Lost Without My Boswell

This is a writing-process update, rather than a specifically Holmesian update. (However, I was pleased to discover, thanks to one of the spectacular denizens of Brass Goggles, that Project Gutenberg has Punch. I’m not sure whether its particular brand of humor would have appealed to the Detective, but I can certainly see Watson seeking refuge in its pages if Holmes was insisting on being a particular ass.)

And, in reference to Watson, that brings me to today’s topic: The Watson. Having made it through PD James’ Talking About Detective Fiction, I can see the benefits and the drawbacks of making use of such a character. When trying to fathom the thought process of a genius, most of us are full of questions, and it is the Watson’s job to ask those questions so that the reader is not thoroughly left behind. After all, there’s no fun in mystery fiction if there is no chance of solving the mystery before the hero makes the big reveal in the last five pages.

However, a story about a hero, told in the first-person by someone who is not the hero, poses its own problems. The most immediate problem is that the narrator has to be boring in order not to upstage the actual main character. I’m not saying that Watson himself was boring, of course, but a good many characters modeled after him have been. Closely following that problem is the tendency of Watsons to cater to the lowest common denominator and thus come across as unspeakably stupid. There is a fine line between asking reasonable questions that reveal the unfathomable mind of the genius hero and asking obvious questions in order to force the hero into monologuing. Yes, heroes monologue, too. Again, I’m not saying that Watson himself was stupid, though he did have an unfortunate tendency to occasionally ask very obvious questions. In fact, he was probably of above-average intelligence. After all, he did make it through medical school, which was no mean feat, even in Victorian times.

Now, my problem is with writing a Watson who is like Watson and not like the hordes of Watsons floating around in mystery fiction. (What an appalling sentence.) Honestly, I’m not sure that I can do it.

There was never any question of my writing this book in third-person. (That is to say, he, she, it – a story told from the perspective of an omniscient narrator.) I like third-person, of course. I’ve written quite a lot in the third-person. But this one is supposed to echo Watson’s – the original Watson’s – narratives. That means first-person. (An “I” story, told from the limited perspective of a single person. The reader, therefore, knows what the narrator knows, and nothing more than that.)

Again, I run into a problem. I can either try my hand at writing a Watson and risk coming away with a character who is boring, nosy, and dim; or I can write from the perspective of my detective. (Detective’s perspective. I think I have the title of my next post.)

Now, I consider myself fairly bright. Perhaps even smart. Sharp. Intelligent. Maybe even smarter than average. (“I cannot agree with those who rank modesty among the virtues. To the logician all things should be seen exactly as they are, and to underestimate one’s self is as much a departure from truth as to exaggerate one’s own powers.” [GREE])

However, I am not a genius. Getting inside the head of a genius will certainly make for a better story and avoid the trap of a boring Watson, but… how? Holy beans.

I suppose the first step will be to acquire as much as possible of the body of knowledge of a well-educated Victorian. (Victorian technobabble poses problems, as well.) I’m a little nervous about scribbling down elegant turns of phrase with the notation “USE THIS IN STORY.” It’s just not my usual style.

In summary: No Boswell. Become genius ASAP.

4 thoughts on “Lost Without My Boswell

  1. Just dropping by to see how you’re getting on. Always nice to find a fire in the grate and hot muffins waiting. Watson – very keen on David Burke’s portrayal, a good doctor, keen mind, but still working to keep up with Sherlock. Not keen on Nigel Bruce.

    • Considering that I believe you were the spectacular denizen in question, I think I would not be remiss in offering tea (or sherry, if you prefer) to go with those muffins. Stay a while; Mrs Hudson is experimenting with assorted fowls.
      I was always very fond of David Burke, though Hardwicke added a bit of extra dignity after the Return. I also liked Howard Marion Crawford; though the series in which he played was at least in part a comedy, he never played Watson as a buffoon.
      Bruce’s Watson was a product of his time. The public was sick of being serious, and he volunteered to be the comic relief. It’s very unfortunate that the character of Watson suffered as a result. I liked him, but very much not his portrayal.

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