Watsonian vs Doylist: an Overview

picture of an open book with an illustration of a pipe, and an actual pipe

(image composite from images found at pixabay x,x)

Some cultural artefacts become so well known that they can be used as shorthand to express ideas and concepts. For example, movies like “Terminator” and “Robocop” made the idea of cyborgs, any being with both organic and mechanical parts, more visible to the general public.

So it is with Sherlock Holmes, widely read and studied in-depth for many years. Media analysis has adopted the terms Watsonian and Doylist, referring to the Sherlock Holmes fiction written by Arthur Conan Doyle. The ideas behind the two terms are useful when discussing any media artefact and TV Tropes mentions that the terms may have originated or at least been popularized by the Lois McMaster Bujold fan mailing list. 

Watsonian refers to John Watson, the narrator of most of the Sherlock Holmes tales. He is the point of view character and it is his version of the story that we, the reader, are to assume is the truth. The Watsonian perspective is one that looks at a text from an “in-universe” perspective, assuming that the (fictional) world follows its own internal logic.

Watson is an intradiegetic narrator, that is, he taking part in events. In contrast, fiction written in third person is extradiegetic, in that there is no first person narration and the narrator is not a part of the events, giving us some distance from the text – it is not a personalised account.

Doylist refers to the author, Conan Doyle. This perspective acknowledges that the (fictional) world is subject to the whims of the author/creator, and to the author’s biases. The two approaches can be used to discuss decisions made in a text and the reasons behind it. In a film or television show, there are multiple people who contribute in some way to being the creators – writers, directors, cinematographers, costume designers, actors, etc – but this only enhances the use of the Doylist perspective.

Examples of Watsonian commentary:

  • He left because he’d had a better job offer in another city.
  • He died in abject misery, alone, failed by the cruel vagaries of the system.
  • If she hadn’t been sacrificed, the rite would have failed and the whole team would have been put to death.
  • She had plastic surgery over the summer and now she’s unrecognisable.
  • She forgave him, I’m not sure why, I guess they were just soulmates.
  • He always wore blue suits, a contrast to the black and grey around him, making him stand out like a glimpse of summer sky in a sea of grey clouds.

Examples of Doylist commentary:

  • The director hated the actor/character and wanted them gone, so the character had to be written out.
  • The character had to die to show the terrible effects of poverty, it’s the very reason for the novel’s existence.
  • The writers made the decision that a sacrifice had to be made. They could have made it a test of will and had the rite stop before the actual sacrifice, sparing that character.
  • The actor left, but the character is too popular to kill off, so they replaced the actor.
  • The author was determined to have a “happy ending”, no matter how unrealistic or out of character.
  • The costume designer chose blue to have him stand out against the other characters, who all wear drab colours. It also symbolises his confidence and intellect.

Both styles have their strengths and weaknesses in analysing a text, and it is useful to keep both in mind when critiquing a work.

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