Characterization and the Zen of Little Ponies


The new My Little Pony show, “Friendship is Magic,” has attracted a significant number of adult viewers, including adult men.  Video posts on Youtube are laced with comments such as “why am I watching this pony show-and liking it?”


The previous direct-to-DVD cartoons promoting the third generation of ponies were mediocre and forgettable.  Giving a character a catchphrase might make that pony stand out, but it doesn’t generate interest or affection;  “Pinkie Pie loves parties!” is hardly a personality.  “Friendship is Magic” took a different approach.

Pinkie Pie still loves parties, but this trait is turned up to eleven, creating a kooky, eccentric prankster with a gift for making people laugh-and a struggle to get people to take her seriously when danger threatens.

Perhaps the greatest strength of “Friendship is Magic” is that each of the six core pony characters have flaws that are logical evolutions of their personalities.

Applejack is honest and hardworking, but stubborn to a fault.  Rainbow Dash is brave, athletic, talented…and  tends to brag about her abilities.  Twilight Sparkle is intelligent and magically gifted and spends so much time studying in her library that she struggles with ordinary social interaction.  Fluttershy is gentle, kind and timid, with a gift for working with animals and a surprising backbone of steel.  Rarity sidesteps the stereotypical fashionable, stuck-up, “popular girl” by being a skilled fashion designer with a generous heart.  Yet despite being so different from each other, these six ponies are the best of friends.

Friendship, however, is not always free of conflict and here is where characterization spawns plot.  Flaws and personality clashes cause tensions that can create problems-or exacerbate already tense situations.  What happens when the two most athletic ponies-Applejack and Rainbow Dash-find themselves competing against one another, when Applejack’s stubbornness clashes with Rainbow Dash’s ego?  What happens when “rough and tumble” Applejack and “prim and proper” Rarity start driving each other nuts-and are forced into close proximity?  What happens when Fluttershy is the only person who can stand up for her friends?  What happens when Twilight Sparkle fears that showing everyone just how gifted she is will make her look like a braggart?

The visually distinctive character designs don’t hurt, nor does the expressive animation, but in the end it comes down to characterization.  Much of the show’s humour comes in watching these strong personalities bounce off each other, and with such a variety of characters it’s easy to recognize a bit of yourself in at least one of them.  The characters are appealing, engaging, and actively relating with one another-for better and for worse-and it’s this dynamism that makes viewers care about them, and find entertainment value in watching them.  Entertainment value sufficient to make grown men watch this pony show, and like it.

What Worries You

One of my favourite writing adages is by a Canadian author named Alistair MacLeod, who noted that “writers write about what worries them”. I happen to believe this is true, although I’m biased, as most of my writing tends to involve medicine in some way and I’m terribly worried every day by the thought of misdiagnoses and worst-case scenarios.

I like this statement because it contrasts with the standard advice given to writers starting out, which is to “write what you know”. I’ve never found that to be profoundly helpful, mostly because I feel that people know lots of things and end up writing about things that don’t particularly interest them simply because it feels familiar. To write about what worries you, though – that makes more sense. As science-fiction and fantasy writers well know, writing stories in a setting removed from our day-to-day surroundings leads to richly inventive stories that transport and entertain, but the best of these genres also make us think about issues that matter. The best speculative fiction has been written by people who have things to say about our society, and who use the fantastic or the futuristic to make readers think about problems and their possible solutions. (The worst can do this, too, if the writing is clunky and heavy-handed enough, but that’s another matter.)

What does this mean for people starting out in the business? I don’t mean to imply that every story written needs to have a Message, something important that will change the world if only the right people read it, damnit, and I would even caution against starting out with the idea of holding a mirror up to the world at large. But I do think that adage may help people to hone in on where to start when they stare at the blank screen, trying to call to mind all those tips and tricks about worldbuilding.

Why does this story matter to me? Why is it that I want to tell it? What is it that makes this the story I want to have people read?

For me, thinking of these questions makes it more likely that I’ll be invested in what I write, and that my attention to the craft of characterization and plot and conflict will be that much stricter because of my emotional involvement.  I’m worried about trying to fix people, trying to change the story that they’ve been telling themselves about who they are so that I can offer a treatment plan that will prevent that next stroke or delay that move to the nursing home. Therefore, in my first novel, I am writing about someone who can change people’s stories, for better or for worse, and what that does to the people around him and the people who might want to take advantage of that. If ever I get lost in the details, I can always come back to that worry, and that helps keep me going to the next part of the actual writing.

I’d encourage you to do that, if you’re starting out. Think about why you want to write that story. Think about what worries you, and start from there. It won’t help with the grammar or the editing or the elusive publishing deal right away, but it will make the story matter, and give it that extra bit of meaning to push it down the long road of publication.


What do you do when the garbage needs emptying, the litter box needs cleaning, and the bills need paying?

You’re two weeks overdrawn and the only thing you got going for you is a few fleeting moments of relaxation time.

For most aspiring or beginning writers, the perils of reality always like to set in and rear their ugly little heads at the most unsettling times. How do you kill the distraction demons?

After my slump, I did a whole lot of real life reorganizing. I just ended a three year committed relationship and now it was time to move on. Truth was, I forgot why I even started writing to begin with.

