Friday, May 10, 2013

The Purpose of the Fandom

Guest post time!  This one comes courtesy of Present Perfect, who has the heady honor of giving me a couple days respite from typing up new posts.  Also, he's got some insight into the reasons for the existence of ponyfiction, and non-commercial derivative works in general.  Hit it all up below the break!

Upon being given a chance to write a post for this blog, I knew precisely what I wanted to write about. It's only after recent comments hereabouts that I realize there is no better time for me to talk about my strange pet theories than right now.

So let's begin with a thinking exercise. Take a moment and think over this question:

Why do we write My Little Pony fanfiction?

Answers I came up with in short order include "Because we're writers involved in the My Little Pony fandom", "Because I'm inspired to do so", and "Because it's fun". No doubt, you've come up with something similar (though, I'm sure, entirely cleverer).

Now how about this one: What's the purpose of writing My Little Pony fanfiction?

Or making any sort of My Little Pony-based creative work?

Or making any creative work based on any intellectual property at all?

What is the purpose of "fandom" as a source of derivative creative works?

Let me tell you what I think the answer to that one is.

There are limitations to paid creative works. Television shows have to run episodically, either 22 or 45 minutes at a time. Movies tend to be one-to-three-shot affairs. Video games are a whole other bag of muffins, narrative-wise. And when dealing with an IP directed at children, those limitations are joined by more, and greater: don't offend, don't challenge, be educational, sell toys. Each is a restriction on what creators are able to do, and while some can blossom under such confines, eventually whoever is financing a creative endeavor is going to bring some sort of hammer down and say, "You do this now."

In those instances where creativity blooms under duress, hints emerge. We, the fans, become privy to a broader world. We notice characters developing despite efforts to keep them static. We catch the details put in just for us to see. And then we take these details, and we run with them.

Fandom, in short, is tasked with pushing a creative world beyond the boundaries put into place on its creators. To bring it back to brony fanfiction in specific, we have no onus to be family-friendly, for instance, and can thus write about all the horse kissing and horse wars our little hearts desire. We can take characters from the show, or from other shows, put them in a box together and see what happens. We can delve the dark depths of characters' psyches, asking questions like "What was this character feeling when...?" We can find out what happens when they're dropped into, say, a science fiction warzone. As none of these are situations we can count on the show's writers to explore, we therefore have free reign to do so ourselves.

The flip side of this is -- and here I would like to emphasize that this getting deeply into my own opinion -- we should not be trying to do what the writers could do. Stories about the mane characters' families, their friendships, their typical lives in Ponyville are what we're likely to get more of as the series continues. This isn't to say that we should avoid writing in an episodic style -- and I welcome anyone to try; it's way harder than you'd think -- but that when we do, we need do so while tackling issues beyond those that are presented regularly in FiM, and in directions that they wouldn't otherwise be considered. (This is why I tend to get so down on "slice of life" stories; I don't want to spend time reading about something too similar to an actual episode.)

This changes, of course, once the show goes off the air. Then is the best time to go back and say, "Well, they never answered this question, so let's do it ourselves." The X-Files is a great example of this, a show that's been off the air for over a decade*. While it was running, your average fanfic dealing with Mulder and Scully chasing down a monster had a high chance of being negated by the show itself going off in the same direction. The only purpose of writing such a thing was generally to introduce one's own characters into the world (and we all know how that goes). With the show off the air, though, fans are free to invent and explore, filling in the gaps where the characters never went, without worry of "canon screwing".

So what do I mean by all of this? Go write something crazy. Shipping, grimdark, crossovers, alternate universes, stories where the mane six are all sharks: this is what we're here to make happen. So take lines spoken by Rainbow Dash and turn them into innuendo-laden come-ons. Explore what ponies would do with guns, or why ponies having firearms is stupid. Shove them into Columbia. Make them human. Do it with abandon, for no one but us has that freedom to do so.

So, if and when the time comes that Hasbro calls it quits, hopefully before the show has had a chance to get bad, then we can go back and say, "Well, Luna never interacted much with Rarity; what if she went to Ponyville for a spa day?" and write a little slice of life like no one ever had. But until that moment comes, why not go wild? Be bold, be brash, and above all, explore this wonderful world and these wonderful characters that we've been given to play with.

*Trivia time for those inclined: The X-Files is also another great example of a property whose creators ended up really showing their appreciation for their fans by working them into the show. The episode openings in season 9 contain lists of fan handles, and minor character Layla Harrison was named for a fan who died during the show's run. That fan also inspired the character's hero-worship of Mulder and Scully.


