I am a unique look at a historical hero and an alien intelligence. I am a contest winner. I am today’s featured story.
I Am Demon
[Dark] [Adventure] • 15,842 words
I am Cold, swirling snow that turns ponies against each other, searing ice that freezes them solid. I am Survivor, the one the Friendfyre spell didn’t catch, an exception that proves an impossible rule. I am Fear, Frustration, Anger, Hatred, every emotion my Creator has ever felt. I am her Future. I am her Past.
I am Demon, and Clover the Clever is my Master.
FROM THE CURATORS: Aquaman’s ponyfic credentials are impeccable — every time we turn around, he’s placing highly in yet another competition — but even so, I Am Demon stood out, both to Equestria Daily’s contest judges and to ourselves. “It just did what it set out to do so powerfully,” Horizon said. “Round about chapter 3, it sank in its narrative teeth and did not let go … and its worldbuilding makes it feel like a definitive windigo story.” JohnPerry “really loved I Am Demon for its unique perspective,” and Present Perfect concurred: “The best part of this is the alien perspective, seeing Demon define words, slowly figuring out the world around him … it’s altogether a really excellent story.”
The first thing you’ll notice about the story is its use of colored text (read more about that in today’s interview), and we agreed on its effectiveness. “The color gimmick really adds to the story,” JohnPerry said. “I don’t tend to think of writing as a visual medium, but this story makes me question that assumption.” And while I Am Demon isn’t unique in that presentation, that didn’t detract from our assessment. “[The Pony Fiction Vault-featured] “White Box” did it first,” Horizon said, “but this is the story that made it work, using the gimmick in a way that both fit intuitively within MLP canon and dug deeply into the emotional resonances of the other characters’ tales.”
Read on for our author interview, in which Aquaman discusses chlorine sweat, unwritten sequels, and why not to ask for advice.
Give us the standard biography.
Well, I was born in Florida, grew up in central Virginia, and am currently studying abroad in the United Kingdom. I was a varsity letter athlete in three sports in high school; I have never owned a Nintendo console, read any Lord of the Rings books, or seen a Hayao Miyazaki film (I’ve been told Grave of the Fireflies doesn’t count); and aside from a brief fling with Digimon in elementary school I didn’t watch cartoons at all during my developmental years. At present, I’m 6’4” tall, built like the rugby player I’ve become in college with the neo-alcoholic tendencies to match, and my philosophy on music reads, “If my ears aren’t bleeding, it’s not loud enough.”
So, regarding the question of how a person like me ended up spending the last four-ish years of his life watching My Little Pony and writing a bunch of apparently decent fan fiction about it:
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
Actually, add one more bit of whatever the opposite of nerd cred is to my résumé: despite my obsession with stories involving superheroes, superpowers, supernatural events, and/or any super-combination thereof, I’ve never read comic books or even been to a brick-and-mortar comic shop. So contrary to logical belief, my Internet handle actually has nothing to do with the DC character of the same name.
Through all four years of high school, I pulled double duty on both the basketball team and swim team during the winter season, which means I remain to this day baffled by the concept of, as I believe it’s spelled, “freet imee”. The first year I pulled that stunt, my basketball coach at the time started calling me “Aquaman” because of my split interests, and also because I would literally sweat chlorine during basketball games (this is a true story).
At the end of freshman year when I — with no prior knowledge of fandom, fan fiction, or furries — started writing a massive alternate-timeline retelling of The Lion King complete with a cast of over a dozen OCs (this is, unfortunately, also a true story), my best idea for a FanFiction.Net penname consisted of said nickname followed by my basketball jersey number — hence, “Aquaman52”. About a year or so into my tenure on FIMFiction, I dropped the number and went with just “Aquaman”, and so it still is today.
Who’s your favorite pony?
although there’s a lot to be said for
primarily because of
but in the end I’m gonna have to go with
and stick with that answer.
What’s your favorite episode?
“Twilight Time,” for the double achievement of being the best CMC episode in the show’s history and the episode that didn’t screw up any of my wildly irresponsible Diamond Tiara headcanon. “Pinkie Apple Pie” comes in second, for the triple achievement of showing the Apple Family being dysfunctional without assassinating anybody’s character, including the show’s first tumbling-down-a-raging-waterfall-in-mortal-terror-while-Pinkie-Pie-wins-the-Selfie-Olympics scene, and THAT GODDAMN EAGLE.
