Agent Scully as the Fool: The Role of the Skeptic in Fiction

For some reason, around this time every year my mind turns to the X-Files. As a younger man, I was a huge X-Files fan, picking up the show sometime in the second or third season and following up until it got really bad and wanky…probably the sixth season? With the show on my mind, I started thinking about Scully’s role in the story.

The X-Files presents a mythos; while that mythos may sometimes be amorphous, there is a world buried within our more familiar world. Any regular reader would instantly spot why I find such a concept appealing; that is, after all, something of a motif for my fiction and my life, back to when I was convinced that I could find an alternate universe behind the door of a friend’s crawlspace.

From the beginning, of course, Agent Mulder is embroiled in the X-Files and the alternate world that they represent. As viewers, we’re not quite sure what they represent and what is contained in the world within those files. That’s where Agent Scully comes in. She is the audience’s sympathetic character, thrown into Mulder’s world in the Pilot as a tool of the establishment, with the express goal of debunking Mulder and disproving the existence of this other world. Of course, as time goes on, she learns that there is something going on, and there is more beneath the surface, serving as our entree to the show.

Bear with me here, we’re going to get into a slightly esoteric concept: the tarot. Yes, the kind that is used for fortune telling, but no, we’re not talking about that parlor trick. We’re talking about the actual intended use of the deck, as a hidden magickal grimoire. I know this may seem off-topic, but when you’re talking about the X-Files, the concept works rather well. The first card in the deck, the Fool, is numbered zero.

Taken on its fortune-telling surface, The Fool represents new beginnings and foolhardy decisions that may or may not lead to a good outcome. In the greater context of the grimoire, however, The Fool is the adventurer, the wanderer, the person who steps into a world larger than him or herself as the first step in a journey that will transform him or her. You can see this in the card, as the fool is about to take a step off of the cliff. That is the first step in a spiritual journey to becoming a more complete, whole self.

This is where Dana Scully comes in. Even as a woman of science, she has some of the trappings of faith, as reflected in her lifelong religion – this hints some at what’s to come for her, I think. In the Pilot, she is The Fool, ready to step off the cliff into Mulder’s world. As that adventurer and as the audience’s proxy, her job is to pose questions of this world and relate it to us. She also serves as a foil to voice the skeptical opinion of the audience (Hurley served a similar function in later seasons of Lost).

You see this motif repeated in lots of other fictional worlds. Sure, many heroes start out as true believers, like Neo in the Matrix or Mulder himself, but just as many start out as Scullys. Take Reed Richards of the Fantastic Four, for instance. Even when imbued with a strange power, he continues to ask questions and push the boundaries of the fantastic world of huge men and women in tights in which he lives.

Bilbo Baggins is another great example, though I know many readers don’t like Bilbo, probably for good reason. He is the ultimate skeptic. He wants nothing to do with this wider world; all he wants is to stay at home, eat, and be safe. He becomes the character through which the reader is supposed to experience this new world, and that’s where some of the relational problems between Bilbo and the reader crop up, as he’s a generally unlikable guy. It’s not really good for the reader when they’re introduced to a new world via a protagonist that they don’t particularly like. Therein lies some of the danger of using the skeptic.

I don’t believe there’s a much better example than Scully, however. Writing a story from the point of view of someone in a fantasy world who is already very immersed in that world (Mulder, the Jedi in the Star Wars prequels) presents a huge problem, as those people speak a language that your average reader may not understand and will likely struggle to find a relation to their own world. I’m convinced this was a major failing of the prequels, in fact; it’s taken for granted that the audience understands the rules of the world in which the characters operate, but that’s usually not the case even for the most hardcore of fans.

Giving the reader an understanding of the new world has been a challenge in writing the Rule of Three story. There is only so much world-building that you can do with a weekly 600-word limitation. It doesn’t help that I’m also trying to take the semi-established, shared world and create a parallel world to that. I’m doing the best I can, though, and will expand some on that in the finished version.