Thanks for the article, PP!  I actually disagree with most of what you said--I think that if a person is inspired to write a slice-of-life fanfic that maintains the show's aesthetic and uses its characters, then that can be just as amazing as anything else (and retroactive canon discrepancies don't bother me nearly as much as they do some people)--but the suggestion that it is the fandom's purpose to push past the limits which constrain the show is interesting.  With a modicum of power comes a modicum of responsibility, I suppose.


  1. The way I see it, unless your story is planned to be an alternate universe from the beginning, you should try to follow all of the canon as it stands when you started. You can add in new information and material as you go along, but if something does come along and invalidate the what? You're basically grandfather claused in. Just keep writing a good story and having fun.

    Basically, whenever you adopt a particular headcanon or are writing a fanfic, especially when the show's still running, you're playing Russian Roulette. Sometimes the chamber is empty, and the episode goes along without a problem. But every once in a while, you hit the loaded one, and your headcanon is splattered against the wall by the new canon. You can either try to scoop what remains of the headcanon into a bag and pray you can put it back together, or you can reluctantly accept the new canon and see how you can play around with it now.

  2. I have to take issue with the notion that you should only do something the show/canon material wouldn't do. I understand that you're not crazy about slice of life material, but personally, I started off in this community by writing a couple of fics that were trying their darndest to be like something you would see in the show. That turned out to be a great place for me to start, because I was beginning with what I was familiar with (the canon). In those formative fics, limiting myself to the themes and characters of the show, I was able to hone my craft a little before attempting something more difficult, like darker themes, original characters, or elements you wouldn't see in the show, until these eventually became my bread and butter. But starting with the canon material actually wound up working to my benefit.

    Plus, I think it's healthy to work with the canon once in a while, if just to re-familiarize ourselves with the original material. Oftentimes, we get so wrapped up in our own head-canon we wind up disregarding the show canon, to the point that we react to changes or revelations in the show with anger simply because we spent so much time charting our own course.

    This changes, of course, once the show goes off the air. Then is the best time to go back and say, "Well, they never answered this question, so let's do it ourselves."

    Again, I have to disagree. I don't think we should ever be afraid to write something just because an episode might come along that will negate our premise. If that happens, so what? Seriously, what are the consequences for your fic? Are we really so afraid of people pointing at our fic and saying "You can't do that now, the show said something different!" I see a little too much fear of being contradicted by the canon in this fandom.

    All in all, I find it rather ironic that while you're suggesting we take advantage of our freedom to write whatever we want given that we're not limited by the restrictions placed on paid creative works (a sentiment I can certainly get behind) you're also saying we should currently limit ourselves to that which the show can not possibly do.

    1. I have to agree with JohnPerry here. People can break canon so long as they advertise as such with the AU tag. The most I can say is that I'm not particularly interested in reading it, but I wouldn't go so far as to redefine "fandom" such that I thereby exclude them, much less imply that I condemn them for writing it.

      To ask the question "What is *the* purpose of the fandom?" at all is to make a huge error. There is no "one true purpose" to the fandom. Apart from having enough appreciation of the show's material to want to use it in a story, which alone can be motivated by anything from love of the show to a perverse desire to troll something popular, the fandom isn't homogenous in any sense. Unless the fandom is extremely small, no fandom in existence *can* be homogenous. They all have different reasons for being here, ergo there is no one reason that binds them to the show.

      I don't mean that I absolutely disagree with your post. It is a good opportunity for fanfic writers when they can do things the show writers daren't, and that is a big part of what the fandom can and will do. What I object to is trying to frame this as what the whole fandom should do, rather than as what part of the fandom can do due to advantages in their position.

  3. I don't think PP was saying we MUST break the canon mould, only that we SHOULD. And I agree!

    1. Every single poster above you criticized PP for saying that we SHOULD break the canon mould. And we're not criticizing him for pointing out that AU fics have a place in the fandom. What I at least object to is his putting an obligation on the fandom, presumably as a whole, to deviating from the source material, e.g. by writing family-unfriendly fics for a family-friendly show:

      "Fandom, in short, is tasked with pushing a creative world beyond the boundaries put into place on its creators."

      Not "Fandom is uniquely placed in being able to push a creative world beyond the boundaries, etc." He said "tasked". The fandom is not tasked with anything (and who, may I add, presumes to have the authority to task them?). The fandom can write AU or mature fics if it wants to - though good luck persuading me to read one - but it isn't TASKED to do so, and that's what I'm criticizing about PP's point.

