Uncommon Dazzling Ships 231 members · 410 stories
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Hi everypony,

Welcome to our quarterly Author Spotlight! This month we have an interview lined up for you with NaiadSagaIotaOar, the best siren author on the site. A big claim, but backed up by them being the first author to ever have a siren story added to the Royal Canterlot Library. This one has been a long time coming!

As a warning, this discussion might include spoilers for their stories.

So, NaiadSagaIotaOar, you've given us many different views of the sirens as stories have required it. Looking just at Adagio, these range from the context-blinded vulnerable lead of Who We Are in the Dark through to the predatory swamp witch scene-stealing thing in To Extinguish the Dawn. Which of those you've written is closest to your natural view of the character, when unshaped by story narrative? Which was easiest to write, and which was most enjoyable?

Hello! Thanks for having me.

That’s an interesting question. I don’t think that, for me, there is such a thing as a character that’s unshaped by a narrative. Every rendition of a character I’ve written has been part of a narrative, and therefore been shaped by one.

So if you ask me just, like, “What does Adagio want most?” or something like that—just an assessment of the character, with no narrative context or anything—I’m probably not going to give any definitive answers beyond what can be reasonably extracted from the canon source material. But there’s not an awful lot to go off there, so even by that metric there’s a lot of maybe this and maybe that. It’s very difficult for me to say I have one particular view on her, and I don’t really care for that kind of commitment anyway.

There’s some loose trends, I suppose, in how I tend to write her. But she doesn’t feel less natural if I deviate a little, provided those deviations are a good fit for the story.

I think in a lot of ways the ones that came together the easiest were some of my really old ones. When you’re starting out with something, I feel like there’s an initial hurdle where you don’t have the faintest idea what to do or how, and then you kinda know a little so you’re confident and you’re feeling good, and then as you keep learning you realize just how complicated and vast this thing you’re getting into is and you have to rebuild that confidence all over again.

So in some ways my first couple came together very easily, because I didn’t think about them nearly as much as I probably would now. But ones like Who We Are in the Dark and Lost in Paradise, that took a lot more thought, I think are much better and more interesting—and the former in particular was probably one of the most enjoyable to produce for it—so there’s been a bit of a trade-off, I suppose.

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7509250 Perhaps shaped by narrative was too vague a term. I agree, every character is shaped by a narrative to some extent. But Who We Are in the Dark and Lost in Paradise with an Adagio who's been broken by her defeat in Rainbow Rocks and left rather reliant on others for survival, with only hints of her former juggernaut self peeking through. Is that more of a rewarding thing to bring to life than when she's closer to how we see her in canon, as in those early couple of stories?

It does very much seem to be that the more you learn, the more there is to keep track of as you go - or even before you start - and that can slow things down a lot! Are there any succinct pieces of writing advice you'd bring up of things that are particularly important to you in how you approach writing?

In a certain way I think probably so, yeah. Certainly with Who We Are in the Dark one of the enticing bits about it was that I hadn’t seen a take on Adagio quite like that before. I’m very much of the mind that if your fanfiction doesn’t do anything that you couldn’t get just by watching or reading or playing the source material, you’ve done something wrong. So in that sense, I am sometimes quite wary of stories that stick too closely to canon. I’d much prefer to be different and interesting, but somewhat plausible, than very exactly canon-adherent, is what it comes down to.

Succinct writing advice is often bad writing advice, is the problem!

But there’s some. The first that I’ll mention, because I actually need to listen to this myself much more than I do, is to just read stuff that you like and pay attention to it and stuff. Related to what I said earlier, I think it’s very easy to fall into a trap of knowing all these rules and guidelines for good writing and having those just be in the back of your head the whole time. And, yeah, it’s good to know that stuff, but not every single sentence needs to be all intricate and well-developed. When you read stuff that you like, you’re exposing yourself to something that works on you, and sometimes that’s just a lot more helpful than something more theoretical.

That’s writing advice you’ll hear from literally billions of people, though, so can’t have that be the only one.

I’d also say get faster at writing. That’s actually really very helpful for me. It’s possible to have a first draft that’s not too bad—for a small story—but even then I usually like it more when I throw it out and do it over again. So having the ability to just loosen up a little and slap something together that’s finished but kinda shoddy, that’s pretty handy. It’s always easier to troubleshoot when you’re looking at something that’s finished.

It also lets you pontificate at obnoxious length if anyone ever asks you interesting questions, and that’s really the most important thing of all.

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7509603 I think you've managed to tread a careful path and deliver some Adagio appearances that are different without feeling wrong, something not many manage once, let alone consistently.

Thinking now more about Sonata, you've used her for comedy before in things like For Eelsies or The Life and Times of Sonata Dusk, but then you've also given her serious depth and emotional weight in Adagio. Is there any advice you could offer on how authors might expand her out of her one-dimensional taco jokes and for realsies role?

I think that's writing advice lots of people can support. I like the thought also that if you get quicker at writing, you'll have more time for reading!

