before, countless times in countless ways.

      The thing is, all stories except the directly plagiarised are original in their own ways way. Originality and meaning lie in the execution and configuration of the ideas, rather than whether this character or that setting is borrowed. If you're writing original fiction that's set on earth, it's not like you invented the setting of earth, did you? If you make up your own world, unless your novel is nothing but incomprehensible postmodern gibberish with no characters or plot, it will likely contain some degree of real-world physics, borrowed character interactions, or real-world logic, none of which you invented. On top of that, you will probably be influenced by the countless forms of media that you've consumed over your lifetime, worming their way into your story without you even realising it.

      Originality is how you write a story in the way that only you, and no one else, can tell it. Not whether you have elements that other people have used.

  2. I find that I work well under both conditions, freedom and limitations, but that limitations tend to bring out the best in terms of creativity. Doing things like trying to figure out how to undo a canon screw in a new season will always push one to question how and why, and then come up with a fantastic what.

    I love that idea of structured procrastination. I'm doing it right now, in fact, concentrating on long projects so that I can continue waffling over my Hearth's Warming Care Package story. D: A week? Oh god.

    1. As a corollary, when given total freedom, I tend to come up with things like "What if Fluttershy had a huge booger hanging from her nose and didn't know it?"

    2. ...

      Well... what IF Flutterhsy had a huge booger hanging from her nose and didn't know it?

      I wanna know what happens next! D:

    3. Yeah, see, that's what I get. I pooped out the first idea that came to mind and now I'm gonna have to write it. >.<

  3. Structured procrastination. If only I had heard of that while in college, I would have had the perfect excuse not to do my homework!

    Teacher: Why did you do this at the last minute?

    Me: Because it was important!

    Lately, I've set up a somewhat fluid schedule for myself in order for me to keep writing. I try to do a little bit each night, even if it's only 500 words (or less!) just so that I feel I've accomplished something. It helps lessen the load later on when I want to get my story done and there's only 1,500 words to go. Then, it's just a quick hop-skip-and-jump to the finish line!

    As for the limitations on writing, if it weren't for them, I wouldn't be writing now. The idea of me coming up with a brand new setting, with new characters and situations, is beyond my ability at the moment. However, give me a few established characters and key plot hooks, all wrapped up in a colorful setting, and then the prospect of whipping out a 50,000 word novella doesn't seem so daunting. Much of the work has been done for me. Not to mention a built-in fanbase eager to read whatever it is that I come up with.

    Nice post!

  4. Whilst I enjoy writing (or at least cogitating) main character stuff, I do find it restrictive in a slightly different way. When you add something new to a character (as most fiction should, in some manner), there well be many who say you're not staying true to the character, just because there isn't a direct frame of reference. The problem, of course, is that no two people agree on exactly what the foundations of that character are. Given my psychology and developmental philosophy experience, I can make characters do the strangest things and tie it in to their existing actions. Whether of not a reader understand it isn't my problem.

    Of course, it is in a sense, but I'm genuinely hard pressed to care when someone won't take the time to examine a different interpretation to their own.

    OC's, on the other hand, are a wonderful thing. It saddens me that they have such a poor rep, because in writing Luna's guards in my story, I absolutely fell in love with those characters and developed healthy and complete personalities for each of them. From the feedback I have received, it clearly shows, too. That's not even mentioning the evilgasm that is Sonata...

    On the whole, it may be easier to write scenes and narratives with established characters, but I think OC's make better stories, because explained properly, the discovery and exploration of their quirks and background can lend a kind of investment that pre-established characters will never touch.

    1. I admit, of the few times I've ever used OCs I became really attached to them. When you put so much thought and hard work and love into your creation, it's hard not to be proud of it.

      Still, I just wish new authors would recognize the work that goes into making a character from scratch. It's like watching someone who doesn't know how to play video games playing your favorite game. You're just sitting there screaming "NO!!! YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG!!!"

    2. I'm afraid I can't really comment on that. As a live/tabletop roleplayer of some twenty+ years experience, I can drum up new characters with little or no effort.

      I suppose there is something to be said for the time investment though. I may not consciously put effort into it, but I appreciate the value of allowing enough time for my mind to 'do it's thing' and complete the formula, rather than rushing an incomplete character.

      That said, you may be onto something regarding my Characterisation of Luna. With such a small amount of data to base her on, I really did put some effort into completely de-constructing her character and establishing a believable timeline that would be consistent with known history and the present as we've been shown it. That was a lot of fun, and I think I did a pretty bang up job of creating a deep and nuanced character that people could empathise with. Small amount of starting data, lots of available options. I guess that fits within your topic.

    3. Even if there isn't much of a time investment, there's still a thought investment. And with 20+ years of experience, that time and thought investment with each new work will naturally get easier, but there's still an investment. I'm willing to bet when you started roleplaying, you found it much more difficult to drum up new characters than you do now.

    4. Oh, sure. It's a learned skill, so much so that I use it almost subconsciously. My point simply being that I can't really comment on something I can barely remember NOT being able to do as naturally as walking.

      (Honestly, I'm probably better at it that walking. I certainly screw it up less!)

  5. Well, that was surprisingly relevant to my interests. When I first dabbled in fan fiction a number of years ago, I was struck by the "creativity from constraints" aspect of it. I likened it to building with LEGOs: the pieces were predefined, but you could put them together in clever, compelling, often unexpected ways. Much as I enjoy building worlds and characters of my own, there's a certain pleasure to be had in seeing what you can do with an established IP, especially one as delightful as FIM. Background ponies like Octavia and Vinyl are particularly fun.

  6. Canon and original characters each have their own difficulties. I've only written one OC as a major character, and it involved its own type of enjoyment. In my mind, it requires you to plan ahead much more and decide what your character's motivations are, his hidden life, how he would react to any given situation. You have to know him well enough that you could readily answer any question about him, even things that are well outside the scope of your story.

    I've seen other authors who play it by ear as the story progresses and "let the character write himself." While that can probably work for some people, it strikes me as lazy, and a justification for conveniently molding the character to fit events instead of making a realistic personality with reasoned, pre-planned motivations and attitudes.

    Mostly, I enjoy working with background characters, since some personality and relationships are already implied, but they're still largely a blank slate.

  7. Agreeing with Chris or not having read a story never stopped me from commenting. Maybe it should

    I'd just like to point out the obvious by adding that constraints should make sense. There should be some reason why it would produce good results, or at least is a purely arbitrary choice that only serves to narrow the list of possibilities without reducing a piece's quality. Restricting oneself to writing music using only dissonant intervals, for instance, is probably a bad idea

    1. This isn't related to John's post, but how does one quell the urge to write fanfiction? It seems like I'm coming up with new ideas everyday and it's getting really annoying. I blame Chris

    2. I have that same problem.

      The answer is:

      You don't.

      Or at the very least, don't write them all down the way I do. That way, you're likely to forget a few and thus will have less nagging at your mind at any given time.

    3. Dang, I really hope you're wrong. I'm also glad there's no one here named Dang, otherwise that would've been confusing. Wait, now it sounds like I was glad about something else... AARGH! Words are not my friends :(

      That was actually some pretty useful advice, as I've been thinking about posting my ideas somewhere for any desperate authors to take. Thanks for warning me against THAT mistake (now can you go back in time and stop me from telling anyone I'd put together a campaign?)

    4. He's right. The same divide seems to exist in roleplaying. There are those who just want to play, and there are those that want to GM who create stories and campaigns in their head constantly. Usually they have a dozen or so that they know they'll never get around to running, and that's not going to change until they loose interest in storytelling.