Interview: Dafaddah's Alone · 6:35pm
Despite the dark tag, Alone is a story about love and family. We see the love between Twilight and Celestia, between Twilight and her brother, and between Spike and Twilight's parents. We also see the love of the changeling queen for her brood. Even weird bug things will do anything for their family! So despite the darkness and death, in the end this was a heartwarming story that reaffirms the values we’ve come to expect from a show like Friendship is Magic.
This is why I love fanfiction.
Plot summary: Twilight faces more than she bargained for when a resort island turns out very different from her expectations, and she must make a decision that will forever change how she sees herself.
1. What inspired you to write this?
A few months ago I decided to try my hand at doing a horror story in the more traditional sense, that is, a story where the horror comes from an impending sense of wrongness, of having the feeling that the rug has already been been pulled out from under you, and all that's left is to contemplate the inevitable fall.
I wanted to write this type of horror story because it's hard to do effectively, and also because I really enjoy reading them! I've been writing fanfiction for almost two years now. In that time I've sought to keep stretching my boundaries by trying new themes and genres. Yes, some of my other stories on FIMfiction could be considered horror, or at least dark. But in those cases the horror was pretty much up-front and the scenarios were already established by other fanfic authors (e.g. Optimalverse, etc...) The structure and techniques for those types of stories are very different from what I needed to do with Alone.
Also, I wanted this to be about a character with whom readers were already deeply involved at an emotional level. Naturally I chose my best pony: Twilight Sparkle! I care an awful lot about her, which I hope comes through in my prose, and I would like to think that because of our similarities in attitudes – (eggheads for science unite!) – I think I have a reasonably good level of insight into her character and motivations. It's my hope that readers leave this story with a better understanding of Twilight and caring more deeply for my fellow nerd-herd pony!
There is another reason I wanted to do this story with Twilight as protagonist which has more to do with my own head-canon regarding her: I felt there was something missing in Twilight's education in order for me to feel comfortable with her elevation to Alicorn status. As we learned in Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility, and I felt she needed a shot of what responsibility at this levels entails, specifically the realization that not every problem can be resolved with friendship and magic. (I'll elaborate on this point in some of the answers below.)
A final point on inspiration. The master of this type of horror is of course Stephen King, so I would be remiss in not mentioning his fiction as model for what I was attempting to do with Alone. His stories generally start off as Norman Rockwell slice-of-life, and then an element or character is brought in that makes the back of your neck itch like there's a mosquito in the room. When you've finally cornered it, you find out it's just a lure put out by the giant bug behind the wall that's trying to catch you!
2. What advice do you have for people writing dark stories?
First, dark stories are all about emotional investment. The reader will 'feel the dark' way more if it's happening to a character they feel strongly about, not just in a general sense but in the specific context of the story. The author has to take the time needed to get the reader emotionally invested and build up that feeling of proximity... before gently making them jump from the derailing train car into the hades-bound hand basket.
Second, dark stories work best when they are emotional roller-coasters. They can't just be all doom and gloom, there have to be emotional highs to provide a contrast to the depths of despair (or whatever other unpleasantness you have planned for your poor, unsuspecting hero or heroine). The pacing of these ups and down is important in building the tension towards the climax.
Third, you have to strive to draw the reader into a more visually immersive experience so that it becomes even easier for them to share the protagonist's sense of jeopardy. This means that in a dark story you really have to pay much more attention to feelings and to use the background itself and lots of 'texture words’, so that you can provide the reader that 'touchy-feely' experiential stream. As a side benefit, this approach also makes it possible to imply many things without having to state them outright.
3. I love the way you built up the creepy atmosphere and sense of wrongness; we knew something was wrong on the island, we knew Twilight was all alone there and in danger, we knew there were changelings involved, but we never knew the specifics. Do you have any advice on how to evoke a creepy atmosphere?
