Friday, July 26, 2013

My Rules for MLP Fan Fiction

To finish off the first week without me (has it been so long already? Hopefully all hasn't descended into anarchy and chaos without my steady hand ever-present at the helm), we have a bit of writing insight from Cloud Wander, who's written far too many wonderful stories to name (seriously, go read of the stories on his FimFic page--you can't go wrong). Specifically, he talks about what his personal ground rules and points of emphasis are when he sits down to start writing--important things for any author to consider. Whether these rules match yours or not, I think you'll find something behind the break worth considering.

Cloud Wander’s Rules for MLP Fan Fiction

Let me emphasize this point immediately: these are my rules for My Little Pony fanfics. They are the guidelines I’ve developed through my own writing and apply only to my own work. Other writers follow other rules, and this is a good thing, as it encourages the diversity and vitality of MLP fan stories.

Rule 1: Respect the series.

I came to My Little Pony via Lauren Faust’s rebuttal to an earlier MS. magazine article that was highly critical of the show, the criticisms based solely on advance promotional materials for the series. (Faust’s rebuttal is here). I was very impressed by Faust’s goals for the show, which led me to to seek out episodes of the series on YouTube. I quickly became a fan.

So, when I came to write my own MLP fanfics, I tried to keep Faust’s goals in mind. Don’t write anything you’d be embarrassed to show Lauren, I told myself. And I think I’ve kept this rule. My stories may be good, bad or indifferent, according to my powers as a writer, but none of them shame me as a human being.

The obvious corollaries to this are 1A: No gore. 1B: No clopfics. How would you justify this to Lauren, should you meet her? (Okay, embarrassing admission: I made the characters in my first story, “Joshing,” teamsters because I, with my limited knowledge of fan fiction, understood that “shipping” was popular, for some reason.) [I literally doubled over with laughter when I read that. -Chris]

Rule 2: Respect the characters.

“Suited for Success” was the real breakout episode for me. From the preceding episodes, I had formulated a prejudice against Rarity as the “conceited bad-girl character” (exactly the sort of stereotypical character that Lauren Faust wanted to fight against). But “Suited for Success” showed me that I was completely wrong. Rarity is actually like me! In real life, I’m a programmer and a bit of a perfectionist; like Rarity, I struggle with users who don’t know what they really need and who demand impossible deadlines. Time and again, Rarity has shown her quality and with every act of generosity, I just nod my head and think, yes, that’s Rarity.

So, when I imagine the Mane Six and all of the amazing cast of My Little Pony, I remember to treat them as complex characters, each with their own hopes, fears and inner conflicts. Rainbow Dash may be Loyalty, but she can be Sneaky, too. Pinkie Pie loves Fun! Fun! Fun!, but she loves her friends more. Rarity may collapse onto her fainting couch, but she’ll always leave room for another to join her.

Rule 3: As much as possible, hew to the canon.

One reason that My Little Pony attracts so much creative attention is that the show leaves so much “white space” in its development of the world, which naturally attracts fans, and fan writers, to fill in the blank spaces with their own ideas and stories.

My first story, “Joshing,” was an attempt to figure out the relationship between Earth Ponies, Unicorns and Pegasi. I thought it funny, at the time, that Earth Ponies (who seemed to dominate the population of Ponyville) would harbor their own odd ideas about the other “tribes.” The episode, “Baby Cakes,” pretty much blew up this idea, but that’s okay; it was fun to write and, I hope, fun to read at the time.

I’ve had a little success, as well, in trying to anticipate where the series was going. Based on nothing more than the few seconds of Princess Luna we saw in Season One, I extrapolated a time-lost stranger in a strange land, uncomfortable in her new role and unfamiliar with “fun.” (“Tonight I Shall Be Laughter.”) The Luna we finally saw in “Luna Eclipsed” chimes well with my earlier vision of her.