Well, the first question should be whether you should. I personally don’t like it when people make Sonata total stupid memebrain idiot or whatever, but, you know, if you wanna do it, more power to you. I won’t like it or think it’s funny, but who cares about that. If you like that take on her, go nuts.

But suppose you’ve already said yes to that.

I think it’s always good to start with motivations and morals. What does your character want? What do they value? If you can give interesting answers to questions like that, you’re probably on a good track. Because if you want your character to be taken seriously, your character needs to be taking things seriously, and for that to happen there usually has to be something important to them at stake. They need to want something, or at least feel strongly about something.

And, you know, we actually see this with Sonata, in Rainbow Rocks. Her airheaded moments are usually, like, before the plan’s kicked off or after it’s been carried out, when they’re kinda just hanging out killing time. When she’s actually doing something important, she’s just about as competent as the other two.

So give her something like that. She can still be oblivious and bubbly a lot of the time, there’s nothing wrong with that, but she needs to have an off switch, some context where maybe she is still a little childish but taking something seriously. If your character’s always the same mood, that's a good sign you don't really have much of a character.

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No, it's not to say there's anything wrong with happy dumb Taco Queen Sonata, more that we've seen it an awful lot already and it's difficult to get anything other than one note from that style of portraying her. There's a joke in there about a singer who can only handle one note being funny but making a very poor siren, I think.

If your character’s always the same mood, that's a good sign you don't really have much of a character.

That is a surprisingly enlightening piece of advice, and I can think of numerous stories on the site that have fallen afoul of it. Both for Sonata and other characters.

I hadn't really picked up on it as a trend before, but I notice that in every siren story you physically separate Adagio and Aria for most of the plot. Sometimes they're solo siren pieces, but still, the amount of time Aria and Adagio spend in the same room together across your stories is absolutely minimal. Is that a conscious choice, and does it make it easier to see Aria like that, making sure she's not in Adagio's shadow?

… Do I do that? Huh. Yeah, I guess so.

So as you might guess from that response, ascribing any sort of thoughtful motivation to a lot of choices I’ve made in writing is giving me more credit than I deserve. If I were to write them now, that might come up, because I’m trying to be more cognizant and articulate about why I want to write things a certain way and how that serves the story in some way. But probably, no, a lot of my siren stories were written several years ago and I really didn’t think that way at the time. I wish I had, it’s a good way to think, but that wasn’t happening so much.

But I do default most of the time to the sirens being very old and their relationship with each other being quite familial, whether they’re related by blood or not. That’s probably, like, ninety-percent explained by that being how Theigi wrote them.

And if you’re looking for an interesting story idea, set up that something is very important to your character, that they care quite a lot about a certain thing, and then take that thing away from them. It’s just quick and dirty, here’s a difficult situation and a focused motivation. Obviously it’s a very loose framework, but as a broad starting point I think that’s a really good one.

So, yeah, given that I tend to think of the sirens as being quite close and having been that way for a very long time, it’s probably not a surprise that a lot of what I hope are interesting scenarios for them have them either being apart or their relationship fraying or something like that. It’s just fertile ground for conflict and drama and stuff.

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It's funny how things turn out sometimes, with patterns out of nowhere. I wonder how Aria might have come out differently in some of those stories if she'd had to fight Adagio for the spotlight in some scenes more. It probably wouldn't have been good for either of them!

The mane six character you've shown most often to have the closest bond with the sirens is Rarity, with her sticking up for Adagio in Lost in Paradise, rescuing her in For Eelsies and actually being shipped with her in Who We Are in the Dark. That kinship makes total sense to me, as the way Rarity and Adagio speak suggests they see the world in a similar sort of way.

Could you speculate on what - cheating aside - a relationship between those two might look like?

I hope this doesn’t sound like a cop-out, or like I’m repeating myself too much. But kind of like with characters, I’m actually not particularly interested in fictional relationships in a sort of isolated sense.

If they’re made-up, I mean—I’m more than happy to talk about canon relationships and what’s going on there and all that kind of thing. But with one that’s invented for fanfiction purposes, it’s, again, a component of a story. So with something like how in Who We Are in the Dark, Rarity has these unrealistic expectations and that kind of thing, it’s, yeah, based off of Rarity’s character and her being a starry-eyed romantic, but I almost guarantee you it wouldn’t have been played up so much if it weren’t for the story demanding that there be some drama stirring underfoot.

I’ll add as an addendum that it could be interesting to look very closely at how they are in canon and extrapolate from that what their relationship would be like. But I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at canon Rarity, and there’s not a lot of canon Adagio to go off of anyway.

So, like, what would Adagio and Rarity’s relationship be like as a couple… I really couldn’t tell you, to be honest. It’s just not something I’ve really spent time thinking about. Questions like do they enjoy spending time with each other, do they go steady for a while or have a short fling now and then—those, to me, are all questions that just aren’t particularly interesting unless they’re going to be part of a story.

Because if they aren’t part of a story, it’s just, like, I dunno, you can imagine whatever sort of relationship you like thinking about. They banter about stuff and hang out drinking wine poshly or shag a bunch and beat up poor and ugly people with baseball bats at night or step on your OC’s face, go crazy, have fun, do whatever.

