5 Ways My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Can Make You a Better Storyteller

29 May, 2012 Musing Musers 42 comments

Excellent.  Do I have your attention now?  That’s right.  My Little Pony.  You read that correctly.  Many of you will remember a cartoon that looked vaguely like this:

But I’m not talking about the old stuff.  I’m talking about the new stuff.  I’m talking about My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic:

And I’m about to tell you how one show about six little ponies can change the way you write.

1. Any idea can be great – given love, dedication and commitment.

Creativity is a vital aspect of storytelling.  Sometimes the story you want to tell, on the outside, isn’t the most original when you write it’s summary.   You really, really want to write that novel about a vampire guy who falls in love with the new girl at school, BUT – so been done before!

What choice do you have but to abandon your writing career and take up excessive drinking as a hobby?!

And in some genres, there’s not always a lot of room to make the absolutely original storylines.  You have a formula that you mostly need to stick to in order to publish it.

But just because you’re picking up a tired old concept, doesn’t mean you can’t make it something brilliant.

As skeptical as the brilliant Lauren Faust was to take on Hasbro’s tired old My Little Pony show, she definitely knew what she wanted to do with it.  “Cartoons for girls don’t have to be a puddle of smooshy, cutesy-wootsy, goody-two-shoeness.”

With that vision in mind, she set about to create a show that has been phenomenally successful – not just with girls but boys, and adults – both men and women.  Brilliant story-telling, a passion for the characters and great imagination has turned something tired and true into something fresh and completely original in the market where, “animated shows for girls don’t get ratings.”

2. Learn to drive a plot without relying on romance.

In the young adult, new adult and romance genres particularly, romance at least plays a significant role in the story.  But sometimes it can be a little too easy to rely on angst and romance to drive the story and make it more interesting.  Sometimes getting wrapped up on the romance is nice but can get boring and repetitive.  Sure, it’s nice but maybe taking extra time to build a plot driven by friendship, action, adventure, character flaws as well.

For a children’s cartoon aimed at girls, there is precious little romance in My Little Pony – and yet it is still an insanely watchable show.  Sometimes the story has a dragon or Ursa Minor or some other creature to defeat.  But these are merely tools used to forward the overall story in which each character has their own path of self-growth.

Once you have a deeper understanding of your character and what drives their motivations, there’s less need to rely on sexy scenes to forward the events of the novel.  It lends depth and character to a story where the character grows in more than just their love life.  The events that happen in the novel no longer happen to prove how much the main characters love each other, but to help them grow together and deepen the reader’s understanding of who they are, not just individually but as a couple as well.

3. Respect your genre.

I’ve worked with several authors as an editor and even more as a beta reader.  Sometimes, when bringing up an issue with a story or character, I’ve had it brushed off.  “Yeah, but it’s just a romance!” or “I don’t think the kids will notice!  It’s just a children’s book.”

“To look at the quality of most girls’ cartoons, it would seem that not one artist really cared about them. Not one designer, not one background painter, not one animator… In short, animated shows for little girls come across as boring.  Stupid. Lame.

This perception, more than anything, is what I am trying to change with My Little Pony.” -Lauren Faust

It’s not JUST a romance novel or JUST a YA novel or JUST a children’s novel.  It’s YOUR novel and YOUR characters and even in those genres you can still do something great.  You can still revolutionize it even while staying true to the formula and style.  Every genre can be revolutionized and made fresh and new – and you could be the one to do it!


4. Ramp your characterization.

Characterization is almost everything in writing a great novel.  After reading so many Paranormal Romances and Young Adult novels, as a reader, I have to say that there isn’t always a great variation in the characterization of female protagonists.  Lauren Faust had this same problem.

“but the female characters have been so homogenized with old-fashioned “niceness” that they have no flaws and are unrelatable. They are so pretty, polite and perfect; there is no legitimate conflict and nothing exciting ever happens.”

