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redsquirrel456


He who overcomes shall inherit all things.

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Nov
27th
2018

What is a Bad Idea? · 1:36am Nov 27th, 2018

I believe in bad ideas in writing. I believe it's possible to have them, execute them, and perpetuate them. I believe certain kinds of stories simply do not work for certain genres, characters, what have you. I believe that ultimately there is a (somewhat) solid standard that writers can and should apply themselves to reaching.

But! We're never going to get anywhere unless, by defining what we shouldn't do, we shed light on what we should. I've found writing is very much this kind of exploratory rather than objective-driven exercise. We here in fan fiction poke and tease and pull at certain aspects of the base FIM show, tugging out tidbits of ideas that become full-grown stories with some elbow grease and tight clenching. Our only goal, if we have one, is to write a story. There's rarely a wrong way to go about it, anymore than there's a "wrong way" to learn riding a bicycle. You just keep doing it over and over, learning how to make your body adjust until you're not falling over. But even though there's no wrong way to learn, there is a wrong way to do. When you've mastered riding a bike, you don't insist you pedal it with your teeth just because you can do it with your feet.

To use some examples I'm going to bring up the various fads of FIM Fic, and why they often constitute being a "bad idea."

Now before you read on, we need to clarify something. Am I saying that every fic written in these categories must be universally bad? Well, no, but these ideas have, for better or for worse, come to be defined by their errors, otherwise we wouldn't meme about them so much. It's an uphill battle to overcome stigma, and if your fic does not commit the sins I am about to outline, well, congratulations, you aren't even in these categories because you have written your own idea, wholly apart and different from what I'm speaking about here, and you can ignore this blog entirely.

X Is A Changeling

A long time ago I made a rather salty post about "X is a changeling." I have always reviled this story pitch as flawed at a fundamental level. The basic outline of almost every single X is a changeling story I ever personally read could be summed up as:

1. X is a changeling.
2. People react to X being a changeling.
3. The reactions are "I hate changelings" or "I don't care if you're a changeling."
4. "I don't care if you're a changeling" inevitably wins.
5. The end.

You might find an ending, but really no story has actually been told. If X is a changeling but nobody cares X is a changeling, why is X a changeling? If being a completely different species with an utterly alien biology has no impact whatsoever on anyone's relationships with themselves or each other, what's the point? Changelings were presented as a horrible, insectoid "Other" in pony when they first appeared, which is why we were so interested in them. Bugs are inherently alien to humans, living in ways that seem weird or even horrifying to some people. Yet in X is a changeling, the changeling is reduced to just a rather bug-like pony, otherwise totally indistinguishable psychologically or even physiologically from the main cast. Kinda like what the actual show did to them, come to think of it... Ocellus is a living example of "X is a changeling," because ultimately it's of absolutely no consequence.

This is why I hated these stories. The authors never really explored what being a changeling meant to anyone, even the changeling! They just highlighted a moment of drama, moved beyond it, and called it a done deal. X is a changeling is not a story, not a theme, not even really an idea in and of itself. It's more a statement of fact, like being asked what your story is about and replying 'Jon went to buy groceries.' Well, great, but why should anyone care? Did Jon change while buying groceries? Did he achieve something? Was the food good or bad? It doesn't help that this single sentence, "X is a changeling" spawned a litany of often self-parodying one shots and terrifyingly cloying, condescending fables. But there is so much more you can do with this story... I just never saw anyone actually do it. I remember a fic called Mendacity being well received, but it stands out as a very singular exception to the rule.

Through this we learn there aren't "bad ideas" so much as incomplete, hackneyed, unoriginal statements disguised as ideas that bring nothing to the table, therefore making them "bad ideas."

To summarize: A bad idea doesn't say anything.

Anon/Human in Equestria

Oh boy, what a long and sordid history The Human has with the ponies. What is there to say about him that hasn't been said before? He is a self-insert, a lazy engine that putters along either having far too much control over the story or too little. He appears seemingly at random, either to enslave the world or allow us to be vicariously doted upon/sex-enslaved. He (and it's almost always a he) has very little real trouble adjusting to living in Ponyland, either lucking into it or being plucked from his former life by God/Destiny/Fate. Whether a brony or not, he is treated as unique, special even, by mere virtue of being human and coming from a more "technologically advanced" world, never mind that we have seen skyscrapers, computers, and airships that defy physics in Equestria. Or, in an ironic twist, he is seen as a disgusting freak with spider-hands and unnecessary covering.

The Human with a capital H is a different beast from a normal, average human. The dichotomy he embodies, living life in the extremes poles of beloved fate-touched hero or horrific cartoonish villain, sums up my next lesson: A bad idea isn't made good just because it's "different."