Season 4 was good to me and my various favorite tiny horses.
What do you get from the show?
The inspiration to stop yelling at FIFA long enough to put words down each day, the drive to slog through editing runs that don’t end until I hate the story and every word in it to the point of physical nausea, a community of fellow readers and writers to remind me that there are people out there who make the editing runs worth it, an opportunity through Equestria Daily and conventions to dip my proverbial toes into the industry I’ve wanted to enter since I was a kid, and the impetus to get really drunk in a hotel room, watch a bunch of cartoon horses streamed over someone’s laptop, and yell with genuine discontent at the one with diamonds on her butt every time she came on screen (there is no video evidence to substantiate the truth of this story).
What do you want from life?
To do the things I love with the people I love, in a way that makes other people love what I do.
Unless you were looking for something concrete but dismissive with a humorous twist again, in which case my answer is: to have dinner on the Grand Canal in Venice, to go skydiving, and to participate in a riot. My bucket list is short, but thorough.
Why do you write?
In the literal sense, because I force myself to. I subscribe to the oft-repeated ideology of questionable origins (really, though, there’s not much of a consensus on who first said this): “I hate writing, but I enjoy having written.” Very rare is any moment in a day where I’m not workshopping a scene inside my head or testing the flow of dialogue to myself outside of it — a running joke among my friends goes along the lines of buying me a Bluetooth headset so I don’t look like a lunatic muttering to himself for no reason — but rarer still is any overpowering urge to sit still long enough to turn those ideas into a concrete story.
On top of that, I do my best brainstorming while I’m either out doing something physical or showering off afterwards, which tend to be states ill-suited to manipulating a keyboard or pen. So when I’m motivated to write, confident in the material I’d like to work on, and have the requisite free time to do so, I’m usually too busy boarding the windows up from all the pigs that keep flying into them like overweight pink sparrows.
The question you’re really asking, of course, is why I bother to fight past the lack of motivation in the first place, and to that question I have no definitive response. I could call it a passion of mine, an intrinsic calling to a craft at which I’m preternaturally talented, but that’s a copout and, more importantly, inaccurate on all counts. My passion — insofar as the one thing I crave above all others — is achieving the best possible outcome in everything I do, which really puts a damper on an interview’s mood unless it takes place after a campaign of global conquest or a particularly intense Civ game.
Moreover, I’m of the opinion there’s no such thing as intrinsic artistic ability. The most I could say about myself is that I’m predisposed to writing thanks to a predilection for analytic thinking and a voracious appetite for reading in my developing years, but when I was 15 years old and started actually putting words on paper, I sucked at it. I got lucky with a few things at first and have no doubt benefited from being a quick study at the art form’s finer points, but in general there’s no need to find a nicer way to put it. I sucked, and that’s okay. You’re supposed to suck when you start anything, from your first story ever to the first draft of your hundredth story. Good writers are just good editors, and good editors spend a lot of time as bad editors before they screw up enough to improve.
I guess that all factors into what’s really keeping me in this game, which is the sense that for the rest of my career I will always be improving. Every story I ever write will leave me a better author than it found me as, and since I like stories and I like sharing stories with others the same way others have with me, writing as a hobby just feels right to me. That’s pretty much the best I’ve got for this one.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
Don’t ask for advice — and let me clarify what I don’t mean by that before I elaborate upon what I do.
I don’t mean that you shouldn’t look for ways to improve, or listen to the criticism you receive in the process. Those are things you should be doing every day, 100% of the time, without exception, with a special additional seriously-you-guys-I-mean-this-super-hard emphasis on the second one. A lot of people interpret “listening to criticism” as falling somewhere between two extremes: “doing everything anyone else tells you to do” and “letting a bunch of idiots who think they’re so brilliant walk all over you and taint your masterful work with their inanity”. This mentality not only stunts your development as a writer, it hampers your ability to succeed in all walks of life.
In reality, criticism is an opinion on you or something you’ve done that someone else has shared with you. There are no good or bad opinions in an objective sense, just well-informed, misinformed, and uninformed ones. The ability to examine all of your criticism and identify which type each instance resembles is, in my eyes, the most essential tool in a successful artist’s arsenal, not to mention it’s pretty handy for just about everything else in the world too.
