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.
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!