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There’s no secret to the quality of today’s story — just a gripping look at the secrets of a mare facing a life-changing decision.

ciphersCiphers
[Drama] [Romance] [Slice of Life] [Tragedy] • 6,110 words

Untold luxury and wealth. A place in high society. A life full of the finer things. All this and more await Fleur, but at what cost?

Now, Fleur must decide: Is love worth nothing, or is it a secret worthy of sacrifice? Can she be the mare she is and the mare she has to be?

A cipher, after all, can be anything — or nothing at all.

FROM THE CURATORS: This story came to us via multiple recommendations in our story suggestion thread — and it was easy to see why.  “The writing is gorgeous,” Chris said.  “Pleasantly full of detail without falling into overlong rambling, it nicely mirrored the opulence of the setting.”  Horizon similarly praised the way the story grounded itself in detail: “All the little motions and mementos bring Fleur to life.”

That writing was in service of a story far afield from the show’s usual fare.  “This is a great piece, full of drama and romance and upper-class tragedy,” Present Perfect said.  “We get Fleur on the eve of an arranged marriage, barely pulling off the adoring trophy wife routine while desperately trying to hang onto the last vestiges of the life that once made her happy.”  We found Grand_Moff_Pony’s treatment of that premise unexpectedly captivating.  “Stories about the tribulations of the exceedingly wealthy have never really resonated with me … so it’s doubly impressive that I enjoyed it so much,” Chris said. “She’s faced with a choice where there’s no good answer, but her decision makes her feel more real — more flawed — than having her either bet on love or try to make a ‘noble sacrifice’ would have.”

It wasn’t just Fleur’s characterization that we appreciated.  “Even though her lover spends most of the story offscreen, their relationship is vibrant and moving,” Horizon said, and Present Perfect agreed: “She’s characterized well, and she’s got really good chemistry with the OC brought in to be her paramour.”  And the setting itself came to life in much the same manner.  “What really struck me was the sense of ‘negative space’ in the story, the feeling of emptiness, isolation, and echoing stillness — I don’t think Fleur moves more than a handful of steps throughout the entire piece,” AugieDog said.  “It surrounds her and her mementos in a very effective way.”

Read on for our author interview, in which Grand_Moff_Pony discusses cardboard starships, on-screen level-ups, and over 9000 moments.


 

Give us the standard biography.

This was a surprisingly challenging question, as I’ve never thought of myself as a terribly interesting person (not everyone can be the Dos Equis guy, unfortunately). But, I’ll give it a good shot.

Overall, I can’t complain much at all. Loving and supportive parents gave me a solid home, a full belly, and a good education. I spent most of my youth in Texas, but Louisiana will always be my home. College brought me to the Midwest and it’s been home for me ever since, though a move to the Pacific Northwest is high on my to-do list.

I’m in my early 30s, which puts me toward the older end of the millennial generation, and I suspect, the older half of the fandom as well. (Proof of that latter point came a while back when I mentioned ‘Zack Morris timeout’ in a Fimfic thread and a bunch of people asked who Zack Morris was.) :(

The downside of being an only child is you don’t have anyone else to blame when you are caught misbehaving. The upside, at least for me, was ample free time to play/do whatever had my attention at the time. Mario, Zelda, and Mega Man ate up a fair chunk of that, but a lot of it was spent reading books, and letting my imagination turn big cardboard grocery boxes into spaceships, cars, airplanes, whatever.

These days I’m piloting the USS Cubicle Desk through the rat race of corporate America, doing my best to make websites easier to use and nicer to look at. It’s rewarding work, if not always fun or glamorous. Thankfully, I have a wonderful and loving wife to come home to, and loads of pastel equines to keep my imagination running at a healthy clip.

How did you come up with your handle/penname?

My Fimfic name is just a slight tweak of a username I’ve been using for a long time. The first internet forum that I ever joined (back in the ancient times of 1996) was one dedicated to Star Wars*. All of the obvious and popular usernames had already been taken, so I started looking at the side characters for inspiration. That led me almost immediately to Vader’s right hand man, Grand Moff Tarkin. He didn’t get much attention overall, and tweaking his name to personalize it a bit was easy.

