Those Classy Dames

Janice and Mel were the precursors of fan-fiction's uber characters and appeared in only one TV episode of Xena: Warrior Princess. They were portrayed as the descendants of Xena and Gabrielle who possessed many of their strengths and weaknesses though in reverse... at least on the surface. Yet they caught the imagination of fan-fiction writers, to the point that over 100 stories have been written about them and spurred the extension into uber-characterizations that spanned time, and characteristics. Something about the soft-spoken Mel and the 'hard as nails' Janice provided a perfect counterpoint to the typical Xena and Gabrielle stories. Interesting too is the fact that these relatively modern characters also exist in a period of great upheaval ... WWII ... a time when the world also needed heroes. So join us, as we discuss not only the appeal of these characters, but their impact on the Xenaverse and the germination of uber stories.

Joining us today are:

Vivian Darkbloom [All the Colors of the World, The Secret Histories, The Stars Fell Down, Venezia, Coup de Grace]

CN Winters [November 29, 1942, The Magic of Egypt, The Magic of Paris, Little Moments: A Day in the Desert, Casablanca]

Palomine [The Case of the Hollywood Homicide]

Roo [Home Fires, Slow Burn]

ArdentTly (aka Trish Shields) [The Grecian Affair, Resistance and Resurrection, Reflections in a Golden Eye: Books 1- 3, Passion Tense, Barfly, The Feast]

Enginerd [Disturbing Revelations, With Good Intentions, Southern Hospitality, Duty, Die Pflicht, Letting Go]

LZClotho [Going Home, Home Front]

* Not Completed

EM: Why did you choose to write a Janice/Mel story [differences from X&G, historical time period, reversal of X&G characteristics]?

CN: [Laughs] Because people kept asking me for one. Actuallly I loved Bat Morda's Is There a Doctor on the Dig and Della Streets Finds. It wasn't until I read fan fiction that I liked these characters. I despised the episode when I first saw it - it's Emmy material compared to season five but little did I know at the time. Once I read the fan fiction however I started to like the depth of the characters that the series never showed.

Roo: At the height of alt Xena fan fiction on the internet, most of which I was reading, I off-handedly expressed to a friend my disappointment at what appeared to be a preponderance of clichés' and repetition when it came to plot line and dialogue. So many of the stories seemed to unfold the same way Xena, the quiet loner, suffering pangs of desire for Gabrielle, yet unable, or unwilling to see that her bard was totally open to any overtures that might come from the Warrior Princess. Time and again, upon proclaiming their mutual love, Xena's sexual prowess, always superior to the virginal bard, would reduce Gabrielle to tears of ecstasy. And the bard, ever the enthusiastic student, would be a quick study and ultimately a voracious lover. Granted, a good many of these stories were exceptionally written and given original twists by wonderful bards.

Having opened my mouth once too often, my friend invited me to "put up or shut up", in no uncertain terms. I was dared to pen either a Xena/Gabrielle alt, or an uber alt story. Well, it was 1998 and frankly, I just didn't see the subtext between Xena and Gabrielle at that point. However, having recent re-watched The Xena Scrolls, I could imagine Mel and Janice in a clinch. So, with nothing more than a chosen setting...Australia... and a paper-thin plot sketch... Janice receives a 'Jane Doe' letter; I began work on Home Fires. Anyone who has ever seen me construct a story from the ground up knows that I am a slave to chronologies, character studies and biographies, dialogue and plot notes, but for the first time in a thirty year writing career, I began work on a story with absolutely none of my customary framework. Never once in the ten months it took to write Home Fires did I refer to notes of any kind. I simply wrote until the story was told, coming to a natural conclusion. The story is better than it has any right to be.

Vivian: [For me] a couple different reasons. First, because I was inspired by some really good Janice/Mel stories, in particular Elaine Sutherland's stories [The Pappas Journals], not to mention a now-lost classic of the genre, L. Graham's Lost in Translation. Second, I've always been very interested in the history/time period.

Finally, I thought it would be easier than writing an original uber--I soon found that it is, and it isn't. In creating an uber, or any kind of original fiction, you have almost total freedom to create characters and situations. That freedom can be either terrifying or wonderful, or both, depending on what prescription drug you're taking. There is some leeway in creating a backstory and building upon Janice's & Mel's characters... as opposed to X & G, where you have so much more character minutiae & history to work with; but there are also certain details that restrict you, that you can't totally ignore: their fathers are dead, Janice smokes, Janice can't shoot straight, Mel is Southern and momentarily finds Jack Kleinman swoon-worthy, etc. ... frankly, I think it was dehydration and those tight shoes. They are kind of shadowland figures, elusive, half-filled in, not fully formed. It was really interesting for me to approach a story with characters like that, to try and fill in the details and bend the facts to my own satisfaction.