      I'm saying PP had a germ of a good point in here - that fandoms have more literary freedom than the original writers to venture beyond the show's boundaries and should be encouraged to do so if they want to - but he wrecks it by imposing a modal verb like "should" as though anybody who writes Slice of Life fics with an Original Flavour is doing something inferior, at least compared with writing Grimdark sex fics using show elements. This is even more questionable when the whole business of writing fics is fraught with subjective taste, akin to saying all people should make cappuccinos when some of them prefer green tea.

      So, MUST or SHOULD, he's not cutting the cake for me either way.

    2. I don't know, it feels like you're putting your own negative spin on "should?" It's not an obligation, it's something that's good and right to do. It doesn't make not doing it any less good or right. It's an encouragement, a call to arms, not a denial of alternatives.

      I just feel you've all taken the most negative possible interpretation.

    3. The word you're looking for is "supererogatory". It's one of my favorites :3

    4. I don't know, it feels like you're putting your own negative spin on "should?" [...] It doesn't make not doing it any less good or right.

      Hang on, that isn't the meaning of should? Cause I can tell you, that is the exact meaning of "should" for me. If my mom told me "you should take out the trash," that was a pretty strong implication that not taking out the trash would be a bad thing.

      Even if we want to use your meaning of "should", I think everyone's argument still holds. Here's a direct quote from PP's post:

      The flip side of this is [...] we should not be trying to do what the writers could do.

      So by your definition of "should", what PP is saying is that is good and right to avoid trying what the writers could do. Which is exactly what we've been arguing against.

    5. Missed that sentence. Oops.


      (Also JP I phrased what I said about "should" badly - I meant that to me it appeared he was saying that going bananas is something that isn't done enough and should be done more, rather than that going bananas should be the one thing anybody does. Obviously that wasn't the case, but AGAIN IT WOULD'VE BEEN IF I HADN'T MISSED THAT SENTENCE SHH)

    6. "I don't know, it feels like you're putting your own negative spin on "should?" It's not an obligation, it's something that's good and right to do. It doesn't make not doing it any less good or right. It's an encouragement, a call to arms, not a denial of alternatives."

      I think there's a marketing term for this sort of thing, something that captures the notion of a high demand for a low or as-yet-non-existent supply. If PP had phrased it such that he was calling on those willing and able to meet that demand to increase the supply, then all would be well and good. He didn't have to knock other supplies in the process.

  4. Sorry Present, but I'm gonna have to agree with the others. Two things that we can count on are that the show will change and that it can never give us enough pony. I'd say that justifies writing episode-style fics

  5. >Explore what ponies would do with guns, or why ponies having firearms is stupid.

    I see what you did there...

    >Shove them into Columbia.

    The... District? The former space shuttle?

    I don't have a problem at all with slice-of-life stuff. I've read a number of them that are quite enjoyable. And while I agree that the fandom should do things the show can't or won't (and wrote as such in an earlier guest column), it's up to the individual writer and reader to determine what they like. Sure, waiting until after the show's run finishes will eliminate conflicts with ongoing canon, but other types of stories aren't completely immune to that, either.

  6. Well, crazy stuff is all I write anyway, because I'm in the same boat as you with regards to slice of life fiction. Not against it, but don't really see much point. I don't automatically dislike any given genre, but that's the one with the least amount of stories I could name that I like.

    Maybe that's why Poultron can never find stories that he likes? Because he wants them like the show and too many other people believe in this philosophy like we do?

  7. I have to join the chorus of dissenting voices. I disagree with proscribing slice-of-life stories, and with the concept that fan writers are somehow obligated to write the kinds of the things the show staff cannot. Really, fan authors can and should write whatever inspires them. If you're saying that it's futile to aim for canon during the run of the show while canon is a moving target, then I suppose my response is that a good story is a good story, whether the show ends up refuting its premises or not. In the end, unless you get a check from Hasbro, all fanfiction is "AU," no matter how closely you hew to the source material.

  8. There is no 'purpose' to a fandom, it simply exists.

    "So is it still her room when it's empty? Does the room, the thing, have purpose? Or do we -- what's the word? . . . Imbue. That's the word." - Early, Firefly episode 14, Objects in Space.

    1. Awesome reference to an awesome show. I'd give you a thumbs up if we had the function on this site... or if I had thumbs you could see...

    2. Try using one of these next time: /]

  9. What I'll bring up:

    Is your list of "paid creative works." TV shows, movies, and video games you mention, but may I point out that the science-fiction and fantasy genres have a semi-thriving market of magazines that pay for short stories and publishers that pay for novels? After all, that's what 99% of these "derivative creative works" are, right? Short stories and novels?