Looking back on my stories, I see that I have tended to avoid the Mane Six and concentrated on minor characters, simply because they are safer to develop. Fans tend to have strong opinions about Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie and will be offended if you write them “wrong.” I’m more comfortable with Madam Mayor, Gummy, the Cake Family, or even Stephen Magnet, simply because I feel I have more room to work with them, while remaining comfortably inside the canon.

Rule 4: No crossovers. No video games. No humans in Equestria.

While it might seem only natural to team up Daring Do, Indiana Jones, Lara Croft, Nate Drake and Brigid O’Shaughnessy in Uncharted Equestria: Tomb Raiders of the Maltese Falcon, I said, no, for two reasons. First, what, no Mummy reference? Second, this pretty much is a flagrant violation of Rule 3.

While homages to other properties appear in My Little Pony (who else cheered at the Batman TAS references in “Mysterious Mare-Do-Well”? Or the “Throne Room Scene” in “Return of Harmony 2”?), full-throated crossovers to other properties have, as yet, to appear in the series. (Okay, the first Transformers film did include a little girl with a Pinkie Pie doll, but that’s it. And that’s the Transformers canon, not MLP.)

Here we have to address the fact that MLP:FIM is owned by Hasbro and Hasbro has… ideas. I think the writers of My Little Pony have dealt admirably with the marketing arm of Hasbro. Trains? No problem! Crystal Ponies? Hey, we can make them interesting. Battleship? Are you bucking kidding me? Yet, in slightly-modified form, it is Rainbow’s favorite game (“Read It and Weep”).

I can offer no more defense of this rule than: this isn’t the My Little Pony I fell in love with. It’s not really about marketing but about the dilution of Equestria in the wealth of other “properties” out there. I don’t want to limit MLP just to fans, no. But I’d like everyone to respect Ponyville as much the Shire, Hogwarts and, forgive me, Ankh-Morpork. It is a place deserving of those fortunate enough to come there, trot around and drink a cider at the Inn of the Dancing Pony.

And I say this as someone who would fight you for possession of a Ponyville Lego set. And as someone who has stood in awe of khat’s astounding feat of imagination, Fallout: Equestria.

For my part, I have offered homages to Lovecraft (“The Shadow Over Ponyville”, the second chapter to “Joshing”) and Wodehouse (“The Rummy Business of Old Blooey”). I think these are both okay, in the spirit of the series, because they operate entirely within the canon and only borrow tropes from these other sources.

(I've seen Equestria Girls. Still not sure what to think about it. It’s like when Cerberus appeared in Ponyville. “My worldview! What have you done to it?” I cried. I’ll need to work on this.)

Rule 5: Be kind.

For the life of me, I can’t create a villain. I tried, I really tried, to turn Carver in my story, “The Boneyard,” into a monster, but in the end I couldn’t do it. As I wrote her part, I felt her pain, her anger, her despair, even as she killed one character and chased another to his death.

When I wrote about Discord, in “Hearth’s Warming Eve: A Princess Promenade,” I just couldn’t avoid getting into his head and wondering what he would be thinking down there in the audience.

You may have realized, by now, that my rules limit me as a writer. And yet, the rules themselves suggest possibilities.

Rule 6: Original characters are okay; self-inserts are not.

Gilda the Griffon, the Diamond Dogs, Trixie the Great and Powerful. Remember, they all began as OCs for their episodes. This is the nature of fiction. None of them are Mary Sues. They are former friends, hilarious antagonists and future friends. They are the basic stuff of fiction. Embrace them!

One of my OCs, Captain Bucephalus (“Tonight I Shall Be Laughter”), is just this clueless fellow, caught up in events he doesn’t understand. What I find most endearing about him is that he is completely faithful to Princess Luna and never realizes that she is angry with him.

My Teamsters (“Joshing,” “The Boneyard”) are just guys. Josh, Bill and Blue are the background ponies that go about their business, scratching their heads and hauling freight, while the Mane story plays out around them.

I think original characters are fine, as long as you avoid the temptation to compete with the Mane Six in their own show.


More likely as not, you have shaken your head at this essay and said, “No! Cloud Wander, that’s not for me! That’s not my vision!”