The Human, or Anon for short, has lived many lives and done many things. He has been dropped into almost every conceivable situation, fought every kind of monster, inflicted every kind of depravity on the world... yet there is still something missing. Something that keeps me from actually being engaged in the story. When I pop into the comments section, I often see a strange trend: people praising one or more aspects of the HiE that make the story "different" from all the rest. But inevitably, the changes are entirely superficial and one-note: Anon is a hero, Anon is a villain. Anon is sex-crazed, Anon does not want sex. Anon drops right into Ponyville, Anon arrives somewhere else. But in the end, none of these "changes" can change the inescapable truth of HiE: the story almost always serves the Human, and the Human never really serves the story.

The entire world still revolves around whether or not Anon will find his place, and how ponies perceive him and him alone. Anon thus never really graduates beyond fantastical self-insert. You might think to yourself "But Red, I wrote a story where Anon actually isn't that important," and I would answer, "do you put so much emphasis on the fact that he is not important that he, in fact, becomes extremely important all over again?" How many times have we read the story of the "Fateless" hero who seizes life with both hands and throttles it? How often do we see stories where "the human doesn't matter" and yet they're swept into biblical epics where the fates of whole nations depends on them anyway? These alone are not interesting ideas.

And the hands, oh, Heaven save us from the hands! H/AiE almost always ignores the fact that ponies already know a great deal of species that have fingers and hands, and have achieved an almost exact copy of near-modern human society without fingers or thumbs, yet hands are almost always the feature ponies zero in on most! It's been almost 9 years since the fandom began, people! Anthropology has had its moment in the sun!

It doesn't matter whether or not the human matters. It doesn't even matter how he matters. What matters is, does your story have a character who is a whole person? Does what happens to them make that person more interesting, and do they do things only that person would do?

So in spite of the seeming variability and utility of a blank slate character from another world, be cautious that you don't just change the costumes and the scenery without paying attention to the plot. People may want to imagine themselves as the all-conquering hero no matter the situation... but those almost never translate into stories that stand the test of time, or a thoughtful review.

Grimdark

From what I remember in a distant interview (and I might be wrong so correct me on this), Sergeant Sprinkles, author of the infamous murder story Cupcakes, did not actually intend to write a story anyone would take seriously. It was nothing more than a jab at the incessant, unending popularity the Rainbow DashxPinkie Pie ship had at the time. But like many great works, it quickly grew beyond control, and spiraled into a vortex of fics either trying to "fix" a story that was by admission pointless, or playing a one-up game where the winner got to crown themselves the most pointlessly vile author of all time.

Grimdark has a weird relationship with pony, and most of it started with Cupcakes. What better way, we thought, to introduce drama into the world of My Little Pony than by taking the bright, sunshine world they inhabited... and running as far in the opposite direction as possible? It sounds interesting on paper, doesn't it? What could give a character like Fluttershy emotional conflict more than watching her animals be disemboweled in front of her one by one? What if we cut off Rainbow's wings??? What if we made Twilight Sparkle responsible for the END OF PONY EXISTENCE AND SENDING EVERYONE TO HELL????

The problem is... many of these remain simply 'what if' scenarios. Like X is a changeling, I must ask simply: Why? Why does this happen? Why do ponies not exist in the world we see them existing in? Why is everything suddenly so different? Why does it punish them with arbitrarily horrible happenings? Why don't they just shoot a friendship laser at their problem and fix it?

Well, because it gets clicks, mostly. But clicks are not quality. Attention is not fame. And this is my next lesson: A bad idea shocks instead of surprises.

It's shocking to read about all the rape in, say, Fallout: Equestria. It's dimly, primordially terrifying to imagine Twilight has killed herself every time she teleports. It's grotesque on a pure surface-level glance when a monster slowly eviscerates an adorable pony. But... why? The idea exists in a vacuum. It's pure, shlocky titillation that emerged from a reflex rather than a thought process. Show=Cute, My Story=HORRIFYING. It is so absolutely different from the world FIM is... it's really not even relatable anymore. Should we feel restricted by this? No. In fact, I say we should feel enriched, because we still have a whole world to explore where nothing really makes sense, and the bad guys really are beaten just because Twilight has a few friends, but we can create amazing stories regardless.

It's surprising when I read a fic like, say, The One Week Year and it goes in-depth on how ponies create an entire year's seasons in one week. It's surprising when Prince Blueblood has show-friendly reasons for still being an absolute douchebag. It's surprising when pony relationships are tested and forged into something new yet still recognizable. A good story, a good idea, will always leave your audience pleasantly surprised about what they just read.

Do I hate darkness in pony? No. I hate darkness where it has no place. It certainly does have a place in pony--Twilight was almost petrified by a cockatrice for life, after all, and Tartarus is a thing, and power-mad wizards are apparently a dime a dozen in Equestria. But ultimately, are we writing about what form that darkness really would take, using the light of the show to find its shadows... or are we just snuffing the lights out and blindly groping from there?

I wrote this blog to distract myself while I am sick in bed today. I am too tired to continue, but might later. I hope you enjoyed reading.

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Comments ( 12 )

I remember a fic called Mendacity being well received, but it stands out as a very singular exception to the rule.

