We’ll make a spirited effort to sing the praises of today’s story.
Daring Do: The Opera
[Mystery] [Slice of Life] • 10,016 words
Diamond Tiara is excited to have a starring role in Autumn Blaze’s new opera. She knows the Opera House isn’t haunted, but if it were, she’d be ready to give any Opera Spirit a stern talking-to.
FROM THE CURATORS: This story was already on several of our radars when it took second place in the Season 9 Bingo Contest — and it didn’t take us long to discover why it did so well. “The humor’s on point but knows when to get out of the way of the narrative, the mystery is neither too obvious nor impossible, and the story does more with Diamond Tiara than the show ever did,” FanOfMostEverything said in his nomination. While our praise was wide-ranging, two factors stood out. “This all comes down to two aspects,” Present Perfect said, “the characters and the twist.”
It was remarkable work on the former which came up most often in our discussion. “The character work throughout really carries the story,” AugieDog said. “I especially like the way that, after the twist, the early scenes take on a deeper meaning and lead to the realization that, without noticing or even meaning to, Tiara has had this literally life-changing effect on another character.” Horizon also admired the protagonist: “The early look at Diamond Tiara’s redemption, especially her conversation with her parents, solidly carries the otherwise slow Chapter 1. (And I’m also a fan of its song lyrics, which is no small thing.)” And Present Perfect was more broadly impressed: “Diamond Tiara is especially well-written, important since this is really about her. I very much appreciated the exploration of what she has to do as a character post-Lost Mark. And Autumn Blaze strikes me as one of those characters like Maud Pie that’s going to be hard to write, but AlexTFish handled her blabbermouthing with aplomb.”
But the praise for the story’s central mystery was equally effusive. “I absolutely did not see the twist coming, and the misdirection it went to justifies a feature by itself,” Horizon said. “The story gets a fantastic amount of mileage out of the things it doesn’t tell you, and the mystery, as FOME says, is very well calibrated.” Present Perfect agreed: “I was amazed that I could be so right and so wrong about the twist at the same time. The devil was in the details!” And all of those details pulled together to make the story a joy to read … occasionally, for an unusual version of joy. Or, as Horizon put it: “I am incapable of voting against a story with such a transcendently awful pun in Chapter 5.”
Read on for our author interview, in which AlexTFish discusses spiky redemption, Magna Cartas, and 400 kinds of trouble.
Give us the standard biography.
Hello, everyone! I’m Alex Churchill, also known as AlexTFish. I’m a Christian, software engineer, gamer, mathematician, optimist and brony, living in England. I have a lovely wife and two delightful daughters, and I got into MLP thanks to watching it over my daughters’ shoulders!
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
Heh. These stories are often ridiculous, and mine’s no different. Many years ago at school, when faced with a French essay I really didn’t want to write, I typed out 400 copies of “Je suis un poisson” as an homage to Red Dwarf. (Yes, I did get in trouble as a result!) Along with “fish” being an inherently funny word and a symbol for Christianity, “I am a fish” stuck. Then at university, when I had to choose a handle for the instant messaging system my friends were all on (anyone remember AIM?), it was limited to 10 characters or fewer. I couldn’t be “Alex the Fish” so it got condensed to AlexTFish. One of these strange spur-of-the-moment choices we make that stick with us 20 years later!
Who’s your favorite pony?
That’s a really tough choice. I love so many of the characters: Twilight’s geekiness, Pinkie’s optimism, Rainbow Dash or Rarity or Maud because they’re such fun to watch…
I think in the end I’d have to go for Sunset Shimmer, though. She’s intellectual, scientifically minded, but also very strong-willed and won’t take stick from anyone, and has a good line in snarky dialogue. She clearly feels so sorry for her past mistakes and honestly desires to be a better person (pony). Her character has a lot of depth, so she makes a fantastic protagonist.
What’s your favorite episode?
Crusaders of the Lost Mark. It’s the episode that really showed me this series could be something special. I love musical episodes, and the songs in this one are great. I love the way the episode demonstrates the series is willing to take long-standing status quo of several seasons and change it for the sake of character development and character arcs. But most of all, I love the message that anypony can change, anyone can be redeemed, and we all still have so much left to learn about ourselves.
