Everyone knows what makes a good story. Unfortunately, none of us agree on what makes a good story. That leads us to guest posts like this, where I have to gently rebut one of Chris’s reviews of a good story that got a bad rap.
I don’t want to call Chris wrong – he’s a smart guy, a great reviewer, and a stand-out author as well. And he keeps giving my stories pretty good reviews, so obviously he knows what he’s doing. What’s there to disagree about, then?
Let’s look at one of my favorite stories, Who We Are by kits, and see if we can’t suss out where the differences lie.
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The premise of Who We Are feels like an old hat in 2017: one of the mane 6 is a changeling. Sound familiar? It should, it’s practically its own genre these days. So let’s get something clear right off the bad: WWA, which came out all the way back in 2012, started the imposter-changeling genre. And it remains, to this day, one of the best examples of the breed.
WWA is a mystery with a simple premise. Twilight gets a letter from Celestia informing her that one of her friends is a changeling. Nothing else is known, and though Twilight attempts to investigate the truth of the matter, no new facts emerge that would implicate one pony or another. Instead Twilight has to start logically deducing which of her friends is imaginary, based on what she knows of their past, their family, and their character.
What makes the story great isn’t tale it tells as it follows Twilight through her investigation, though the tale is fine and enjoyable. What’s brilliant is that, through its premise and the very fact that no new facts are revealed throughout the story, the reader gets to conduct their own investigation in parallel with Twilight. The story has hundreds of comments by readers offering their own thoughts on who the changeling might be, and every one of them might be correct.
It helps, also, to remember that this story came out after the second season, before a lot of personal details about the mane six had been filled in. At that point we had nothing on Fluttershy or Rainbow Dash’s families, and Pinkie’s family only appeared in a brief flashback. The three of them were essentially blank slates in terms of personal histories. The fandom developed hundreds of unique histories for each of them, and over the seasons all of these histories have been slowly pruned away by the show itself, until now in the seventh season we know more about all of the mane six but have jettisoned so much that was better.
Any of these three could legitimately have been the changeling. So which was it? We never find out. kits’ best idea for the story was this lack of resolution. By never telling us who the changeling was, every reader’s theory can be validated. The fact that WWA has a heartwarming conclusion that tugs rather effectively at the heartstrings by appealing to the goodness in each of us is a rather nice touch.
So what got Chris so riled up about WWA that he gave it a single measly star? A legitimate criticism, but not one I agree with.
Throughout the story, we’re given brief glimpses into the changeling’s mind, while they try to figure out some way to escape being unmasked. Part of this introspection reveals that changelings have a form of mind magic that allows them to create or erase memories. In a very real sense, this weakens the appeal of the mystery at the heart of WWA: if the changeling can use mind magic to cover their tracks, then none of our deductive work matters. All of our suppositions could simply be based on false memories. We can’t rely on known facts to draw conclusions, which makes it harder to participate in the story. WWA would have been a much stronger story, in my opinion, if kits simply hadn’t included those few lines about mind magic. Many other readers agreed, and if you read the comments on Chris’ original review, many readers didn’t even notice the lines about mind magic on their first reading (myself included).
But Chris didn’t tank WWA because the inclusion of mind magic weakened the central mystery; he tanked it because he felt the story didn’t properly explore the implications of the use of such an intimate form of invasive magic. And he’s very right about this.
One of my pet peeves as an author is when I’m reading a story and one of the main characters, usually the hero, commits an immoral act such as theft, kidnapping or even murder, and suffers absolutely no consequences whatsoever. It isn’t just that they evade justice -- it’s that the author doesn’t even realize justice might be interested in them. The hero simply gets a pass because they’re the main character, and the main character is supposed to be good.
WWA tells two very different stories, depending on how much you read into the mind magic. It’s either the story of a spy who went native, who adopted the customs of her host nation and used the minimal amount of deception necessary to establish herself, then foreswore the use of such nefarious tactics against her new friends. Or maybe WWA is the story of a changeling who manipulated the memories of every pony around her, of every single friend and ‘family’ member she has, and who felt no guilt about it until suddenly confronted with the possibility of being caught.
One of my criteria for a great story is that it makes the reader ask an important question. WWA manages this several times over, but I think the best question it raises is how would we react if confronted by the fact that one of our closest friends was an imposter. Or, how would we react if we were the imposter and threatened with unmasking?
I thought Chris’ one-star review was unfair when I first read it, but over time his reasoning has swayed my own judgement a bit. Other great stories have come along in the years since WWA was published, slowly pushing it down the list of my favorites, but it retains a sunny spot in my heart. It’s a story a lot like many of mine – with the benefit of years more experience, it could have been written better. But for when it was written, and when we read it, it was one of the best.
Thanks again, Gardez! If you want to compare his thoughts to mine (though he summarizes my review quite well above), here's what I originally had to say. And honestly... that's still how I feel about the story. But intelligent people can have different opinions, and CiG does a nice job laying out why the story worked for him--and why, perhaps, it could work for you, too.
And thank you to everyone who contributed a guest post over the past two weeks! Reading them all and getting to share them was a treat for me, and I hope you've all enjoyed seeing the depth of talent that exists in the ponyfic community--not just in terms of writing fanfiction, but in the fields of analysis and critical thinking as well. It's been a treat, being able to take some time off while knowing that my blog was in good hands. But now, I'm back and ready to go! Look for my review of Through the Well of Pirene on Wednesday, and ever more Chris-ness thereafter.
Okay, one more time though: thank you, all of you!