If you build a sympathetic character, though, I think some of the pitfalls can be avoided. Giving the reader normal human emotions in relation to this broader world can help the reader identify and make the skeptic character a driving force. As their concepts of the world around them broaden, so too does the character begin to change, as we saw Scully transformed by her journey throughout the show. Her mission altered from trying to debunk Mulder to trying to help him find the truth.

With the skeptic comes great power, but also great risks; it’s a power to draw out explanations of a mysterious world without seeming like an “as-you-know” conversation, but the skeptic can also become too rigid and both prevent the story from moving forward and the reader from identifying with him or her. The real key is to make sure that the character is sympathetic and give them a good emotional reason for being so skeptical. Done right, I think it makes for a great literary device. Hell, Scully’s my favorite character on the X-Files, way beyond just being pretty. Which, of course, she is.

Oh, okay, she’s second to the Cigarette Smoking Man, actually, but we’ll get to the Shadow Antagonist sometime in the near future.

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  1. I used to watch The XFiles all the time, and Scully was my favorite (redheads rock). I don’t think able to do a 600-word limitation, though. Very challenging.

    Take care!

  2. This is fascinating. And I can’t wait to hear what you think about the Smoking Man–he’s my best favorite character.

  3. Great post. The roles of various characters in the mythical journey is always fascinating.
    Pete Grimm

  4. I loved the smoking man, too. Great character. The X-Files was a great show.

  5. Coincidentally, I’m in the midst of watching the X-files from the beginning with my 14-yr-old daughter. The best thing about Scully is that while she is a skeptic, she’s not pig-headed about it. She could get in Mulder’s way with her skepticism, but instead she makes him better. In fact, I would call her “rational” instead of “skeptical.” Not a bad role model for a kid.

    • I like that! Rational. Of course “the rational” doesn’t have the same ring to it 🙂 I also think her open-mindedness while erring on the side of caution is a great trait, but it would almost be impossible to stand her otherwise.

      • No, you’d make people yawn if you started talking about “rational characters.”

        And Paul, I didn’t like the new agent either…because he wasn’t Scully 😉

    • Good point, Marie. She does make him better, and kind of keeps him level. I’m just starting to watch them with my wife (who was a big fan). I can’t remember his name, but I was never really comfortable with the new agent partnered with Mulder at the beginning of season two (after they disband the X-files). My discomfort came from the fact that he believed everything Mulder believed (which we later come to find out was a ruse).

      Paul D. Dail A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog.

  6. I love Bilbo.

    Aside from that, great post.

  7. This is great stuff. So, you’re going to do the rest of the major trumps now too, right? Right? Yes?

  8. Fun post. As I mentioned on Twitter, this would make an excellent expanded piece, considering the Tarot cards alongside Joseph Campbell’s Journey of the Hero (from Fool to Sage).

    Just started watching X-files from the beginning with my wife. I had only caught a few in the past. The best thing about Scully is the beginning probably ten episodes, she is always conveniently absent at the end when Mulder sees something fantastic or paranormal. It’s hilarious. Watch the first few episodes again (you can stream them on Netflix).

    Also, Mulder’s not a very good agent. He’s always getting his ass kicked (at least well into the second season 🙂

    Paul D. Dail A horror writer’s not necessarily horrific blog.

  9. This is a great look at the skeptic, using some of my favorite characters. I loved it. And I’m doing Rule of Three as well, it’s an interesting and difficult challenge.


  10. I thought the writers, as well as the actors, did a great job developing Scully and Muldur’s relationship. It was obvious that Mulder grew to completely depend on Scully – she was somebody he could respect as well as trust. I think he appreciated being “kept in line” so to speak by her logic because it helped him to hone his beliefs even more. Done wrong, she could have come across as a boring naysayer and he could have simply resented her interference.

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  14. Is there any REAL human being on the planet who would act like Scully from the X-Files? Ignoring invading aliens, flaming demons and her own ALIEN ABDUCTION to apparently continue pretending they don’t exist?
    Most TV writers don’t seem to have the slightest grasp on skepticism and critical thinking. If a frigging alien picked me up in a spaceship and flew me around, I’d BELIEVE in aliens.

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