When you get really into a fandom, it’s sometimes easy to forget that, well, it’s not real. You start speaking as if the characters are real people who live in a real world where sometimes shit happens. You start to judge them entirely by their own standards, and the standards of their world. Congratulations, you are being overly Watsonian.
Other times, for whatever reason, you fail to suspend your disbelief when engaging with fiction. All you see is the brushstroke of the writer’s work and how she has the power to make things happen with impunity. You start to judge the characters who live in a different universe by your own standards, or at least the author’s. Congratulations, you are being overly Doylist.
The two terms, Watsonian and Doylist, have been in vogue lately in several fandoms. And good, because this conflict in all literary analysis is a very useful and enlightening concept to keep in mind. And I promise you, once you understand them, you will see every fandom discussion as either Watsonian or Doylist.
They come from the Sherlock Holmes fandom. Dr. Watson is the narrator; he’s in the story. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was the author; he’s outside of the story.
So a Watsonian perspective is inside the story, because that’s how Watson was trying to solve the mystery. “What motivated the character to act this way?” “What are the characters’ beliefs and values?”
A Doylist perspective, on the other hand, is external, because the mystery was constructed by a Scottish Victorian who believed in fairies. “What were the author’s motivations for constructing the scene this way?” “What is the author trying to communicate to the reader through this text?”
For example, in Star Trek (the original series) the Klingons look much like humans, with human-like faces and hair lines. By the time we catch up with them again in the first few movies, their look has been radically altered, they now have textured foreheads with receding hairlines, and sharp canines and other more animal-like features.
The fourth season of Enterprise gave us a Watsonian explanation for this: it was a genetically engineered virus, or something. It kind of made sense. The Doylist explanation was there all along; the original series had little budget for makeup to make the aliens seem, well, alien, but as soon as the money was there they made the effort to have them be visually distinctive.
These two perspectives are most interesting to me when discussing theme and character motivations. For example, if you’re discussing a question like whether Cersei from A Song of Ice and Fire wrong to deceive everyone about her children’s parentage, a Watsonian perspective might focus on what a bad political move this was, how it transgressed societal rules about marriage, incest, and inheritance. A Doylist perspective might instead focus on the narrative of an abused woman who took extreme measures to control her own reproduction and have the children she wanted to.
In this case a Watsonian perspective is a lot harsher on the character than a Doylist one, but the opposite is just as possible. For example, In the final episode of The Legend of Korra, the title character explains how her own suffering was necessary in order to make her a better leader and a more empathetic person. Some argue, from a Doylist perspective, that the unfortunate implications of Korra, a woman of colour, saying that she “needed to suffer” for the sake of her development outweighs any Watsonian function of her learning to relate to all people in her role as the Avatar. Or any meaning the character herself takes from that journey.
Or it can be less, like, deep. A Watsonian would argue that the reveal that Anakin built C-3PO in The Phantom Menace highlights his technical skills, and makes a connection between the two halves of the saga. A Doylist might argue that it’s just blatant and cheap fan service.
I think cleaving to either extreme is missing the forest for the trees, especially in fandoms like A Song of Ice and Fire, or historical fiction that deliberately explores themes of values dissonance. Buying into their value system is just… no, we’re better than that. But at the same time, expecting Catelyn Stark to be a feminist or something is just not fair.
The trick is to find a balance and consider the way both points of view can give meaning and depth to characters and stories. Stories exist both in their own worlds and in ours. It’s what they say about each other that matters.