Good for you. Go on, then! Tell me your story!


I know I shook my head once or twice ("be kind" isn't something I hew too strongly to), but then, that's not the point. The point is to have some sort of vision for what you do or don't want to create when you sit down at your keyboard, and I think a glimpse into another author's thought processes can definitely help on that count.


  1. I didn't even think about Battleship as a Hasbro property while watching Read It and Weep! Not sure if I should feel stupid about that

    These are all great rules, though I do have a bit of a problem with #4. HiE fics are generally terrible, but I absolutely adored Brony Hero of Equestria! It's funny, I initially took issue with this rule because I thought it'd exclude one of my own fic ideas (a ponification of Hitchcock's The Trouble with Harry), even though I have no intention of ever writing it. Talk about irrational

  2. "No gore."

    Welp, I failed already.

    In any case, I don't agree with a couple of the rules you've outlined, but that's just how my own views on fanfiction work. I cannot agree more with #2 and #3, though. Those are the principles that make fanfiction different from original fiction; you are using a world others have built, and you should play with their toys like you would want them to play with yours.

    But I don't see anything wrong with crossovers, clop, humans, or anything else, as long as it's done well and has actual work put into it. So far, the only one of those I have not seen meet my criteria is clop, and that's mostly because I haven't really been looking at that genre too much.

  3. I think the reason I don't have any set of rules like this (though I do always try to stay close to canon when I'm not intent on destroying or subverting it, and respecting the characters goes without saying) is that I'm not trying to write fanfiction, per se, but stories. No video games and no gore is well and good if you want something that's similar to the show, but like I've always said, if you want that, then just go watch the show. I'm willing to do whatever it takes to create the story I want. "Show-like" is a fallback for me for when I don't need gore or sex or crossovers or humans.

    Also, am I the only one who didn't immediately cleave to liking Rarity after Suited? It took until Dog and Pony Show for me to stop hating her, and that episode really worked wonders. Going back to Suited afterward, I can appreciate it better, but at the time, it didn't appeal to me.

  4. Rules, huh. I guess I only have one of these: write for the ultimate good of your reader. I despise it when authors set out to troll their readers; nothing wrong with evident trollfics, but when the story is written well and plotted well, leading up to an ending that only serves to disappoint, enrage or dishearten the reader with no meaningful message... While bone-chilling endings such as that of 1984 can hardly make anyone happy, they drive a deeper message across, and that's what I want my stories to have. It's possibly hubris, but I aim for my stories to impact the way my readers see things in their lives for the better. And doing the exact opposite just strikes me as such a waste of opportunity for both parties.

  5. Well, I can agree with quite a few of those, but I draw a line at "be nice". MLP as a whole has always lived off villains that were pitch-black, in order to better contrast with the protagonists. FiM is better than the other generations at establishing backgrounds and motivations for those characters, but even so, if you need an antagonist for an adventure story (as I did), that character should come across as evil. Of course, nothing is keeping you from then turning that character over to the side of light - the series itself has established that this is possible sometimes, as with Nightmare Moon. But there have been other villains who got petrified, shattered and/or blown sky-high, and unless they're established as truly vile creatures, the show's target audience (and not just them) will tend to wonder whether they deserved what they got. Compare the fate of some Disney villains (oh: SPOILERS!):

    Scar, betrayed by his own servants; Dr Facilier, literally dragged off to Hell; Rapunzel's "mother" in Tangled, aged to death and then thrown off the tower. None of that is really kid-friendly, yet as long as the feeling exists that these characters truly deserved it, you can get away with it.

    On the other hand, if you're in for Slice of Life, Romance or Comedy, that rule makes sense. Antagonists in these kinds of stories should not be inhuman (inequine?) monsters; their motivations need to be understandable, even if their actions sometimes aren't.

  6. Well, I can say I've failed at every single one of these.

    The first two are obvious, but they are really the only "rules" anyone should care about when writing a derivative work like fanfiction. The show itself sticks to certain "rules" because, well, they have a set goal in mind they can't deviate from: make little girls happy, and make money.

