Today’s story shows us what happens when the day meets the night.
Brothers and Sisters
[Slice of Life] • 64,160 words
When Princess Luna goes missing, Private Lucky Break knows there’s more at work than a simple breach of court protocol.
For most, Hearth’s Warming is an occasion to celebrate family and friends, a time for reflection and goodwill to all of Equestria’s residents. But for two ponies, their relationship with the holiday is much more complicated.
Lucky, batpony soldier of the Night Guard, is assigned to escort Princess Luna to the grand reopening of her Night Court mere months after her return to Equestria. Everything goes well at first, until a visitor inadvertently offends the princess. Incensed, she cancels court and sends everypony away. However, when Lucky goes to offer comfort to a distraught Luna, she storms out.
Spurred on by an old wound buried deep in his heart, Lucky strives to mend a bond between sisters that feels all too familiar, and find the missing diarch before her grief consumes her.
FROM THE CURATORS: “OC” isn’t a four-letter word, but you’d be forgiven for thinking so, the way some ponyfic aficionados use it. After all, most people reading fan fiction are looking for more quality time with their favorite characters from the show they love, not the random creations of their enthusiastic fellows. But today’s feature shows how that can be an unfair judgment, with an almost-entirely original cast that’s so well formed and integrated with Friendship Is Magic‘s canon world and characters, you can’t help but become invested in their lives. “It feels so grounded in the Equestria we know from the show that I didn’t really realize until after finishing that the only real canon characters are the princesses,” said RBDash47 in his nomination.
The strong character work was a big selling point all around: “This is a story that thrives on the power of its characters,” agreed Present Perfect. “I was drawn in by Celestia’s quiet angst and the furor bubbling just under Luna’s surface. Sticking it out, I was rewarded with a cast of memorable OCs gathered together in relationships in a way I’ve never seen depicted this strongly in fanfiction before.” AugieDog had the same reaction, “echoing the points about the terrific bunch of OCs we get here. Lucky Break could have easily slipped into ‘Marty Stu’ territory, but the author prevents this by using the mechanics of cutie marks in quite a deft fashion.”
The author’s deft handiwork with taking canon elements from the show and running with them extended beyond clever cutie marks. For all their fan love, “batponies” make only a brief appearance in a single episode pulling Luna’s chariot, and ever since there’s been speculation whether or not they represented a fourth tribe of ponies, some clever Nightmare Night costumes for standard-issue pegasi, or something else. “Something I’ve not seen elsewhere,” said RBDash47. “Batponies aren’t a fourth tribe in addition to earth ponies, unicorns, and pegasi, but instead are simply the nocturnal version of pegasi, and we meet the earth pony and unicorn equivalents as well. The overall population of these ‘nyctan’ ponies is small and largely segregated, only recently returned to Equestria and almost exclusively active at night, so I can roll with never seeing them in the show.” Present Perfect appreciated how the author played with the contrast between dayponies and nightponies. “I can’t say I’m in a position to really comment on the nature of racism, at its core, but I felt like the mistrust and fear directed at the nyctan in this story was at the very least true to the setting. For all that this Equestria is a bit more like our world than like the show, this also fit, because there are so many real-world issues tackled head-on throughout it.”
From top to bottom, this is a thoughtful, well-crafted novel, from the big picture—”the story’s structure is ambitious,” pointed out RBDash47, “with half of each chapter taking place in the present and half taking place in the past, allowing us to make inferences about past Lucky from future Lucky and vice-versa”—to the small—”the author even manages to handle the whole ‘new kid gains an instant foe at school’ thing in a way” that didn’t make AugieDog want to gag, “something that’s really hard to do.”
Read on for our author interview, in which Alphacat discusses trusting your intuition, manipulating dualities, and the importance of revision.
Give us the standard biography.
I’m a hobbyist writer and programmer in my thirties who currently works doing neither of those things for a living. I’ve been writing (really bad) fiction since high school, and (equally bad) fanfiction since before I knew what it was called. I’ve dabbled with a few other fandoms over the years, most notably the Bob and George community, where I produced a (maybe decent) sprite comic for a few years.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
I’m afraid this isn’t a terribly interesting story. I’ve always liked cats (shocker, I know), which was probably due to watching lots of Thundercats as a kid. I used to sign up with the name “Wildcat” for things online, and when I found out that was often already taken used “WildcatAlpha” because I was not very creative with names. Eventually I signed up for a more social place where I needed a proper name and not just a login handle, so I swapped that around to make “Alphacat” which is still not great, but it’s the one that stuck.
