Whoosh! Issue 25 - October 1998


Spinning Off From The Source:
Alternative Fan Fiction Changes With The Seasons




Themes and Trends in Alternative Fan Fiction

[21] The other day I was looking through some stories I had not read in a while. When I got to the bottom of the stack I found a story that got me thinking about how Xena fan fiction has evolved over the years, or I should say, over the seasons.

[22] In truth, I have to confess that I have a hard time reading fan fiction based on the first season of Xena: Warrior Princess anymore, particularly pre-Perdicus-wedding stories. But what of the whole pile of stories that magically appeared in mid-Season Two, with the inspiration of THE QUEST (37/213) and A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215)? I still love most of those stories.

[23] Now as we sit at the beginning of Season Four, it might be a good time to think about how alt-fanfic may evolve in the future. In order to look forward, we need to look back to Season One and trace various trends and themes through the seasons of Xena. I want to look at general themes in alt-fanfic as well as note those general themes that appear to have changed over time. Many of these themes can be humorously expressed in the form of alternative fan fiction cliches. In addition to the alternative fiction stories themselves, two works of humor and parody inform my work here: Bongo Bear's collaboratively collected "Alternative Fan Fiction Cliche List", and WordWarior's parody based on Bongo Bear's list, titled "For the Love of Cliches", a story where the author used every cliche on Bongo Bear's list within the space of two pages.


Alt-Fanfic Character Themes

[24] To begin, let us consider the cast of characters that appear in Xenaverse fan fiction. Most notably absent in fan fiction is the character theme of TPTB, reflecting their displacement from any kind of a central power position in the fan fiction sector of the Xenaverse, in contrast to how often their presence is invoked in other sectors, on the bulletin boards and chat rooms, for instance. Sometimes Tyldus, a producer of the show who has often appeared on-line, or another member of TPTB will be written into a story, but usually only in parodies, such as in the story where Xena and Gabrielle go to couple's counseling in the present day to discuss their inability to get together. Every time they start to declare their love for each other, a member of TPTB bursts in and keeps them from saying it. Still, appearances by TPTB are very rare.

[25] Hardcore Nutballs (HCNBs), as many fans refer to themselves (taken from an early e-mail from Lucy Lawless to the Internet fans), appear in stories very rarely as well, for instance in cameos as in DJWP's hilarious "A Bard Day's Night". This story also features a famous walk-on character who shows up in a number of stories: Sappho. In "A Bard Day's Night", Sappho is as famous as the Beatles were in A Hard Day's Night (Richard Lester, 1964). As the "tenth muse" she travels the countryside, performing, and eventually she needs Xena as a bodyguard to protect her from the pursuing crowds. When Xena and Gabrielle join Sappho's entourage, Xena becomes famous also. HCNBs appear in a scene outside the balcony at the inn where the performers and bodyguard are staying. Looking over the crowds below the balcony, the famous troupe views a scene straight out of a Xena Convention, with HCNB fans dressed up in Xena and Sappho costumes. That is a very rare sort of appearance, however.

[26] Another omitted character is Joxer, who is so reviled as an intrusion that few self-respecting alt-fanfic bards will put him in their stories.

[27] The characters who feature most prominently in Xenaverse alternative fan fiction are Xena and Gabrielle, and of course the arch-villain Callisto, who also sets off plenty of erotic fire, mostly of the forbidden, insane, and sado-masochistic sort. As we will see when I look at various fan fiction cliches below, the alt-fanfic bards ranged in their conceptions of the characters of Xena and Gabrielle. Early alt-fanfic, influenced by the Season One television portrayal of Gabrielle as a naive young woman, seemed to have a great deal of emotional energy invested in Gabrielle's innocence and virginity.

[28] In contrast, the Season One alt-fanfic portrayal of Xena is much closer to the violent edge of her dark side, since it is early in her conversion to good. Xena is portrayed in alt-fanfic as much more worldly and experienced than Gabrielle. In these stories Xena is often holding back in her feelings for Gabrielle because she sees herself as a hardened "old warlord" who does not deserve someone as virginal and pure of heart as Gabrielle, or rather, she thinks that Gabrielle deserves someone better than herself.

[29] Gabrielle, meanwhile, is cast as clueless, not understanding her growing feelings for Xena, but determined to do something about it. Yet, quite often in these early stories it is Gabrielle who makes the first move (see Bongo Bear's Cliche list #15).

