Fanfiction Friday is back and this week we have the Queen of Catradora fanfiction, the author we’ve alluded to in every fanfiction article so far, the author who is famous in the She-Ra community for her in-depth meta analyses, the author of Demons. This week we have none other than Johanna’s_Motivational_Insults (aka JMI or Jo). Jo’s impact on the She-ra fandom is significant, to say the least, and her story Demons takes the all-ages show we know and love, and amplifies it ten-fold. If you want a critical perspective on the trauma Shadow Weaver inflicted on her wards, or if you want to better empathise with Catra as an antihero, or if you’re curious about Adora’s struggle with gray morality, Demons is the fanfic for you. First published in March 2019, this story is still updating and Jo has no intention of ending it soon. It is currently 130,000 words, so get comfortable and make yourself a cup of tea–this is a long, emotional, and satisfying read. Demons is rated mature, so be sure to check the content warnings before reading. Now, here’s Johannas_Motivational_Insults to discuss Demons:
Jem (JM): What did you see in She-Ra that inspired you to write Demons?
Johanna’s_Motivational_Insults (JMI): She-Ra does an excellent job of showing the inner workings of abusive relationships and their eventual consequences. This is especially true of Shadow Weaver’s relationships with Catra and Adora, in both the present and past. As a child abuse survivor myself, those are the themes that most stuck with me when I first watched it. Like I loved how queer it is and all, but even rarer than queer stories are stories that show abuse survivors wrestling with their inner demons without infantilizing them or making their whole arc a revenge fantasy. It was really gratifying to see a story that I understood so well but hadn’t really seen on screen before. Demons started as sort of a therapy for me, a way to explore those themes and how they made me feel. Both Demons and the show itself opened some wounds that probably needed opening, forcing me to confront my own lingering trauma and the ways I have let it affect me negatively. As to how the story originated, the scene in chapter 1 kind of wrote itself in my head and then insisted I actually type it out.
JM: After you wrote that scene in chapter one, did you expect to continue the story from there? When did you realize you had a longer story to tell? And just to clarify, the scene you’re referring to is Catra confronting SW in the cell, right?
JMI: Yes, [that scene]. I’m not a fan of revenge fantasies as standalone stories, and I kind of like to deconstruct that trope. As I worked on chapter 1 and realized how it was going to end, I realized that I really needed a follow up scene where Catra realizes that having power over Shadow Weaver and taking revenge on her did not make her feel better. Also, that removing herself from the harmful situation did nothing to heal her trauma. The more I worked on those chapters and considered all the trauma both she and Adora had gone through, the more I realized I wanted to give them some form of closure. I don’t like endings that feel hopeless, there needed to be some kind of way forward. So that’s how it turned into a longer fic, even if it ended up much longer than I ever intended.
JM: Can you tell me a bit about your writing process? When you realized both characters needed closure, how did you tackle the plot development and character arcs?
JMI: So, initially I was planning to have maybe about 7 chapters comprising some of the events in chapters 1-10. I wanted Catradora to have that first important talk, then somewhat reconcile over another conversation before leaving it as an implied “hard road ahead but they have each other” type of ending. But as we saw Catra continue to spiral and learned more about Adora’s struggles in season 2, I felt that this ending was going to be unsatisfactory and there was so much more to explore. So to expand the story, I considered what would happen if the events in Bright Moon played out a little differently. I realized I had a golden opportunity to do an Adora Alone arc, which really excited me because it’s an uncommon trope that is full of potential. Meanwhile, we could watch Catra actually realizing and confronting what was keeping her in the Horde. Some of the best character development for both of them occurs in that time where they are separated and each fighting their own battles. The story has also expanded on its own, too. Like, we’re in the middle of a big detour in Dryl that initially was supposed to be much shorter. There’s lots of concepts I want to touch on if I get the chance, and if I feel something needs to be addressed and can fit in, I’ll do it. So yeah, it has become… expansive.
JM: What are a few ideas you’re currently inspired to write about, in the Demons AU or otherwise?