And in case anyone is wondering, no, I’m not the Alphacat from Youtube that did those Obama impressions.
Who’s your favorite pony?
Twilight Sparkle, hands down. I’m usually fond of the booksmart characters in any series, and I find her desire and struggle to fit in and make friends (at least in the early seasons) very relatable due to some of my RL issues socializing at times. I’ve had vision impairments and worn hearing aids basically since childhood, so being in a huge crowd of people isn’t always my favorite activity.
I was also a pretty voracious reader growing up, so there’s that too. I have distinct memories of reading out of a copy of the complete works of Hans Christian Andersen in one of my math classes in middle school.
What’s your favorite episode?
I have to go alllll the way back to season one’s “Winter Wrap-Up,” for a number of reasons. First, it’s very much a Twilight-centric episode, and plays into the whole “trying to find your place” thing I already mentioned. Second, it has one of the first big musical numbers that has all of the main characters and the whole town involved (not to knock on all of the songs Pinkie had done up until then, a number of which I’m fond of, but they weren’t on the same scale as the WWU song). Third, the ending is satisfying not just because hey, they find a place for Twilight, but because I’ve always thought the writers did a really clever but subtle thing. Of course Twilight is great at organization, we’ve seen that aspect of her character, but the reason she ends up being so great at organizing the wrap-up is because she spent the entire episode learning about all of the different jobs. They don’t really call it out, and I’m not sure if it was an intentional point the writers were trying to make, but I like that reading of it.
When I first decided to start giving Friendship Is Magic a try, I got drawn into it right away (probably because they made the main character a bookworm), but I think “WWU” is one of the early episodes that just hooked me and sold me completely on the show, so it still holds a special place for me.
And if I’m permitted to sneak in a second selection, “Pinkie Pride” is probably right below “Winter Wrap-Up” for me. I’ve always been a fan of musicals (hence liking the WWU song), and I think in this episode they nailed the musical formula in a very tight 22 minutes along with a complete character arc, a guest star, and not a single bad song throughout.
What do you get from the show?
I’ve always been a fan of cartoons and animation, and on the whole I appreciate a show that may be aimed at girls but is not a “girly” show, if that makes sense. It seemed to have pretty broad appeal, with an interesting world and well-developed characters.
More specifically, I think the show caught me at a point in my life where I wasn’t happy with how it was going. I had been working a retail job that was becoming less and less satisfying, leading me to quit, and this show grabbed my attention at a time when I could just dive into it and then the fandom.
What do you want from life?
For me personally I think I’d like to get to a point where I could just pursue creative outlets (be it writing, programming, or art if the skills for that ever stop eluding me) or find a career doing the same. More broadly I’d like to make sure I could always be able to take care of the people close to me in my life.
Why do you write?
I like writing because it’s easy to begin. You just need a pen and paper or a PC, and you can start. It’s also a skill that we’re exposed to in a lot of different ways, whether it be from reading, or even communicating a story to someone else. I’ve tried to pick up drawing as a skill at various times, and while it’s easy to tell something is bad, it’s not always easy to know how to fix it. But with writing, I find that I’m much better with identifying mistakes or bad flow and adjusting them until they’re better.
I like writing pony specifically because the world feels very large and expansive, with lots of room to explore new stories or different types of stories. Sure the show focuses on Twilight and her friends, but you can easily wonder about what’s going on in Canterlot, or with the gryphons, or what happened in the past, and so on. And there’s previous versions of the show to draw inspiration from too, which only helps the mythology feel expansive.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
I think the most important thing is to be honest about your feelings and to learn to listen to your intuition. If you’ve tried to write a certain passage a certain way five times and none of them work, maybe it’s not the right way to go and you need to consider something completely different. Or if a plot point just won’t gel in your head or a characterization feels off, stop and look at the problem again from a different angle, or question your underlying assumptions.
