The popularity of Lauren Faust's My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic has taken the Internet by surprise - with a huge Periphery Demographic and a very active community, it was, after only one season, already one of the most successful shows in Western Animation in the 2010s and had a nine season run. Not bad, especially given that the previous incarnation of the ponies could have easily been a Franchise Killer. But what is it that made the show so successful?
Let's try to figure that out. (And while you're at it, be sure to check out Write a Story.)
- Friendship. It's right there in the title, and there's a reason for that. My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic presented a lovable group of True Companions, and showed how very different individuals could get along. Naturally, The Power of Friendship is bound to show up - although whether or not it's supernatural is something you'll need to decide on (see below).
- Three-Dimensional Characters: This is true of any story, but worth emphasizing. If the characters had been walking clichés, the show wouldn't have been remotely as interesting. Friendship Is Magic went out of its way to subvert common stereotypes and produce non-standard characterization: Twilight Sparkle, an introverted intellectual, is also a natural leader. Rainbow Dash, the tomboyish sports jock, likes the parasprites as much as anyone else, participates in a fashion show with minimal convincing, tries to look pretty for the princess's visit. Rarity, the fashionista, is a hard-working artist and a generous soul; in designing clothes for her friends, she tries to emphasize their personalities rather than make them all fit a mold. Giving the characters depth makes their friendship all the more meaningful.
- Comedy: Character development is at the heart of the show, but the excellent humor is what keeps the audience glued to the screen. Pretty self-explanatory - just be sure that the comedy doesn't come at the expense of the characters' depth.
Lauren Faust set the show in a world that was vastly different from our own, with a cast of Ridiculously Cute Critters. That approach certainly paid off, with a rich world that drives endless fan speculation, and adorable character designs. In theory, though, much of the character dynamics could have worked with a human cast (and "humanized" fanart is quite abundant!). You may consider that the alternate setting offers too many opportunities not to be used, but it is not mandatory...and if you do choose to create a world for it, remember that MLP:FIM benefited from surprisingly rich Worldbuilding.
Also note that in Equestria, friendship is magic. The Power of Friendship proves capable of defeating Nightmare Moon. Now, having love and friendship as an actual magical force has worked well here, and in other stories...but it also possible to write The Power of Friendship as an entirely mundane yet powerful force, whether or not the setting has magic in it.
Perhaps more important is core cast. MLP:FIM has a core cast of six (seven with Spike), each of whom had been designed to exemplify something the little girls in the audience could grow up to be. This arranged provided a rich array of personalities, and allowed the story to play with the personal dynamics between them. Do you want a smaller cast, leaving more time to develop each member? Go the other way around, make a large Ensemble Cast (and hope you can develop them all)? Can you make each one of them interesting in their own right? Given their personalities, how can each of them interact with the others - and can those relationships evolve?
Character development will almost inevitably mean the characters will learn from the events of the episodes. While you don't have to turn it into An Aesop, be wary of Aesop Amnesia - if Twilight had learned the importance of friendship in the pilot only to need to learn it again and again every five episodes, it would have gotten frustrating fast.
Another thing to remember is that My Little Pony achieved much of its surprising popularity by being one of the most positive shows on television at the time. Cynicism doesn't always sell, and a positive show doesn't need to be shallow or naive.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
Aesops: Try to subvert the morals you set up, and make them something unexpected from the norm. For example, in the episode "Griffon The Brush Off", the moral seems to be set up as "a prank is only funny when everyone's laughing", but goes an inch further into a more general aesop, "a good friend will help you grow; recognize a bad friend and let go of people who only bring you down." So, if you were making a "face your fears" aesop, you could go an inch further into the friendship territory and say "even if you're scared, your friends will help you overcome them, and encourage you to face them on your own."
You could even throw a tired aesop for a total loop. For example, take the Be Yourself aesop and do something original with it. A character, Bob, could be expecting his friends to do things because of what he knows about them. His expectations of his own friends fall short, creating conflict when he tries to force them to act a certain way. By the end, Bob will learn the same Be Yourself aesop... as applied to his treatment of other people. "Let other people be themselves". Aesops like these will help keep your audience learning about new things, which is part of what Friendship is Magic is all about.
Due to being an existing franchise before this iteration, the chosen motif for this show is that most of the main characters are brightly colored magical ponies. Therefore, it is only natural that the setting would be tailor-made for such characters, which for them, is a Sugar Bowl-esque setting. However, it should be noted that it does not mean that everything in the world should be diabetes-inducing. Elements such as The Everfree Forest and characters like Discord offer a sharp contrast to the general cuteness that is often presented. In short, easily mistaken to be aggressively cheerful. Another thing to note is the tongue-in-cheek humor that is applied to the setting. It can be thought of as similar to Futurama, but in a Magical Land fantasy setting rather then a Science Fiction setting.
Another important motif to consider is the constant use of Furry Reminders. What sets this show, and the franchise as a whole, apart from other girl's toys is that they really are ponies, not human beings in pony costumes. This was probably one of the biggest faults of G3 and G3.5 since Hasbro was practically ignoring what made My Little Pony unique as a toyline. Thus, it is made very clear that the pony characters are ponies by the fact that they remain quadrupedal while walking and often use their mouths as hands since their forelegs are occupied by being... well, legs. However, this is forgone if it becomes awkward for a character to be speaking while holding something, so this particular rule can be ignored if necessary.
