Friday, November 16, 2012

Making Mountains Out of Molehills

Yes, we have more guest posts today!  The latest installment of commentary is brought to you by Ezn, fanfic author and an occasional reviewer himself.  Also a hipster, I guess?  I was instructed to type that.  Anyway, click below the break to see what he has to say about originality in fanfiction, and extrapolation from canon.

If I were to put myself in a box fanfiction-wise, it'd be a pitch black box with jagged red stripes across it, wings taped to the sides and a horn glued on the front. I would call this box the OC box, and within its foul depths, I'd happily tap away at the fanfiction I write most commonly – stories about original characters.

You see, until very recently (around eighteen months ago) I did not like fanfiction at all. It always used to be something I imagined I might like – perhaps in an ideal universe where everyone who writes can write and Firefly got six seasons and another movie – but every time I tried to read some I managed to find the worst tripe imaginable. Eventually it got to the point where seeing a cartoon character's name in the middle of a wall of prose made me reach for a sick bag.

But, well, there was a time in my life where I didn't think I'd be unironically watching a cartoon about colourful horses learning about friendship. Things change in the most unexpected ways, and a few months after I started reading fanfiction (mostly six-star fics on EQD) I got this idea in my head that hey, I could probably write some of this stuff decently well.

So I tried to write a fic. It was gonna be an episode-style adventure or something. I tried to type out the name "Twilight Sparkle" and have her do stuff on the page. I felt as dirty as the thoughts you just had about the second half of that last sentence. Try as I might, I simply could not bring myself to play with Studio B's toys.

That might have been the end of it, but I kept on reading fanfiction, and so the desire to write it stayed with me. Eventually, I gave in and attacked it from another direction. Instead of using the characters, I'd just use the setting. I'd invent my own characters, just as if I were writing an original work, and put them in Equestria.

The result was Long Distance, a novel-length adventure story that's had modest success. Amusingly enough, it's more about my extrapolations of what the lands around Equestria might be like than Equestria itself, based on the small details we've been given in canon. From Spike's rampage in "Secrets of My Excess", I invented a dragon culture that highly values self control and has an aversion to the exchange of gifts or currency. From Zecora's rhyming, I created a zebra culture that emphasises the importance of thinking before you speak (and drove myself crazy writing all those couplets).

Demetrius, a friend and Long Distance's editor on /fic/, called this "making mountains of molehills", and it's one of my favourite things about writing fanfiction. Even in my original works, I generally need a prompt to get going, but once I have that prompt to wrap my mind around, I can grow all kinds of things from it.

And what is Equestria but a miserable pile world of prompts? The show drops little, tiny shreds of information about its world in almost every episode, and you can get endless amounts of inspiration by just asking yourself a few questions about them. Where do griffons come from? What kind of monsters are kept in Tartarus? What happened the first time Discord was turned into stone? Why is that green unicorn sitting funny? It was when I discovered the sheer amount of fun you can have with this stuff that I finally got fanfiction.

What's more, because of the show's delightful mish-mash approach to setting (princesses and dragons in one episode, DJs and fashion shows in another), you can be perfectly justified in answering any of those questions with a lot of different types of fics. Everything from serious fantasy like It's a Dangerous Business, Going Out Your Door to slice-of-life storytelling like Tangled Up in Blues to zany comedy like Do Not Serve These Ponies fits pretty snugly.

In his guest post, John Perry called fanfiction an act of writing within constraints. I take the opposite view – your fanfiction is like a plant that grows outward from the fertile soil of canon – although some fics are more like weeds (zing!). It boils down to the same thing, of course – ultimate freedom is often just as paralysing as a total lack of freedom, and you can't build something out of nothing. No-one can work in a vacuum, and what is fanfiction but normal fiction that's more blatant (honest!) about where its inspiration comes from.

So go out and ask the questions those little bits of the show pose to you! Take a scene, or a snippet of dialogue, and completely blow it out of proportion. Then dig a monocle out of your Halloween costume box, warm up your best posh British accent and call your Derpy/Madam Le Flour shipfic a "thought experiment".

Because that's fanfiction.


Thank you, Ezn, for sharing your thoughts.  The way in which inconsequential asides from the show can inspire sprawling visions of literary artistry (or of any other medium, for that matter) never ceases to amaze me.


  1. This man.

    He gets it.

    On this day, we are brothers.

    1. <3

      Precisely what I would expect from the author of Right Before Your Eye, a fic about an animation error.

    2. You just...

      You still...

      Oh my god, come here and give me a hug. ;_;

  2. On one hand, this is exactly the kind of extrapolation I like to use, but on the other hand it's also the source of some of the things I most dislike about fan-fiction.

    Sure, there are lots of thing to reference in the show, but when it is done lazily, it really turns me off a story. Too often, I can see it used only as a reason not to have new ideas—a crutch, instead of an inspiration.


    1. There's a certain type of fic that's so desperate to convince me that it is indeed about MLP:FiM that it has its characters reference every inconsequential gag in every episode at every opportunity. Example: Past Sins and things like Fluttertree. Doing this sort of thing makes Equestria feel like a dead world, where nothing happens outside of the episodes we see. It's also just plain uncreative and boring.

      I think the important thing is to be transformative about your references – make something your own instead of just leaning on its unaltered form.

  3. I agree with this blog post completely. Some of the better works I've read in this fandom are ones that did this mountain/molehill thing, and there are more and more of them every day.

    Why, just yesterday I found a fic that posits the question "What is Sweetie Bell kicking that zap apple tree and getting herself shocked gave her the power to temporarily turn things rainbow coloured with magic?"

    The fic is called Zapfilly, and the answer to that question is, "She becomes a superhero".

    I just love how out there some of this stuff is.

    1. Hey, thanks for pointing me to that fic. I checked it out and it look quite fun. Think I'll follow and see where it goes.

  4. I like your description of the OC box, Ezn. It's both slightly unsettling and intriguing!

    While I'm here I might as well say I agree with a lot of what you mentioned after the OC box as well. One of the main things I like about the show is that the background characters all seem to have their own lives, and are always seen doing their own hilarious activities outside the confides of the show's plot instead of just standing around as filler. It gives a strong sense that there's more to the world of the show than the show is actually showing, and personally I don't see why anyone would even want to stick with the main characters when they've got so much else to work with. When it comes to fan fiction, the less defined the character to begin with, the better. I say let the actual makers of the show build their world how they want. Meanwhile the rest of us can play (politely, of course) with what they've made in our own unique ways. It's like brain training for something bigger! At least I like to think of it that way.