    So if you're gonna push "beyond the boundaries" and "write something crazy," why not go all the way? Change the names, changes the species, change the milieu, and make it your absolute own. Take the step that E.L. James took when she changed her "Twilight" fanfiction into three novels and published them as her own work. Not only hasn't she been sued, but she's made a metric tonne of money, too.


    1. I don't know whether to love or hate you right now. The thought of more Fifty Shades of Grey in this world... wait, did you just say she wrote three of 'em?!

      *insert Farnsworth here*

    2. Well:

      Another example is Naomi Novik whose books about Captain Will Laurence and his dragon Temeraire started out as crazy AU fanfiction of Patrick O'Brian's "Aubrey/Maturin" novels and have since gone on to be optioned by Peter Jackson for a possible movie or TV series.

      That might cause a little less brain-strangling...

      Mike Again

  10. I thought the purpose of fandom is that it's meant to be a gathering for individuals who share a passion in the same thing where they can discuss without fear of being attacked for their inert weirdness, get news on the subject they love, have contests to show their level of devotion, and disdain outsiders. (People feel alot more comfortable when their opinions are validated by others; or for that matter, painting their skin and exposing their beer bellies all while yelling at the TV screen when with their own kind). That and a possible way of getting free food from meeting new people.

  11. I agree with Present Perfect's general point that fanfic authors should aim to push their works beyond the boundaries of their source material. However, I disagree with the notion that this means that fanfics should write only AU, grimdark, clop. Authors can follow Present Perfect's advice while still writing show-style, slice-of-life works.

    While Present Perfect points to the target audience as limiting subjects and themes MLP can explore, the story-telling medium also places fundamental limits on the type of stories the show can tell. Prose, while not necessarily a superior or inferior vehicle for storytelling, has different strengths and weaknesses when compared to media for visual storytelling. For example, in written works, the reader cannot see the world but through the eyes of the narrator. The reader's intimacy with the narrator can allow greater empathy with and a deeper connection to the characters in the story. Storytelling though also prose places a greater emphasis on voice and diction, and enables interesting tricks such as the use of an unreliable narrator. Written works don't suffer from time limitations and have the space to elaborate on big ideas, delve deeply into the psychology of their characters, or flesh out the minutiae of the worlds they create.

    Wouldn't "Party of One" be a different story if narrated in a stream-of-consciousness by Pinkie instead of seen though the omniscient "camera lens" in the cartoon? Indeed, you could certainly change the themes and issues explored in various episodes by changing the perspective and means of storytelling. Certainly many authors have tried their hand at flipping perspectives and turning Gilda and Trixie into sympathetic characters.

    Ultimately, the fanfics I enjoy most are ones that reveal something new about the characters in the show. These revelations sometimes come from throwing the characters into new situations (i.e. in a crossover fic), but they could also come though character study-type pieces that re-interpret a character's motivations in a cannon or cannon-like event.

    Written works give fanfic authors the freedom to explore new territories that the show cannot reach. Indeed, one does not even need to leave the boundaries of cannon to find these spaces.

  12. Well'p.

    That went over like a lead balloon.

    I'm terrible at defending my own viewpoints, so that's why I haven't replied to anything.

    I think this was, at heart, just me trying to justify my own personal tastes.

    Apologies for bringing down the collective quality of posts on this blog.

    1. Don't worry about it. We all have our off days. And at least you got the chance to try your hand at a post.

      At least...

    2. I wouldn't say you've reduced the overall quality. Your post got people talking, at least, even if practically everyone disagreed with you. That's generally a good thing, and your post wasn't one of those exceptions where it isn't

      Sorry, that last sentence sounds stupid, but I can't really think of how to articulate my thoughts, in part because I want to contrast the discussion here with that prompted by Carcossa. Trust me, you don't want to be the guy who starts something like that!

      Basically, just know that you really have nothing to apologize for. I enjoyed reading your perspective and those of the other commenters. And isn't that - my enjoyment, I mean - all that really matters? :P

    3. Yes, how dare you have an opinion that's different from the rest of us!

      Honestly, you didn't bring the quality of the blog down. I disagree with your viewpoints, but you expressing your opinions was an opportunity for me to think about my own views on this matter, something I wouldn't have otherwise done. Like Prof. Oats said, at least you got people thinking and talking, and in the end that leads to a better understanding of ourselves as a community.