Mendacity actually did something with the idea, both integrating it into the show to make the change feel more organic and springboarding off of the basic idea to a larger one that could only really be told with a changeling protagonist. In short, it can actually continue the conversation beyond "X is a changeling." "Okay, and then what happens?"

Sorry, I just really like Mendacity. :twilightsheepish:

In short, I do believe that any idea can be done well, but some are a lot harder than others. Great look at the challenges some face.

X Is A Changeling

You just described perfectly why Battlestar Galactica got worse and worse. Either it matters or it doesn't and no one engages with the struggle of "does it matter" or weighing it mattering against other loyalties.

I totally agree with you on the grimdark things, although some things like twilight teleporting are original enough to be engrossing in their own right. I recently tried to figure out why slasher films are so damn popular and am still at a loss.

I'm reminded somewhat of MrNumbers' (somewhat infamous) blog on Hazardous Materials, which kinda connects a bit to the last point about grimdark. A lot of people, I feel, took the wrong message from that blog, and I feel like something similar could happen here.

I think the main point to keep in mind is that some ideas are easier to write than others, each idea offers something different to the writer, and some ideas can be deceptive or encourage the wrong types of people to write them. The last point, I feel, is what ends up being filed under "bad ideas," because people keep using the idea in the wrong way.

"X is a changeling" provides the chance for authors to write about changeling politics/culture/adventures while still leveraging existing relationships and characterizations, but tends to attract people who want to write "reaction fics." HiEs ooze with potential for everything from First Contact sci-fi-esque stories (Arrow 18, Project Sunflower) to epic adventures with complex worldbuilding that combine the best of both worlds (Through the Well of Pirene), but also provide a cookie-cutter framework for self-insert power fantasies. And Grimdark is, well, its own beast, which would take too long to discuss in this comment, as you likely figured out while writing that blog.

I think the important takeaway is that, as authors, we need to examine every idea to see what it can provide us and, more importantly, what it doesn't provide, like characterizations (being a human in Equestria isn't a personality) or plot (rather than just a premise). And one day, I'm going to try my hand at Displaced, and prove that you can take its basic premise and make something at the very least functional out of it.

Wanderer D
Moderator

X Is A Changeling

You didn't read mine, did you? :P

TBH the more I read this blog the less interest I had in looking at the "arguments". It actually just reads like "I'm bitching at shit I don't like."

So I'm stopping in the middle of your HiE rant. If the disgust runs this deep there's nothing really for me to add.

4973385
Are you taking this blog personally or something?

Wanderer D
Moderator

4973419 TBH I've seen to many blogs that repeat the same arguments, and they always have sounded hollow. They sounded hollow and reflecting of personal opinion rather than objective observation seven years ago, and they still sound the same today. There's plenty of really good stories in all of the genres that he mentions here as "always the same bs" to paraphrase, that not only are they original, they also deal with exactly the shit he says they don't. Off the top of my head I can name at least 5 X is a Changeling stories alone that cover all he's saying they don't, they were pretty big and had a lot of work put into it, and none of those are mine.

PresentPerfect
Author Interviewer

The best HiE is still the one where it's Hearth's Warming caroling time and Anon really has to take a shit.

Hap

99% of... anything is shit.

Romance stories.
Horror stories.
HiE stories.
Westerns.
Popular songs on the radio.
Pony fic in general.
Fic in general.
Home chefs who think they're going to win X cooking show.
Homebrew beer/wine/mead.
Microdistillery whiskey (Goddamn Seattle, just stop trying to make whiskey).
Homemade chili at chili cookoffs.
Youtube channels.
Uhhh...

What was I talking about?

4973364
I think Mendacity worked because it used chiefly background ponies from what I remember. Most of the stories I dislike feature a really heavy distortion of FIM itself and its main characters who have established personalities and canon. Sure, you can write fanfic that basically makes the main protagonists OCs, but there's not much point to it beyond secondhand exposure because of the original work's popularity, and you can't really escape that.

4973370
Slashers are the storytelling equivalent of "look at the pretty lights." You're distracted from all the logical errors because people are screaming too loud to let you notice. For some people, that's just how they want to spend their time.

4973372

I think the main point to keep in mind is that some ideas are easier to write than others, each idea offers something different to the writer, and some ideas can be deceptive or encourage the wrong types of people to write them. The last point, I feel, is what ends up being filed under "bad ideas," because people keep using the idea in the wrong way.

I used the genres I did because they've ultimately come to be defined by their errors. The term HiE, for instance, is shorthand for almost everything that a "typical" HiE fic entails, and the same is true for most of the ideas I bring up. I'd go so far to say that if you do Displaced in such a way that it ceases to resemble the awful power fantasies Displaced fics are, it stops being "Displaced" and becomes your own idea.

4973426
That's why 99% of my blogs are complaining about things.

4973426
Sturgeon's Law strikes again!

Hap

4973450

I used the genres I did because they've ultimately come to be defined by their errors.

I think a focus on this as the point of the blog would have clarified a lot of things.

4973521
True. I added a caveat for that.

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