But when you put it into a story, you’re putting some restrictions on it, because now you need their relationship to have a purpose. And once you know that, then you can say, like, okay, the story’s about Adagio having gotten away from a bad influence but falling back into it at the end, so she and Rarity have to get along pretty well and have a lot of fun talking to each other and stuff, because that way you make people want to see them together and there’s more of a tragedy when they’re apart by the end.

And for me, that’s where the interesting discussion is, when you want to think up a fun way for two characters to interact in a way that's believable but that also contributes to this goal that you have. Trying to do both means you can get it right or get it wrong, so I just feel like there's more substance to it there.

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I mean it's not like poor and ugly people are going to beat themselves up, is it?

The sirens have had a very long history together. How do you think they've changed over the years? What's different about the dynamic between them in their thousandth year together than in their second? That's something that might vary depending on the story narrative, but what common trends would you expect to see?

Not with baseball bats they wouldn’t.

Well, I think one thing that’s going to be fairly constant is that they are going to have some reason why they want to stay together. From what we see in Rainbow Rocks, they don’t always get along very well, and it’s actually difficult to say for certain how much they really like each other. So there’s got to be something that keeps them all together. You can put up with someone who annoys you for a while, but if you're at all willful and independent and there's nothing forcing you to do that, it's not gonna go one for a thousand years.

But I think them often being portrayed as that old is why I highlighted that the familial kind of relationship I often think of them as having doesn’t necessarily come about from them actually being related. If their memory works at all like a regular person’s, they’ve essentially been together for their entire lives. And if you throw on top of that them being ageless, inhuman witches who’ve lived through upheavals and disasters and all the other complications that would arise in any thousand-year span, I think it’s almost a necessity that however much they probably don’t like each other, they’ve each been at some point one of the only things that’s constant or safe for each other.

So I think more than most anything else, if you assume they’ve been in the human world for a thousand years or something, there’s got to be a—grudging, perhaps—appreciation or respect, or something like that, for each other that’s quite a bit stronger than all the surface-level tension.

But their backstory’s whatever you want it to be, so you can probably cook up something where that’s not the case.

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7511945 And how do you think that timespan might have affected them individually? Our temperaments and our outlooks often change with age, how do you think each of theirs might have developed over a millennium or so? What might Sonata have looked like before a thousand years' growth and maturity?!

Who says she’s had any?

Perhaps that’s something of an exaggeration. But I don’t think that, as a rule, growth and development is something that just happens automatically, past a certain point. If you leave people to their own devices, I think in general they’ll want to default to keeping things more or less how they are, and that for people to grow there usually needs to be some kind of impetus behind it.

Someone who maybe, I don’t know, has a tendency to blurt out the first thing that pops into her head, when it’s slightly relevant… if you’re a regular person you might say something recklessly that people don’t like, that you wish you hadn’t said. And maybe that kind of thing, if it happens often enough, gets you to try and be a little more moderate and to think before speaking and stuff like that.

But Sonata, it seems, can just sing a bit and make people like her, you know? So there’s a bit of, like, why would she ever grow past that impulsiveness? She presumably learns that it’s not something that really bothers either Aria or Adagio on, like, a super deep, biting level or anything like that. If they accept her just fine when she’s airheaded and ditzy like that, what does she care?

So, in the absence of any more specific circumstances, I can see them actually being fairly static over that time period. Certainly if a major means of them interacting with other people is them controlling other people magically, I think in a lot of ways they might not actually mature very much at all.

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7512573 That's an interesting thought, they would be isolated enough that they could live alongside humanity without being much shaped by it. Which would probably make adapting to changing social views easier, maybe.

What do you wish we saw more of in siren stories? Whether that's general trends across many stories, or just a few focusing on particular things in more detail.

Good writing.

... I'm happy to leave it at that, but you probably aren't, so.

But really I think that kind of is the long and short of it. I dunno, after Rainbow Rocks came out I read pretty much every siren story that I could find, and I've probably at least looked at a pretty substantial chunk of all the ones that're out there. So, you know, I've seen backstories for them, I've seen what happens after Rainbow Rocks, I've seen them going mute, I've seen them dying, I've seen all that stuff several times over. So genuinely I think I'm at the point where there's not a lot of premises about them that're all that intrinsically interesting. If I read anything about them, I want it to be done well. That's the biggest thing by a good margin, I think.

I guess if I had to pick one kinda specific thing, though, it's to stay away from Rainbow Rocks. I get why so many stories are focused on dealing with the fallout or making amends or whatever, because--not counting Backstage Pass because fuck Backstage Pass--the question of what they do next is, like, by far the most compelling one that's raised but not answered in Rainbow Rocks. But it's been answered very well several times already, so like... either don't try and answer it yourself or knock it out of the park.

There's a caveat at the end of all this though that, to be honest, I don't really read much of them anymore, unless it's written by someone I know. So really, like, I wish that people write stuff that they enjoy and put some modicum of effort into and if it makes them happy, I'm not gonna complain about it.

