Friday, November 23, 2012

Ignore Any Reports to the Contrary, This Post Always Had a Title. Also, Happy Thanksgiving! Also Also, Guest Post

I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving!  Yes, even those of you who don't live in countries where it's celebrated--may your Thursday have rocked hard.

I, of course, was doing a lot more turkey-eating and football-watching than fanfic-reading, so today we have another guest column!  Returning for his second guest post is Pascoite, author and reviewer of note.  Pop down below the break to see what he has to say about understanding and respecting the characters you write about, as well as a bit about the appeal of writing MLP fanfics specifically.

What is it that's drawn us to these silly colorful ponies and, more to the point, to engage in the serious business of writing (hopefully) genuinely good stories about them? Of course, I can't speak for everyone. I've actually spent quite a lot of time thinking about this particular question.

I happened into this fanfiction community by accident. I'd never had the least bit of interest in fanfiction, despite being a fan of two universes that have very large fanfiction communities: Star Wars and Star Trek. It had always been my opinion that the vast majority of fanfiction was crap, and was a thinly-veiled excuse to invent relationships between the characters, include the author in their adventures, or worst of all, both [And sadly, you'd be correct... most of the time.  -Chris]. To be honest, this fandom hasn't changed that opinion. But there is an amazing structure here to help each other improve and promote what is good. It certainly seems extraordinary, and while I can't speak from experience to say that MLP is unique in that regard, it's the overwhelming opinion I hear.

I'd argue that the single most appealing thing about a universe is the cast of characters. In this aspect, MLP has done a wonderful job. I'll come back to this point a bit later.

Once you've got the characters, what do you do with them? Let me single out Star Trek as an example. What is the appeal of MLP fanfiction over Star Trek fanfiction? For me, it's a question of scope. Fanfiction supplements what we already get from the source material. And enjoyable though MLP is, it does a fairly limited job of covering different types of stories. Star Trek has it all. Do you want to see those interesting characters in an adventure? The show has that well in hand. Likewise for drama, romance, horror/thriller, comedy, mystery, etc. If I want any such plot, the show's already done it, and (arguably, with a few exceptions) done it better than I ever could. I'm not going to produce anything that the show hasn't already, unless I just have a need to see some specific plot line play out.

MLP does not have much of that covered. Comedy, sure. Adventure, yes. Romance, barely. Horror? Tragedy? No. If that's what I want from these characters, fanfiction is where I must turn. It fills in what the show can't or won't. But of course, I won't have any interest in seeing those niches filled if I don't care about the characters. While it may be true in a few instances that a completely action-oriented story can be enjoyable without ever delving into the characters involved, the opposite is most emphatically the case: a character study, which gives us a very thorough picture of the character, but in which very little happens.

Now, I'm really going to try not to spark a "best pony" argument here [Thank you.  -Chris]. But I do want to look at our main characters a bit and see what makes them so interesting. The long and short of it is that they have more depth to them than most cartoon characters do, and their personalities are, for the most part, realistic, if exaggerated.

Twilight Sparkle is extremely knowledgeable and powerful. In my mind, canon is pretty inconsistent at painting her as socially awkward. In the pilot episode, she runs away from a party invitation, and she occasionally is a bit geeky, but she's also the one who wasn't afraid to approach Zecora. She's confident in her abilities, but not so much in displaying them publicly.

Fluttershy shrinks away from... well, everything. Except when she's in her element. She forgets herself and becomes quite different. I've also seen a lot of headcanon explanations of why she represses herself—a lot of things having to do with her learning to stifle her opinion since she's been conditioned to feel it's worthless. I don't really buy that, but I see that it's a reasoned argument that could work.

Pinkie's nonsensical and random, and yet she has some of the greatest insights. And she has the ability to tone it down when she sees the need, like when she was babysitting.

Rainbow Dash has extreme apparent confidence, and isn't afraid to show it in front of people whom she doesn't feel the need to impress... but doesn't mind doing so, either. She seems nervous about actually achieving her most heartfelt desire, though, when that confidence would serve her most.

Applejack, of course, tells the truth, but she's not played to the extreme, where she would be honest past the point of tact. She's also not above playing semantics and skirting the issues when it suits her purpose. Her level-headedness makes her the most practical one, which is probably why she's one of the least popular. People don't want practicality in their fantasy world. She's actually a close second for me. Go figure.

