The Limits of Creation

Novelists and other producers of fiction can make many mistakes (including becoming novelists and other producers of fiction), but there are three kinds of mistake that stem from the writer's ignorance. First, there's the purely external mistake, which occurs in the writer's prose but not in her world; for example, P.D. James' use of "talismen" as the plural of "talisman" in A Taste for Death. Secondly, there's the internal mistake, which occurs within the fictional world itself; for example, Martha Grimes' novel I Am the Only Running Footman, in which (after a catalogue of irritating infelicities, the result of an American writing an English detective novel) the main character stands on the seafront at Brighton and looks out over the Atlantic breakers... But then there's the third kind of mistake.

I'm frequently pulled up short in my reading, listening, and viewing by some dreadful discrepancy between what fictional characters obviously should, and what their creator actually makes them, say or think. I don't just mean that there are a lot of writers who can't manage to pen a single real, consistent, three-dimensional character; that's true enough, and sometimes I care and sometimes I don't. Not every good story needs a cast of convincingly rounded people to carry it off -- but when an author spends a great deal of time (hers and mine) on fleshing out her characters, I like the end to justify the means.

Of course, my disappointments should come as no surprise. They're straightforward instances of the GIGO principle: Garbage In, Garbage Out. Generally speaking (and I am speaking generally), you can only get out of a book as much as the author put in it. In the case of fiction, the principle means that a fictional character can only fly as high as its creator can -- and writers sometimes have depressingly low ceilings.

In the milder examples, an author's humanity gives rise to errors which can amuse, intrigue, or even go unnoticed by most readers (in which leg was Dr Watson's war-wound?); in the more extreme examples, one's enjoyment of a work can be seriously reduced. I could cite the countless venerable sages who appear in fantasy and science fiction, and whose wisdom turns out to be either the vague and inane ramblings of a New Age hippy or the aphoristic pronouncements of a narrow-minded bigot. I could seize on the original Star Trek's Mr Spock, whose thought-processes were about as logical as a blancmange, being no more than the (rather patchy and generally irrational) suppression of emotion. But I shall, rather invidiously I suppose, concentrate on Colin Dexter's Inspector Morse. He's come in for so much adoring media attention over the years that his faults seem correspondingly more glaring.

Morse is a well-educated, inwardly tortured, complex, but basically decent bloke, and I have to admit to having been mildly addicted to his acerbically bumbling attempts to police a fictional city that has Oxford's architecture and Chicago's murder rate. He's presented as a man who is concerned and knowledgeable about the English language, and who is frequently pained by its misuse by those around him. He even puts his hobby horse to practical use in one television episode, when he deduces the semi- literacy of the writer of a suicide-note by the spelling of the suffix "-ize" as "-ise". I wasn't alone in being rather annoyed at being labelled semi-literate; I shan't defend the use of "-ise" here, but it worries me that such dubious linguistic reasoning should have helped to lead to an accusation of murder. Let me leave this example, however, lest it be thought that my criticism stems from some personal affront.

Instead, I offer two other Morse examples, one from a Colin Dexter novel, the other from a television episode (and therefore presumably not directly attributable to Dexter). First, in the novel The Wench is Dead our hero comes to the aid of a fellow crossword addict, who is faced with the following clue: "Bradman's famous duck (6)". Morse's help is given in the form of a hint: What was [Quixote's] Christian name? he offers, after a little thought. Secondly, in one of the television stories (I forget which, I'm afraid) Morse complains that his interlocutor, while not actually saying something, has inferred it. So the literate and literary Morse thinks that the "Don" in "Don Quixote" stands for "Donald", and that "infer" means "imply".

The former example, in fact, led to an interesting insight into the relationship between reader and author (or between reader and fiction). I've mentioned it to a number of friends, and without exception they have refused to believe my account. Some have simply insisted that I have misread or misunderstood the text (without having read it themselves, I might add); others have invented ingenious explanations to show that Morse makes the mistake deliberately. I'll leave it to you to read the passage for yourselves. In the meantime I merely point out that, although some of the objections were based upon the supposed improbability of Colin Dexter having made (and got away with publishing) such an error, most people expressed their disbelief by saying that Morse wouldn't have made it.

I should make it clear that I'm not complaining about the occasional authorial bloomer; I accept that even Homer nods (though it worries me that editors, proof- readers, and printers all fail to nudge him awake again). I'm generally no more than amused (though sometimes mildly irritated) when I find that a writer thinks that "arboreal" "flying" (as does Alan Dean Foster), or that "disinterested" means "uninterested" (as do a great many, mostly American, novelists), or that "in fact" is one word (mostly limited to undergraduate essays, but I've begun to see it around in print). Indeed, I've become so used to the appalling English of computer journalists that the correct placing of the apostrophe in "it's" often gives me a bit of a jar. What really annoys me is the discovery that a writer has inappropriately shackled her characters with her own limitations. If one is not wise, one cannot (and shouldn't try to) present one's readers with a wise character; if one does not understand the nature of logic, one should avoid making one's characters talk about it; if a character is supposed to be highly literate, one should use the dictionary and a copy of Fowler in order to make her literacy more than just an unsubstantiated (or even demonstrably false) description.

After all, if even the pulpiest of novelists wanted a character to be an expert on philately, wouldn't she make some effort to read up a reasonable number of philatelic facts? If she wanted her heroine to be an Olympic shot-putter, wouldn't she make an effort to find out as much as she could about putting the shot? And if she knew nothing about high-energy physics, would she have the nerve to write about the working life of a high-energy physicist? Why, then, are logic, wisdom, and the English language so different? Could it be that writers assume that they know all they need to know about these subjects? If this is the answer, unfortunately most of them are badly and sadly mistaken. I realise that many readers have a much lower irritation threshold than I have, at least when it comes to errors concerning language and logic. But these are my special interests; if you're inclined to brush my complaints aside, think of your own field of knowledge. If you're an historian, or an astronomer, or a farmer, imagine what your reaction would be to some egregious error concerning history, astronomy, or farming. Wouldn't your blood boil -- or at least begin to bubble a little?

As for the practical effects of writers' limitations -- well, I don't want to make too much of this. I don't want to suggest that it's really the fault of Star Trek that my philosophy undergraduates start their courses thinking of logic as being simply the suppression of emotion. I don't want to suggest that their failure to distinguish between "infer" and "imply", or between "uninterested" and "disinterested", can be traced to their novel- reading habits. I don't want to suggest these things, and yet... and yet...

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