Enginerd: [My] main reason for writing about Janice and Mel was my desire to flesh out the intriguing characters that were too briefly seen on the [Xena: Warrior Princess] clip show, The Xena Scrolls. The show did manage to portray enough of the characters to make me wonder how the stubborn and tough archeologist who carries on her father's work and the Southern lady, who left a comfortable life for adventure overseas, would work out their inevitable conflicts as they reached an understanding. I also wanted to make the characters more likable. On the show, there wasn't any time for character development and the characters struck me as 'mean spirited' towards each other. I wanted to like the TV characters more than I did. And it got me wondering - what makes them tick? What if those annoying edges were explained or sanded down a bit? What if . . . ?

Palomine: Actually, I was quite reluctant to do a Janice and Mel story. I'd tried a few other stories but shied away from that particular sort of uber story. I had read the Mel and Janice stories by Wishes and felt that I could scarcely do better than that. Everything I know about archeology I'd learned from "Raiders of the Lost Ark"; and I had a nagging feeling that it wouldn't be enough to save me. But an artist friend who enjoyed drawing covers for my stories said that she was dying to draw the characters in Hepburn type slacks, soft slouch hats and those great 1940's blouses and jackets. "Do it as a hard boiled detective story", she suggested and suddenly I had my hook for the Hollywood Homicide. True, I cheated a little by moving the setting away from Europe during WWII but I know more about movies than I do about archeology or the war.

EM: Did anything about the WWII period attract any of you?

ArdentTly: Although I didn't grow up during the 40s, it is a time filled with history, romance, adventure and high drama. The music, the movies... oh, those great movies... have always spoken to me. I suppose I live vicariously through Jan, wanting to be a spitfire that goes around making and living by my own rules. She's no one's fool, lives life on the edge, and tries to break every rule she can on the way to what she knows will be glory.

Palomine: The late Thirties and Forties seemed to be the period when women had an opportunity to use their strength and smarts in a public arena, rather than just in the home. Under the mantle of the "war effort", they joined the armed forces, flew planes, built battleships, ran their households and businesses. And not just the obvious ones, the Amelia Earharts and Eleanor Roosevelts, but the girl next door suddenly discovered she could fix an engine as well as her kid brother, that she could accomplish things she'd never dreamed of trying when the menfolk were around. Although there have always been capable and independent women, rarely were they so praised and encouraged as they were during the War. It was a perfect setting for a latter day Xena and Gabrielle to strut their stuff.

LZ: World War II wasn't the beginning of women breaking out of their roles, but it was the first era where it was prevalent ALL over the globe. Women still ran into men (and women) who expected certain role-fulfillment, and Janice and Melinda were drawn in The Xena Scrolls as characters who could really bring this growth in women to 'life' dramatically. Think of the sheer guts it took for Melinda to travel, at that time, across the globe to meet someone sight unseen to translate some ancient writings. As much as she was drawn prim and proper, that inherently takes a streak of the unconventional. And Janice Covington took charge of her father's workers in a field where women were considered anathema. I wrote Going Home with that entire dichotomy uppermost in my mind.

There is some 'reversal' of characteristics, but in a way just from that one glimpse in The Xena Scrolls, Janice and Melinda struck me as more complex characters than Xena or Gabrielle. Not that X&G aren't complex, but J&M are complex on an entirely different level. For one, the time period they inhabit is far more complex, the bad guys more difficult to identify. That complexity drew me to explore it.

EM: What dynamics of the J&M characters are the most interesting to explore?

Enginerd: Each character, as I see them, has pride and a strong will. But the blunt archeologist and proper Southern lady expresses themselves very differently, based on their background. There is a great potential for humor and dramatic conflict by highlighting those contrasts. But despite the contrasts, I think it's important the reader sees the characters' respect and love for each other so it makes sense they would "put up" with the other.

CN: I like the idea that Mel is the southern belle debutante but underneath there's a real fire. She's the type of woman to tell you off but do it in a really polite way. [chuckles] As for Janice I like her Amelia Earhart quality about her... doing something that in that era women just weren't 'supposed to do'. The way she calls Mel 'sweetheart' has an appeal too. [grins]

LZ: Individually, I think it's Janice and Melinda's reflections, not of their antecedents Gabrielle and Xena, but of their fathers, who were clearly men of a very different stripe from their surroundings. Exploring their past and present reflective relationships with their fathers was really what I was aiming to explore in Home Front (and set the groundwork for in Going Home). It's all from that line uttered by Melinda in The Xena Scrolls paraphrasing here: "Maybe it's time we got out from under our daddies' shadows". That's quite a struggle, and even more so if you look at how fervently Janice defends her father as brilliant instead of "graverobber Covington". That kind of admiration formed her as a child and into young adulthood. The struggle to become your own person when you're so closely attached, and by others identified, as "Covington's kid" sets up a wonderful psychological basis for delving into character, and creating a real surface upon which a set of story events can impact compellingly.