JMI: Honestly, I’m kinda already working on everything I want to right now within the Demons universe, which is nice. For a while I had some short WIPs that I was excited about and really wanted to finish, but too many projects at once is overwhelming. There’s definitely a lot of stuff in recent and upcoming chapters about control and vulnerability, and exploring how abuse can affect someone’s relationship to them. We’re gonna get to see more of Shadow Weaver’s A+ parenting and her hateful behavior towards Catra and how that has affected Catra’s sense of self. Both her and Adora still have a hard time handling confrontation for obvious reasons, but they’re working on it and slowly improving, fighting back against their worst instincts. So I guess you could also say I’m examining the idea that healing and forming better habits and thought patterns is an ongoing process, not a quick fix.
JM: Demons Catra and Adora struggle with communication, often not knowing how to act around each other, which leads to several arguments. Sometimes it seems like they fight more often than they get along. With that said, why is their relationship so important to you and/or them? What keeps them together and what makes them better for being together?
JMI: I think the reason they get in so many arguments is exactly because the relationship is so important to them. They both want it to improve but they have a hard time understanding each other’s experiences and viewpoints, which leads to a lot of frustration. Even as they have informed each other more about what they’ve gone through and how they see the world, it doesn’t necessarily make it easier to understand. Despite growing up in the same place, they had wildly different upbringings because Shadow Weaver used different strategies to bring them each to heel. And yes, they are having a hard time knowing how to act around each other because the dynamic is so different than it used to be. The whole last arc was basically about them redefining the boundaries and dynamics of their relationship, and even now it’s an ongoing process. Noelle was very on point when she said Catradora mean the world to each other. It’s a really interesting, multifaceted, and unfortunately toxic relationship born of a need for comfort and survival. They’ve been each other’s lifelines for so many years and unfortunately that led to a bit of codependency, but now in Demons and in canon they’ve each struck out on their own to make new lives for themselves, and coming back together they still have that deep bond but things can’t go back to the way they were before, and that’s a good thing. They need to redefine the relationship on their own terms, not Shadow Weaver’s or the Princess Alliance’s.
JM: Can you tell me about Adora’s characterization? She struggles with anxiety and the need to feel useful, with communication and gray morality. These are represented in canon, but amplified in your story. What is it like writing her character?
JMI: I relate more to Catra’s experiences than Adora’s, but I relate very strongly to Adora’s base personality. We both have low self-esteem bolstered by a fragile ego and we’re both painfully socially awkward. Adora obviously has some kind of anxiety disorder, and I also headcanon her as autistic and probably ADHD. Maybe that’s me projecting onto her a bit, but I did write a whole meta about why I headcanon her as autistic.
Anyway, Adora has been fun to write because I really relate to how much of a control freak she is. It’s for different reasons; I’m a control freak because I never had any control whereas Adora was trained to be one, but when you combine that with neurodivergence and a high-strung personality, things can get rather dicey. Adora is falling apart and we can’t ignore that. This poor kid is trying so hard and keeps making things worse by accident. And unfortunately, her abuse is often overlooked because Catra’s is much more obvious. This fic has given me a chance to explore that.
It was interesting watching how Adora handles her crisis of conscience after she and Catra have that first big fight, when she feels the need to choose a side. Adora has always had other people telling her what’s right, and that’s what’s comfortable for her, but here she really has to make a decision for herself in a morally gray situation. It gave her a bit more agency in her own story, though her ultimate decision was very much influenced by her guilt. So that wasn’t entirely a step forward for her character, but oh well, it’s a process.
I also really enjoyed writing the Adora Alone arc. There’s been a lot of Catra Alone fics where Catra ends up on a journey of self-discovery, but to be honest I think she’d handle that way better than Adora. Catra is more equipped for solitude, whereas Adora is a more social person even if she’s socially awkward, and she is very dependent on outside sources for comfort and validation. Watching her struggle in isolation was painful, and a great foil to Catra in the same arc coming to realize she did not have to struggle alone. It really served to highlight her insecurity and anxiety, and several chapters later she’s still recovering from the awful places her mind went when she made the choice to isolate herself. She’s very fragile emotionally and dealing with some serious rejection sensitivity, which is very relatable as someone on the spectrum. Currently she’s kind of a fish out of water, back on her heels emotionally and having trouble adjusting to her new dynamic with Catra.
