» Playing It Close to the Vest

Boy oh boy, we sure do love us some worldbuilding, don’t we?

As fans, few things turn our cranks like seeing more tantalizing details of the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic world fleshed out and made real. We love seeing the details of how the pegasi control the weather or how the earth ponies grow their food or how the Royal Pony Sisters came to defeat Discord and rule the land of Equestria. When a new episode airs that delves into details like the founding of Ponyville or the existence of a mysterious ancient figure named Star Swirl the Bearded, excited speculation runs rampant from one end of the fandom to the other.

Yet the show always stops short of giving us all the details on these subjects that we would need to fully understand what they’re talking about. It always leaves us hanging. And therein lies its cruel, tantalizing secret: Ambiguity.

The FiM writers, knowing the power they hold over their fans, judiciously refuse to elaborate on the hints they dangle before us, and the ambiguity that creates makes us so desperate to know more that we’ll create it ourselves if we have to.

Not being a FiM writer, however, I will elaborate ad nauseam. Read on.

First Taste’s Free

You’d think that the more worldbuilding a show does, the better it is for its fans. Not so.

Not telling us the whole story makes us all yearn for the unspoken remainder. It’s the mark of writers whose confidence in what they’re creating lets them string their fans along like children behind the Pied Piper, doling out worldbuilding and character details one tiny morsel at a time.

Perhaps it’s a side effect of the show’s being targeted for a young audience—the writers knew they didn’t have to “sell” the universe as though it were a new sci-fi property elbowing for room alongside established prime-time franchises. All they had to do was spark viewers’ imaginations. This freed Lauren Faust and her collaborators from having to pen an exhaustive writers’ bible, J. Michael Straczynski-style, and then adapt the entire thing into a screenplay to make sure none of it was lost.

This isn’t that kind of show. It’s much more organic in its development than many comparable shows, especially those for adults. Faust told the crowd at BronyCon that “In order to honor that organic process, I don’t like to tie anything down unless it’s in an episode.” Only if a certain plot demands elaboration on some piece of worldbuilding or character background will it be fleshed out in that episode’s script. Hence even Faust doesn’t know who Celestia’s and Luna’s parents are.

This doesn’t necessarily make the show better; but it does make it better for fans. Specifically, it creates an ideal atmosphere for the kind of fan creativity that has characterized this show’s adult fandom since the beginning. Fan-fiction, fan-art, fan music… it’s all spurred as much by the lack of detailed worldbuilding as by its presence.

Some time ago I wrote about how one of the show’s great strengths is in how it recognizes that worldbuilding is a powerful tool, one best wielded sparingly:

As much as the fans all love worldbuilding, too much of it can destroy the mystique of a universe whose charm lies largely in its inscrutability. There are plenty of aspects of Pony world that have been left unexplored, even given ample opportunities in episodes specifically focusing on them.

Fans have built their whole community on the back of rampant speculation about the nature of the Pony world. If the writers had sewn more than clues into the fabric of the show, if they had laid down rules or taken time to explain how everything works, it might not just have sapped the show of its mystique—it might well have prevented its grown-up fanbase from finding it interesting enough to follow in the first place. “Always leave them wanting more,” goes the old showbiz adage; this show knows, better than most, exactly how far to go before the fans start to find their attention waning. There was always, perhaps, a danger of the show’s novelty wearing off. As the Friendship is Magic fandom enters its second year, larger and stronger than ever, it seems the show’s built-in safeguard against that is holding strong.

In that case I was thinking about broader themes like the mechanics of the universe—the nature of unicorn magic, for example. But it applies just as vividly to the specifics of characters and of the history of the world. In FiM, all these things capture fans’ imaginations and spur speculative creativity in a way that seldom happens with fictional stories, especially ones where the universe and all the events in its history are exhaustively detailed.

Consider, for a moment, Star Trek. This is a franchise whose sci-fi premise demands that its universe be quite thoroughly specified, down to the minute technical details of how transporters and deflectors work. Whole episode plots revolve around “technobabble”—and the result is a particular kind of fandom, one that is geared toward discussing and appreciating the storylines and characters as presented on the screen. There’s a lot of fan-fiction, to be sure, but it largely centers around established characters having new adventures in previously unexplored territory (as often as not in parody form), or having decidedly un-canon romances with each other. There’s very little room left by the universe—between its official Technical Manual and its carefully retconned alternative history—for fans to let their own imaginations take flight.