Janice clearly had little 'enjoyable' female influence... her mother ran out on her and her father when she was quite young. We actually got more about Janice's background than we did about Melinda's in The Xena Scrolls, at least factually. A [fan fiction] writer has more of an opportunity to interpret Melinda, and that's like waving a bone in front of a hungry dog... impossible to resist sniffing around.

This isn't to say that Janice and Melinda don't reflect Gabrielle and Xena, but I think they are more characters in their own right than other ubers since. Gabrielle is reflected in Janice's early sense of inadequacy for the roles she undertakes, her self-doubt, her struggle to be 'worthy' of her recognition. Melinda reflects Xena in her sense of commitment to a broader purpose. She is Xena, I think, if Xena had been in a situation where the society had structures that she could utilize to this end, rather than having to strike out on her own to 'fix it all'.

Vivian: For me, [it's] probably the relationship they have with their individual personal histories... being X & G's descendants... and how it affects and overlaps their relationships not only with each other but also with other people and the world at large. Additionally, the romantic angle interests me... assuming that one writes them as lovers and not friends. Being homosexual in puritan America, especially in the 1940s & 1950s, was no easy thing--perhaps even for someone like Janice, who can be seen as the more "worldly" of the two, and thus not as bound by the conventions of American thought and culture.

Roo: Well [to me], they represent opposite ends of what is a stereotypical lesbian spectrum. Janice is 'The Butch', the Indiana Jones knock-off. Mel is 'The Femme'. That is the elemental way in which they were penned for one 44-minute episode in 1996. But we all know women, lesbian or straight, are so much more than stereotypes. Women are layers and levels, deep and shallow by turns. Mel and Janice are like opposite ends of a stretch of road. If you walk too far in one direction, you find Janice; too far in the opposite direction, you will find Mel. But if both these characters take equal steps towards one another, they become more real, more alike... they share characteristics instead of parceling all the hostility and aggression out to Janice, and leaving Mel with the soft, vulnerable side.

Melinda Pappas as she has evolved in fan fiction, in the hands of some fine bards, is as strong as she needs to be at any given moment. Conversely, Janice Covington is more than the sum of her pistol and whip; she can be sentimental and introspective and the right words from her can reduce her partner to mush. Mel and Janice are all about chemistry... their innate ingredients, and what we, as bards, bring to them in the course of our stories.

ArdentTly: Although Lucy Lawless' portrayal of Xena is perfect in every way, I can't help but think of the character as being a little more brawny. And so when thinking of Melinda, I transpose a bit of that large muscular frame onto the Southerner and go from there. They are two very different characters - dark and light, high strung and laid back, calm and cool and devil may care. By taking the brash Xena and putting her into a small framed woman, who might be mighty of mouth isn't necessarily so in body type, the creators of the episode did a little mind tweak on us. I love it! The small and demure... in the first three seasons, anyway... bard is given a larger than life tall gorgeous body with hidden strengths we get brief glimpses of. I like that dynamic - showing this large femme woman descended from a big, bad old warrior, being soft spoken and brow beaten by this brassy, mouthy little butch who talks like she's the one who is six feet of dark and dangerous warrior. Just when Mel's been dismissed as being foolish, she pulls the rabbit out of her hat.

Palomine: [I think] the complementary nature of these characters makes them a writers' dream. Like an actress in a one-woman play, the writer gets to explore without straying far from home, or the limits of her tale. It's a mistake, I think to see Janice and Mel as opposite personalities, as single level caricatures. Tough guy /softie, thinker/doer, firebrand/peacemaker... all these stereotypes are fun to play with and they provide easy access to the conflicts and high emotions that are fodder to a fiction writer. But people, even make believe ones, are far more complex than that and it's a greater challenge to explore Mel and Janice and how they interact. I think that at their core Mel and Janice are very much alike. They share a common decency, humanity and sensitivity to others, whatever their differing habits and personalities. They could not maintain a true respect and affection for one another if this were not so.

They recognize the differences in each other and rather than ignoring or dismissing them, each of the characters learns her own limits and strengths. They work for a common goal, but each knows when to step back and let the other lead. If gentle sympathy is needed, Janice sits still and watches as her friend reaches out. When directness and daring are called for, Mel follows Jan's lead. Neither is the boss, neither is right all the time. It's fun to see them work together, like dancers, like Astaire and Rogers. As a matter of fact, I see Mel and Janice very much like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. One is elegant and smooth, the other more down to earth. Either one could carry the movie but the best moments are when they're working together.