    Why should fanfiction be constrained by any of these rules at all, save the first two, or perhaps three? I am among the first to cringe when people write yet another human in Equestria or clopfic, and yet we can see several stories that worked quite well with both these elements. The point of the show is not to be "kind" or "nice," it is to believe in your friends and let them support you as you support them, whatever the situation. Even if, in several episodes, the entire world is on the line, it's better to be one with your friends.

    As someone who has written everything from crossovers to eldritch horror to harmless comedy, I can't say I agree with all or even any of these. What matters is that the writing speaks to the reader, that it stirs them and makes them think, whatever the content. If it tells a story and tells it well, that's what matters. That's what FIM taught most of us, if anything: it's not the wrapping, it's the package. If ponies can survive being made into a better show, it can survive being made into strange fanfiction.

  7. While showing respect goes without saying, most of these rules aren't really ones I agree with. Or at least, they're not for me, anyway. Particularly since they're the kind that's more suited to show style stuff, and while I obviously like the show (why else why would I be here), when writing or reading I prefer more subversive stuff. I'm the kind of guy who likes to parody, de-construct or otherwise massively shake things up, and that'll often include putting in gore, or crossover elements, or humans, or diabolical villains.

    Though, that said, no single style of writing is for everyone, and I can see why you wouldn't want to write about such things yourself.

    1. I can completely understand your point. I have read and admired khat's epic Fallout: Equestria. It's an extraordinary work of sustained imagination that, like you suggested, deconstructs and twists every aspect of the MLP universe.

      But I know I don't have it in me to write such a thing. Reading it made me weep at times. Writing it would have killed me.

      I have ponder taking a stab at a side-story to Iceman's "Friendship is Optimal" (a truly great story that you read right away). But I don't know if I have it in me to try.

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  9. “My worldview! What have you done to it?” I cried.

    That's my favorite part of this essay:

    Right there. Because it's the essence of what fanfiction has come to mean to me the past two and a half years. Something happens in the show, and I as a writer want to make it make sense. And of course Cloud Wander has written my current favorite Ponies in Tartarus story, "It is My Fate to Enter Every Door."

    So happily ever afters for everyone!


  10. Just to emphasize my (Cloud Wander's) point again: these are my personal rules. They grew out of my experience with MLP:FIM. Your own rules are certain to be different, as they reflect your own experience.

    I'd really like to hear more about readers with different rule sets. Not just what the rules are, but how you came to realize that these rules defined your goals as a fanfiction writer.

    1. I have a lot:

      Of general writing rules that I've developed over the years for no real good reason. I try my darnedest, for instance, never to start a story or even a chapter with a character's name. Why? I don't know. And I try even harder not to let the first paragraph of a story or chapter have more than 50 words in it.

      With Pony stories, I'm in general agreement with your rules, I find, but I'm always willing to throw a rule aside if there's a story there. I mean, I would never have imagined in a million years writing anything "rated mature for sexual situations." But the idea that became "Biology: A Romance" and "History: A Romance Continued" wouldn't leave me alone, and I'm quite happy with how those stories turned out.

      That's the bottom line for me, I guess, as far as rules go. They don't hafta make sense, but they do hafta help me make whatever story I'm working on into something that's better than it would've been without the rules.


  11. Love this.
    Of course I would say that crossovers are worth it for those that manage not to dilute Equestria but rather celebrate it while filling that "white space" not with fanon and headcanon, but with potential. Showing that all it takes is a catalyst and boom. The characters and world will practically fill it themselves. I don't view FiM as a half blank slate. I view it as a big bang waiting to pop.

  12. I don't want to sound mean but what a terrible un nice thing to say. What's wrong with humans in Equestria, video games, and other? I think they are great. In fact, someone can make a really great story about a lost space human falling into Equestria and sharing some wonderful things.

    And I think limiting any culture or fandom is not a honest thing at all.