The Start of a Series
Until binging She-ra, I never read fanfiction. My only knowledge of fanfiction was this video. But after I finished She-ra, I was desperate for more content, and my desperation led me to Archive of Our Own (AO3). AO3 is an incredible platform where, as described in their diversity statement, “No matter your appearance, circumstances, configuration or take on the world: if you enjoy consuming, creating or commenting on fanworks, the Archive is for you”.
Discovering AO3 and searching for works tagged “Adora/Catra”, was like stepping into an endless library, with shelf upon shelf of stories, and I quickly lost myself in the stacks. I read every single “Adora/Catra” story, slowly making my way through 112 pages and 2,229 stories (as of March 1, 2020; but I’m still going strong). No, they were not all good–my subjective opinion–but I was amazed by the quality of much of the work. Here was a community who connected so strongly with these characters that they were writing their own stories, exploring the themes of the canonical show: trauma, abuse, communication, relationships, friendship, love. She-Ra became a platform for authors to analyze race and disability, sex and sexuality, mental health and healing. These stories were (are) not only well-written, but powerful, too.
Curious, I reached out to the authors of my favorite fanfictions. I wanted to ask about their inspirations and their writing processes, their connections to She-Ra and their role as storytellers. Over the next few weeks, these authors and I sat down to share their stories. The result was a series of author profiles, which will be published in upcoming weeks.
Discovering The Devil Is In (The Details) by SeasInkarnadine
This week, we had the pleasure of interviewing Morgan (@SeasInkarnadine), author of The Devil Is In (The Details). First published in January 2019 and still updating, this fanfiction is set in a modern yet magical universe. The story is full of 80s references, boss fights, and comedic situations. It centers around two protagonists who fight/commit crimes in Bright Moon City, while still finding time to flirt incessantly and solve a murder mystery.
The story revolves around Adora Grayskull, a Bright Moon cop on an undercover mission to infiltrate the Horde, a powerful crime syndicate controlling the underbelly of the city. Adora is a determined, golden-hearted jock with a secret: she can summon a magical sword and transform into what is, essentially, an ultra-powerful berserker warrior called She-Ra. She’s also deaf and tired of explaining that, no, she can’t read lips— nobody can.
Catra serves as the sarcastic, morally ambiguous Horde member who partners with Adora to uncover the truth regarding the untimely death of Hordak, kingpin of the Horde. As is canon, Catra is still a jokester, quick-witted and sarcastic, thriving off pushing Adora’s buttons the way no one else can, but in this AU, the loveable Magicat is a little wiser, a little more communicative, a little less guarded.
Once Adora and Catra form a tentative partnership, Morgan escalates the story with layered character development, an intriguing mystery, and a balance between action, tenderness, and comedy.
Now, without further ado, here is Morgan to discuss the story, her inspiration, and all things She-Ra.
On Being a Fanfiction Author, World-Building, and the Writing Process
Jem (JM): How did you develop this cop/gang AU premise?
Morgan (MN): Oh, man, I forget at this point. It’s been lost to time. I remember I liked the idea of the internal struggle of a character undercover, and the realization of ‘things are not what they seem’. And I wanted [Catra and Adora] to work together. I wanted them to be enemies, but I also wanted to see them working together.
JM: You use a lot of 80s references, from the original show. Was that something you planned from the beginning? How? Why?
MN: The how is the Grayskull Wiki. The why is it helps to keep the story cohesive. Say I have a role I need to fill that doesn’t fit the current ensemble cast of She-Ra. So I’ll scroll through the Grayskull Wiki and try to find things. A lot of it is weird nonsense (laughs). It’s strange, putting in weird 80s stuff, like putting a round peg into a square hole. I have to shape it a little bit. For example, I stole some lore about the snakemen from the wiki. According to the 2002 reboot of He-man, they do eat people.
JM: I like how you’ve taken those original series elements, but then made them your own. Your universe is very much…you. It’s still your own thing.
MN: That’s something I love doing with fan fiction. Finding these world building tidbits and then expanding on them.
JM: How long have you been a writer?
MN: I wrote my first fanfiction when I was six. It was for Star Wars.
JM: How has the community response been to your story?
MN: Really good! I don’t think I’ve had any backlash with it, honestly.
JM: I think people are probably like, this story is just so refreshing. This is exactly what I needed. No complaints, just appreciation. That’s how I felt reading it. This is everything that I want to read in a mainstream novel, but can never find.
JM: Do you have the whole story arc and all the chapters planned out? Can you tell me about your writing process?
MN: It’s a hot mess (laughs), but it’s great. It’s a great hot mess. I have a lot of the beats figured out. I’ve got the Taipan [a formal dance~think Princess Prom], which is at a little over halfway, and I have the ending figured out, and the climax/finale. Plus one or two plot points between those. And then it’s a matter of figuring out how to connect those. And my beta readers have been helping me with that. So yes and no. Some of it’s planned out. Some of it’s just, seat of pants.
On the Writing Disability and the Power of Representation
JM: [For the article] should I capitalize deaf?