Rarity is the one I find most complex, and I know that's not a popular opinion, either. But it makes her the most interesting to me, and the most fun to write. She has a great eye for fashion, and isn't loath to point out a faux pas to one of her friends, but it's never for the purpose of putting them down in order to boost her ego. Her next instinct is to remedy the situation, even at her own expense. Now, they did ruin her a bit for me in how selfishly she acted in neglecting her design for Twilight's birthday dress and getting Spike to give her the gem he'd been saving. But here's the personality type that by all rights should be exerting mental cruelty on everyone around her. And yet she really does want the best for her friends.

Each one of them is a wonderful study in contrast. They're not one-note caricatures that say their catch phrase and leave. That alone makes them standouts as cartoons go, and frankly as television in general goes. They're walking contradictions. In other words, they're relatable, realistic, believable, human.

It should come as no surprise, then, that some of the most crippling mistakes that writers can make are ones that short-change the characters.

First, a writer must understand the character—see what motivates her, what makes her tick. If there's not a plan for how the character responds to events, then she's just being molded for convenience to fit the plot, and it will show.

Telling instead of showing also degrades the character. I discussed this topic in my previous guest column, so I won't rehash what show-versus-tell is and why it's important; I'll just discuss how it impacts characterization. Showing not only gets the reader to deduce what might have been stated plainly, which makes him think about the character, but also invites him to poke around in the character's head a bit more as long as he's there. A lot of the nuances that showing should use, like body language, mannerisms, posture, and facial expression, can speak volumes about not only what the character is feeling, but why. A telly statement communicates only what it says on its face, but good showing allows a writer to imply so much more, and even opens the reader to go far beyond what the writer envisioned. Each reader can personalize the character and form an individual connection to the story.

The other big one is a pet peeve of mine. The two types of story that most require an emotional connection to the character are romance and sad. What makes the character behave the way she does when confronted with either of these situations is an important facet of her personality. And yet so many writers skip over that development altogether. We don't see the relationship develop; we are just presented with the happy couple and are assured that it's completely believable. We don't see the sad situation unfold; we just see the character in full angst mode from the outset.

I consider this to be the cardinal sin of romance and sad: the relationship or the tragic circumstances themselves are neglected. They should be as multifaceted as a character and developed with the same care. Don't just dump me into TwiDash. Show me how they grow those feelings for each other from their canon friendship. Don't just put a character at the bedside of a dying friend. Show me their time together, the full extent of what their friendship means, so that I know exactly what it is that's at stake.

There are some exceptions. If the relationship is incidental to the story, especially if we're well past its formative stages, then it may not warrant that much focus. Or if the sad situation involves canon characters, such that the reader should already be well-grounded in the nature of their friendship, the background of why they're close isn't necessary. But if a romance is important to the story, build it from the ground up. I have to believe it's as real as the characters. And give me the background of the sad scenario. I need to see the characters' feelings about it develop so that it feels authentic.

After all, the journey is often more interesting than the destination.

Writers, we've been given a great set of well-defined characters and a huge amount of unexplored territory for them. That's an incredible head start. Even if you prefer to work with background or original characters, there's already a basic concept in place. Do these colorful ponies justice by putting enough care into how you develop them. The results will be well worth the effort.


I'm definitely prepared to say that there exist segments of this fandom which are far more conducive to serious thought and to self-improvement (and not only in fanfiction) than I've ever seen anywhere else.  Thanks for the insights into characters and their use, Pascoite!


  1. You left out the heading, Chris. =)

    I agree with all of this. On the subject of Twilight Sparkle's social awkwardness, though, I'd say she's just more comfortable with constructive, purpose-driven interaction than socialising for it's own sake. She wasn't afraid to approach Zecora because she was doing it to extend hospitality to a foreigner and show her friends and the rest of Ponyville they had nothing to be afraid of. And she treated a slumber party as if it were some kind of ritual with specific steps to follow, which would then result in fun being had.

  2. I'm going to double-post because there are two things I want to address in this post.

    First, something I've been grousing about elsewhere: relationships. Let me lay out my opinion on the subject as plainly as possible.

    Shipping is a thing in fanfic. Every pony or character has been shipped with every other character by now. If they haven't, they will eventually. (I almost take this as a mandate.) With this in mind, it should not be necessary to justify any relationship in a story. Just understand that 'it's a thing' and you'll be set. (Admittedly, the importance of a relationship in a story is a good consideration to take into account in this, but through the arguments I've seen on this blog before today, no one has.)