And most intriguing is, how did they get that way? What influences in their pasts, their relationships could make two women so different, at least on the surface? I toyed with the idea of writing a story where Mel and Janice and their mothers would all converge, where the thousand little hurts and hopes that mothers and daughters share would be revealed. What sort of relationship would Mel have with her mother? How would Janice react to meeting the woman who abandoned her as a child?


EM: What impact do you see these 1st uber characters having on other uber or original stories?

Vivian: A great deal of impact. The Mel/Janice stories are transitional--they point the way to uber and its many manifestations. Because of the reversal of characteristics, M/J no doubt encouraged many an uber writer, and maybe even those who write strictly X & G stories too, to think outside the box. To see that an uber-G could be tough & uncouth while still being vulnerable, that an uber-X could be mild-mannered and soft-spoken while still being strong, and that there are many gradations and permutations that lie in between the two.

Roo: Clearly, they opened the door. Uber characters do not have to be clear-cut Xena and Gabrielle archetypes. There is room for originality and innovation. Uber characters have grown so much, taken on a life of their own so that no mention whatsoever need be made of Xena and Gabrielle to pique the reader's interests. A reader may pick up an uber story based on the author's past affiliation with Xena fan fiction, but if they choose to finish the story it's because the bard in question has peeled away the layers of familiarity until all that remains is original.

LZ: I think Janice and Melinda show the 'translation' of not just Xena or Gabrielle, but Xena and Gabrielle's journey to make the world right is a universally adaptable theme.

As for alternative versus general fiction, it's clear at the end of The Xena Scrolls that they go off together. That lends to stories where that early sense of joint commitment to a goal leads, as it does in the original, to a bond beyond that of mere associates or friends.

In general, the expansion of fan fiction about Janice and Melinda suggests, I think, that one episode was not enough. We had a glimpse, and no more. So we decided to make more!

ArdentTly: I couldn't help but see a lot of other characters that mimicked the X/G or J/M dynamics in a lot of movies out there, whether they are played by opposite sex or not. I see a lot of Indiana Jones in Janice Covington. I also see a lot of Wonder Woman in Melinda. When it came time for me to think outside the box and write my own characters, I took a mixture of all four, put my own spin on things and came up with Zeen Zinopolis and Abby Dean, characters in my The Blaze series.

I like seeing a strong woman who isn't afraid of making her own rules and then living by them, come what may. The fact that I can play with two, delving into the possible butch/femme dynamics that play a small part of the whole is really a treat. I suppose it helps me to define my own place in the world.

CN: [To me] one's tall and dark. One's blonde and short. The tall one is 'upscale'. The short one is lower in status. Most ubers, not all, fit this mold. In my story Contractor for Hire they could be uberish in nature but I wanted to make the 'Gabby character' who's a publisher...still got that bard thing going on [grins], taller with red hair. The 'Xena character' who is her house builder doesn't have her power and is shorter. But I think you'll find that most of the ubers out there fit a certain 'mold' both physically and emotionally as the characters do.

Enginerd: I was still busy writing Xena and Gabrielle stories when this 'impact' occurred. By the time I was ready to write a Janice and Mel story, I noticed many uber and original stories were around. I don't know if the explosion of uber and original stories was a result of Janice and Mel opening up the flood gates on creative uber juices, or if it was merely frustration with trying to figure out how to write yet another Xena and Gabrielle story that was fresh and interesting.

Palomine: Well, I suppose the greatest impact that the Mel and Janice stories have had is proved by the sheer number of uber stories that are living on the Internet. It would be easy to say that, yeah, yeah, it's no sweat to write a story when somebody else has invented the character for you but that would be too simple and simple minded a statement. Yes, there seems to be a preponderance of short blond women and tall, dark haired, blue-eyed heroes out there but that doesn't explain it all. The variety of settings, of historical periods, of themes is remarkable.

Speaking from experience, I'd never written before I was inspired by Xena Warrior Princess to try my hand at it. When you're trying something out for the first time, it's comforting to have a rope to hold on to and strong characters provide that for a writer. I think Mel and Janice are the diving board that allows many of us to take the plunge. Some people are content to open up a can of soup when they're hungry. Some take that can of soup and add a little here and there to make it more interesting. Eventually, after many many cans of soup, some people just throw whatever they like into the pot and start from scratch. Xena is that can of soup for some of us. Mel and Janice are that little extra that a writer can experiment with. And finally, some will start from scratch and create new and wonderful people of their own, having learned their craft with the help and encouragement of others.

And for those of us, who will probably never get that far, at the very least, it's been a wonderful ride.

EM: It seems 'these classy dames' have really had an impact on both writers and readers. It's been fun discussing these intriguing characters and getting a feel for the genesis of your stories. You have all pointed out, admirably, how these two characters became a springboard for extending the original Xena and Gabrielle in a multitude of directions. I want to thank you for your participation and encourage readers to let these talented writers know that you appreciated their efforts.