This has probably been said better elsewhere, but it bears repeating: Your writing will be bad starting out, and that’s okay. As long as you’re open to trying again, and studying up on the craft, you can make progress in your skills.
Writing your first draft is also not the end of the story (no pun intended). You may write a whole second or third draft, or may need to go over it with a fine-toothed comb as part of editing it, but all that work will ultimately make a better story and a better writer.
What inspired Brothers and Sisters?
The very, very early kernel of an idea came from the Health’s Warming Care Package writing contest. One of the suggestions of things to write about was “The Royal Guard.” I didn’t end up entering the contest, but the combination of “Hearth’s Warming” and “The Royal Guard” sort of sparked the whole story.
I like looking for dualities and swapping out pieces of them. I think the thinking went that “if Celestia has a strong association with summer (via the Summer Sun Celebration), what if Luna has an association with winter?” That got me onto focusing on Luna for the story. And to go along with the dualities thing, I decided to flip it from “The Royal Guard” to “The Night Guard.” (In the final draft, Luna doesn’t have a strict association with winter per se, but the idea did live on in the Nycta celebrating the solstice, which gets a brief mention.)
I forget if the ideas I’d had for the Nycta lore came before that spark or during the writing process for this story, but that was another thing I wanted to explore and build out to make them more interesting than just a one-episode curiosity.
Did you start with the intention of featuring no one from the show except Celestia and Luna?
It wasn’t really an intentional choice, it just sort of fell out of building a story focusing specifically on Celestia and Luna and being set in Canterlot. After the pilot, Luna vanishes from the show until the “Luna Eclipsed” episode. Time is a little fuzzy in the series (especially with the Running of the Leaves happening two episodes after “Winter Wrap-Up”), but I’ve always considered that to happen over a year later, while I set Brothers and Sisters in the very first year of Luna’s return, so at that time she hadn’t interacted with anybody in the main cast yet.
One of my aims for this story was that I wanted to build out a sort of supporting cast for Celestia and Luna in Canterlot, so that I could potentially write more stories focusing on them without having to fill in the cast with generic NPCs or to awkwardly push someone into the role of Luna’s confidante without earning it.
How did you go about creating so many original characters?
To be honest, I’ve always had a little bit of a dislike for the term “OC,” at least for any significance attached to it beyond meaning “not a canon character.” The skills you need to write a fully fleshed-out canon character are basically the same you need to write an original character, with the only real difference being that you get a leg up with with some of the prep work (backstory, characterization, and so on). But you still need to be able to write clearly in that character’s voice and understand their motivations.
That being said, I knew I’d face a little bit of an uphill battle writing so many original characters into a story like this, at least from the perspective of attracting readers. I think it was most important to me to to make sure I gave as good and complete a portrayal I could of Lucky’s virtues and flaws right off the bat (no pun intended) to show that he was a fully-developed character. Without spoiling too much, the first things we see Lucky do in both the present and past timelines are meant to highlight that. I tried to go deepest into Lucky’s personality and motivations since I knew he’d be carrying so much of the story. A lot of the two storylines is also designed to specifically contrast Lucky against himself.
It was still important to me that I make sure the rest of the characters were fleshed out, however. A great starting point for that type of thing is to check out TV Tropes’ Cast Calculus page to get an idea of different types of preexisting dynamics. For Lucky, I knew he’d need a core group of friends, and I wanted some diversity in my options, so I decided to fill out the trio with a unicorn and earth pony, which suggested to me a Power Trio of Rogue/Fighter/Wizard dynamic. Lucky took the rogue role, and Lily became the fighter and Glimpse the wizard. This diversity of species also helped tie into some of the Nyctan lore sprinkled throughout the stories.
(For bonus funsies: They also form a sort of Five-Man Band if you add in Comet as the Lancer and Slip as The Heart/backup Wizard.)
A lot of building out the supporting cast of characters was figuring out a lot of differing relationships and dynamics between the characters. Lucky relates to Lily and Glimpse in different ways despite them all being friends, but they all share some commonalities. Lucky has a rival in Comet, but because their specialties are different, their rivalry is never “settled”: Comet beats out Lucky for speed, but Lucky trumps Comet in maneuverability, so the dynamic between them is always shifting. But even they have a moment or two of mutual camaraderie throughout the story.