Especially in this type of horror story, subtlety is very important. From a writing perspective, this is one of those 'less is more' situations. A small discrepancy or deviation is far more noticeable to the reader that a big one. A recurring deviation creates a buildup of tension. In Alone there was the constant focus on Twilight's lack of companionship for the trip. It went from something Twilight wanted, to a joke, an embarrassment, an annoyance, and then finally a crisis. And then the resolution of the immediate problem plunged her deep into her moral crisis, leaving her feeling even more alone. Of course, the title of the story was a pretty heavy-handed clue as to the importance of this factor!
4. How do you pull off a good twist ending?
As in a magic act, the fun for the audience comes from being aware that something is hidden, without actually knowing precisely what it is. Here the old show don't tell rule becomes very important, and it is used by emphasizing the consequences on the protagonist (and others around them) of actions happening behind the scenes. Of course the main characters themselves mustn't know too much either, and that ignorance has to be realistic and in character.
A particularly effective technique here is the red herring, pointing the reader in the wrong direction, one you know will be falsified eventually. However, be careful with this device. Its use has to be subtle and balanced, and you have to leave some clues that there is more going on. If you don't then you could turn the reader off, because people in general get miffed if they think the story's main character (or the reader) is being led around by the nose!
In the case of Alone, it was easy for the reader to conclude that there were changelings on the island. But I put in enough OOC behaviour (for changelings) that the reader would still feel that itch that says I don't have the full picture here.
5. Tragedy and darkness seem to go hand in hand, but that’s not what you did; sure, there was tragedy and some bittersweetness to the ending, but it was also a heartwarming one about hard choices and how the people who love us will support us no matter what. Why did you make it about that? Is this a theme you try to explore in your other stories?
That's a great question! I think all stories in the end are about change, and change that is a pure loss is in fact rare. The tragedy here is the loss of innocence. It is certainly bittersweet, but in the end there is personal growth and the hope for a better future.
In this case Twilight's understanding of the world is significantly expanded. She now knows that defending the ponies she loves is not going to be a moral cakewalk, and she gains a much broader understanding and appreciation for the Princesses, her brother, and all those ponies who defend Equestria on a daily basis.
Also, the irony of the title is that Twilight finds out that she never was alone, even after she had stepped over a line that she had believed (yes, somewhat naively) should never be crossed, and that an act that she thought would irrevocably distance her from the Princesses and her BBBFF instead has brought her closer to them.
Relating this to my other stories, much of my fiction is about transformative experiences, either tangible or purely internal. On a structural level, my stories run quite a range styles, from drama, adventure, to comedy and/or parody, so my stories aren't all 'serious' by any means! Themes that are common to all my stories are a basic rational/scientific world view, and recognition of the importance of friendship and caring for others. This is no doubt why I feel such a close affinity to Twilight. Also, characters in my stories are rarely 100% good or 100% evil, and the interplay between these facets of personality and moral beliefs (about good and evil) fascinate me.
6. One of my favourite parts of the story was actually tangential to the main plot; it was the scene where Twilight leaves Spike behind with her parents. By showing their relationships, you made us care more about Twilight than we would otherwise. Could you elaborate on the relationship between Spike, Twilight, and her parents?
One of the disappointments I have with the TV show is its rather cavalier treatment of Spike. He is a sentient being raised by Twilight and her parents. But he is visibly not a pony, and so in any realistic sense is an adopted child. This situation was made more complex by his arrival in Twilight's life at a very young age, too young for her to assume such a responsibility under normal circumstances.
I believe Spike's fostering to Twi was a deliberate strategy on Celestia's part to get her to develop genuine empathy towards others (and by this I mean all sentient beings) before she reached the full potential of her power, and so before that power could possibly corrupt her. As we learned in the opening to season one, Twilight had a strong personal bias towards isolating herself and spending as much time as possible reading (more parallels with my own early life). CeIestia deliberately set upon a course to get Twilight more directly involved with others, starting as early as when she was foal-sat by Princess Cadence. I also think that Celestia has done all this with the willing cooperation of Twilight's own parents.