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I can absolutely see that, most siren ideas have been done already, to the point of becoming whole subgenres. And you're right, the ones showing the aftermath of Rainbow Rocks are especially numerous and do very much blend together now. All the good siren stories I remember reading recently have done something different to that, and been much better for it.

What other characters do you think are particularly interesting/intriguing/funny to have a siren interact with? Whether that means them leaping into bed together or trading barbed observations or discussing life philosophies? Which characters have the right kind of differences or similarities with each siren to make their interactions something that might draw you in? And which might give you pause and raise a sceptical eyebrow? Depending on the premise of the story and the capability of the author, of course.

Well uh. You might notice that the main criteria I mention for the siren stories I do read, in my last response, is that they're written by someone I know.

So I think it is the premise and the execution of that premise that gets me interested much more so than the pairing doing so intrinsically. I think a part of that just always comes back to the sirens being such blank slates in a lot of ways in Rainbow Rocks. They don't have all that many established, definite relationships, so there's very little for me to latch onto that makes me go I really wanna see more of so-and-so with Adagio or something like that. I think any good story with them is going to need to invent a lot of their dynamics, so if you pick just about any siren/other-character pair and ask if I want to read a story about them and you don't tell me anything else, you're getting that skeptical eyebrow pretty much every time.

As for which ones I ended up finding interesting, I think that there's a number that I don't particularly mind. You can probably guess that I enjoy Rarity and Adagio, and at times I've enjoyed Sunset and Adagio--it's quite overdone and overrated, that one, but like there's a reason it became a thing--or Sunset and Aria.

I think one of the main things to look for, when you're trying to construct an interesting pairing, is balancing out similarities and contrasts. The latter is how you get drama, when you have two people who maybe approach the same thing with a very different outlook, and that's good for--well, all kinds of things, if you're trying to be interesting. But the former tends to be what keeps them sticking together. That's why I think Aria and Adagio tend to go so well together. On the surface they often can't stand each other, so you get lots of vitriol and conflict and all that faff, but often on deeper levels they actually do kind of want the same things and understand each other and things like that.

So those're the kinds of things I'd look for, in trying to find a character for sirens to interact with. Just some combination of common ground and tension that leads to interesting places. Who exactly fits that depends on what qualities of the siren in question ought to be played up for the narrative, of course.

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7515586 And is there anything concrete, or are there any reliable trends, in what combination of that common ground and tension that works better for character chemistry than others? What is it about the combination of those factors in Adagio and Rarity that might make them better suited than Adagio and Applejack?

I agree, any pairing story, whether shipping or otherwise, is going to be able the conflict between similarities bringing the characters together and differences pushing them apart. Are there any particular kinds of similarities or differences to prioritise? Is there anything beyond personal taste in how to balance a dramatic pairing with a realistic one?

… That’s a good question, and there’s probably somebody out there that can give a good answer to it.

I think the part where I get hung up is in trying to really understand what “chemistry” actually means. I think we all know it when we see it, but in a broader sense I just don’t really know how I’d describe it in a way that I find useful. That’s why I prefer to try and boil things down to motivations and values and things like that—to me, it’s just so much easier to be certain and confident in saying “This character wants X, so they do Y” than it is “These two have good chemistry.”

Like I can say fairly confidently that it makes sense that Applejack would be pretty pissed with Adagio if Adagio called Applebloom an ugly skank loser because we know that Applejack’s quite protective of her family and even if that kinda language is maybe thrown about more casually by Adagio, it’s tough to see Applejack being alright with that kind of venom directed towards someone she cares quite a lot about. But if you pick out any of the probably many lines of romantic banter I’ve written, I don’t know that I could often articulate well why it’s funny or cute or what have you, and if I said it was and you disagreed, I don't know that I could convince you otherwise.

As for which sorts of things to prioritize, you're probably sick of me saying this, but I think that just comes down to what kind of story you're trying to tell. For something that's simple and cute and fluffy, there's nothing wrong with having two characters who get along splendidly and are at their very peak most happy ever when they're with each other and all that kinda stuff. That can certainly be fun. That's going to make for a very different feel than two characters who maybe quibble quite a lot about small things but there's a very deep understanding and kinship there that makes them willing to work past all those little differences. Which one of those is better, that depends on what you're doing with it and why it's there. The similarities and differences that you should play up are whichever ones that suit the story.

So, full disclosure, I’ve not had any romantic experience whatsoever in real life. And I’ve not really researched the topic a whole lot either. So if you catch me justifying any decisions I make in writing a romance with “It’s realistic that a couple would work out that way,” I’m probably wrong and you should make me feel very stupid for saying something like that.

No, I’m once again going to appeal to character consistency. If you’re going to have drama, I don’t really care so much whether an actual person would feel very strongly about some topic. If some event or situation is going to cause some drama, I think it’s basically your job as the author to establish ahead of time the reasons that whatever’s happening is meaningful for these specific characters. Who aren’t real people.