[30] My own complaint with Season One alt-fanfic is how condescending Xena often acts when Xena and Gabrielle do get together, using phrases like "my little bard" and other diminutives. Some authors have Gabrielle throw tantrums or cry at ridiculous things. You would think she was 6 years old. There is one particular nomination I want to make for Bongo Bear's Cliche List, and that is the commonly-appearing, condescending scene where Xena reaches down and tilts Gabrielle's chin up with her finger, to make her look up, or to give some parental-sounding advice. That gesture alone seems to sum up for me the whole condescending attitude in the Xena-Gabrielle relationship in these early, Season One-inspired stories.

[31] Maybe the chin tilt thing is some kind of a running joke, right up there with "feral grin," which is the fanfic equivalent of "I have many skills." For a while, when I first entered the fanfic Xenaverse, I thought I would scream if Xena were written with another feral grin, but then a friend told me it was a running joke among bards. Evidently there is a goofy rule that the writers have to work in a "feral grin" somewhere. Once I got clued in, I started to like feral grins, and now I crack up every time I find one. It is a good joke. Perhaps the chin tilt thing is becoming a joke too.

[32] In Season Two on the TV show, Gabrielle develops into a fully grown woman who would have, presumably, lost her virginity on her wedding night, before her husband was killed the following day (RETURN OF CALLISTO). As Bongo Bear (Cliche #14) has noted, some writers went to great lengths to preserve Gabrielle's maidenhead, in spite of her marriage, although why they were so invested in her virginity, I will never know. On the other hand, characters take on greater complexity in Season Two-inspired alt-fanfic. Gabrielle and Xena are no longer portrayed in simple dualities of light and dark. After Season Two much of the character-driven, longer stories and novels started appearing. It would appear that the more complex characterizations of Xena and Gabrielle led to more interesting stories, with greater depth of character.

[33] However, with the events of Season Three, TPTB have further complicated the characters of Xena and particularly Gabrielle. On television, viewers have been given a closer glimpse of Xena's dark past, which turned out to be much darker than anything the fan fiction bards had imagined previously, particularly in showing Xena as an unrepentant mass murderer in the Kingdom of Chin. But the expansion in the characterization of Gabrielle caused fans, and bards, the most difficulty. The events of the rift and the debate on whether or not Gabrielle was raped divided the discussion groups in the Xenaverse, and a number of prominent figures left the Xenaverse for good.

[34] Here is a puzzle then. The expansion of the characterizations of Xena and Gabrielle from Season One to Season Two, from simple dualities of good/bad, light/dark to more complex characterizations, spawned a dramatic increase in alt-fan fiction. The complexity of the characterizations undoubtedly did not accomplish this alone. Perhaps the increased complexity plus the heavily subtextual episodes led to the inspired explosion of high quality alt-fanfic. The bards had strong source material from which to spin their epic novels. But why does the increased character development of Xena and Gabrielle in Season Three not lead to even more high quality stories? The subtext was still present in Season Three, although some Xenites complained that Xena and Gabrielle said "I love you" so often it ceased to mean anything, particularly when the more overt signs of subtext between Xena and Gabrielle (kissing, bathing) were often missing.

[35] I can only speculate here, but perhaps the characterizations of Xena and Gabrielle, and their relationship, which TPTB now claim has become too deep and profound for subtext, have become so complex the bards cannot get a handle on them. Others have speculated that events were left up in the air with the end of Season Three, claiming that the bards are holding back or focusing on "Uber" stories so their plots would not automatically become obsolete with the coming events of Season Four. I cannot fully accept this explanation because Xenaverse fan fiction already exhibits a high tolerance for parallel universes and alternative storylines -- the fictional world of Missy Good's interpretation of Xena and Gabrielle, for instance.

[36] Another important group of characters appear with regularity in alt-fanfic: Amazons. Amazons have been introduced in the television show, but the Xenaverse has made the Amazons a nation of their own, especially after Gabrielle became an Amazon Queen/Princess on television, bringing her status closer to parity with Xena's. She is still not the typical Amazon warrior, however, because of her pacifism. Gabrielle only fights to defend herself. Many web sites have been designed around Amazon themes, indicating their popularity among women and men in the Xenaverse. Periodic threads discussing research into Amazon myth and legend also appear on the listservs. Online Warrior Librarians generously share what they have learned about the Amazons.

[37] Amazons in alt-fanfic become stand-ins for the HCNBs themselves, and many Xenites take Amazon-related names for their online "handles." Fan fiction writers elaborate on existing Amazon characters such as Ephiny, Solari, Eponin, and Melosa, and freely create many more. As WordWarior puts it in "For the Love of Cliches", they are "made up especially for the story".