Whether you buy that argument on not, Twilight's current relationship to Spike is verging more on the parental than sibling, which the show seems to have fewer and fewer qualms in presenting. And Spike's relationship to her parents is more like that of a grand-child – he gets more pampering than discipline. By the way, I've explored the nature of Twi's and Spike's relationship in another of my stories, Filial.
In Alone, I wanted to show the level of Spike's dependence on Twilight for just the reason that you mentioned in your question: it makes clear to the reader what is really at stake in Twilight's own survival. At one point in Alone, Twilight wishes Spike was there with her, and then immediately revises her wish, as she realizes the potential dire consequences to her 'number one assistant'. That was Twi being parental: realizing fully well what the little dragon meant to her, and her responsibility to keep him out of harm's way.
7. After what she did, Twilight feels like she failed the Princess. Is she that sheltered, or is Equestria just that peaceful?
Is Equestria peaceful? If Ponyville as portrayed on the show is even remotely typical of a small Equestrian town, then I should think not! BTW, I grew up in a small town. Trust me, I know peaceful!
Was Twilight naive? Yes, absolutely!
Let me elaborate. Twilight has been meticulously guided along the path of Friendship and Harmony by Princess Celestia, and here she is having to resolve a situation by going outside of what she's been taught. This event was not foreseen by Celestia and is not part of her plan for Twilight's education (or perhaps not so soon in her education).
One can argue that it would only make sense for Celestia to get some martial training for the Elements of Harmony, given their importance to the defense of Equestria. But there is no hint of that ever having been done in the TV show. Maybe Celestia has implemented some guard protection for the Bearers of the EoH covertly (as some fanfics depict), but then again, wouldn't these guards have interceded in any number of mishaps the Bearers have encountered in the seasons since their investment?
My own theory is that the Bearers haven't been trained in a military sense so that the Bearers themselves can be kept free of the temptation to use their power for darker purposes. The opening episodes from this season certainly presented the offensive capabilities of the EoH when Celestia used them to imprison Nightmare Moon. Maybe she wants to avoid creating another Sombra!
In any case, in Alone, Twilight is naïve in that she's never faced a situation that she had to choose between two evils (from her perspective) and carry the consequent perceived stain on her psyche. Here she is forced into making such a choice, ready or not. Angst and personal growth ensue.
8. Do you think what Twilight did was right or wrong? What about what the changelings were doing?
Twilight did her duty: she protected the other pony guests of the island from the hunger of the wasplings, should they have hatched, and from the Dire-wasp itself, should it have found its entire brood destroyed. She did the only thing she could, and at a huge personal cost. She became a hero with that act, and in so doing achieved a much deeper understanding of what the Princesses, and service ponies like her brother, sacrifice for to make it possible for other ponies to live the happy lives.
As to the changelings, I have to admit that it was my express purpose with this story to not give Twilight an easy choice to make. The situation was morally ambiguous. You could see the changelings as sinister love thieves, or you could almost categorize the changeling island as providing couples' counseling and helping repair broken relationships. (Imagine the advantages an empath has in figuring out what has gone wrong in a relationship and in taking the right steps to fix it. No wonder the resort's motto was 'Nopony leaves Bucktouche Island dissatisfied’!)
Twilight is a very smart mare. I have no doubt she figured all of this out pretty quickly, and could easily come to admire the ingenuity of the changelings' resort setup. In fact she said so to the changeling queen, although she also admitted that she was very uncertain about the moral implications. What was key is that Twilight came to see the changelings as not necessarily malevolent, and finally to recognize them as individuals with their own ethics, personalities and even family lives, and that friendship with changelings was indeed possible. Changelings stopped being 'the other', another important step in her education, so that once she is elevated to Princess status she doesn't become a potentially genocidal xenophobe.
After I posted the story I did get quite a lot of comments on these issues, which was my intent. One of the great things about fanfic sites is the opportunity to engage directly with readers. These types of issues get readers involved with the story, and as an author nothing makes me happier than to see them discussing such points, either with me or amongst each other.