What do you get from the show?
At one level, the answer is it’s a show that me, my wife and my kids can all enjoy. We all got into it at about the same time and we love going to the UK PonyCon together. But none of my family have read hundreds of pony fanfics like I have, so there’s clearly more to it than just that. I think I love MLP for the combination of unapologetic optimism and self-aware intelligence, along with a cast of shockingly well-realised characters. So I get entertaining comedy, delightful references, a beautiful evocative fantasy world, and a whole stable of characters I can’t wait to see more of.
What do you want from life?
As it’s said, “The chief end” — aim, purpose — “of man is to glorify God by enjoying him forever”. We’re put here to have fun! And it’s most fulfilling when we do things that are both fun and also make a positive difference to someone else’s life.
Why do you write?
Creative expression has been an immense part of my identity for all my life. But the specific expression of that creativity varies from year to year. I was writing visual novels for a couple of years, then writing four NaNoWriMo novels, then designing board games, then I designed a custom Magic: the Gathering set or two and a website to comment on them. Recently it’s been writing pony fics and making a universal computer out of Magic cards. Who knows what bizarre creative projects I’ll find to do next year?
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
Huh. I wouldn’t call myself an expert by any means. I haven’t written the proverbial million words, even totalling up all my creative output. But if someone wanted my advice, I guess it’d be:
- Find a way of writing that works for you. If you find writing really frustrating or difficult, maybe try doing it a different way. Different things work for different folks. That said, the ways that work for me are:
- Write what you enjoy. Chris Baty (founder of NaNoWriMo) tells you to write two Magna Cartas, your personal lists of things you do and don’t enjoy reading. Then just write the things on the first list and not the things on the second! My personal MCI list of things I love to read about includes wacky inventors, sassy characters making pithy remarks, mysteries with gradual hints being dropped, steampunk, blurring the lines between video games and reality, and so on: so those are what you’ll find in my stories. If you’re writing what you enjoy reading, it makes it way more likely you’ll finish something.
- Study the craft of writing. When you see something you feel is really good characterisation, or a really satisfying plot twist, analyse what makes it so good. I found Robert McKee’s book Story amazingly helpful for breaking down what makes for satisfying plot, characterisation, dialogue and more.
- Embrace the power of the deadline! Almost everything I’ve finished writing has been driven by a time limit. My visual novels were both ideas that had been languishing for ages before I took on the NaNoRenO challenge to complete them in one month. Both my pony fanfics have been for contests with a deadline to force me to get moving.
How did you go about putting together “Daring Do: The Opera” from the set of “Season 9 Bingo” tiles that you were assigned for the contest?
(This answer contains spoilers! You may wish to read the fic first. -RCL)
The contest had a really interesting setup: receiving five disparate prompts and trying to find a way to unite them. First I refamiliarised myself with the subjects: reading the whole MLP Wiki pages on Diamond Tiara, Chrysalis, Daring Do and Autumn Blaze, rewatching a couple of key episodes, taking notes on their personalities and thinking about what their current goals are.
I spent several days brainstorming ideas for how to combine these components. I found several ways to put together two or three of the prompts easily enough, but where it’d be a real stretch to fit the rest in. For example, Chrysalis and Wedding obviously go together very naturally, almost too easily. Diamond Tiara and Wedding — hmm, it could be that Diamond Tiara has had her parents arrange a society marriage for her and she doesn’t want to get married? So she runs away and gets caught up in a Daring Do adventure in a kirin village? But that feels really hotchpotch, stapled together, not coherent. There were several unsatisfying ideas like this, so I kept looking.
As I was searching for better concepts, I wrote down this train of thought: “Diamond Tiara has got into Daring Do (via Scootaloo?) and is organising a Daring Do fan event in Ponyville. Autumn Blaze visits as a huge fan of musical theatre (maybe she’s writing/written a musical stage adaptation). But Chrysalis is also there because she realised dedicated fans really really love their fandoms.”
And then the riff on it struck me, and I couldn’t help but grin. The summary paragraph I wrote straight after that was almost entirely where I ended up going with the fic:
“A whole plot reference to Phantom of the Opera!