Looking to real life is good for inspiration and all that, I won’t deny that. And if your goal is to write something that’s very realistic and grounded and all that stuff, that’s a fine goal and you should study realistic relationships closely and apply that to your writing. But I think that at the end of the day, when it comes to your characters and the decisions they make, you shouldn’t have to reference much at all besides what’s in your story to explain why it all fits and makes sense.

Obviously you’ll have to do that to an extent. If someone asks like “Hey how come Sunset’s hungry when she hasn’t eaten for a month?” then, yeah there might not be much to say to that beyond “That’s how humans work.” But if, say Sunset and Adagio have a falling out because Adagio breaks Sunset’s guitar, I don’t want to hear, “Well, actual people would be mad if you broke something of theirs.” That is true, but if it’s gonna be a big deal for the story, most likely I want to know what that particular guitar meant to this particular person, you know?

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7517656 That is an excellent answer to an unfairly tricky question! Don't go breaking peoples' guitars, though :twilightoops:

I agree, chemistry is an annoyingly hard thing to pin down. At school I remember chemistry being sparks flying and things changing colour, and then after a while it all just became maths and formulae. And maybe romantic chemistry isn't that dissimilar if you look at it too closely.

Are there any challenges you've faced specific to writing Sonata, Aria and Adagio, beyond their minimal amount of canon material? Anything you've learned from your time writing them that you might not have learned from writing, say, the mane six?

I wish it were that way, it’d probably be easier.

The minimal amount of canon material, I think is often more a blessing than curse, for me. When a story’s very complete and self-contained, I think it’s quite a lot harder to come up with fanfiction for it without veering into some AU or something like that. Because the part where writing gets difficult is when you have to work within multiple constraints. If a story’s very self-contained and tightly-written, it’s probably a lot harder for you to think up some addition or addendum that’s consistent and compatible but also interesting.

So the Dazzlings having a backstory and resolution that’re so open-ended is, yeah, tricky in some ways, but really very liberating as well, and when there’s good fanfiction of them to reference for ways to fill in those blanks, I think the latter part wins out.

There’s yet another cop-out answer to that second question, which is “basically everything.” Because learning to write well is hard, and I’m not very good at making myself do hard things for no reason. The Dazzlings gave me a strong and enduring motivation to write, and fanfiction of the Dazzlings gave me a motivation to get better at it. I didn’t really get any of those things from the Mane 6 or fanfiction of them, so if I’d tried to write them when I was starting out, I think it’s quite likely I’d have fizzled out and not really gotten anywhere.

Here’s an actual answer, though.

One thing I think I did learn from the Dazzlings is just that characters don’t have to be nice to be sympathetic. You don’t even really necessarily need a sob story or some faffy bullshit about how they’re misunderstood or traumatized or whatever. You don’t need to have them bursting into tears about how horrible they used to be and waxing poetic about how they’ve turned things around and changed themselves for the better. That’s not to say you can’t do those things. Just that those aren’t the only ways to make characters sympathetic.

I say as if there are foolproof ways to make characters sympathetic. There aren’t, because that’s a subjective quality. But I have, rather recently actually, found myself rooting for characters in fiction who’re actually quite unapologetically awful, and I think the Dazzlings were one of the first cases where I had that experience.

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Those sound like the very best things anyone could get from them. The yearning to write about them, and the understanding of liking them without them being nice. I imagine they'd be happy with that.

And it's so true, characters absolutely can be sympathetic even when they're not nice, or even positively horrible. For a surprising number of reasons.

I've often found that causes problems for story resolution, though, and especially if that likeable character is the villain of the piece. How do you end such a story in a way that leaves people happy? You could have the hero win as usual, but that's a downer ending for the bad character, and if you particularly like that character then that can put you off the whole ending of the story. You could have the villain succeed, but that's a downer ending for everyone else. Or you could reform them, and risk losing half the things you liked about them in the first place.

Not that a character who isn't nice has to be the villain, of course, but that frequently is a role assigned to them. So, any thoughts on how such a pitfall ending might be avoided?

That’s a cool question, I like that.

The example of sympathetic villains that’s freshest in my memory comes from Claymore, because I’ve read it recently. There’s a pair of side villains called Dauf and Riful, who by no stretch of the imagination are good or nice people. I find them both quite funny, and it’s shown eventually they’ll both go to very extreme lengths to protect the other—which I find especially endearing since Dauf is way, way, weaker than Riful and realistically he can’t do very much she couldn’t do better herself, but she’ll drag him to safety every time he needs it, and he still tries to beat up people who make her cry.

But at the end of the day they spend a lot of their screentime lurking in caves kidnapping and torturing people without a shred of guilt. And Claymore is quite a straightforward and idealistic story in a lot of ways, so for all that it is a bit dark at times you can probably guess well in advance that people as unpleasant as these two don’t deserve a happy ending and aren’t going to get one.

And the way they go out is their scheme backfires and spirals out of control and they have to run away and then they’re almost torn to bits by these weird zombie sort of things and they barely escape but then they meet Priscilla, another villain. Dauf and especially Riful are both actually quite strong, but they wouldn’t be a match for Priscilla even if they were healthy, and at this point they’re quite worn-down, so things go very not well for them and they get very dead all over the place.

