Fan Fiction and Story Structure: Working within an established milieu to hone story-telling skills

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Title: Fan Fiction and Story Structure: Working within an established milieu to hone story-telling skills
Creator: Anne Haynes
Date(s): roughly 1999? 2000?
Medium: online
Fandom: The X-Files
External Links: Fan Fiction and Story Structure: Working within an established milieu to hone story-telling skills
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Fan Fiction and Story Structure: Working within an established milieu to hone story-telling skills is an essay by Anne Haynes

A link to it was posted to the X-Files website Working Stiffs in roughly early 2001.

Some Topics Discussed

From the Essay

Fan fiction, the ubiquitous co-opting of established fictional characters, settings and situations for entertainment purposes, more often than not ignores basic story structures such as goal, motivation and conflict in favor of self-expression and vicarious gratification. However, for the serious writer who uses fan fiction as a practice field upon which to hone their craft, fan fiction provides an excellent, structured opportunity to take fiction apart, piece by piece, and see what makes it work. By taking a close, critical look at fan fiction, we not only discern distinct elements of story structure but we also learn how to apply those elements to our original fiction.

Stories, by definition, contain three essential elements: character, plot and milieu. Fan fiction stories are no exception. Even vignettes, which lack the fleshed-out plot structure of stories, contain plot elements that move them from a starting point to an ending point, using established characters in an established milieu. Granted, from a practical standpoint, fan fiction has few external boundaries beyond a loose adherence to characters and milieu, resulting in many stories which fail to track with the characters and milieu established by the original work. But for our purposes, we will be looking at stories that do attempt to work within the more rigid confines of a particular original work--in this case, the Fox Network television series, THE X-FILES.

THE X-FILES has two primary characters--Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, of whom much is known by the devoted fan. Each character has been given a fairly concrete background with which to work. Enough information has been revealed to fans over the past four seasons to provide them with a working understanding of the characters--their passions, perversions, character flaws and moments of nobility are fairly well established in both the surface presentation of the drama and the more delicate subtext of the through-line. Using a "Goal, Motivation and Conflict" chart, both characters can be examined and understood with a certain level of confidence on the part of the writer who seeks to use Mulder and Scully as protagonists in a piece of fan fiction.

However, secondary characters, such as Walter Skinner, The Cigarette Smoking Man (CSM) and Margaret Scully, have been less meticulously developed on the original show. Even in fan fiction which rigidly adheres to the show canon, the development of such secondary characters leads to widely diverse versions of the same character because the individual author is forced to provide details to flesh out missing information. In Eowyn Evenstar's long fan fiction, "Fusion," Walter Skinner's often enigmatic on-screen actions and motivations are explained in intricate, compelling detail by making him a member of an "anti-Consortium," a shadowy group of individuals who are dedicated to subverting the evil plans of CSM and the other conspirators who want to sabotage and manipulate the efforts of protagonists Mulder and Scully. Because Evenstar wanted to feature Walter Skinner, a character who remains a puzzle to many viewers due to a lack of both internal and external character development, she was forced to fill in the blanks. In essence, Evenstar worked a mental GMC chart on Skinner, answering the unspoken questions of WHAT he wants, WHY he wants it, and WHY he does NOT yet have it. It is at this juncture that the individual writer's creativity and craft come into play in fan fiction.

For writers wanting to work with characters who are little more than faces to most viewers, the challenge is to use THE X-FILES canon as a springboard for more detailed development.Gizzie wrote a series of charming stories ("The Messenger" series) which featured one of the least developed characters on the show, Byers, one of a trio of conspiracy-minded government watchdogs. All viewers know of Byers is that he generally wears a suit and tie, he's the "serious" one of the trio, and he wears a gold band on his left hand. Gizzie, apparently inspired by "Memento Mori," the episode in which Byers is dispatched as Mulder's "second" to send word to Scully, took what little viewers know of this minor character and created a thorough back story and a through-line that could track neatly with current show canon. In this case, while Gizzie adhered to the basic canonical milieu of THE X-FILES, she created her own goals, motivations and conflicts for the character of Byers by taking what little is known about the character and making logical extrapolations.