JM: Can you tell me about Catra next? She’s in a stable place as of chapter 26, but it’s been a long road to get there and I’m sure there’s more growth and mistakes to come. Because of SW’s abuse, Catra suffers from PTSD and severe flashbacks, as well as depression, and the impulse to lash out. She’s also incredibly observant and protective, often setting aside her own feelings to focus on the needs of others. What is it like writing these complexities? What inspiration did you draw from the canonverse and what’s most important for you to explore in Catra’s character arcs in Demons?
JMI: Writing Catra comes very easily to me because I intimately understand her needs and struggles. I’m a youngest child and have been a benchwarmer in sports, so I know very well what it’s like to constantly feel overlooked, to be underestimated and even demeaned. That was something that was really important for me to explore in all my SPOP fics. Obviously Catra’s characterization is mostly based on canon, but I definitely drew from my own experiences to dive into her character in a deeper way and present her in a way that more people could understand instead of simply thinking she is toxic and evil.
Like, I really understand what it’s like to be a child who is constantly in fear for her own safety, who’s always been made to feel worthless and is dying to prove herself. Catra is constantly trying to soothe her inner child, and unfortunately it leads to some very maladaptive behaviors. Again, I drew from my own experiences when it came to things like self-harm and dramatic suicidal fantasies as forms of expression and trying to find some scrap of control in one’s life. Being denied agency and feeling hopeless to change your situation can lead to some very dark places.
Even in the fandom, people sometimes take away Catra’s agency by absolving her of all blame for her actions. Like, no, Catra has done some very bad things and she needs to own up to that and attempt to make amends if she is ever going to grow as a person. But honestly, it’s easy for me to understand the ways she acts even when she is making decisions that are clearly not going to end well. She’s dying to not feel so oppressed and controlled for once. She’s never had control or respect and she craves them both deeply. Getting out from under Shadow Weaver was supposed to make her feel safe, but she learns quickly in the fic and in canon that there is no such thing as safety in the Horde, and being second-in-command puts her right in Hordak’s crosshairs. So she is always, always struggling and trying to claw her way up the ladder to find a place to rest, and that’s very relatable.
And yes, the protectiveness. That is such an underrated character trait for her and it drives me bonkers. Catra is extremely protective of Adora in canon and so much of the fandom does not see that or refuses to acknowledge it because they like seeing her as a whiny damsel, but she’s not. Again, when they do that they take away Catra’s agency and it’s kind of infuriating. She has always protected Adora, just in less obvious ways that Adora missed or didn’t want to see because she needs to be the strong one to feel worthwhile. If their relationship is going to move forward in a healthy way, Adora needs to allow Catra to take care of her too.
JM: I can tell you have a soft spot for the Super Pal Trio. Why do you like these characters together? What about their relationship is significant to you?
JMI: Oh man, so many reasons. I love the chaotic energy they have as a group. All those characters paired off have great dynamics too, but all three of them together is an absolute shitshow and I love it. I never knew I needed those three characters in a scene together until that attempted interrogation in 1×10, which is definitely one of my favorite scenes in the series. Also, they have this commonality that they all feel like rejects and they’re in the Horde because that’s where they feel they have the best shot to make something of themselves. Even in canon they bond over that a little, and it’s nice to see. Catra needs people around her who understand that feeling of being a reject, because Adora doesn’t. I really wish they’d gotten more time together in canon, but I’ve tried to make up for it in Demons. They even have a scene where they and Emily share a group hug and Scorpia shouts, “Misfits unite!” Yeah, I’m weak for them.
JM: If Noelle and the cast and crew-ra were to read your story, what would you want them to know? What would you hope they take away from the story?
