(RCL NOTE: We’re attempting the hopeless task of choosing the fandom’s Single Best Story™ at a special panel at Bronycon. Help us pick the competitors! Details here. Voting is open until July 13.)
If your reading is stale, TRY TODAY’S TALE!
Not In Bluff Nor Bravado Nor Loneliness
[Slice of Life] • 7,389 words
Ponies? Yeah, you hear a lot about them growing up in the minotaur homelands, and it isn’t all positive. Actually, almost none of it is positive. They’re different. They’ve got those weird pictures on their flanks and those little prayers they mumble to their princesses. Ponies are gentle, passive. They’re not like us.
See, a minotaur is supposed to act a certain way. You bulk up. You get aggressive. You don’t let anyone else push you around, and you don’t associate with ponies. I’ve heard the same thing my whole life, ever since I was young.
FROM THE CURATORS: Like last week’s feature, this started with an examination of stories we’d overlooked earlier in the fandom — and once it was brought up, we immediately wondered how. “I saw the thread title,” Present Perfect said, “and went, ‘Didn’t I nominate that years ago?’ I guess I didn’t!” AugieDog similarly had fond memories: “I was one of maybe eight or nine judges in the contest where this story got an Honorable Mention. That’s why this seems familiar!” But there was more than nostalgia in FanOfMostEverything’s nomination: “This is an especially interesting story, tackling similar themes on a lot of different levels. It’s about the knee-jerk mainstream reaction to ponies. It’s about toxic masculinity. It’s about stereotypes and prejudice. And the use of Iron Will as a perspective character makes the whole thing work.”
Our praise on that framing was unanimous. “The decision to approach toxic masculinity along species lines was a good one,” Present Perfect said. “It makes the topic more approachable and easier to deal with.” AugieDog agreed: “It’s a nicely nuanced view of Iron Will. Growing up, he feels a kinship with the ponies at school, but since he’s told he shouldn’t, he makes it his life’s mission to change ponies into people that he can feel kinship with. The only acceptable way for him to be more like ponies is if ponies become more like him, and this inherent paradox drives the story right through to the end.” And Horizon was impressed by how much was communicated via showing and structure: “With nothing more than a few conversations with authority figures, we’re shown the ways that a bad system harms both its victims and its beneficiaries, and how it can make even well-meaning people excuse its harm.”
If we had one disappointment, it was that later show canon didn’t back up the story’s sympathetic view of one of the show’s antagonists. “I found Iron Will inherently relatable, and this is a really strong possible backstory for him … before ‘Once Upon a Zeppelin,’ of course,” Present Perfect said. But even though the show hasn’t been kind to the premise here, we found the writing strong enough to carry this on its own merits. As FanOfMostEverything said: “The story is meticulously constructed, every moment coming together in the greater scope.”
Read on for our author interview, in which Vivid Syntax discusses Gandhi quotes, goat symbolism, and parental ponycons.
Give us the standard biography.
Hey there! I’m Cody “Vivid Syntax” Miller, a convention runner, fanfic author, and statistician living with my wonderful husband in Minnesota. I’m the programming director for Ponyville Ciderfest and Whinny City, and just this month I was the Vice Chair for MLP-MSP F. Writing-wise, I’ve been penning fanfictions on and off for nearly 20 years (oof), including micropublishing my epic pony romance novel “Sensation” and writing five original scripts for our conventions, both of which are so far beyond “dream come true” that I don’t have the words to describe them. I have a very fortunate horse.
How did you come up with your handle/penname?
The idea was for it reference two things. For fanfics, it’s a nod to evocative sentences that make the audience feel things. For my day job, it refers to the clear, concise coding that I need to do every day. Looking back, it feels clunky. Most folks just call me Vivid, which I’m more than happy with.
Who’s your favorite pony?
Soarin’, easily. He’s goofy and funny and carefree, but he’s got a lot of character depth that comes out in the little moments in so many ways. We see him cracking jokes and getting excited for his friends’ successes, but he can get serious and be a leader when he needs to. He’s gone through a huge range of emotions given his limited screentime. Plus, I like writing side characters best, since they’ve got a lot more wiggle room for headcanons.
What’s your favorite episode?
“Rainbow Falls.” I’ve probably watched it twenty times by now. There’s a moment just before the climax where Soarin’ finds out that the ponies he trusts most have ditched him. His reaction? To sigh, say, “Too bad,” and roll over, like it’s exactly what he would expect. It immediately made me think, “What has happened to this pony that this is his reaction to being completely abandoned by his friends?” It was one of the most intriguing moments from the whole series for me, so I wrote a 400,000-word story inspired by it.