To add to that, I also don’t mean you shouldn’t ask writers with more experience than you for help, even though it kind of looks like that’s exactly what I’m saying. No one gives better advice on how to not bone something up than people who have already boned it up themselves, and while said advice may not prevent you from boning those same things up, it’ll definitely help you have an easier time recovering from it. On a more self-indulgent level, it’ll also make whomever you ask feel all warm and fuzzy inside, because if there’s one type of person who absolutely adores it when someone acknowledges their opinions on things, it’s writers.
So it’s not for any selfish or antisocial purposes that I tell you to never ask for advice, because what I really do mean by that is that you should avoid just asking for advice. In other words, take the time to reflect on your writing on your own before you go looking for someone else to tell you how it should’ve been done, and always bear in mind that any art form is inherently subjective in most areas. Any experienced writer worth listening to would love to help someone who came to them and asked “How can I become a better writer?”, but with such a general question they can only respond with generalities like “Speak your dialogue out loud” or “Do a lot of reading”, or the ever-classic and especially useless “Just keep writing!” — all of which have been said by thousands of writers millions of times and are readily accessible to anyone with an Internet connection.
Everyone knows that the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one, but it’s important to realize that the second step is identifying precisely what the root of that problem is, and that it’s often difficult for someone else to do that for you. Whether they realize it or not, people who ask general questions expect general answers because they want someone else to solve their problems for them. They think — and are wrong to do so — that writing is something that can be boiled down into rules and laws and rote formulas, and that if they could just learn the secret that all great writers surely must know, that’s what will spur them on to completing the Great American Novel and retiring at 40 to wherever Stephen King built the steampunk crypt he probably lives in.
Here’s the only general advice I think is worth repeating: the secret to success is that there is no secret, and the secret to becoming a great writer is that no one really knows how to do it. There are exactly three immutable rules to writing: 1) Know the language, 2) Know your audience, and 3) Know how to have fun doing it. Anyone who tells you otherwise wants to either convince you that you’re ignorant or convince themselves that they’re not, and either way — as William Goldman might agree — they’re probably trying to sell you something. Aside from that, good writers are just the ones who put in the time, effort, sweat, tears, and caffeine twitches required to bludgeon the stories they want to tell into the stories other people would like to read. Great writers — the ones you studied in English classes and pretended to read on summer vacation (spoiler alert, everyone in Moby Dick dies except the annoying author self-insert who won’t shut up about whale anatomy) — just pop up every once in a while, but never without being good writers second and bad writers first.
All that being said, though, get good cover art. That technically falls under the canopy of Immutable Rule #2, but seriously, people judge books by their covers. Make that work for you.
The most immediately striking part of this piece is the use of color. What inspired that?
Right after “I Am Demon” went up on FIMFiction, someone accused me of ripping off Chromosome’s (or now, The Maverick’s) “White Box” with my multi-hued formatting choices. I am offended and appalled at this slight on my credibility, and would like to take the opportunity now to state categorically and on the record that this person, whomever they were, was absolutely right.
Sort of, anyway.
While I had no intention of plagiarizing Chromosome’s — dare I say this about anything in literature — innovative story mechanic, I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t one of three separate ideas that formed the groundwork for what I ended up doing with my story. First, in “White Box” Chromosome uses colored text in certain places that establishes setting and simultaneously functions as metaphor, and in doing so showed me that abnormal formatting could work as a stylistic device without feeling intrusive. Second, I’ve been fascinated by the concept of synesthesia ever since I first heard of it a few years ago, particularly the color-graphemic variety that creates unconscious associations between colors and certain letters or numbers. And third, those of you familiar with The Oatmeal may also be familiar with the mantis shrimp and the sixteen color-receptive cones it has in its eyes, which presumably allow it to see a spectrum of colors invisible and possibly incomprehensible to us three-coned humans.
All of these concepts play with the same core idea: namely, that visual perception can vary in spectacular ways between different people and species. On a philosophical level, I have no way of knowing if, for example, my perception of “red” at all resembles that of anyone around me in a physical and/or emotional sense, and that means that “red” as a concept could could mean something completely different depending on how you perceive that particular spectrum of light. Arresting as the thought’s been to me for a while, I didn’t connect it with any specific story until Equestria Daily’s Outside Insight contest, for which I decided right from the start that my leading creature should not only be one that I hadn’t seen many takes on within the fandom, but also one whose fundamental perception of reality differed from that of the ponies with whom they’d be interacting.