Star Wars fandom, by contrast, is a lot more free-spirited and obeys fewer rules. This is largely because the universe is much more open-ended, with much less of its technical nature made clear on-screen (no thanks to George Lucas’ recent meddling). Star Wars fan-fiction tends to sprawl through history and create vast extensions to the setting—hence the aggressively prescriptive “Holocron” system by which levels of canonicity are established for the “Expanded Universe” works, many of which had their start as little more than fan-fiction in their own right. The films created a tantalizingly expansive universe but refrained from nailing down any details about it—and that got fans’ creative juices flowing in much the same was as has happened with Pony.

Fictional properties vary wildly along this axis. Some stories are designed to be consumed as-is, leaving virtually no room for speculative fiction. The world of J.R.R. Tolkien is an example of a universe that’s fleshed out to such an obsessive depth that there’s literally no space left over for fans to play; despite all its popularity and critical acclaim, Tolkien’s world is almost entirely one-sided in how fans can relate to it. Not only are historical dates and character portraits presented in intensive detail in the pages of the actual books, there’s a whole library of supplementary material in appendices and other unpublished-by-the-author works that make sure that not a single aspect of the world is left unexplored. Fans love The Lord of the Rings to pieces, of course, but it’s a story that you appreciate by immersing yourself in the canon (or satirizing it), rather than in imagining what could have happened in the areas in between. Because there aren’t any.

FiM is at the far opposite end of the spectrum from Tolkien in this regard, even though on details such as magic (as I discussed in “Magic Is as Magic Does”) it borrows more closely from Tolkien’s tradition than from, say, J.K. Rowling’s heavily detailed, mechanistic world. FiM conveys very little detail about history and universal mechanics, limiting itself to what’s necessary for the story. In so doing, it all but invites fans to fill in all the blanks themselves.

A quick browse through any of the Pony fan-fiction archives will turn up hundreds, if not thousands, of stories fans have written to try to grapple with the mystery of Princesses Celestia and Luna—who their parents were, how they came to power, how they came into conflict with Discord, who Star Swirl the Bearded was, and how the events shown in “Hearth’s Warming Eve” match up with the mythical tale told at the beginning of the first episode—not to mention exactly what the nature was of Nightmare Moon’s thousand-year imprisonment. Any such writing, no matter how much work a creative fan might put into it, risks being made irrelevant by some newly revealed piece of canon material. Some of these stories were invalidated at a stroke by “Luna Eclipsed”, which brought Princess Luna abruptly back into the picture and gave her a unique and vivid character that built and expanded upon her brief appearance at the end of the premiere—and yet stopped short of answering any questions about her life prior to her imprisonment, or even why she had such an enigmatic, nonplussed reaction to Twilight’s Star Swirl costume.

"Thou even got the bells right." Clearly, she knows a lot more about Star Swirl than even Twilight does.

But what’s important to recognize is that if the show had done a straight-up origin story, explaining all these historical details (as so many fans profess to want), the vast majority of the fan-fiction so many people have enjoyed writing and reading would never—could never—have existed in the first place.

It’s the ambiguity of the universe that gets us all so excited. It raises questions and never answers them; and the setting is so rich and suggestive of novel details that are never explained (but always kept consistent) that fans can hardly help imagining what they might be.

You think you know a pony…

Recently we’ve been privy to a few new details about the show’s development, thanks (again) to Lauren Faust at BronyCon (skip to 2:44):

 

It turns out that Scootaloo, whom we’ve observed throughout two seasons being a whiz on her wing-powered scooter but otherwise adorably unable yet to fly under her own steam, was designed never to be able to fly at all. She was, in fact, meant to be read as a character with a physical handicap—not unlike a kid in a wheelchair in a typical 90′s cartoon. Her “disability” was meant at some point to be the focus of an episode that, presumably, would have helped her come to terms with her limitations in a sweet and uplifting “message” episode, a story not unlike A Wish for Wings That Work by Berke Breathed or the Futurama episode “The Cyber House Rules”.