    Maybe it's just a personal thing, but I'm rather tired of shipfics that end with two ponies kissing. It's like, okay, you got them to kiss, or say I love you, or get in bed together. So what happens next? How stable is this relationship, based on how you've woven it together? Not all ships are equal, and not all relationships are equal in approach. Necessarily, to answer this question thoroughly, a writer will have to give us indicators of how the relationship began, so the reader can evaluate where it's going and why. But no one does this! And, at least among shipping fans that I know, "now kiss" is generally considered a terrible way to end a story, so I don't know where this other directive is coming from.


    1. I guess that's the difference between being a fan of shipping and not being a fan of shipping? As someone who's not a fan of shipping, I can say that I have no interest in just accepting shipping as a thing. There's never been a time when I've clapped my hands together in glee at the thought of two characters from the show declaring their undying love to each other.

      And often shipping itself will be the result of weird a Relationship Writing Fumble, where you get the feeling the author shipped the characters together just because it was the most clear-cut way to show that they like each other a whole lot. There are so many great, complicated platonic relationships in all media (most of them shipped by fans >_>), but fanfiction overwhelmingly opts to "seal the deal" by always making the most important relationships sexual/romantic ones (because you can only be prepared to die for someone who's giving you sex), even when it doesn't make sense. So many times I've started reading something, seen a relationship develop, and then been utterly thrown when the characters start kissing.

      So, if I read a story about a relationship (which doesn't happen often, but I'm not entirely opposed to it all the time) it's because I'm interested in seeing how it would come about, and how it would play out, not because I already have a particular desire to fantasise about my OTP or whatever.

      Now, that doesn't mean a story has to be all about the inception of a relationship and end on "now kiss!" A story can be about the entirety of a relationship, or about the middle, or about the end. But surely -- if the story is even about the relationship at all -- surely some hints will be given as to why these two characters love each other in this particular way and (in the case of most ships) how their relationship developed from its original platonic form.

      Still, I think a good author can probably break Pasco's rule and drop us into TwiDash, work that chemistry magic, and make us feel it even without even being predisposed to. Making a relationship seem real isn't as much about building up a factual argument for it as it is showing us that the Twilight and Dash we know are in love with each other in a real, in-character way. But you don't always get that, because often the author's too busy presupposing you're as into their OTP as they are to really develop it or think about how it would work.

      On another note, incidental relationships in fics ("King Sombra has returned to steal Equestria's crystals, and oh by the way Applejack is going out with Screwloose now") often feel (to me) an awful lot like the author pandering to themself, which just makes for a weird vibe. Not usually a "drop this fic and never come back" one, but definitely very much a ">fanfiction" sorta feel.

    2. Imma echo this and add that, yeah. It's not so much that you need to show a relationship developing so much as you need to make it plausible and relatable. You need to show that a pair of characters have actual chemistry with each other, and make us feel what they feel, rather than just plonking us down into a situation and expecting us to care, simply because the author thinks we should.

    3. You know, up until right now, I thought shipping was a black and white thing. I've never heard someone say "I'm not a fan of shipping" without meaning "I do not like shipping and do not wish to see it".

      Personally, I'm okay with a >fanfiction sort of feel. But then, that's my take on fandom.

      Chemistry is a good thing to look at. I don't think a lot of shippers really deal with that. Immediately, it comes to mind in the context of Appledash, which was the first really popular ship back in season 1. Rainbow and Applejack do have a lot of chemistry. Despite being very similar in many ways, their on-screen rivalry offers a lot of material to work with if you want to develop a relationship of any sort between them.

      I would also point to relationships, and especially love, and the way they're portrayed in popular media. Far too often, "getting the girl" (or the guy) is the goal of a character in a romantic movie/book/etc. To someone who's not really experienced anything outside of that, ending on "now kiss" is perhaps the only way one can really end a romantic fic.

    4. Like so many other things, I feel that it comes down to the difference between shipping for the sake of shipping, and having a good idea for a story that is, or involves, shipping.

      One is invariably poor, the other at least has a shot, and occasionally gives us something nice. Unlike 'Alicorn Twi', or 'Wonderbolt Dash', for which I have yet to see a redeeming story.

    5. But the whole point of shipping is shipping! D: It's silly fun! I'm shipping rocks together, things like that!

      Granted, I make a distinction between 'shipping' and 'romance' when it comes to tags. Unfortunately, the fandom does not.

  3. Post #2!

    That whole first part of this post echoes something I've been thinking about lately, and this is just going to be me rambling most likely: what is it about ponies that's so compelling?