A wildly popular form of fan fiction is categorized as Mulder/Scully romance, or MSR. While the show itself has thus far kept the two main characters in a physically platonic relationship, most viewers (as well as the creator and the actors) acknowledge that there is an undercurrent of sexual awareness and emotional intimacy between the two partners. What MSR fan fiction accomplishes is taking the existing unresolved connection between Mulder and Scully and following it to fruition. In order to do so, the more practiced fan fiction writers work within the parameters of the established external and internal goals, motivations and conflicts of Fox Mulder and Dana Scully as they exist on the show. These conflicts show us what the characters must overcome in order to reach their goals, while their goals and motivations reveal the lengths to which the characters will go to achieve their goals. The better MSR fan fiction stories also build on character flaws present in the drama as presented, such as Mulder's tendency toward selfish-focus and self-destructiveness or Scully's stubborn rigidity and obsessive need for control. These flaws lead organically to conflicts between the characters.

Whether or not a satisfying romantic resolution takes place depends largely on how well the writer defines the conflicts and works within the confines of character and milieu to create a plausible solution to those conflicts. In Lydia Bower's lyrical "Dance Without Sleeping," Mulder and Scully face a very specific canonical external conflict--Scully's cancer. Bowers deftly develops the Mulder/Scully relationship as it appears in the original show, casting an unflinching eye on existing characterization, including Scully's fierce need to keep her emotions tightly contained and Mulder's nearly pathological tendency toward self-sabotage. Bowers' pinpoint exploration of the cause-and-effect relationship between motivation and action also allows us to dig deeply into the characters and discover why they want what they want and why they take the steps they do to achieve their goals. But Bowers takes the final step that THE X-FILES has not and perhaps will never take: she uses the canonical set-up to create a convincing scenario in which Mulder and Scully, building on their existing character traits and flaws, resolve those conflicts which keep them apart and forge a lasting emotional, spiritual and physical bond. This extra step--the genesis of a non-canonical situation evolving directly out of established series dogma--is where the line between fan fiction and original fiction blurs.

Fan fiction is not an endless retelling of the same stories. Instead, it is a dynamic, flexible set of parameters within which an author maneuvers, adding his or her own creative input to flesh out characters, situations and places which are incomplete within the canonical structure of the existing drama. Without the external pressure of coming up with characters and situations from scratch, the fan fiction author is free to explore the nooks and crannies of storytelling--how to develop conflicts, how to flesh out formless characters, how to create new external obstacles to test existing characters, and how to fashion a storyline in which the characters maintain their integrity while dealing with new obstacles.

Yet fan fiction is more than just fiction with training wheels. The external strictures placed on fan fiction by its very nature teach the smart writer to look subjectively at story elements such as character, plot and milieu in all fiction, including their own original work. How does each element affect the others? Is characterization dictating action? Does plot help to define and reveal character? How does the setting and starting situation affect the characters and the plot? These are all questions that fan fiction writers have to answer in each story. These are also questions that fiction writers must answer about their own original characters, plots and settings. By willingly accepting the external constraints of working with characters who do not come out of one's own mind, a writer learns a valuable lesson about writing "in-character" and constructing a believable world peopled by believable characters involved in believable actions.

The smart writer approaches his own work with the same external boundaries--even if the character is a creature never before seen, the same criteria for character integrity and motivation apply. Even if the fictional world he creates defies all the rules of Earthly physics, chemistry and biology, the milieu nevertheless has its own internal rules of order to which the writer must adhere to make the reader believe in this fantastical place. And no matter how creative and clever a plot might be, if it doesn't flow naturally from character, it will lack plausibility and impact. The same story structure a writer uses to construct well-written, believable fan fiction stories can be used to construct well-written original fiction as well.