Yet this fundamental piece of Scootaloo’s development was never made explicit in the show—or at least hasn’t yet. This means the writers have been able to pull off a startling feat of having their cake and eating it too; they’ve created a character that physically challenged fans can relate to without it being obvious at all. Her nature as a pegasus pony neatly disguises her and clothes her in metaphor: either she can’t fly because she’s just too young, or she can’t fly because there’s something wrong with her wings. But either way, when she buzzes down the street on her scooter and executes a perfect 360-to-late-tailwhip off a convenient ramp (almost decapitating several passers-by in the process), she’s not just showing off an unusual talent—she’s making the best of an unfortunate situation. It’s something that not only is limited to self-powered pegasi, it’s something that only a flightless pegasus would bother to do: another pegasus her age would simply fly. This distinction has whizzed right over the heads of most of the fandom until Faust’s recent revelation.

Yet there’s even more to the story. Scootaloo’s “disability” is presented quite vividly as being not an obstacle to her happiness, but a way for her to express herself uniquely, by pouring her physical energy into ground-based pursuits like scooter tricks and dancing. This makes her an inspiring role model for many physically disadvantaged viewers who resent the idea that just because they’ve got unusual challenges, it must mean they should be pitied, or that they live life in a slough of despond. Scootaloo is the happiest (or perhaps second happiest) pony in the whole show, whether her wings work or not.

And the beauty of the situation is that viewers can read her either way: as a young pegasus who simply can’t wait to reach the age when she’ll inevitably be able to fly, or as a permanently grounded pony who’s silently and uncomplainingly turned her disadvantage into a wonderful and enviable piece of her character. It’s ambiguous.

Not your typical "inspirational" handicapped character.

This leaves the writers in a bind, though. Will they be able to address the issue of Scootaloo’s disability in the way Faust had hoped?

In some ways it’s a lose-lose proposition. If they present a story in which Scootaloo overcomes her handicap and learns to fly like her hero Rainbow Dash, then it sends a troubling message—that, assuming the wherewithal to do so is within reach, the disabled should be “fixed”. This is a touchy subject in many circles. It’s especially polarizing given figures like South African Olympic runner Oscar Pistorius, whose prosthetic legs have never hampered him nor caused him mental distress.

Pistorius recalls something his mother, Sheila, once told him and his brother, Carl, when they were growing up. “She said, ‘Carl, you put on your shoes and Oscar you put on your prosthetics, and that’s the last I want to hear about it.’ I didn’t grow up thinking I had a disability. I grew up thinking I had different shoes.”

Scootaloo deriving the joy she gets out of life even without the benefit of working wings is akin to Pistorius’ cheerfully refusing to be defined by his handicap; it’s a more fundamental part of his story that he not be the subject of pity, or consumed by the pain of his hardship, than his eventually realizing his Olympic dream. If Scootaloo is able to learn to fly, it risks negating that whole uplifting detail about her character arc—or, worse, telling us that she was never “disabled” at all.

Yet the other alternative—a story that leaves Scootaloo unable to fly but in the process explores the nature of her “disability” in great detail—risks delving into “Very Special Episode” territory. It risks being as patronizing as the 90′s cartoons whose well-meaning treatment of a perpetually happy but wheelchair-bound kid named something like “Speedy” or “Wheels” smacked of committee development and tokenism.

The worst part is how much it weakens Scootaloo’s present depiction, as a character who can be read either way: as being disabled (having wings that will never work, yet who lives life to its fullest nonetheless), or as being just a late bloomer who refuses to delay her pursuit of speed for something as trivial as physical maturity. No matter which direction they go, they’ll be adding a piece of worldbuilding to the FiM universe that irrevocably makes it a little bit less wonderful and mysterious. It’ll be like saying pegasi’s flight is made possible by midichlorians. For the short-term payoff of a one-time episode storyline, they’ll be sacrificing their greatest strength: ambiguity.

For the time being, though, it sure does make Scootaloo a more interesting character, doesn’t it?