[38] On television the Amazons are a tribe of scantily-clad women who always seem to be dancing to some omnipresent drumbeat, doing what fans and TPTB have jokingly referred to as the "Amazon hokey-pokey". In alt-fanfic, the Amazons are always having festivals (as Bongo Bear and WordWarior point out in their treatment of cliches) which allow Xena and Gabrielle to drink a little, dance a little, then slip back to their hut for some big fun.

[39] Bards also invent many arcane Amazon rituals in which Xena and Gabrielle are forced to participate. Gabrielle is the queen, after all, even though she stays on the road with Xena most of the time. A number of writers have imagined Amazon bonding rituals in great detail, often involving power differentials between a warrior caste and Amazon royalty. It is interesting that the bards often imagine Amazon culture as a caste-bound society. If bards have Xena and Gabrielle getting married, they usually do it at the Amazon nation (The Marriage of Xena and Gabrielle" by DJWP), or using Amazon rituals (A Warrior's Honor" by Lyssa).

[40] Classical Greek deities show up as characters both on television and in alt-fanfic. On television, on both Hercules: The Legendary Journeys and Xena: Warrior Princess, Ares and Aphrodite make fairly regular appearances. Zeus, Apollo, Hera, and Cupid appear less regularly. Fan fiction bards like to use the character of Ares. Word floats around the Xenaverse from time to time that Kevin Smith, the actor who plays Ares, is so sexy he could turn many lesbians straight. I will vouch for that.

[41] Two other goddesses appear in alt-fanfic but do not show up on television. Athena, goddess of wisdom and war, often bestows favors on Xena online, and Artemis, moon goddess, goddess of virgins and the hunt, looks out for the Amazon Queen Gabrielle, since she is also the patron goddess of the Amazons. On TV some Amazon tribes supposedly worship Hera, but those are the evil Amazon tribes. In B.L. Miller's famous "hurt/comfort" story "The Cabin", Athena, Artemis, and Aphrodite all drop in to bless Xena and Gabrielle's finally getting together. I have a personal fondness for Gaea and Uranus, who make appearances in Puckster's "Cerebus's Challenge" and "Empathy's Cost".


Alt-Fanfic Setting Themes

[42] The settings in the alt-fanfic Xenaverse are perhaps the most often cliched, and Bongo Bear's "Alternative Fan Fiction Cliche List" specifies many of them (edited here to the simple items on the list):

  1. X and G take lots of baths.
  2. G sleeps after sex.
  3. G wakes up with the munchies.
  4. X has more stamina. See #2.
  5. X is more experienced.
  6. X is more kinky and knows which end of the toys to use.
  7. They almost always have good sex. Lara said change "good" to "incredible, spectacular, and earth shattering". Whatever you say, dear.
  8. All "first time" alt. fic has X asking G "Are you sure?"
  9. X almost always has been interested in G in "that way" for a long time, but G has usually just figured out her own feelings. (I guess that goes along with #5).
  10. As soon as the first confession of love is made (verbal or otherwise), they waste no time before "hitting the bedrolls."
  11. G gets to take off X's armor piece by piece. In detail.
  12. X gets to take off G's BGSB [BGSB=Bilious Green Sport Bra]. In detail.
  13. G is a very quick study.
  14. Gabrielle loses her virginity, again!
  15. While G almost always makes the first "move," X quickly becomes the -ahem- aggressor.
  16. X delivers, all the time, every time. G is a very satisfied, happy customer.
  17. X & G's "first time" is usually after some trauma.
  18. X & G always boink if they're in a cave.
  19. First Time stories usually happen at:
    1. A festival
    2. The Amazon Nation
    3. A festival at the Amazon Nation
  20. Everybody around the two know that they are in love, except them.
  21. Xena is always afraid her past will somehow come back to hurt Gabby, as if it hasn't already.
  22. X & G always declare their love for each other prior to the act.
[43] WordWarior humorously puts all these cliches into action in "For the Love of Cliches". Her two-page story highlights the central features of most alt-fanfic stories. Bongo Bear's list points up many settings in the alt-fic Xenaverse.