MN: That’s a hot button issue. I would not. If people give you flack about that, send them to me. I can go into detail about it if you want.
JM: Sure! I mean, I don’t know much. I’m pretty ignorant. If you want to feel free, but you don’t have to.
MN: I don’t mind. I mean, part of why I’m writing this fic is to educate people.
JM: I’m learning a lot.
MN: (laughs) Yeah, and I’m still learning as well. I am hearing, but my girlfriend is deaf. I have her beta read all of my chapters to be certain that I’m providing an accurate portrayal of deafness.
JM: That’s nice of your girlfriend to beta read for you.
MN: Yeah, it is. I don’t think I’d have written this fic if it wasn’t for her.
So the difference between d/Deaf is that Deaf is a specific identity. It is a culture. Little d-deaf is more about being physically deaf. Some people can get really up in arms about what it means to be d/Deaf. My girlfriend isn’t one of those people. She uses ‘d’ deaf, and so that’s what I do as well.
JM: I’ll go with what she prefers.
MN: (laughs) She’s the expert here.
JM: In your story, you represent several marginalized communities in the same easy, natural way of the Netflix show. You address issues of race, in terms of species. You address mental health. You have characters with disabilities, both seen and unseen, and you have queer characters. You’ve got so much— and it’s awesome. How are you incorporating this diversity and why?
MN: Cause it is the world we live in, you know? Making Adora deaf was actually a spur of the moment decision. I was about to start writing and I was like ‘you know what? Let’s make Adora deaf. Because there’s not enough deaf representation out there. And if there is, it is usually really bad. You’ll see people who are signing in TV shows— I’ll be watching shows with my girlfriend (who has 80% hearing loss and is considered deaf) and wonder if it is legitimate signing.
There was [an episode of a show], where a girl chastises this guy for bringing her the wrong drink. “I asked for a coke!” but when she signs, it’s very clearly “I asked for a C-V-T-M”.
Beyond simply using incorrect signs there is also a clear difference between hearing actors signing and deaf actors signing. In Shape of Water, the signs are correct. It just doesn’t have the correct intonation. Elisa’s signs have a cadence of motion that distinguish her as someone unfamiliar with ASL.
So I constantly see terrible representations of deaf people – or if they are deaf and portrayed accurately, it is all about them being deaf. Like with sexuality, if you see a movie about gay women, it is all about them being gay.
JM: Exactly. And it’s dramatic and sad and tragic, usually. It is never just them going about their lives.
MN: Yeah, stop burying your gays.
And I don’t want to write a story that is about disability. I didn’t want to write it about being deaf. It’s just something that is in there. I want to incorporate it. It’s partly to educate people. Like, one of the first things people say when they meet my girlfriend is, “Oh, can you read lips?” And she can’t and nobody else can either. It’s one of those annoying questions she always gets.
JM: And I see you’ve put that in the story in a few places, too. [Characters asking Adora if she can read lips]
MN: Yes, exactly, to show people. If people just know, they won’t get that question. Hopefully, I’m saving a few deaf people in the future because explaining it all the time can be very emotionally draining.
Obviously, as a gay woman, I want more gay characters.
Most of us, if we’re reading this fan fiction, we’re fans of the show and we’re cool with being gay. So that’s a non-issue here. What people are ignorant about is deafness and disability. So that’s kind of what I’m trying to get across.
JM: I don’t know, but I assume a lot of people’s excuses for not writing deafness into stories is because they’d say, “I don’t know how to write sign language”. But you do a really good job of that, and you characterize the way Bow signs, versus the way Adora signs, versus the way Catra signs. There’s a difference and you write that subtly. And there’s a good balance between lines of dialogue and actions, and that’s really important to keep the flow of the story. Was that a challenge for you, to write the different ways characters sign?
MN: A little bit, but not too bad. Writing signing styles can be very similar to writing different voices. People don’t all sign the same because people don’t all speak the same.
The bigger challenge was figuring out how other characters were going to communicate with Adora. Right off, I knew Catra had to be able to sign. Part of what inspired the dichotomy between [Catra and Adora], was I was watching the first season of Fargo, and that has a deaf character in it who is portrayed very well. The actor is actually deaf—I forget the actor’s name (his name is Russel Harvard), but the characters are Mr. Numbers and Mr. Wrench. One is a translator and one is deaf.
In the disability community it can be very rude to give unsolicited help. In some places grabbing the handles of someone’s wheelchair without explicit consent is considered assault. The disabled person knows what they are and are not capable of far better than you do. It is infantilizing as well as rude for you to assume. It’s better to offer an open invitation (i.e., “if you need something just let me know”) than to take it upon yourself to ‘help’ them.
Once you have a rapport with someone it’s more acceptable to step forward.
That’s actually something that Adora and Catra are working on. There are a few times where Catra COULD have translated for Adora, but she doesn’t. As their relationship evolves, so too does their willingness to rely on each other. Eventually Adora will be comfortable speaking through Catra.