 Know When to Hold ‘Em

It takes a lot of restraint for writers on a show like Friendship is Magic not to give their clamoring fans everything they want, in the form of historical details, treatises on the nature of magic, soliloquies from characters explaining their motivations, and more that we don’t even know about. These are all things that the writers hold in their heads all the time, and it’s key to recognize that the fact that these details haven’t been put on the screen yet doesn’t mean the writers haven’t thought about them themselves. We can be sure that nobody, not even the most prolific of fan-fiction authors, has put more thought into developing an internally consistent view of the Pony world than the show’s actual writers.

Pony fan-fiction has a tendency to try to stick as carefully as possible within the established canon of the show, even as it adds non-canon, out-of-character elements like war, death, romance, and crossovers with other fictional properties or with the human world. As outlandish as these elements might be, they seldom expand on the Pony universe itself in the way the writers themselves are accustomed to expanding it. That’s why the concept of “zap apples” caught so many fans by surprise—seemingly breaking the established rules of the universe, or at least adding new supernatural phenomena such as electrically charged trees that grow in an instant and monsters such as “timber wolves”, they added a whole new dynamic to our understanding of earth pony magic of a kind that fan writers are generally unaccustomed to committing to paper. It’s a carefree, informal kind of visual storytelling that works well on the screen and less so in text, just like Twilight Sparkle’s wordless form of unicorn magic versus Harry Potter’s litany of spoken incantations and arcane details of wand lore.

In short, cartoon writers work from a whole different playbook from what fan writers use. They can casually throw in mentions of things like “laser beam security systems” and “zombie ponies”, elements that fan-fiction rightly shies away from. And small wonder: they’re writing cartoons, not textual stories spanning dozens of chapters. As such, they follow a whole different creative path from most fans who just want to see more of the world their favorite ponies inhabit. There’s an inevitable clash of styles in there. Cartoons thrive on unspoken, vague hints that allow for cute or funny visuals. Fan-fiction thrives on obsessive levels of detail. The two aren’t very compatible.

But the one depends on the other. If it weren’t for the ambiguity carefully left in the show by its writers, the vast landscape of fan creations—from stories to art, from comics to original music—would inevitably be a lot more barren.

My point in all this is simply that worldbuilding, as much fun as it is, is a short-term story-generating tactic that often comes at the expense of long-term fan-engaging strategy. We fans might clamor for more detail about the world of Equestria, and rightly so—there’s an awful lot that’s been left unexplained, and there are plenty of outstanding story ideas that can spring from it, whether we’re talking about the huge and previously unseen role the pegasi play in lifting water to Cloudsdale’s cloud factory (as seen in “Hurricane Fluttershy”) or about what real-world-analogous role the Wonderbolts play in the Canterlot military (as hinted by Soarin’ showing up at the royal wedding in his Air Force dress blues). But to apply another tired metaphor, worldbuilding is like the proverbial golden-egg-laying goose: each one of those eggs is valuable specifically because of its rarity. We have to wait patiently for them to arrive in due course, and we have to be satisfied with them even—especially—when they raise more questions than they answer.

The worst thing of all would be to receive all the answers at once; as much fun as it sounds, we’d wake up the next morning finding that with the golden goose dead, we had nothing more to look forward to, and no room left even to speculate about what might have been. 

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  1. Excellent article. I agree that there is a subtle amount of ambiguity to the characters that give them charm and depth. It makes them not only dynamic but also more believable and relatable. And like you stated, without this ambiguity you typically end with single shot characters who can only perform within given settings and with limited characterizations. The dynamic is lost for both the character and the world making it percievably less enjoyable. It is the old addage of less is more. Amazing article again, great job.

  2. I honestly haven’t ever thought about it that way. But it’s brilliant. The brony fandom is even more likely to stay in existence. so AWESOME!

  3. Two thoughts here:

    1) Could a case be made for Sweetie Belle as she is about the same age as Scootaloo, but hasn’t used magic at all in the show as of yet. However, she may well be a late bloomer. It will be interesting to see what they do with Scootaloo going forward.

    2) Worldbuilding has become a such a gradual process in the show. Undoubtedly, Season Three has teased more of that, though not too much. There are lots of things that have been left undefined so far (i.e. AJ’s parents). Lots of possibilities with this show.

  4. You overlook your own conclusions.

    “FiM conveys very little detail about history and universal mechanics, limiting itself to what’s necessary for the story.”