It is kind of a downer ending for them, and I wouldn’t mind it if they got to stick around a little longer. So their last couple scenes were rather visceral for me when I re-read them, and not exactly in a happy sort of way.

But I think their last moments are fitting for the characters, it makes total sense that they die in the situation they end up in, and it’s kinda cool to me that it takes several different threats all lining up at the same time for them to finally go down.

So in that sense I feel like it’s a downer ending that kind of shows them being at their best. And I know that they have to die sooner or later for the story to have a happy ending for the heroes—and I really like that the heroes get a happy ending.

All of which is to say just that however sad or unpleasant that scene may be when I first read it, when I re-read it, and when I think about it in writing out this response, I find there’s a lot more I appreciate than that I dislike, and overall, to me, that makes it balance out to a happy thing.

So like with every other answer, I’m going to appeal to basically consistency in character and tone and themes and stuff like that, and say that essentially, you should be able to justify and articulate why your villain losing the way that they lose is a good fit for the story. That's not necessarily going to lead to a "happy" ending if someone's favorite character is the villain, but that's where I tend to find enduring, long-term happiness from a story, if I can scrutinize it and mull it over and ask questions about it and find that the answers exist and are interesting.

It’s not going to stop people from disliking your story or getting angry or sad or what have you. Someone might still decide that your villain is their favorite character in all of ever and bitch and moan about them dying for years and years on end.

But it does mean that when they do that you can despair about being impenetrable, misunderstood and unappreciated, and that is the kind of thing that separates people who write from writers.

Really, though, I think that in part, people enjoy rooting for villains because they don’t expect them to actually win. Certainly with MLP I think there’s a bit of that. Underdog stories are popular—this is a fact, disputing it is punishable by death—and I don’t care how world-shatteringly powerful an MLP villain is, they’re an underdog in a meta sense by virtue of being the bad guy in a show about colorful ponies learning about friendship and singing friendship songs.

Ultimately, though, if your villains and your heroes are well-constructed, I think you can trust that most people, even if they do maybe kinda think it’d be cool if it didn’t play out this way, understand that the villain is in the wrong and shouldn’t win. The times I’ve found myself genuinely rooting for the villain are usually more because I don’t care much for the hero, and in a good story that probably shouldn’t be the case.

Group Admin

Lots of interesting thoughts here! I would agree that a lot of the time we wouldn't root for the less 'likeable' characters if the ones we were meant to like were done better. And I can see that keeping a character true to themselves can absolutely be more important than having the plot give them a favourable circumstantial outcome.

There's a big speech in Gladiator about rival virtues, making mention of things like ambition, and I think people do tend to forget that the stock western hero virtues of loyalty, courage and purity of heart aren't the only ones audiences look up to. But then I suppose that if the opposition had no virtues at all - not intelligence, not ambition, not smooth professionalism, not sex appeal etc - they wouldn't be much of an opposition.

What opportunities, narratively, do characters who are less nice offer when focused on? What stories can you tell with sirens that you can't with Twilight Sparkle et al?

Yeah, I think especially if you do write a character’s ending knowing that people like this character and wanting to please those people, you’re going to stick the landing so much better if you put in the extra effort and understand why people like this character and what’s good about them and actually follow through with those things. I’ve seen shows where they very sloppily throw in a fan-favorite character or item or whatever and don’t put a shred of effort into it, and to me that’s usually just hollow and insulting.

Anyway, when you ask about characters that you categorize as “nice,” one of the first thoughts that springs to mind is “When aren’t they nice?” or some similar line of questioning.

Because like I think I mentioned earlier, it’s usually good to have your characters not always be in the same mood. And when you’ve taken the time to establish that, say, Aria is almost always very brash and abrasive and confrontational, if you set up a moment where she’s quiet and nice, that can be a great way of conveying that whatever’s making her be that way is a really big deal to her, because it makes a big change in how she conducts herself.

Personally, that’s a concept I quite enjoy. There’s a lot of darker kinds of things I enjoy a lot in stories. Blood and violence and despair and dread and sorrow and all kinds of other nastiness.

Because sometimes it’s just fun like nothing else is to pummel the crap out of your protagonist.

But in some of my favorite stories that’re quite dark, it’s these small moments of brightness that I tend to remember very strongly—if Aria slaps Sonata a hundred times throughout a story, the one time she hugs her is probably going to stick out a lot more. And I find the notion that very harsh and severe conditions still aren’t enough to completely bleed a world or a character dry of goodness to be very comforting and enticing.

So that’s something I quite like. That’s not to say you can’t get similarly very endearing moments out of nice characters. I’m sure you can. But you can make something that might be quite normal for Twilight or Rarity into something quite special for Aria or Adagio. And in some regards I think acts of kindness and goodwill can be a lot more interesting and impactful when you have to squeeze them out of somebody.

Group Admin

That's very true. I've even seen some things where the writers try to 'undo' that character being some peoples' favourite, and do all they can to put people off them in successive instalments.