Autumn Blaze is writing & directing a stage show of Daring Do, in Ponyville (as that’s where her first pony friends come from). Diamond Tiara wants to be cast as the beautiful young innocent (Christine) and not the demanding bully diva. Sinister things happen during rehearsals. During the opening night, Diamond Tiara realises her costar has been replaced with a changeling. Final confrontation during the climactic wedding scene.”
How do you approach writing a reformed villain like Diamond Tiara while still keeping the essence of the character intact?
In a sense, I got really lucky. Diamond Tiara is a character I’ve been wanting to see back in the show so much, I’ve already done a lot of thinking about what she’d be like, even though I wouldn’t call her one of my favourite characters per se… at least not before I wrote the fic. I always fall in love a little bit with the characters I write.
It was important to me to be true both to the history Diamond Tiara had with the CMCs through seasons 1-4, and also not to undermine her redemption in CotLM. So I spent a lot of time thinking about what her current mindset is, after the events of CotLM but also years later (since the fic basically had to be set after The Sound of Silence).
Since she’s still a filly living at home with her parents (the eternal childhood of a cartoon character), her relationship with her parents and her mother in particular seems quite key to her character. Her reformation isn’t a teenage rebellion, and she’s not going to completely throw out everything her parents taught her. I ended up concluding that she’d look for opportunities to use her social standing to do good, and make plans for her future in the world as an entrepreneur and socialite working for the good of all Equestria. She still cares very much about social status: that kind of upbringing can’t be shaken off so quickly. But friendship and “doing what’s right” (as she sings at the end of CotLM) is more important now. She’s still ambitious, but tries not to be ruthless. She loves to be the centre of attention, and probably would have found it quite frustrating to be cast as a bit part; but she would be prepared to work her way up through the ranks of a troupe if it meant she could accomplish a lot when she got to the top.
One of the things I didn’t point out explicitly in the fic, but that underlies a lot of it, is that Diamond Tiara is a natural leader; she can’t help but take the lead in any situation where it looks like it’s necessary, such as in a play with a well-meaning but scatterbrained director.
As we move through the show’s final season, would you like to see redemption stories for the remaining villains?
Absolutely. Chrysalis in particular has always been cute, crafty, and whimsically childlike: it’d be extremely natural for MLP to have her redeemed by the end. Flim and Flam and Cozy Glow I’m also eagerly looking forward to seeing turn around before the end. The villain from the S9 premiere I suspect probably won’t get redeemed, though I could be wrong.
Interestingly, MLP doesn’t always do redemption stories well. I know many people weren’t very convinced by either Sunset Shimmer’s reformation in Equestria Girls or Starlight Glimmer’s in The Cutie Re-Mark. But subsequent episodes have shown us how well those characters work post-reformation, mainly because the writers very much bear in mind the character’s history. They don’t throw away the characterisation before the reformation, which is key. Some of the best character interactions in recent seasons are between former antagonists like Starlight, Trixie, Discord and so on. But as Diamond Tiara shows, often the writers don’t know what to do with a character after they’ve reformed.
So yes, I’d love to see stories of redeemed-but-still-spiky Chrysalis interacting with reformed-but-still-grumpy Tirek. I’m pretty sure canon won’t provide us with those, but I have every confidence fanfic authors are more than up to the job.
Have you ever been involved in a stage play?
Heh! Yes, I was definitely doing the “write what you know” technique there. I did a few school plays as a teenager, and since then I’ve performed in a few Gilbert and Sullivan operettas from time to time… It made it nice and easy to imagine Autumn Blaze giving directions, and to have Diamond Tiara describe the stress of having lots of lines to learn and songs to practice. My wife and I love musicals, and we’re huge fans of Gilbert and Sullivan and have seen every one of their operettas together. My parents are into more “serious” operas, but I’m all about the comic wordplay and cleverly rhymed lyrics. The little bits of the Daring Do opera scattered throughout my fic are definitely in the G&S style, since that’s what I know best.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Stay wonderful, everypony. Stay cheerful. Take a little time this week to do something that’ll make you happy a year from now. And if you read a fic you like, leave a comment for the author saying so: it means a lot.