JMI: I’d want them to know that I really appreciate this story they’ve crafted, that for many reasons it feels more like my story than any I’ve encountered before. It’s an understatement to say it means a lot to me. And I hope they would feel like I did their story justice in the way I’ve chosen to continue it, that I’ve added something to the narrative they were trying to create as opposed to going and making something new that doesn’t align with their vision. Demons is definitely not a fix-it fic, it’s just a version of the story that really focuses on some of the dark, gritty stuff under the surface. It’s similar thematically, just aged up. So I really hope they would understand that instead of thinking I was trying to write something needlessly dark.
JM: You don’t shy away from showing physical and emotional abuse. What is it like writing these scenes and why is it important for you to show them?
JMI: Writing those scenes is both disturbing and cathartic. Sometimes I trigger myself while writing or reading them, which is actually kind of funny. Like, welp, I guess I deserved that. But often I am disturbed more by the feeling attached to a scene rather than what actually happens. And though there’s definitely some disturbing content, there’s not a lot of graphic violence in the fic. While the ways Shadow Weaver abused Catra in particular is discussed very frankly, for the most part when either her or Adora is physically abused I jump in before or after the violence, or stay in but only vaguely describe what is happening. It’s actually not so much an attempt to censor the violence as it is a choice to focus more on the emotional aspects of physical abuse, like powerlessness and humiliation. And obviously, those themes show up in emotional abuse too, and we see a lot of that. Physical abuse is also emotional abuse by its very nature.
Basically my view on abuse is, it’s not what happens to you that makes something harmful or traumatic, it’s how it makes you feel, and that’s why I focus more on what’s going on inside their heads than outside their bodies. At the same time, I don’t want to sensationalize (or worse, fetishize) the violence. This isn’t torture porn. I think you once said that Demons is like an HBO adaptation of SPOP, so let’s say it’s more Handmaid’s Tale than Game of Thrones. This fic is not about abuse so much as its lasting effects, all the myriad mental health issues both Adora and Catra are suffering from in this fic.
However, I could forgive people for assuming it’s worse than it is. I have warnings all over Demons and I know it’s scared some people away. But I included so many warnings because a) I don’t want anyone to go in blind, and b) when I first published it, there were a lot less fics that talked so blatantly about physical abuse in particular and I wasn’t sure how it would be received. The only other one I was aware of at the time was Upper West Side, and to Savannah’s credit, I probably wouldn’t have written Demons if not for that fic. The response to UWS showed me that there was not only a market, but a need for these kinds of stories, because there are a lot of people in the fandom who have connected with that aspect of the series.
I know it can get pretty dark, but it’s important to me to include those scenes and speak blatantly about the abuse because it’s something that needs to be acknowledged for people to really understand what’s going on inside Catra and Adora’s heads, and with older audiences I can do it less subtly than canon. And it’s important personally for me not to gloss over that stuff because, like I said, this fic is my therapy.
JM: Could tell me about your experience in the She-Ra fandom and the community response to your stories?
JMI: Being in the She-Ra fandom has been a really positive experience for me overall. It’s nice being part of a community that likes exchanging thoughts and theories so much and is so open to discussing different viewpoints and dissecting things from various angles. The response to Demons has been great. As I said, I was unsure how it would go over, but it’s been received well and people are really engaging with the material, which is obviously incredibly validating as an author. It’s true for my other fics as well, but Demons in particular. Demons was actually what initially connected me with Malachi Walker, and now the two of us are basically each other’s Evil!Kermits, enabling each other’s worst impulses when it comes to angst, and we rather enjoy torturing the fandom together.
The writers in general for this fandom are a bunch of amazing people. I’m proud to call many of them my friends, and I’ve gotten to beta for several of them as well. That’s been a great experience and challenge for me as an editor, because every writer needs help with different things and they all have different communication styles. I’m just really glad they were all open to letting me work with them on stories I already love. Getting to participate and engage to that extent in someone else’s content is even better than writing fanfic!
This concludes our Fanfiction Friday series, but if there’s an amazing author you think we missed, let us know! Read Demons here on Archive of Our Own and visit Jo on Tumblr for more SPOP content. Happy reading, all!