[44] The most common setting for the warrior and bard is on the road, camping in the woods, by the fireside. Sometimes they stop at a rustic inn, where, if Gabrielle is not accosted by a smelly, toothless man that Xena has to beat up, Gabrielle often tells stories and earns a few dinars. Inns have rooms and, ever economical, Xena and Gabrielle often share a room with one double bed. If it is a more upscale inn, they usually can get a bath (see #1 above), and if it is really upscale, they can get a bath for the two of them at the same time. The recurring event of Xena and Gabrielle bathing was initiated by TPTB in the Season 2 episode A DAY IN THE LIFE (39/215), and fan fiction writers are never going to let go of it, cliched or not. Xenites will never be able to get the strong image Xena and Gabrielle bathing together out of their heads.

[45] As snoop points out above (#18), in alt-fanfic Xena and Gabrielle often stay in caves as well, and those usually have some sort of natural hot springs which allows them to bathe again. Other settings that appear in alt-fanfic are lakes, an abandoned shack or picturesque cabin, or a forest glade near a stream-spring-waterfall, again, for more bathing. Finally, an extremely common setting is a festival at the Amazon Nation. There, because Gabrielle is queen, they get their own thatched hut.


Alt-Fanfic Action Themes

[46] Actions in alt-fanfic, besides bathing, often follow a simple plot which, in its simplicity, masks the real agenda in the stories, which is to explore the characters of Xena and Gabrielle and the relationship between them. Xena and Gabrielle overcome some life-threatening obstacle and get together. Some authors even apologize up front for their story not having a plot, but these character explorations, and excuses for steamy erotica, reveal what matters most to some Xenites. Meanwhile, some alt-fanfic bards do enjoy writing epic battle scenes as well as character exploration, and a few others turn their cleverness toward plotting tales of intrigue or conspiracy, or incorporating classical or bastardized Greek myths and history into their stories. Some writers even bring in an element of pagan spirituality or mysticism, with oracles or magic talismans.

[47] What we do not see in fanfic actions, especially after Season Two, that we do see in the actions created by the television program, are the more dualistic stories of "Xena defeats evil warlord in a heroic battle". To be fair, the television program has moved away from this sort of storyline in favor of more complex characterizations with reversals and surprises. TPTB have admitted that they got backed into that corner with Hercules: The Legendary Journeys because Hercules had no character arc. He was always on the side of good and he always won.

[48] Some of the things TPTB and alt-fanfic writers can play with are the complexities of Xena's dark past. TPTB have explored themes of Xena's past as an incredibly brutal mass murderer in China in the acclaimed episodes of THE DEBT I and II (52-53/307-307). Alt-fanfic bards can create ex-lovers from Xena's past, raising issues of jealousy. They can explore Xena's apprenticeship as a young warrior through flashbacks and resurrected old ghosts.

[49] The television program has also turned to exploring the complexities of Gabrielle's character in the controversial "Rift-Arc". While some fans are still not happy with how the entire rift came off, it does pave the way for a Gabrielle who is no longer the picture of innocence, idealism, and purity. She is now a Gabrielle who has lost her blood innocence and taken a life. Some Xenites, especially in the contingent of strong Gabrielle fans who spend time in the specialized Gabrielle discussion groups online, seem to be drawn to Gabrielle's idealism and pacifism. I have not spent time in these groups, however, to be able say whether these fans have embraced or are resisting the complexities of Gabrielle's character as introduced in Season Three.

[50] We have seen subtle differences in the character and setting themes between the television program and the imaginative world created by the alt-fanfic bards, some of which have humorously become known as fanfic cliches. Actions in alt-fanfic reflect what it is about Xena: Warrior Princess that matters most to the people who are drawn deeply into the online Xenaverse. They are drawn in to the point that they have seized the means of production and created their own Xenaverse in cyberspace, a space where their agendas are the top priority and where TPTB have absolutely minimal control or influence.

[51] This fan fiction universe is the height of rebellion away from TPTB because it in essence says, "We don't need the television show to sustain this space." Surely most bards would admit to being particularly inspired by Lucy Lawless and Renee O'Connor as fleshed out avatars for their fictional dramas, but they have past seasons on videotape which they can look at any time.

[52] One of the most ironic outcomes of the furor over the "Rape/Rift" issue in Season 3 was a significant disenfranchisement of a number of prominent figures in the Xenaverse. Some dropped out of fandom completely, such as "xenos" of the famous fan fiction index. Some disenfranchised fans, however, publicly proclaimed their break with the television show while continuing to be highly active in fan fiction circles, saying essentially, "I'll get my Xena fix from fan fiction. I'm not going to watch the show anymore."


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