Many female protagonists share similar issues across the genres.  They don’t have meaningful female relationships, they are generally boring, mild in temperament, with few interests hobbies or passions that drive them outside of their great romance.  But here’s where My little Pony excels.  Each Pony has their own strong personalities and interests.  And each of those personalities have to interact with each other.  So the prissy fashion designer, Rarity, has to learn how to love the country bumpkin, Applejack.  How does the painfully shy Fluttershy learn to build a good relationship with the fiesty, brave, cool Rainbow Dash?  And how does all six wildly divergent personalities all navigate a six-way friendship?

This is what makes the show so watchable.  It adds depth and makes the characters relatable and lovable.  Branching out and creating characters that exist outside the tropes and archtypes.  Mix your characters up.  Give them passions, dreams, goals, personality.  Most of all – give them a great range of deep characters around them with their own personalities, passions, dreams and goals and weave into your story like a really rich tapestry.

“There are lots of different ways to be a girl. You can be sweet and shy, or bold and physical. You can be silly and friendly, or reserved and studious. You can be strong and hard working, or artistic and beautiful. This show is wonderfully free of “token girl” syndrome, so there is no pressure to shove all the ideals of what we want our daughters to be into one package. There is a diversity of personalities, ambitions, talents, strengths and even flaws in our characters–it’s not an army of cookie-cutter nice-girls or cookie-cutter beauty queens like you see in most shows for girls.” – Lauren Faust

5. Change the way you build your world.

One of the things I love most about Seraphina by Rachel Hartman is that she already embraces this principle.

So often, when creating characters and societies, we fall back on comfortable gender roles.  Noble king, wise hermit, evil temptress, jealous competition, wicked witch, mean step-mother, hot alpha male, pack-leader.

We all know these characters so well because we see them again and again.  But when you make the decision to free yourself from these tried and true stereotypes, you have something that looks different.

In My Little Pony, Princess Celestia is wise, kind and unlike most novel’s treatment of female monarchs where their ability to fill the role is tinged with questioning her ability to rule.  Rainbow Dash is a Ponyville hero, well respected for her athleticism.  In a world where sports that involve women are well respected and held in high-esteem – without ever questioning the fact that Rainbow Dash is a total tomboy – it’s refreshing!

Where female cooperation and accomplishments are absolutely normal and par of the course, you find richer storytelling.  Instead of female characters in YA or romances being powerless and generic, every one of the main six has unique skills and dreams.  Rarity owns her own fashion business – creating cutting edge designs, Applejack runs her farm and is an entrepreneur, Twilight Sparkle in the Princess’ favoured student who studies heavily and works long hours, Rainbow Dash is a powerful athlete and Fluttershy cares for the animals and looks after the woodland creatures.  Pinkie Pie is just random.  There is no excuse for her.  Thus why I love her.

Changing the way you build your world not only makes your novel unique but powerful.  And we’ll thank you for it.  Sincerely.

 

It may not seem like people would have something to learn from a children’s cartoon aimed at girls.  But after reading the same kind of books again and again, it’s the books that most follow these principles that really stand out for me.

Also, you know, you should totally watch My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

Welcome to the herd

Kat Kennedy

Kat Kennedy

Co-blogger at Cuddlebuggery
Kat Kennedy is a book reviewer and aspiring author in the Young Adult genre. She reviews critically but humorously and get super excited about great books. Find her on GoodReads.
Kat Kennedy
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Kat Kennedy

42 Responses to “5 Ways My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic Can Make You a Better Storyteller”

  1. Cyna

    x3 This is really, really a great article. All awesome advice, all stuff I’d love to see more of in paranormal YA, and hell, UF in general.

    Also, damn you, after reading all of that stuff with the creator, now I want to watch My Little Pony. BLAST! DD:! She does sound very smart and aware though, love that.
    Cyna recently posted…067 – Token of Darkness by Amelia Atwater-RhodesMy Profile

  2. Jenny

    This post is made of so much win.

    #2 – This. I think it takes intelligence to push past the crutch of angst to find more heart & soul in characters themselves. Life is pretty darn interesting & IT isn’t always full of angst.

    “I don’t think the kids will notice!”
    Oh my how I have heard this in my head when I’ve read some books! I just KNEW someone somewhere said it. That irks me.