Sure, it’s nice to get lost in the limelight and the big dreams of winning a million dollar contract, writing the next breakout bestseller, and finally being able to quit your day job and be a real writer.

Money had never been  a strong point of mine. Truth is, I can’t balance a checkbook without needing a calculator. I have a full time public service job that I most certainly didn’t take for the salary.

Did I dream of being a rich successful author? I’d be lying if I said no. I’m sure there are a lot of other people out there with similar aspirations. But, the visible minority are not the whole of the matter. For every Amanda Hocking and Stephen King, there are a million other Tobias Buckells, and Daniel Abrahams.

There was a while where I thought I was the most awesome person in the world and New York would be knocking down my door to get me to sign on the dotted line. I got so lost in the chance that I might win something, that I forgot to do anything. I would lounge around, plucking grapes off the vine and discussing with myself whether or not the Muse was planning to come over for a drink.

And then I thought about reality and the whole writing life seemed to slide off into oblivion. I let the rest of the world distract me that I forgot to make time for me. And that made me forget why I started writing when I was in 7th Grade.

It was because I liked it.

It made me happy. I told stories that I wanted to read.

It wasn’t to seek some sort of gratification or a self-fulfilling prophecy of making a million dollars. It was because I was having fun.

So? What’s the best way to kill the distraction demon? Don’t forget that you’re having fun.

If you’re finding yourself lounging around, waiting for the Muse to come visit, go out and find her. We think of writing as a passive activity: Sitting at the desk, relaxing on the couch, laying in your bed while you balance a laptop on your legs and plug away at a keyboard.

But there’s so much more to it than passively listening to yourself bang away on keys. Go out on an adventure, watch the sunset, climb a mountain, or hike a trail. Have yourself an adventure and let your mind wander. Think back to the simpler times when distractions weren’t an issue and all you could do was run and play.

Read a book. Work on something or anything else. The more you work to quiet the voice that says “you can’t”, the better chances you have of hearing the one that says “I believe in you.”


The Art of Implication or Show Don’t Tell is for Losers

I’m a fervent believer in the old adage Show Don’t Tell. We’ve all heard it. We all hate it. We all know it’s essential for good fiction — the writer’s Golden Rule. It reminds us that simply telling a story isn’t enough. We have to bring the story alive through choice details that make the simple statement redundant and useless.

So, why do I say that it’s for losers?

Because, lately, I’ve come to realize that the adage doesn’t do the work. I’ve been reading a lot of works in progress by unpublished writers, and I repeatedly come across the same issue. It’s an issue, I myself, have to deal with. It’s not that we’re bad writers. It’s not that we don’t know the adage and put it to good use. The issue is that we don’t use it as widely or was deeply as we should.

First, lets look at the adage itself. Show Don’t Tell only mentions one of the senses. While our mentors might mean to use all the senses, it’s not evident in the statement — and as we all know, words are powerful things. They work on us even at a subconscious level, and the amount of times new writers forget about the other four (or five depending on the story you’re telling) backs me up. As many of us have heard before, genre fiction is immersive. Our readers don’t just read the worlds we create. They live in them. If we were writing scripts, showing the world might be enough. But novel and short story writers must use every sense to make their worlds real. Readers must smell the newly turned earth of the farmer’s field, taste the smoke of the soldier’s recently exploded bunker, feel the slick sweat of the rebel about to be put to the question.

Second, the adage doesn’t encompass the most important aspect of putting across a powerful story — emotion. You can’t show emotion with any power anymore than you can tell it. For example, showing a facial expression is about as informative as just saying that someone’s happy. And depending on how it’s carried off, saying that someone’s happy is easier to understand. But you can imply emotion. When we describe the smell of our farmer’s new turned earth, we imply the satisfaction of  the fruits of a plowed field. When we describe the feel of our rebel’s slick sweat as he awaits his torture, we feel his terror, his discomfort. Emotion, my friends, is the universal language. A reader may not understand a character’s political or religious views. They may not understand how a character’s background may motivate their actions, but they will understand a character’s emotions. Emotions are the true connective tissue between a character and a reader.

For this reason, I’ve come to think that the adage should actually read Imply Don’t Tell. I mean, that is what we’re talking about when we Show, right?

Which brings us to my third reason that Show Don’t Tell is inadequate. Show Don’t Tell is primarily a tool for narrative. We use it for description. We use it for action. But when was the last time someone told you to Show Don’t Tell a piece of dialogue? Doesn’t really work, does it? And when was the last time you realized, or were told by a reader, that your dialogue is flat, repetitive, overwrought, over-simplistic, or just plain unbelievable? That’s happened to all of us. Great dialogue implies subtext, motive, tension without saying it allowed. Great dialogue implies physical and/or emotional danger. When one character asks a question, the person answering doesn’t give a direct answer. They answer a little to the side, in a round about way. And even when they do answer directly, they do so with loaded words that imply more than they’re saying.

So, I put to you all, when you’re writing or revising and you come across a telling statement, don’t wonder how you can show it. Wonder how you can imply it. For, when you think about it, implication is what we’re best at. We can’t in reality, make other people see what we see, feel what we feel, no matter how good a wordsmith we are. If that’s what you want to do, go become a movie director. Writers can only imply with these paltry things we call words and hope the reader get’s somewhere close to the point. By implication, we leave a few cracks for the reader to fill in the gaps, and that is half the fun of reading.