Once I settled on a windigo as a perfect fit for both those requirements, the rest of the story fell together rather quickly, including — as Star Swirl called it early on — Demon’s perceptive technique of “emotional synesthetic telepathy.” Since windigoes in FiM canon feed off of negative emotions, I imagined they had to have some way of differentiating them from positive ones. Demon’s telepathy not only provided a way for him to absorb Equestrian language conventions (so I could actually tell a story with him), but also gave him a fundamentally unique perception of reality that, in turn, created a fundamentally unique perspective for me to play with: third-person omniscience inside first-person narration. Demon’s contextualization of emotions with colors added a visual element that further emphasized that departure from normal human perception, and in doing so achieved the exact kind of unrecognizable consciousness I was looking for.
The scene with Demon and the mirror, “Not-Demon,” really drives home how differently he thinks than ponies or ourselves. What goes into crafting a believable alien perspective?
To me, a truly “alien” narrator requires not just a unique philosophical outlook or perceptive quirk, but also needs both of those foreign traits to play a role in shaping the other. Demon’s association of “auras” with emotions and emotions with sustenance immediately sets him apart from “normal” perspectives from which to tell a story, but that’s only part of what makes him truly alien. It’s not enough that Demon explicitly sees the world in a different way if he doesn’t implicitly see it differently as well. Demon interprets negative emotions as positive and positive emotions as superfluous not because he’s malicious or evil, but because that’s honestly what they are to him. He has no context for what “hate” is or why a pony might not want to feel it, but because he perceives it as this great, nourishing treat, he assumes Clover feels the same way about it — so in other words, the perspective of ponies is just as alien to him as his perspective is to them, and by association to the readers as well. The mirror scene emphasizes that barrier in relation to his idol Clover, as well as the new environment he finds himself inhabiting with her.
Even though his perception of the world runs contrary to every part of our own, Demon remains — and at this point, I figure it’s safe to declare this — a sympathetic character throughout his story, and the reason why has to do with what I feel can be the biggest mistake to make while designing a protagonist. There’s an unspoken assumption I see sometimes that the audience won’t like a character unless they come off as “relatable,” because otherwise there’ll be some issue with reader engagement or suspension of disbelief. In a way, that’s true, but not like it seems at first glance. It isn’t important that a character wears the same kind of clothes or likes the same kind of music as most of the reader base, or even that they think in the same way. At the end of the day, we relate to characters based on their internal convictions about life, as well as how those convictions change if reality doesn’t match up with them.
Even though Demon feeds off of hatred and terrifies the ponies around him, his motivations are clear and sympathetic: he’s curious, tenacious, and infatuated with his unwilling caregiver Clover, and by the end of the story he’s willing to change himself for her sake. It’s those kinds of inherent heroic qualities that make for a sympathetic character, alien or not, so if the worldview of an alien character is the part of their design that should be radically left-of-center, their lifeview (so to speak) is the part that should remain exactly the same as a “normal” character. Boiled down to its core, that’s all a good alien perspective needs to function as such.
What should we take away from the juxtaposition of Demon’s relationship with Clover to Alfalfa’s?
In a literal sense, Demon is the physical manifestation of Clover’s hatred, but a better word to describe him would be “personification,” because every moment of his life only has meaning in relation to Clover. Not only does Demon obsess over his “Master” and lack any semblance of self-identity when separated from her, every action he undertakes — really, even his presence in and of itself — is symbolic of what Clover is feeling in that same moment, or rather of how her darkest impulses are driving her to react. In other words, it’s not a coincidence that Demon seems to bring out the worst in Clover. In a thematic sense, he is the worst in Clover embodied in a form she can no longer ignore, and the relationship between them is that of conscious and subconscious, built around the contradiction between what Clover expects herself to be and what’s been lurking underneath those expectations for her entire life.