However, when making your own version, your own characters may not even need to be ponies in particular. What is stopping you from making a show where the characters are say... monkeys? penguins? turtles? actual people (as the Equestria Games proved so well)? the possibilities are actually endless.
Set Designer / Location Scout
Variety, variety, variety.
My Little Pony is decidedly not a claustrophobic series. While Harry Potter casts a magnifying glass on a single school, with a few other places elaborated on as needed just to make sure you don't forget that there's a whole world out there, My Little Pony gives a bird's eye view of an entire country (or even beyond it), with occasional details as needed just to makes sure you don't forget that there's people living in all those different buildings.
Ponyville, Canterlot, Manehattan, Cloudsdale, Griffinstone, Appleoosa, and the Everfree Forest all look different, and have plot-relevant differences between them. They have different biomes, different architectural styles, different demographics, and the characters are shown taking long train trips and flights between them. Making a setting look big is ... a lot easier when you just have to draw it than when you have to fly your acting crew all over the place. Probably use a lot of matte painting backgrounds, like Star Trek, if you want to do it in live action.
In an animated show, you can of course create anything you need by drawing it, so this is more about the general level of technology that exists in your world. Friendship was roughly mediaeval but according to Word of God there was a lot of 'wiggle room' to make storytelling easier - if a story could be told better by having the ponies have cameras, they would have cameras. This could lead to anomalies of course - one memorable sequence shows several ponies pulling a steam locomotive for example.
So part of your process will be deciding what level of technology your setting has and how that affects the stories you can tell and if your world has magic, how that has affected the direction technology has advanced in - for example in a world where you can drink a cheap and easily available magic potion that cures every possible illness and injury barring death or old age, traditional doctors, nurses and hospitals are superfluous. It's important to remain relatively consistent without getting so snarled up in "the rules" that storytelling suffers.
There are a couple of critical things to take into account here. One, all your main characters must be instantly recognisable and distinct from each other, be that by making them different colours or in different outfits. Also bear in mind that if you're creating an animated show, the poor animators have to work with what you come up. Having overly elaborate and difficult to draw and animate character designs will just drive up costs and make your animation team resent you.
If you are creating a show where there is an existing market for merchandise derived from your characters or are hoping to have this happen for your show, then you'll have to have half an eye on how your characters can be realised in toy and other forms. Bear in mind you may have to make compromises on your original designs in order for the merchandise to be marketable - for example in Friendship, Celestia was made a Princess rather than a Queen as Princesses appeal more to young girls and her toys are generally pink rather than white for the same reason.
In an animated show, it's critical to get the right voice actor for each role. Every main character should be instantly recognisable from their voice, even if they are not on screen. It's also important to keep accents reasonably consistent - if the main cast have all lived and grown up in the same small area, they are unlikely to have wildly diverging accents. Characters from elsewhere should have accents that vary more the further they are away from the home setting of your show.
Resist the urge to blatantly "stunt" cast guest roles - these can break the willing suspension of disbelief if the character's voice is instantly recognisable as, for example, James Earl Jones. The character of Discord is a good way to do this - the casting wasn't blatantly attempting to cash in on John de Lancie's sci-fi cred, more as a subtle homage to his 'Q' role from Star Trek and it succeeded spectacularly due to it not being blatantly obvious.
Again, in an animated show you can depict (within reason) anything you like - the choice you'll have to make is what level of action and/or violence you show. This is a balancing act, especially if you want to repeat Friendship's almost unprecedented Periphery Demographic size. If you make the show too dark, violent and gritty you may put off your core audience, or even get your show rejected before it even begins, but if it's too light and sanitised you may find your show stuck in the Animation Age Ghetto. A show marketed towards preteen girls isn't the place for Gorn or Torture Porn, but if there's no meaningful conflict or villains, and everything is resolved by talking it out, that will make your show a boring snoozefest.
- Cardcaptor Sakura had a fanbase in Japan that was very similar to the Brony community.
- Touhou Project is also comparable in the size of its fanbase in Japan, the cute characters appealing to males, the absurd amount of fan material and fanmade characters, being a major convention presence, and the unexpectedness of its sheer popularity. Both franchises give more or less free reign for their fans to make whatever they wish, and the fans' sheer numbers and intense devotion to Touhou and Friendship Is Magic are thanks directly to that. As the years go by and Touhou starts feeling old, the torch will most likely pass down to...
- KanColle. It's just gotten started, but it's already a contender for Touhou in Japan for every trait listed above except original characters. That being said, Touhou and Kantai Collection are coexisting and not competing.
- Jewelpet similarly has a cast of three-dimensional Ridiculously Cute Critters who appeal to both genders and all age groups and can turn love and friendship into actual magic forces, mix slice-of-life and action, and defeat various foes of darkness. JP also offers lots of free reign for their fans to make whatever they want, and both FiM and JP have a bookworm who represents Friendship, a villain capable of turning virtues 180 (Dian shares this trait with his sister Diana, who also shares her Dragon status, lightning casting, and powerful kicks with Tempest Shadow), and a winged unicorn voiced by Miyuki Sawashiro.
The Epic Fails
Proceed With Caution
- The original G1 continuity has all of the Campiness of The '80s, and most characters don't have enough screentime to develop a fully fleshed-out personality (a pitfall for any Merchandise-Driven show with Loads and Loads of Characters). However, it does showcase some surprisingly dark and occasionally mature stories and has some of the same story elements that helped made Friendship is Magic so well-received.