Now that I think about it, maybe there’s something to that. I usually gravitate to the side characters in just about any movie or show. They don’t get as much screentime or as many lines as the main characters, but they often have even more interesting stories to tell with the development that they do get. I can definitely say that’s translated to MLP, as I have the most fun watching and writing about the many ponies that sit just outside the limelight week after week.

*For the record: Han shot first.

Who’s your favorite pony?

I can easily find something to like and appreciate about each of them, from their faults to their talents. Perhaps that’s what makes FiM so relatable: We can look at almost any character on the screen and think either ‘I know that experience or feeling’ and/or ‘I know someone like that’.

But, if I had to pick a few favorites, I’d say Twilight, Rarity, and Roseluck.

Twilight because she reminds me that the people around us are as critical to our success in life as any effort we put forth ourselves. Rarity because she is by far the most complex main character, one who is defined as much be her faults as her virtues.

And finally, Roseluck because she is the ultimate blank canvas character. Her look, her cutie mark, even her job, are ripe for exploration. Some of the best stories I’ve read on Fimfic revolve around our rarely seen (and constantly fainting) flower vendor, and they all explore concepts and story arcs in ways that I don’t think would work nearly as well with other more well known characters.

What’s your favorite episode?

I tend to watch FiM like I watched cartoons as a youngster, in that I don’t think too much about it. I just sit back and enjoy the shenanigans. Some episodes were less exciting than others, but overall, I’ve enjoyed the consistent quality of the show.

Some episodes that do stand out for me though are Rarity Investigates, Maud Pie, and Luna Eclipsed. I’d also have to highlight Twilight’s Kingdom, because Equestria needs more ‘over 9000’ moments, and Crusaders of the Lost Mark because I honestly didn’t think they’d ever let the CMC level up on screen.

What do you get from the show?

Laughs, cheers, gasps, and a good lesson to go home with. Much like the older cartoons of my youth, I get those same things almost every Saturday from FiM. That’s really what hooked first me, then my wife, on the show. It wasn’t just the nostalgia of rebooting a brand from our youth, but the way the writers and animators held onto many of the things that made those old cartoons worth getting up early on Saturday mornings for.

It’s a bit of an escape as well; a way to tune out the drumbeat of drama and negativity that dominates so much of our daily feed of information. Like Star Trek, FiM lets me spend a few minutes in a whole other world where things normally go a bit better than they seem to here at times.

What do you want from life?

To provide for my wife and, if fate dictates, a family, to the best of my ability. To travel as far as my health and wallet will allow, and hopefully set foot on all of the world’s continents. (Probably won’t make Antarctica, but I’ll let it slide.) And finally, with respect to my artistic endeavors, to look back on things and feel satisfied that even if I didn’t always succeed, I gave it my best effort, and had fun doing it.

Why do you write?

Because I never thought I could.

I’ve always been comfortable writing technical reports and sarcastic comments on internet forums, but fiction always seemed out of reach. It just felt like a Herculean task to create an entire world out of nothing, and since I had not pursued an academic background in literature, I felt woefully unfit to even test the waters.

But then I found Fimfiction. I stumbled on the site not long after joining the herd in 2013 and was immediately impressed by the range and quality of stories available, and the huge spectrum of people writing them. Someone brought the (then) current TwiDash group contest to my attention, and after some encouragement from my wife, I decided to give it a try. I finished my first story 10 minutes before deadline and without any editing besides spellcheck. It was really rough, but I did it.

And that’s why I continue to do it. Because the more I write, the more I convince myself that I can do it, and hopefully do a bit better with each new story. That folks read and enjoy them along the way is just icing on the cake, and a wonderful motivator to keep going.

What advice do you have for the authors out there?

Two things. First, I’ll echo something many of your past interviewees have mentioned, and say you can never practice enough. Even if it’s just for 30 minutes and all you get out of it is a few hundred words of throwaway text, it’s worth doing. Try new genres or angles, and solicit new prompts from your own imagination and others’ as well. If nothing else, the consistent effort will do wonders to improve your speed and flexibility.

Second, overlook networking at your own peril. There are undoubtedly some writers out there — MLP or not — who have the talent to craft near-spotless stories with little/no outside help. However, most people aren’t them, and assuming you are one of them will only hold you back in the long run — a lesson I learned the hard way after my first few attempts at crafting more complex stories fell flat.