    You made a watcher out of me. I’m off to Netflix to immerse myself!
    Jenny recently posted…5 Things YA Dystopian Fiction Taught Me About RomanceMy Profile

    • Kat Kennedy

      @Jenny: I hope you enjoy it, Jenny! I wish more authors would realize how important relationships other than romantic ones are.

  3. Rachel Hartman

    Aw, thanks for the mention! <3

    I had been totally ignoring this phenomenon because I thought they were stupid in the 80s (just to clarify: they WERE). But I should check this out, perhaps.
    Rachel Hartman recently posted…Prog rock poulticeMy Profile

    • Kat Kennedy

      @Rachel Hartman: You know me! I wouldn’t have mentioned it if it weren’t true! I am so in love with Seraphina and the world you built!

  4. Ani Gonzalez

    Sorry, Ninjago: Masters of Spinjitzu is better. All of the above plus evil ninja snakes. Does My Little Pony have evil ninja snakes? I didn’t think so.

  5. Amanda @FancyOatmeal

    THNAK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU for #2 and the reminder that a YA book does not need to turn into a romance factory for overly hormoned teens/women in their 30s. If your plot and character development are strong enough, the mushy gushy can be left at the curbside.
    Amanda @FancyOatmeal recently posted…Literature Summer Assignment 2012My Profile

  6. AnimeJune

    Awesome post! I have to admit I have never seen the new My Little Pony (I only have basic cable), but I’ve heard good things.

    AND I REALLY HATE WHEN PEOPLE SAY “IT’S JUST FOR KIDS!” Not only in thinking that a kid’s show or book isn’t important, but ALSO the belief that children’s books, shows, or movies, DON’T HAVE to be well-written or well-made because “it’s only for kids and they won’t know the difference.”

    I think one of my favourite critics, the Nostalgia Chick, put it best. In a review of Disney sequels,she talked about how parents, who normally want and should want the best for their kids, are bizarrely blase about what they watch. Oh, they’re watching a dumb show with bad messages? Who cares – “it’s just for kids, they won’t know the difference!”

    How many times have you seen a parent deciding to providing their kid with subpar nutrition, education, clothing, medication “because it’s only for kids.” Not a whole damn lot (I hope).

    Every other part of a kid’s life is expected to be good and good for them – so why not TV Shows? This whole idea that kids are incapable of being unentertained by shows regardless of quality is bull. I was seven when I had to sit through Shaquille O’Neal’s “Shazam” and I *still* knew that was a bad movie!
    AnimeJune recently posted…"Delicious," by Sherry ThomasMy Profile

  7. Keru Faye

    Bless this post.

    I’m not really a fan of MLP (too much of it permeates into non-related fandoms), but I love Lauren Faust’s work. I was obsessed with Powerpuff Girls for many years.

    This is stuff that I knew I wanted to happen in my own novel. I made sure that every character has a flaw of some kind and that the novel would focus on building people first and then romance. The whole book is about relationships, but it’s also about growing up and becoming a better person.

  8. Out to Pasture

    hi Kat – random surfing and found your site. And the title not only caught my eye, but really sums-up the MLP:FiM concept: They are great storytellers!

    Just to emphasize a few points, other than Lauren Faust being a genius, which she is…

    My daughter, now 19 and in college, called me to the tv last fall and said “watch the new My Little Pony show!” Fine with me; we’ve been watching tv together since 1995, after we saw “Toy Story” when she was 2 two years old. When the movie started, her eyes never left the screen. I had to check several times to see if she was still breathing! At that point I knew she had my genetic predisposition for animation.

    And soon after, Lauren was in our home with Blossom, Bubbles and Buttercup. So were Dexter and Deede and all the cartoons that were developed from the 90’s forward.We have the entire “Animaniac” series on DVD, which attests to our deep sense of “lunacy on steroids.”

    My daughter also became a voracious reader. Rather than blather on like Dan Rather (too soon?), I’ll let C.S. Lewis speak for me, as he has infinitely more credibility than I:

    “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest.”

    “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.”