I mentioned I like playing mix and match with dualities, and this even extends to the family relationships. Lucky takes after his mother, Evengale, in appearance, but followed in Jetstream’s line of work, while his brother Slipstream is the opposite.
I think having this diversity of relationships is key to making the characters feel unique but still related, and making the world feel fleshed out.
Another thing that’s important is to have a solid idea of each of the character’s histories and futures, even if none of that necessarily ends up on the page. Brothers and Sisters takes place primarily in two distinct time periods, but I know a large part of what happens before, in between, and even a little bit after, having thought about other stories I could write with these characters. This helps me inform relationships between characters and how their motivations have changed.
Likewise, I did a ton of planning for the Nycta, a lot of which did make its way into the story, but a lot of which didn’t. Again, it helps to inform what does end up on the page, and having more information in store allows me to go back to that well later and draw more ideas from it. And to go back my point again about playing around with dualities, making Nyctan earth ponies and unicorns in addition to pegasi opened up more possibilities for what I could do with them.
You should probably always be doing way more planning and research than what ends up in the final draft. Even if you never see it, its influence will still be felt.
How important is revision to your writing process?
I would say that it’s very important. I think I’m a little unusual in terms of fanfiction writers as I like to write an entire story up front and then rework or revise it before posting anything. While this does mean there’s a longer period of time between getting things posted, I think it has a number of benefits, such as being able to make sure details are consistent throughout the story, and being able to see details that become important later and feed those back into the beginning of the story as foreshadowing.
I suspect this question came up because I posted a complete version of Brothers and Sisters, and then a year later posted a revised version, so I’ll go into a little bit of what changed in each version.
Brothers and Sisters went through three major drafts. The first draft was terrible and really never saw the light of day. I showed it to one person who told me that yes, it was terrible, after which I scrapped it and started from scratch. (If I’m being completely honest, I already knew it was terrible, but I kind of needed a push to let myself believe it.) I relied too much on the clichés of Christmas holiday specials, which filled the story up with too much clutter and nonsense.
Probably the biggest culprit for this was that Lucky, on three separate occasions in the story, saved or helped out several different earth ponies only to find out later that they were all part of the same family visiting Canterlot and he singlehandedly saved Christmas for all of them. It had nothing to do with the main message of the story or any of the themes and it was very rightly cut from the next draft. (They do survive in a much, much smaller role in the final version of the story, however – even a scrapped idea can come in handy later.)
After that I went back to the drawing board and rewrote most of the story. I tried to focus it onto the main characters and the emotional heart of the story, but I still left in a lot of things that were just over the top or too outlandish. I probably should have taken a third swing at it before releasing it, but I was feeling kind of fatigued at that point and just wanted to get the story out. (This is a terrible reason to release a story.) I got some good and some (rightfully deserved) negative feedback, so after taking a break from it for a while I went back for a third attempt.
The third draft took almost exactly a year to produce. I cut out a lot of the over the top elements, refocused a lot of characterization, and just tightened up a lot of aspects of the story. This is the version I should have released first, but I had to go through the other two versions to get there.
I don’t really recommend publishing a story before it’s ready, but I heartily recommend experimenting and retrying a story to try and do better or to learn more about it. Brothers and Sisters is probably the largest and most cohesive story I’ve ever published, and I learned a lot about myself and my writing process during this, so I think the results were worth it. Structuring a large story like this is hard, especially with the story structure I used, so I definitely needed to take a few swings at it to get it right.
But even without such drastic rewrites of the story, revision is where you polish and refine your story, where you take all of the raw ideas and turn them into something presentable, so it’s definitely worth taking the time to do so.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I’d forgotten until rereading this story recently just how much Ye Olde English I gave to Luna. Researching all of that was a blast at the time, and I’m happy all that work paid off.
I was really proud of how this story eventually turned out, and I’m pleased that it’s managing to draw some fresh attention and offer new enjoyment even all this time later. I owe many deepest gratitudes to all of the people who offered their assistance on any of the drafts of this story, and I’m very grateful to the Royal Canterlot Library for offering me this chance to talk about this story and share it with a new audience.