    I've liked other IPs. Yet I've only essentially written fanfic for two: Star Fox and My Little Pony. (Prior to ponies, I was doing something that was Pokemon-based, but not actually Pokemon as seen in the cartoon or games.) I've done one-shots for various other things (see also "A Horrible Self-Insertion Bleach Fanfic") when the mood strikes, but those are never lasting propositions, and most of them I haven't even published online.

    But I've been asking myself this question lately, without a satisfying answer. Why ponies? Why not Transformers, which I've been a fan of since I was like, five? (Disclaimer: due to peer pressure, I have been dabbling in Transformers fanfic lately AND I RESENT IT.) Why not Tale Spin, or Darkwing Duck? Gargoyles? TMNT? Maybe it's that I watched those when I was younger and less into writing. But then again, I liked all the Harry Potter movies, and they didn't move me to write fanfiction about... Well, okay, I can't even begin to think of what I could even write about, so there's that.

    I'm going to posit some solutions, but I don't think any of them will hold up under scrutiny, because it's not like they're exclusive to MLP:FiM.

    First of all, as Pasco said, good cast of characters. That's really necessary. Secondly, lots of worldbuilding. Thirdly, lots of gaps in that worldbuilding for us to fill in. Fourth, and perhaps most important of all, loads of contradictions.

    Is Ponyville a sleepy rural burg, or a burgeoning small town undergoing a growth spurt? Is Rarity a selfless martyr or a gold-digger? Or both? If King Sombra and Nightmare Moon were both initially defeated "a thousand years ago", what order did they happen in, how far apart were the two events, and did they have any influence on each other?

    This is the kind of thing that gets me writing fanfic. Maybe the question to ask is, what doesn't get me writing fanfic? Who knows? DISCUSS!

    1. The when I ask myself why I'm so involved in FiM fanfiction specifically, I'm doing so as a person who's spent a decent chunk of time involved in fanfiction, both as a reader and an author, for more than a decade. And when I think about the stories (and prior to this, it was always stories, not TV series) which I read and wrote about (LotR, Dune, Thomas Covenant, Foundation), it can be hard to see the connection. All the points you've mentioned are good ones, and for myself at least, I think accurate. I think it's worth mentioning the fanbase itself (not all of it, obviously, but the subgroups within which I usually move), which promote quality writing, constructive criticism, and intelligent discourse in general in ways I didn't find in previous fanbases where I wrote. Based on my limited experience, that's not exactly a common thing in a fanbase on any scale.

    2. I have to agree with Chris. You can find small subcommunities that are interested in quality writing in a lot of fandoms (and even more that pretend to be, but are more interested in snarking), but it's extremely rare to find such a healthy reviewer culture that spans throughout the entire fanbase. I'm sure it can happen in a very small fandom where the fanbase is something like 30 people who all know each other or something like that, but with a fandom as large as this one? With one that produces such an enormous volume of work? Unheard of!

      When I saw what came out of the community and how active and responsive it was to fan works, I transformed form someone who liked the show into someone who absolutely needed to get in on this shit right here and now.

      As for the other stuff, it's kinda funny you mention that.

      I had a conversation with another person a while ago, about how the Pokémon fandom used to be a lot more imaginative back when there was only a single game. Before you dismiss this as nostalgia speaking, or not attributing this to the fact that Pokémon was simply more popular in those days, there was literally a complete halt in the online rumours about new pokémon, "mew glitches", secret ways to get into Bill's backyard and that sort of thing the moment the second generation of games came out. I remember it happening, even at the time. Even my classmates stopped talking about it. And after we'd finished the new game, we didn't immediately start looking for new glitches or new pokémon either. We were content with what we had.

      Now as a phenomenon, it was so widespread and simultaneous that it was just eerie.

      When we were discussing it, we figured that since the original game had so little content, since we were too young to know how video games worked, and since we did not know that there was going to be more later, we tried to squeeze as much out of this one game (or two/three, depending on how you look at it) as we could. We invented all these new things and ways to get to imaginary parts of the game and "glitches" that would trigger spectacular and impossible effects because we literally had almost nothing to work with. We were trapped in a little room and desperately extrapolating whatever we could based on what little we had. When we got more, we were satisfied and didn't need to make our own adventures anymore. We knew we could just wait for someone else to do it for us.

      It's kind of the same with this fandom. Since the episodes are so character-driven, but there are hints of incredible worldbuilding, we're enticed to do our own. You know how in the first season how everyone would jump on every single background character and come up with huge amounts of fanon for them? How Derpy became such a thing, even though just one of her eyes was messed up, and it was only for like three seconds and you couldn't even see her?