    Let me tell you a secret, actually, TWO….

    I am a teacher..and once I was a little boy! Who READ BOOKS and watched “cartoons” (animated TV series). So when you hear this:

    “Yeah, but it’s just a romance!” or “I don’t think the kids will notice! It’s just a children’s book.”

    RUN! Hang-Up the phone! Cancel the contract! Stamp NULL and VOID!

    Kids don’t want watered-down “smooshy, cutesy-wootsy” garbage. “If you write it, they will read.”

    “2. Learn to drive a plot with­out rely­ing on romance.” THANK YOU!!!
    If that’s all a writer (books, tv, movies, whatever) has in their bag, then they really don’t have anything. Life is so much more than “Valley Girls.”

    #4 I was going to comment on, but I can’t say it better than Lauren’s quote. (No, I’m not her press agent.)

    But #5. YES! Build your own universe! I suppose that immediately stamps me as a Doctor Who fan. Build it with love and care, or it will crash and burn. Back to C.S. Lewis: In “The Magician’s Nephew,” there were many alternate, non-parallel universes (Multiverse concept). The MLP staff has done a beautiful job of creating a unique and orderly world as scaffolding for experiencing emotional tensions and resolutions common to various situations that each of us face, AND…(breathe!)…summing up the life lesson at the end of each episode. Aesop would be proud.

    My daughter IS 50% Fluttershy, 50% Twilight. My wife is 50%/%50 Pinkie/Twilight. But although the shows focus is usually one or more the mane(sic) six, when you bring in all the other cast members you have someone or something that anyone can relate to and enjoy. IF they like a good story.

    “Good Grief,Charlie Brown! Are you going to analyze every show!?!?”

    No, but let’s just name a few episodes and one final element for closure (this is not a top ten list):

    1. “Friendship Is Magic” (“Mare in the Moon”)Episodes 1 and 2, obviously!
    2. “Winter Wrap-up”
    3. “Sister Hooves Social
    4. “It’s About Time”(!!! I mentioned Dr. Who!)
    5. “Read It and Weep”
    6. “Family Appreciation Day” (I have several “Grannie Smiths” in my family tree)
    7. “The Cutie Pox”
    8. “MMMystery on the Friendship Express” (with nods to Agatha Christie, Poirot and Holmes, and maybe Columbo, too.)
    9/10.”A Canterlot Wedding – Parts 1 and 2″

    FINALLY – The music. William Anderson and Daniel Ingram have been magic.
    Fresh sounds, well constructed songs, great background material, homage to Stephen Sondheim and others…fantastic!

    My apologies for this diatribe, but MLP is a GREAT show, and great for all the RIGHT reasons! It’s 20% cooler than anything else on TV!

  9. Phil Goetz

    There are many ways the theory behind the new My Little Pony is interesting. I wrote about it on Livejournal. Re. your points:

    – There was never any danger of MLP turning into a soap opera. What did get dropped from the previous generations of MLP was the heavy emphasis on plots with villains. Villains are bad for TV series in so many ways – they demand a shallow characterization of the villain, encourage simplistic thinking, give us little opportunity to learn anything new about the characters we’re interested in, and waste time developing throwaway characters.

    – They do a great job of giving the characters lives outside the show, and making those goals important to the characters.

    – So many writers say to “give your characters flaws”. Don’t. Look at what they did in My Little Pony: Each character has distinct traits, which are flaws when that character acts on their own (because they are out of balance), but are strengths when she acts in concert with her friends. This is all part of a departure by MLP from Western literary theory. Western literary theory, particularly that derived from Aristotle, is geared towards conveying masculine virtues in a story. And masculine virtues are above all independent. Each man is supposed to perfect himself, because men are, ultimately, always in competition. That’s why you’re told that each character may be helped by other characters, but must resolve their conflicts themselves. (We have lots of sports-team stories, but look at them closely and you’ll see little but subplots about individual team members – often about individuals learning to be team players, but rarely about how the teamwork itself works.)

    MLP throws this dogma out the door. MLP talks about the virtue of the group, in a way that Western literary theory is not prepared to deal with.