On the Characterization of Catra and Adora, Gray Morality, and the Heart of the Story
JM: One thing that’s really cool is that the story arc here, is the opposite of the way it is in the show. In the show, Catra and Adora are friends in the Fright Zone, and then Adora leaves. But here, Adora is in Bright Moon and the pair start as enemies, and then they become friends and she starts to see the Fright Zone as home. Did you do that intentionally?
MN: Yeah! I wanted Adora and Catra to work together on something. That was something I wanted from the show. I wish we had more moments to see them actually work together. We see them as kids, playing around, and I thought that relationship was great. And it’s like, if these two got together they would be powerhouses. Like nothing would stand in their way.
JM: Canonically, Adora’s struggles with being emotionally vulnerable, arguable, stem from Shadow Weaver and the Horde. But in terms of your story, where does that stem from?
MN: Adora’s felt a lot of pressure to be a caregiver. I think I had it so she grew up with Razz but Razz starts to lose it at the end, so Adora has to take care of her. She feels like she has to bottle all of her problems, to take care of other people first. She thinks that’s the right and the good thing to do. So it’s not as [direct] as with Shadow Weaver, rather it’s more self-imposed. It’s a bad mechanism she’s learned.
JM: The angst in your story is manageable for me, in part I think, because your Catra and Adora are a lot better at communicating, because they’re older than their canon versions, and had different life experiences. One thing I’ve seen in a lot of the fan fics I’ve read is, like, if they just sat down and talked it would fix the whole story.
MN: Augh, I hate that. Just talk to each other and you won’t have this problem. If your entire conflict can be solved with two characters talking to each other, then it’s not really a compelling conflict.
JM: At this point, we transitioned to talking about a character named Barre, a man who works a part-time job with Adora. He appears to be a stereotypical, average, cis/het white man.
MN: I actually really like him. He’s well-meaning, and that’s the thing. There’s a lot of well-meaning people out there who just don’t understand. One of the issues I have with today’s society, to get deep into politics now, is people don’t bother explaining their stance. They’ll just argue it, but they won’t be empathetic or open to any other explanation. And looking at Barre, it’s like, oh yeah, another obnoxious, privileged straight white man. He really kind of is at first. But when Adora doesn’t completely shut him out, he’s like, okay, I want to learn about this.
To go on a slight tangent—there are people out there who have been told they’re stupid for asking something. I hate it when someone asks what is supposedly common knowledge, and people are like, oh HOw Do yOU not KnoW tHis? Because then the asker won’t feel comfortable reaching out the next time they don’t know something (sometimes my friends will pretend not to know something considered simple. The other day someone pretended not to know how babies were born. I began calmly explaining the mechanics of it before they stopped me to say they were joking).
I think that all people are basically good, we just have to reach out to each other. I mean, there’s some people you can’t reach out to. But if people are open, you don’t want to shut down that potential help or shut allies out. So [Barre] has some development coming. Right now, he’s a bit of a sh*t.
JM: A well-intentioned sh*t.
MN: Yeah, but he’ll get there.
JM: That’s one thing, actually, that I saw at the heart of your story. With Catra and Adora, Catra is dealing with racism, and Adora is dealing with…so much. PTSD, and prejudice against magic, and against being disabled, and she’s got so much going on in her head that she’s got against herself.
MN: I know, I’m just like, Adora you need to go to therapy. Please.
JM: I think, and it relates to the canonical series too, is that Adora sees the world in a black-and-white, good-versus-evil, wants control over herself and her surroundings. And Catra’s got a lot going on too, but in this story, primarily racism and abuse. They both have privilege in their own way, but then they also have struggles. So you can see in their interactions, them trying to work around that. It’s not black-and-white like Adora wants it to be. She wants to see right versus wrong, but everything’s just gray. And I like how the two are (trying) to work through that.
MN: One of my favorite things is gray morality.
JM: There were a lot of key story beats wherein Adora’s ignorance shows pretty strongly. That theme carries throughout your story–that people can be in the right place, in their hearts, but they still don’t understand.
MN: Adora’s so oblivious. But she’s getting there. Again, at the [upcoming] Taipan scene she loses all trust for Shadow Weaver. It’s a big turning point for both Catra and Adora. They’re learning about each other, and they might be for a long time.
JM: If Noelle and the cast and crew-ra were to read your story, is there anything you’d like them to know? Or anything you’d want to say?
MN: I would really want them to know that they’re doing great with LGBTQ representation, but there could be more in the disabilities department. They should help normalize disabilities.
JM: Is there anything else you’d like people to know about you, your story, or writing?
MN: Be gay, do crimes.
You can read The Devil Is In (The Details) here on Archive of Our Own. The story is made possible by Morgan’s incredible beta readers, Jo (Johnannas Motivational_Insults) and Sparky, and is rated M for mature. Follow Morgan @SeasInkarnadine on Tumblr, A03, IA and Twitter.
This article is the first installment in a series of author interviews. Check back next week for an interview with Malachai Walker, an author who centers autism, music, abuse, and healing in her fanfiction Rhythm and Blues, which you can read here.