That's a good point, the value of contrast there is very important. And I'd think it more moving to see an angry character who loves one little thing than a happy character who hates one little thing, so that way around works better.

Any thoughts on how one might go about writing villains in a way that would discourage readers from liking them? If one issue is that the heroes are lacking, then I'd think a good solution would be to fix the heroes. And, if that's because the heroes are lacking some of those admirable traits the villains have, then you could transfer them across to the heroes instead. If that's intelligence and cunning, you get Sherlock. If it's unflinching brutality, you get God of War. Does that mean a villain then should be that same thing but even more so? Or might an alternate route work better?

I know, right? It seems like there’s been something of a trend of purposefully not giving people what they want. Which I can sympathize with, because of course it’s fun to surprise people and be a little unpredictable, and I'm sure there's instances where a character the author doesn't particularly like ends up becoming a fan-favorite, and I'm sure that's difficult to deal with. But that’s no excuse to be lazy about it.

Well, depending on what you mean by “liking” a character, I actually don’t think you should aim to have villains people don't like. Because, for me, if the character is serving a worthwhile role in the narrative, that’s always going to be a reason to like them. So if your character is well-constructed and put to thoughtful use, I think there’s a good chance there will be something to like them for no matter what archetype of character they are, and that should be taken as a good thing.

I’m quite happy to say, for instance, that I like the Balrog quite a lot. That doesn’t mean I agree with it or that I’d want to actually spend time with it or that I wanted it to win or anything like that. I couldn’t actually tell you a whole lot about it, really. I just think it looks cool, facilitates a very memorable scene with lasting and significant consequences, and fleshes out the universe a bit by showing us that there are forces at work in this world much, much greater than men or elves or orcs and all that.

But in fairness I do think that’s a little non-standard. I’ve seen other people reacting with, like, “Man, so-and-so killed my favorite character what a bitch I really hate her,” when I was more, like, “Oh, that’s a cool way to kill that character, I really like that.”

So, yeah, I think developing the hero tends to be a good way to go. Presumably you’re having the villain be doing or attempting to do bad things to the hero or to hero-adjacent people or something like that. So if you want people to be siding against the villain, it’s probably a good idea to make sure that they have reasons to be siding with the hero, because that makes it easier to understand that the villain’s in the wrong, and to give a damn about them being in the wrong.

And having the villain be kind of a more extreme version of the hero is definitely one way to do that. Like I brought up earlier with romance, good character relationships often have similarities as well as differences. So if you have a villain that’s kind of indicative of what the hero could turn into if they were just a little bit different, that’s—I mean, it’s something of a cliché, maybe, but if so it’s a cliché for a reason. Because I do find that virtue and wisdom and lots of other things don't survive very well when you take something to an extreme, so it very much can be possible to present one quality that's good in your hero but then crank it up a couple notches so it turns into something villainous.

Group Admin

Yes, I think that really comes down to the author's motivation. I'm all for killing off beloved characters or having other bad things happen to them in the name of making people feel things, and delighted to examine how much bad stuff an audience will let a character get away with because they like them. But when it feels more like 'No, you shouldn't like the hunky dark villain, you should like the noble sparklehero instead because they're so special, and I'm going to drop pianos on the villain until you admit you like the hero more' then I'm not such a fan.

I'm afraid I have to agree that that attitude may be a little non-standard. But probably better than my liking of the Balrog because he was cool and on fire and stuff.

Are there any common pitfalls you've noticed authors falling down with in terms of making their heroes into the character or side that you want to support? What aspects are they often lacking that leads to looking elsewhere for characters to be on-side with or enamoured with?

Well, it can happen in a lot of ways.

One of the cases I remember most clearly was Ready Player One (the movie, which is atrocious, not the book, which I can’t really comment on, it’s been a while). The first major advancement that the main character makes is contingent on hundreds of people attempting the same race over and over again in this artificial reality video game world, and the main character being the first one to go backwards at the start instead of forwards. So that made me think, right, okay, this story about an MMO fundamentally has no understanding of how gamers or the internet works. The main character’s progress felt hollow and artificial and I had no interest or investment in his journey whatsoever after that moment.

But really I think one of the worst things you can do is have your character’s moral observations--or the story's--not accurately reflect what the audience actually sees.

Let’s say, for example, that you have two heroes in desperate need of transportation to save the world or some such, so they try to steal a car, because that’s the only option available to them in this critical moment. Little shady, but, you know, you can probably see where they're coming from, unless one of them has been established as being incredibly, profoundly against theft, it's probably not the biggest deal.

But then the driver of the car doesn’t much like being stolen from, so they pull a gun. And in the following kerfuffle, one of those heroes, who’s magic and bulletproof and superhumanly powerful and can shoot lasers from their hands and stuff like that, zaps the driver dead. And then they go well that kinda sucks but, you know, greater good, had to be done, moving on.

You can see a contradiction there, I hope. If bullets can’t hurt you and you’re superhumanly strong, someone with a gun does not pose a threat to you. You can walk up to them safely, punch them out or disarm them, all kinds of options are available to you, and you decided to go with the one that’s lethal to this random bystander. You can’t then turn around and justify that by saying it was your only option, because it clearly wasn't.

