Watsonian vs. Doylist
aka: Doylist Versus Watsonian
no inconsistencies in the Discworld books; occasionally, however, there are alternate pasts."
"Maybe the Patrician in The Colour of Magic was Vetinari, but written by a more stupid writer?"
When a creator answers a question about their work, should they provide an In-Universe
answer or a Real Life
answer? The former is the Watsonian perspective, the latter Doylist.
commentary restricts itself to making statements that are sensible within the story's reality. Watsonian explanations are things like "Character X was lying", "He had plastic surgery over the summer", and "The main character fell off a cliff". A more precise technical term for this is intradiegetic
. Tropes which take a generally Watsonian perspective include:
commentary considers the work as a created object, and prefers explanations based on the real-world motivations or circumstances of the creators. Doylist explanations are things like "The author had a better idea", "The actor died, so they had to hire a new one", and "The author got sick of writing those books, so he killed off the main character". A technical term for this is extradiegetic
. Doylist tropes include:
The terms reference Sherlock Holmes
: Watsonian commentary relates to the in-universe author
Dr. Watson, while Doylist commentary relates to the Real Life
author Arthur Conan Doyle
. However, they seem to have originated (or at least been popularized) on the Lois McMaster Bujold
fan mailing list.
A modern example might be the proliferation of Rubber-Forehead Aliens
in Star Trek
. It is revealed in a Star Trek: The Next Generation
episode that an ancient humanoid race "seeded" the galaxy with their genes, thereby causing humanoid intelligent life to evolve independently throughout the Milky Way. This is the Watsonian explanation. The Doylist explanation is that Rubber-Forehead Aliens
are cheap to produce, require relatively little imagination, allow the audience to easily read the emotions of alien characters, etc. (And budget was always a concern for Star Trek
; when Klingons first exhibited the Rubber-Forehead Aliens
trope it was an improvement
on their previous make-up!)
When Playing with a Trope
, note that sometimes a Doylist explanation is interjected purposely into a narrative; for example, in Monty Python and the Holy Grail
the Knights of the Round Table (or what is left of them) are chased by the Legendary Black Beast of "AAAAAAAARGH" in the common surreal Terry Gilliam
style transitional animation, and are eventually cornered with no chance to escape. What saves them? The animator suffers from a fatal heart attack. On a less absurdist note, the Literary Agent Hypothesis
is a way of smuggling Doylist explanations into a Watsonian paradigm by introducing a fictional author. And finally, most creators don't stick to strictly one interpretation, as the pagequotes from PTerry suggest.
Conversely, some authors acknowledge that they don't have complete hold over the characters they've created and allow them to operate on their own logic - which is an example of Watsonian perspective influencing Doylist one.
In the German-speaking fandom of the Disney Ducks Comic Universe
, the two ways of analyzing the stories are called Donaldismus literaricus
(which treats the work of Carl Barks
and others as works of art and literature) and Donaldismus archaeologicus
(which treats them as factual reports from the Earth-like planet called Stella Anatium
- the Star of the Ducks). In the D.O.N.A.L.D. (Deutsche Organisation Nichtkommerzieller Anhänger des lauteren Donaldismus
= German Organization of Non-Commercial Adherents of True Donaldism) the latter tends to dominate. Donald Duck
comics are Serious Business