Mar 17, 2012

What can The X-Files teach you about writing?

Unless you’ve been living in a cabin in the woods for the past 30 years, you’ve heard of special agents Mulder and Scully.

The key concept throughout the X-Files is duplicity and dualism, the struggle to reconcile or annihilate binary opposites. Fox Mulder and Dana Scully reflect this never-ending dance of opposition: Man and woman, believer and skeptic, reckless child and protective parent.

Over the years Mulder and Scully drew closer -- as Gillian Anderson astutely remarks in the video below, their loneliness drew them together. 

So, what can Mulder and Scully teach you about writing a novel, story or play?

Polar Opposites: I [don’t] want to believe

Dana is a storied name: In Hebrew, it means ‘arbiter’ or ‘God has judged’, whereas the Celtic Dana is an alternate spelling of Danu, a fertility Goddess. The Persian word Dana means ‘knowledgeable.’

Fox originated in Ireland as a surname. The first name ‘Fox’ was usually given to a cunning individual. Mulder doesn’t always live up to his moniker: “To fox” is to deceive or act craftily but, more often than not, Mulder is the one deceived.

Scully is a medical doctor, Mulder a profiler. Instead of having the male lead be the ‘rational’ one, Chris Carter envisioned Dana Scully as the thinker and doubter. Dana was brought in to discredit Mulder’s work, not support it.

At first Dana believed she owed this strange new assignment to her impeccable credentials and clinical eye. It wouldn’t take her long to realize that she was intended as a foil.

Bear with me now, for a brief moment. I don’t intend to disparage your religious beliefs, if you have them, but let’s just state for the sake of argument that the belief in God is just as irrational as the belief in little green men. Both God and leprechauns from Mars represent aspects of the absurd, of the unfathomable. Whether they exist or not, these concepts have been created by us.

Are you still with me? Good.
Mulder and Scully believe in different aspects (faces) of the absurd. Each one discounts the other’s beliefs, which reinforces their polarity. What I find truly amusing is that, in the end, Fox and Dana are two sides of the coin. God and Space Brothers, both speak to one’s faith.

Sexual Tension

Any show that features a male and female protagonist, if it runs long enough, will eventually succumb to popular demands for romance. The crowd wants drama, but hey, smooches are nice too.

It’s a good move to defer general smoochiness for as long as you can. It keeps readers hooked to the page and viewers in thrall as the story unfolds. An unresolved attraction between main characters keeps them coming back week after week. You see, love is only a source of drama when nobody’s getting what they want. Happy couples go through peaks and valleys like everybody else -- granted. But will they get together in the end? is a much more powerful question than will they stay together?

Sexual tension is a seasoning, not a main course. You want it to spice up the action, not ruin the whole dish. Thankfully the writers on The X-Files understood that.   

Gatekeepers & Enemies

Good antagonists play nuanced roles in any story. A rich mythology depends on a carefully chosen cast -- while fiction is the mind’s playground par excellence, sometimes you can overwrite. Just ask H.P. Lovecraft.

Antagonists don’t all have to be of equal significance. Some are best left as one-offs, others only work as ‘flavor characters,’ like The Conundrum (Paul Lawrence, who goes by the stage name “The Enigma”).

What sinister forces threatened our favorite FBI agents?   

The Colonists

An extraterrestrial species that lived on Earth before human beings emerged and may have played a part in human evolution.

Now they want to repopulate the Earth and we happen to stand in the way.

The Syndicate

An international group of men in key financial and government positions who don’t trust each other all that much.

One episode shows members of their shadow organization sitting around a table and deciding who wins the World Series or that year’s Oscars. Chris Carter once pointed this out as an example of humor in the series and I have to agree. The Syndicate are a group of people with access to alien technology, intent on developing protective measures against an extraterrestrial virus. Would the Oscars be among their foremost concerns? That’s unlikely.     

Cigarette-smoking Man

Possibly Fox Mulder’s biological father and, according to X-Files director Kim Manners, also the show’s Darth Vader. To William B. Davis, the Canadian actor who portrayed Cancerman, the character was more of an unsung hero, making the kind of tough choices nobody else had to. As the episode Musings of a Cigarette-smoking Man would illustrate, he’s the man who assassinated JFK* and framed Harvey Lee Oswald for it. Not only is he supposed to be the world’s most dangerous man, but also -- go figure -- something of a frustrated novelist.
*Mulder’s first word was ‘JFK.’

These revelations, however, come from a fictional magazine article and lack confirmation.

Alien Bounty Hunters

Shape-shifting aliens who can disguise themselves as anyone. Can you see the potential here?


Unstoppable alien wrecking balls that can rip through steel sheeting with their bare hands. They appear human and the alien colonists employ them as impersonators. By the series finale, super-soldiers have occupied significant leadership positions in the FBI.

Monsters of the Week

Coming up with new freaks of nature must have been fun. The X-Files treated viewers to a regular petting zoo of werewolves, vampires, animal-human hybrids, human-alien hybrids, ghosts, fungi, Jersey devils, and more. Oh, so much more.

Dare I ask you what your favorite X-monster was? Mine, for the sheer grossness of it, was Flukeman.


The truth is out there. I want to believe. Trust no-one. Fight the future.

At heart, the X-Files were a pessimistic series. Mulder’s goal was to expose a threat to human civilization and do his best to counteract it. Like a fox trying to stop an earthquake, Mulder wasn’t very effective. But as a gadfly he was one of the best.

Catchphrases are an essential tool when you write serialized entertainment. They anchor the universe, give it continuity and attract fans. The best catchphrases embody the main principles of your story.

How does this apply to the X-Files?

The truth is out there. This is an immediate (though indirect) appeal to a gap in the viewer’s knowledge, one they didn’t even know was there. The brain is funny that way; show someone that they’re missing a piece of their favorite puzzle, hint that you may be in possession of said piece and they will follow you to the ends of the Earth.

(Be careful, however. Your readers bring you their patience and tolerance as gifts. And precious gifts at that, so don’t waste them. Although people respond well to serialized entertainment, beware the green-leafed monster we now call the kudzu plot. You don’t want tons of unfinished business in your story.)

The truth is out there means that the main characters can’t stop looking for it. The truth is not something that falls in your lap, you have to fight for it. No less disturbing is the implication that someone or something is keeping the truth from you.

I want to believe. This is the war cry of a faithful man, one who chases vision. Mulder is a crusader. This catchphrase also describes Scully’s inner struggle with the paranormal (for want of a better word). Scully’s dictum would read, in full, “I want to believe, but I’m not sure that I can.”

By and by, her skepticism crumbles.

Trust no-one. As the show went on, the strands of conspiracy around Mulder and Scully grew thicker and tighter. It seemed that everyone around them had their hands tied, that each new ally had a dangerous agenda.

Fight the future. It doesn’t take Mulder and Scully too long to realize that they’re fighting an uphill battle. While the two agents ran around chasing wild geese, shadowy plans moved forward.

What makes them admirable characters is that they don’t stop fighting. They never betray themselves.

And that is probably what kept their story going for 9 years. 



Here's a question for you -- what are your favorite X-Files episodes?

Other posts you might like:
Carl Sagan

What can they teach you about writing? -- is a weekly series of articles drawing on public statements by talented people, and how such statements apply to the act of writing. “Talented people” does not mean they’re entertainers, nor do I expect you to agree with my definition of talent at all times.

In early 2012, I decided to expand the scope of these articles to include remarkable characters in works of fiction. 

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