      I think it's kinda like that but idk.

    3. I would compare that to season 1 vs. season 2. I always say you should never let canon stand in the way of a good story, and that canon screws are simply obstacles to be written around, but even though S2 and even S3 already have provided a lot of material to work with, it's just not the same. The show doesn't feel as fresh or open anymore.

      The point about the fandom is a salient one, I think. Beyond Star Fox, I've never been involved in a fandom apart from this one. Furry fandom doesn't count.

    4. I think there is something more for your Pokémon case than it simply being the first.

      I have been involved on-and-off with the Zelda Fandom for a very long time. And while Ocarina of Time wasn't the first one launched, or even that I played, I distinctively remember it being the one with the most fan speculation. Sure, you have some for all the other games, but it simply isn't the same. And no one can argue that the first four games were not popular.

      Similarly, there is not a lot of MLP fanfics based on S1 things like the buffaloes (Seriously, is there even a decent Little Strongheart fanfic?), or S2 like the dragons, but some other characters end up being used a lot more, like S1-ners like Gilda or S2-ers such as Flim and Flam or Fancy Pants.

      I believe that this happens because eventually a series will create something that fulfills a specific niche, and later, even when a similar concept is revisited and improved, people will simply tend to gravitate towards the original incarnation when they need to refer to that kind of things. You could certainly go seeking for Mew or Missing No. on Pokémon Gold, but why would you do that if Red is also available?

      Even more, this kind of things build on itself. Why go thinking about where the Triforce is in Wind Waker, if there is hundreds of precedents for this kind of story in Ocarina of Time? In a way, it is like the mindset that leads Hollywood to make tangential stories with existing characters, instead of creating new ones more fitting to that setting.

      So in MLP, when you need to tell a story about a failed show-pony you would most likely choose Trixie instead of Iron Will, or use Screwloose instead of that Barking Pony as a kind of Mental Case. Sombra will probably be forgotten or sidelined, since stories of corruption can be told using Nightmare Moon, and of evil using Chrysalis.

  4. I am always interested when it comes to people's interpretations of Rainbow Dash. I can never see confidence when I see her character, only low self-esteem and and the drive to cover it up with arrogance and attention-seeking.

    This is why I absolutely cannot get my head around RD-based shipping. It's impossible for me to empathise with anyone thinking she's relationship material. More often than not, she makes me want to punch her on the nose just by speaking.

  5. >I'm definitely prepared to say that there exist segments of this fandom which are far more conducive to serious thought//
    Chris, we're all grown men (well, most of us) spending hours and hours in a fandom about multi-coloured talking magical ponies who live in a town called 'Ponyville'. The serious talk keeps our egos intact, hahaha.

    1. I want to be a grown man one day. *snipsnip*

    2. You'd just settle for human, right Sess?

    3. I would have to get a soul first. :3

    4. I'd give you mine, but I sold it to Satan a long time ago (true story. Don't ask)

    5. I know someone who, when she was ten years old, schemed to sell Satan her soul. The logic was that, since she was a child, and since children were innocent, her soul would be extra valuable, thus Satan would pay even more for it.

      So she makes up a list of all the things she wants, makes the demands very reasonable, and then right before bed, when she should have been praying instead, she calls out to Satan and asks him to come and take her soul in exchange for all these things. She waits and she waits and she waits.

      He never shows up.

      She feels more betrayed at this than about anything that had ever happened to her in her very short life. X)

      Moral of the story? Satan has a very unreliable delivery service.

    6. I once sold my soul in my high school in a game of monopoly. It was my last week at that school, and so I really wanted to win. I *was* winning, but I was running out of time, so I offered my soul for Mayfair.

      Three turns later I had won the game.

      (I still have a photo of the contract I signed, hahahah).

    7. That's pretty genius. My demands tended more towards the fantastic, and my contract was written in invisible ink on cardboard

    8. Well good for you, Mystic, because I just lost the game.

  6. I like to think that happens with FIM too. No one seems to jump on new background ponies too often anymore. Which is a shame because there were some real cool ones that just passed us by.

    But yet, all these ideas that we came up with keep sparking more ideas in an inverse vicious cycle of sorts. Whatever you call those things.

  7. This blog isn't seeming like one man's pony ramblings anymore.

    Not that I'm complaining.

  8. Hmm... I think you're right, Pascoite. Rarity is the best pony.

    1. There you go with your nonsense phrases again (though this one's clearly not a palindrome, so I don't get it). How can Third Best Pony be Best Pony? :3