And that’s not to say that the audience necessarily needs to agree with every moral judgment the heroes make. That’s not true at all. But whatever judgment the characters do make should be derived from all the same facts that the reader and the character can both see. If you don’t do that, I think that’s a really fast way to make your character not come across as the one who ought to win.

Group Admin

This is such an important answer! Yes, absolutely. A lot of works could be greatly improved if that were tightened up!

I'm afraid we're hitting the end of the month here and running out of time, but if I might ask one final question, do you have any advice for fimfiction writers on dealing with criticism, downvotes and other negative feedback? Of course you're welcome to shrug and say you've never received any!

Well it’s not that I haven’t gotten any it’s just that it’s all been wrong so, whatever, who cares, I sure don’t.

That’s not actually true. I have gotten some, and at least once or twice it’s been pretty valid, since I’m not actually particularly interesting or intelligent, just good at making people think otherwise.

That's a good question, though! I’ll start with downvotes, because I think that’s the one I have the strongest stance on.

From my point of view, downvotes on your story should never be taken particularly seriously. Suppose you write a Sunset/Adagio story, and you get a downvote. That could be because someone thought the writing was sub-par—it could also be because they think Sunset/Twilight is OTP and other ships are bad. I hope it’s clear that one of those opinions deserves much more consideration than the other (It’s not, to me, without elaboration, but I would in general prefer that people think about the execution of a thing they don’t like, as opposed to it just being the thing they don’t like).

But you have no way of knowing what motive made someone click that button. Just that one did.

(This is assuming that the downvote isn’t accompanied with an explanation; they aren’t, the number that are is microscopic compared to the ones that aren’t, and the people who say that should be required are very, very wrong)

That’s not to say that downvotes shouldn’t be considered at all, but from the author’s side of things, I don’t think you should ever draw any very decisive conclusions from the amount of downvotes you get.

If nothing else, it’s just, like. There’re people who might go downvote stories because they’re in a bad mood and wanna ruin some stuff. There’re people who compulsively stalk authors they don’t like and downvote their stories without reading them. There’re people who despise a particular fetish and will downvote any stories about that topic.

I think that those people are dicks, and that if you’re allowing people like that to have a strong effect on your mood, you’re giving them much more power than they deserve. So to the best of your ability, I think it is generally in your best interest to assign very little weight to downvotes.

There is a caveat there, though, and it’s related to what I have to say about negative feedback in general.

What I think it comes down to is that for the large majority of people, writing fanfiction is a hobby. Not everyone, some people do get some income out of it and I think that’s great, but that’s a very, very small minority. For most people, fanfiction is not a necessity.

And since it’s not a necessity, I think it’s only you who can know what you want to get out of it. I think it’s just easier to be happy about it if you spend some time thinking about it and have some idea of what your answer is. It’s not gonna be the same for everyone and it doesn’t need to be.

But your goal might interact differently with negative feedback than someone else’s, is the thing.

If your goal is to get a lot of followers, for example, then you probably wanna hit the featured box as often as you can. I don’t care that much about doing that, but if you do, it may be worth your while to see what kinds of stories get a lot of downvotes and what don’t, and try to see what you can do to minimize them, because then downvotes are something that might slow your progress.

And there’s people who’ve gotten the same kinds of criticism on maybe hundreds of stories, and they just kept cranking out the same kinda stuff. I don’t think I could do that, but if you’re having fun the way you’re writing and it's making you happy and that’s the highest priority for you, I don’t think you should feel like you need to take any feedback into consideration, even if it is kinda valid. That phrasing might be a little too extreme, admittedly. But there's nothing wrong with staying in your comfort zone forever, if this is just some hobby you're doing 'cause it makes you feel good.

If your goal is to get better at writing, though, then I do think you owe it to yourself to at least consider any and all feedback you get. I think the majority of it actually isn’t going to be all that good, though. Because giving good feedback is a skill, and not everyone’s very good at it, and not everyone’s going to be using the same standards that you are. So don’t necessarily shy away from feedback, but if you have solid reasons for rejecting it, then don’t feel bad about getting it or doing that.

And it’s good to be getting it from sources you trust—so if you can, make some friends and badger them into giving you feedback, because first of all they probably share more views with you than some rando internet-dweller, so their feedback’s more likely to be of interest of you, and they hopefully have your best interests at heart and knowing that can make difficult criticism easier to handle.

Group Admin

Thank you, I think there's a lot there authors could learn from. I think half the authors here wouldn't feel so bad about downvotes if when to apply them wasn't as ambiguous! Feedback from trusted, consistent sources is an excellent way to improve, probably the best we've found.

Thank you for doing this interview, there are a lot of big answers here containing a lot of hard-won wisdom. I wish you the best of luck with future writing projects, be they siren or otherwise!

And that concludes this group's Author Spotlight series, which has run every four months for the last three years, with interviews from authors like Justice3442, Tethered-Angel, Fuzzyfurvert and many others. You can find the full list here.

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