    “[worldbuilding] is valuable specifically because of its rarity”

    “Worldbuilding” (this word is as terrible as “grimdark”, “slice-of-life”, “show-accurate”. The fandom adopts the worst lingo) is not intentionally rare to be tantalizing, it’s rare because it’s not the focus of the show. The “worldbuilding” in Harry Potter is expansive but its fandom still finds it very valuable despite being abundant. Some people just want to immerse themselves in a fictional world instead of follow the characters around. That’s great, but doing that caters to the small hardcore audience instead of the mainstream audience.

    TL;DR your conclusion is bad and you should feel bad.

  5. (english is not my first language)

    There is a solution to the Scootaloo story :

    not make her the one in distress.

    The story could begin with Applebloom worrying, trying crazy schemes to see if scootaloo is restraining herself for her friends or has a problem or a dark secret (she is a spy, whatever), or Applebloom making all a fuss noticing Scootaloo is frustrated with a Rainbow Dash too much distant. The point is, the one who is in pain is Applebloom.

    It has to start from an other person than Scootaloo. Applebloom is the most logical choice. (she has less understanding of being born with magic or wings).

    Scootaloo will tell about her family, health, adventures and all before meeting the CMC and yes, maybe she has a problem, a challenging condition diagnosed a long time ago, but maybe one day she will grow out of it or not, no one can know.

    In the meantime she is perfectly able in her own limits and happy with friendship.

    -
    it’s not simply ambiguity, but potential.

    The CMC is the most endearing characters for that : infinite potential because they are children. Blank flank so everything flank.

    But it’s also true for the mane 6 : they have definite personality, but enough room to let people imagine what they could become. (Maybe Rarity will be a successful business pony, maybe Twilight will be the most helpful teacher of her time, maybe Pinkie Pie will change the world… for best or not ^_- )

    it’s easy to build upon them, the foundation is rock solid, the sky is the only one limit, and people loves that.

    -
    It’s one thing very interesting in that show : we are never told the characters cannot change.

    In Futurama for example, we know Fry will eternally be stupid and just a delivery boy (with a big heart) or the Professor will be absurd, crazy and old : it’s over, you know their past and future, no more development. Even if you wrote a fanfic. So powerful are the limits the show forced upon the characters.

    The show made the characters absolutely finished in the very first episode. Nothing to hope, just joke one after the others, no more interesting characters, they are just joke support. Many shows are written like that.

    MLP:FiM is different.

    In MLP:FiM, they managed to make the characters grow (a little, in the constraint of a show). For example Twilight become a trusted citizen for the Mayor, Pinkie Pie proves she can be responsible, Rainbow Dash is a better leader, even with her best friend Fluttershy, Fluttershy learns to not be a pushover when it’s the sensible thing to do.. and so on.

    So the show never told they are finished : they can grow and change, maybe one day, maybe not in the show, but we know they could.

    It makes the show very compelling.

  6. This is a great article. Bronies get asked a lot, “why is MLP so popular?” The answers given are usually inadequate mixes of “Lauren Faust wrote Fosters Home/Powerpuff Girls” and “it’s well animated”. Your essay goes into the world-building potential of MLP that many other shows do not have.

  7. Examples of the zap apples or pinkie’s party cannon show the other strength of ambiguity: creativity. The holes left by incomplete worldbuilding in a world of magic and talking ponies allows for wildly fantastical things to exist.
    It allows fans of many different subjects to take what they like and weave it into the pony universe, and even makes extremes like the orbital friendship cannon seem possible to exist.
    Here’s hoping it keeps this magical (yes) quality about it for a long, long time.

  8. You can have your cake and eat it too though. By worldbuilding in private while only hinting at things on official canon material, you can have your expansive and self-consistent world while still letting the fans speculate about possibilities all they want. And it doesn’t have to harm your own creative process either, limitations often lead to more creativity than infinite possibilities do.

  9. I had never -considered- Scootaloo to be a disabled pegasi.
    But it really explains why the Poundcake (poundcake?) can seem to fly around their nursery at 1mo old.

    Sounds like something that really needs addressed in season 4 with a CMC episode – they can totally squeeze one in. I’d love to see how they handle it, though please not with RD going at it full force because she’d go idiot on the situation.