  10. Nana

    Hello. To be honest I can’t agree with you with the fact, that girly cartoons shouldn’t be oh-so-sweet… I prefer the older version of My Little Pony. Todays kids are so spoiled and mostly bad. There are many vulgar, young children, they’re violent etc. And why is that? It’s because they’re not watching stuff right for their age anymore. I’m not talking about only cartoons, but in general. Girls SHOULD be sweet, they should watch cute stuff and be cute, not manly… I have nothing against tomboys etc., but girl is the opposite to guy, so she should be at least a bit girly… And those new cartoons are simply stupid, violent and not cute at all. Also, kids should learn from cartoons and what can they learn from those new ones? Nothing. Actually they’re brain-eating… I’m glad that I was born in 1990, because I had the pleasure to grow up watching normal cartoons with less stupidity and less violence.

    • Steph Sinclair
      Twitter:

      @Nana Sorry for the confusion. We actually haven’t deleted your previous comment. There is a bug with our commenting system (it affects other blogs who use Livefyre as well) where on really old posts new comments using Livefyre disappear. We’ve been told that they are working on a fix, but we do still have your comment in our comment database. It’s just not showing up because of the bug. In fact, it’s possible that this comment I’m typing out to you may disappear from this post as well (but you should still get an email notification about it). And any comment Kat might make, replying to your original one, may disappear too. 
      Your previous comment that is not showing up:
      >>Hello. To be honest I can’t agree with you with the fact, that girly cartoons shouldn’t be oh-so-sweet… I prefer the older version of My Little Pony. Todays kids are so spoiled and mostly bad. There are many vulgar, young children, they’re violent etc. And why is that? It’s because they’re not watching stuff right for their age anymore. I’m not talking about only cartoons, but in general. Girls SHOULD be sweet, they should watch cute stuff and be cute, not manly… I have nothing against tomboys etc., but girl is the opposite to guy, so she should be at least a bit girly… And those new cartoons are simply stupid, violent and not cute at all. Also, kids should learn from cartoons and what can they learn from those new ones? Nothing. Actually they’re brain-eating… I’m glad that I was born in 1990, because I had the pleasure to grow up watching normal cartoons with less stupidity and less violence.<<
      Again, sorry for the confusion. Kat and I do NOT delete comments that disagree with our posts.

      • LFJeremy

        Steph Sinclair Just to second Steph here, my name is Jeremy and I work with the Livefyre team. As Steph alluded to, this one was on us, there was an error on the code that affected this thread among others leading to some comments not appearing as they should.
        That has been fixed, and our apologies for the confusion. Steph and Kat do a great job, and we’re proud to have them using our product.

  11. Nana

    Your version of MLP is stupid, brain eating and shouldn’t be viewed by young kids! It’s making them dumber! And deleting my previous comment means  that I was right and you didn’t know how to defend yourself! So you took an easy way to delete my comment so you didn’t have to talk with me and so others wouldn’t see it… Very clever…

  12. OhmekoOcampo

    I agree with your article. The creators of this cartoon show have put in so much effort in the art, music, characters, and setting. Whenever I watch a new episode I feel like I’m transported in a new world. The ponies have their ups and downs and they are very relatable. You would never guess it from looking at the prefabricated vectors of Hasbro, but when you watch this show you are getting a lesson in life, a pony satire if you will. I’m an anime fan (especially that of super cute “moe” shows) and I also liked a bunch of 90s cartoon and this show has managed to do something that I though was impossible. It take the best of both worlds and melds them together almost seamlessly and for that alone this show should receive major props. I’m a 21 year old guy and I love My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic it is an inspiration to everyone regardless of age and gender.

  13. Evil, Ponies, Princesses, And Cliches | Booklover Blog 3000

    […] 5 Ways My Little Pony Friendship Is Magic Can Make You A Better Storyteller: Posted by Kat Kennedy at Cuddlebuggery Book Blog. I love the points made on how what is usually dismissed as a girly TV show can actually teach you valuable lessons on how to improve your stories. It also includes great quotes from the animator. […]

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