To illustrate what I’m talking about, here’s a one-paragraph summary of “I Am Demon” that completely spoils the whole damn thing. Demon the Windigo is “born”, for lack of a better word, as a result of Clover channeling her lifelong hatred of windigos into the Fire of Friendship/”Friendfyre” spell that Smart Cookie and Pansy help her cast on the “first” Hearth’s Warming Day. Until he follows her home, Clover has no idea Demon exists, and flies into a hellacious rage once he makes it emphatically clear that he does by crashing into her life through her bedroom window. For her mentor Star Swirl’s sake, she tries to coexist with her new hanger-on for a bit, but eventually tries to trade him off for a squishier one named Alfalfa who, as it turns out, prefers the “or else” approach to courtship. Driven to the edge of her composure, Clover’s mental barriers slip enough for Demon to catch a glimpse of her repressed past, when she inadvertently killed her parents as a young filly trying to fend off windigos with a Friendfyre spell too volatile for one pony to control. In the end, though, she and Demon work together to fend off Al one last time, and with the help of a good long cry and some ice-without-cream, she finally forgives herself for what happened and moves on with her life.
If you’re with me so far, that shouldn’t have explained any of what I was talking about before, so let me further coalesce the story into a single word for each of the five chapters: “Denial,” “Anger,” “Bargaining,” “Depression,” and “Acceptance.” Those five words together form two things: first, the famous Kübler-Ross model for the five stages of grief — which I swear to God is my third favorite thing in the world behind the lamentations of Tottenham Hotspur’s women and Ben & Jerry’s Americone Dream — and second, the progression of Clover’s relationship with Demon, which mirrors her search for self-identity and atonement for the horrific mistake she made as a child.
In truth, Clover could never have actually killed Demon despite her emphatic threats to the contrary, because killing Demon would’ve meant killing a part of herself. Demon is the first to realize this during their “Acceptance” stage: his normal mantra throughout the story — “I am Demon” — becomes “I am my Master’s Demon” once he discovers the source of Clover’s hatred and becomes aware of how much influence he exerts over her. If he gave himself over to hatred and sought it out above all else, Clover would go down with him, because he’s the part of herself she’s been suppressing for so long — the “demon” that’s haunted her since childhood and, through sheer magical force, took physical form as a windigo.
In choosing to control those instincts and not become a “monster” in the last chapter, Demon achieves sentience and is able to rescue Clover from Alfalfa. In choosing to accept her “Demon” as part of her life, though, Clover achieves a resolution for her guilt and is able to establish an identity that isn’t centered around it. These two events conclude the plot and the narrative of “I Am Demon,” respectively, and the interesting thing about the latter is that Demon, as a physical character, is completely extraneous to it. The difference between plot and narrative is the difference between what happens in the story and what the story’s actually about, and the story’s actually about Clover coming to terms with her grief, a process in which Demon functions as a symbol for said grief more than a participating independent entity. So basically, what that means is that it’s possible to interpret Demon’s entire existence as a metaphor that personifies Clover’s fragile emotional state as she tries to build her own identity beyond the ones others have assigned to her — a promising student for Star Swirl, a sober diplomat for Princess Platinum, and a doting lover for Alfalfa.
Compared to Alfalfa, that’s where Demon (and, in his defense, Star Swirl as well) stands apart in terms of his relationship with Clover. Unlike Al, he realizes by story’s end that he too has forced Clover into an identity she doesn’t want: the vengeful sorceress, enslaved by hatred and feared by the very ponies she wants nothing more than to protect. Instead of truly caring about her, Alfalfa projects a fantasy of his “ideal” mare onto someone who’s much more complex than he ever gives her credit for, and when she doesn’t match up with that fantasy in the real world, he falls back on the easier (and more cowardly) option of blaming her for being wrong rather than admitting he was the wrong one instead. Conversely, Demon respects Clover’s autonomy enough to understand who she really is and how best to help her, which means that even though it happens over a relatively short period of time, he develops a stronger bond with Clover than Alfalfa ever got close to. That kind of empathy is necessary in any healthy partnership, whether it’s of the romantic, friendly, or professional vigilante variety.
(No, but seriously, that’s totally what Clover and Demon do after the credits roll. They basically become magical medieval bounty hunters for criminals who Demon feeds off of and Clover bags-n’-tags for a fair price and/or badass arcane artifacts. The sequel I’ll likely never write to this story would be so goddamn cool.)
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Just a few last words to live by:
I love you all too.