Make contact with other authors, whether online or at conventions. Enter contests and follow up on the feedback your entry receives. Give as much feedback as you receive, and don’t be afraid to play around in universes that others have already created. You’ll meet a ton of great people and expose yourself to a wealth of knowledge and perspective you would otherwise miss.

And perhaps most importantly, you’ll make a few new friends along the way. I know I have.  (Weekly friendship reports not required, though.)

Who was Fleur’s intended?

I never had a specific character or timeframe in mind when I was drafting the story. I knew from the beginning that Fleur would be the focal point of the story; her character design is perfect for ‘high society’ themes, especially one like this. Who she was set to marry wasn’t that important to me, really. We see Fleur with Fancy Pants in the show, but any of those ‘high society’ characters could have filled that role in the story. I mainly used them to fill out the contours of the posh world Fleur occupied (and would soon be tied to).

Fancy or not, Fleur’s intended would be one-dimensional at best, at least not without expanding the scope of the story a significant amount. I opted instead to invest the time into Cipher, as I felt it was more important for the reader to know what Fleur wanted versus what she was going to get. Not only does it give their relationship more depth, but it makes Fleur’s dilemma that much more real. We can all picture Fleur’s “husband” without knowing who he is. But her real love, the character actually affected by her decision, that’s the character I wanted readers to really see.

What is required to write a character who feels helpless, yet still has agency?

My lack of formal training in the literary arts is undoubtedly going to show here, so this is by no means an authoritative answer.  But, I think two things are required: fear, and opportunity.

In this context, ‘fear’ refers to a character who fears their surroundings. In other words, they’ve been herded down a path they don’t wish to follow, into a scenario not of their choosing. They’re afraid of their immediate situation, but they’re also afraid of the consequences they’d face if they tried to escape, or somehow fell short of what was expected of them. Like Fleur, they feel the strings yanking them along, and they wish they could rebel against them. Yet they continue to obey, if only to avoid what they assume would be even worse outcomes.

Such a character would indeed be helpless, and bereft of much (if not all) agency. That changes though, when opportunity is added to the mix. The normally helpless character regains their agency because they now have an opportunity to get exactly what they want: a way out of their situation, and the means to take advantage of it.

In Fleur’s case, she reaches that inflection point when Cipher reappears. She was pretty helpless up to that point, but suddenly she had a real chance to escape. For that brief shining moment, Fleur had real, tangible agency. She was in control, and her next choice would drive not only the story, but hers and Cipher’s futures. Does she fight like she always wanted, or continue down the same path? In other words, she has something worth fighting for, and she now has the means to fight. The question then is: is the fight worth it?

Only Fleur can answer that question, and in doing so, she is no longer so helpless.

What is Cipher likely to do with the mementos she gave him?

Cipher will keep them. He might not look at them but once in a blue moon, but he’ll keep them. I say that because I’ve done the same thing with similar mementos.

To sum it up, a combination of middle-school drama and my own shortsightedness broke a great friendship with a wonderful person who really brought me out of my shell over the time I knew her. She returned a number of things to me when I last saw her, but I never even thought of throwing them away. I just bagged them up and put them somewhere safe, and still hold onto them today.

Circumstances beyond our control sent us separate ways, but that’s no reason not to think of my old friend, or the fun times we had together, and I think Cipher will be doing the same with Fleur’s mementos.

Is there anything else you’d like to add?

First, allow me to express my sincere gratitude to the entire RCL staff for selecting Ciphers for inclusion in your library. It is truly an honor, and one I am humbled to receive.

Of course, a huge thank you to the team of Winston, Noble Thought, Xepher, and Jade Ring. Their collective feedback and advice pushed me to not stop at ‘good enough’, and I know Fleur and Cipher’s story would not be nearly as impactful without their time and talents. You four gentlemen have my eternal gratitude.

Finally, there’s two more thanks I wish to give: To my fellow author and dear friend Loyal for showing me how to fly, and to my wife for encouraging me to step off the cloud in the first place.

You can read Ciphers at FIMFiction.net. Read more interviews right here at the Royal Canterlot Library, or suggest stories for us to feature at our Fimfiction group.

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