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:
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.
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.