Fun fact: Soarin’s line from this episode, “You sure have nice friends!”, is my phone notification. It’s a nice reminder of all the wonderful people in my life.
What do you get from the show?
I get a playground. Hasbro is a toy company, and we’re so lucky that the show crew has given us such wonderful toys to play with in our imaginations. It’s a beautiful world that we in the fandom get to explore together, but no matter what, it comes back to the magic of friendship. MLP FIM is so incredibly earnest in its message, and it’s refreshing to have a show so completely embrace the good in the world.
What do you want from life?
I want everyone to experience as much as possible: a lot of the good so that they can be happy, and enough of the bad that they can learn empathy and perspective. To that end, I try to teach and share with every story of mine. I want even my silliest comedies to have a core of real emotions in them, so that a reader can get something out of it.
Part of all of this is experiencing things myself and learning to jump in with both feet, even when I’m scared. As an example, I invited my parents to their first pony con at MLP-MSP F, and they ended up loving it and were far more open to it than I could have hoped for. We grew closer because we were all willing to embrace a little chaos, and I want everyone to have that chance.
Why do you write?
See above, but beyond that, it’s a wonderful creative outlet. I work a very technical job, and fanfiction helps me decompress. I don’t think I ever wrote more than when I was in grad school, where I’d finish my homework (or as much as I could without going crazy), then go to the park and write chapter after chapter of a story.
What advice do you have for the authors out there?
Love your work fiercely. When you have an idea that inspires you, lean hard into it with everything you have. There’s going to be a little voice in your head that tells you, “Maybe we should pull back, because maybe people won’t get it or won’t like it.” Ignore that voice. Be excited — downright gleeful — about every aspect of your story, from the most heart-wrenching character moments to the stupidest jokes that you can’t help but laugh at. Doing so will keep you motivated to finish and to make your story the best it can be, and the love you put into it will shine through to your readers.
What — other than the “Outside Insight” contest — inspired “Not in Bluff Nor Bravado Nor Loneliness”?
The whole story was a way for me to process my thoughts on toxic masculinity: where it comes from, how it spreads slowly and insidiously, and how we can ultimately reject it. The title comes from a quote by Gandhi that still resonates with me.
I think in an ideal world, we could move past the idea that men and women have to be represented by different trains, but I’m still on the journey to figure out the right way to do it. Until then, we still need role models, and every male-identifying friend I’ve ever met has had the conversation of what “being a man” means at one point or another. My hope with this story was to help people realize that we are defined by our actions far more than by how we conform to a mould, and what makes someone a real adult is the decision to help and be kind to others, rather than tearing someone down.
What is the significance of Iron Will brushing the leaf out of Morning Lily’s mane at the end?
“No son of mine is gonna be caught dead praying to what’s-her-face and brushing ponies. It isn’t minotaur behavior.” The last thing shows Iron Will directly contradicting what his father told him in the second scene. It represents his rejection of his father’s definition of masculinity. I imagine a lot of readers can relate to their dad not wanting them to spend time brushing pony toys. My dad was a huge influence on my interpretation of what a man should be (mostly for the better, I think), and I wanted to highlight that father-son relationship and how it impacts a child’s life, for better or for worse.
Do you see any way your version of Iron Will would’ve gotten involved in the events of Once Upon a Zeppelin?
The beauty of fanfic is that I can say, “Of course! That episode just happened in between scenes of ‘Bluff’.” To answer in a non-cheating way: the thing about lessons is that we often have to learn them multiple times. It’s a process. In Once Upon a Zeppelin, Iron Will isn’t trying to change the ponies anymore, but he still doesn’t know how to treat individuals with respect. Old habits are hard to break, and I could see my Iron Will taking a step back for every two steps forward, but maybe that’s just the headcanon talking.
Going with the story’s symbolism, do you think minotaurs and ponies can ever really be friends?
It’s no coincidence that all the minotaurs and goats in the story are men and all the ponies are women. Do I think men and women can ever really be friends? Absolutely. There’s a lot of baggage that culture puts on us when it comes to these friendships, but we’re stronger than that.
In the world of the show, yes, I think minotaurs and ponies can be friends, too. The magic of friendship reaches everyone, even and especially across species.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I think it’s worth repeating: be passionate. Lean hard into what you’re doing. Laugh and cry and dance with all your heart. When in doubt, listen to Kurt Vonnegut, and remember that contrast is the strongest tool in a writer’s toolbelt.
Also, a giant thank you to my husband for giving me the freedom to explore this crazy pony ride, to BGN for the wonderful cover art, and to the Royal Canterlot Library. It’s been a long-term dream of mine to get a story in here, and I’m humbled and honored that you enjoyed Bluff. Hopefully the readers enjoy it as well.