I am inherently suspicious of protagonists that share the same first letter of their names with their authors. Sometimes this is unfounded and no doubt entirely coincidental. But like, when it isn’t…
You get the Darren Shan Saga by Darren Shan.
When I was 12, I really liked those books, so perhaps that’s a bad example. But the point is that similar names can lend things a suspiciously autobiographical/wish fulfillment feel, despite the inclusion of vampires, werewolves, et al.
A Discovery of Witches has a protagonist named Diana Bishop. A Discovery of Witches is written by Deborah Harkness. Diana and Deborah are both historians. The both discover lost manuscripts (it says so in the bio). They both wanted to major in drama, but switched to history (it says so on Goodreads). They are both Americans who lived in Oxford.
Although potentially a little cringey, this personal investment is not catastrophic. It doesn’t break the book and hey, write what you like. My problem is that writing characters in this way is the surest method of creating a Mary Sue.
You see, we all want to believe we are good people. We might even want to believe that we are, you know, special. And so the criticisms we level towards our idealized fictionalized selves are inevitably rather trivial and easily forgiven. Thus, the autobiographical protagonist is spared from no-win decisions, spared from having to grapple with fundamental character flaws, and is generally acted upon rather than striking out on their own. It’s as much about the author asserting their own identity as establishing a new character.
This, unfortunately, can make for astoundingly boring protagonists. If they are female, in every instance they will have the ‘beautiful-but-doesn’t-know-it’ complex, will be described as brave without doing anything remotely courageous, will be ‘not-like-other-women’, and 9 times out of 10, will be a Chosen One. In short, they are the classical archetype of recent antiquity: The Mary Sue.
You’ll notice that, although this is a Feek post, I haven’t even got to the feminism parts yet, mostly because I am overcome by the sheer level of tedium this piece inspires. Really, it kind of offends me more than the patriarchal nonsense. After 200 pages (200!) nothing has happened. A thing happened on the second page and subsequently, nothing. I’m not sure I can even impress upon you, dear reader, how much of nothing has transpired. And yet, I am still reading. Call me an optimist, I suppose. The thing on page 2 was quite good.
The writing is okay, but the plotting is atrocious. Where was the editor; this book must be at least 400 pages too long. Diana goes to the library, she reads old manuscripts, she goes home and sleeps, she goes to the library, reads manuscripts, goes home, sleeps. Oh wait, she might go rowing in a pair of stretchy black pants. She has lots of those. Or she’ll do yoga. Drink some tea. Call her aunt.
Oh sorry, I was dozing off.
In terms of flaws, Diana has… anxiety? And um, well… actually that’s all I can think of. But don’t worry, it’s special anxiety, she saw a doctor and something about adrenaline and idk. Her central conflict appears to be that she’s a witch, but she doesn’t want to be a witch. Reluctant hero = Tick!
Her vampire beau is called Matthew, which isn’t a very vampiric name, in my opinion. Though I’m loathe to side with Twilight, even Edward is better than Matthew. Matthew is a guy who plays a lot of sport, drinks Black Label, and pursues a career in the corporate sector. (Apologies to a Matthew who might actually be reading this. You are not a vampire.)
But this Matthew is also not really a vampire, except for the blood drinking part. He has no problem with sunlight (though thankfully, he doesn’t sparkle. Explicitly), he is an omnivore, he can enter homes without being granted permission (which he does), he doesn’t seem to have an unhappy relationship with mirrors or silver or garlic or holy water. BUT he is 1000 years young, really strong, really fast, really old-fashioned and ermagad, so hot. So once again, it’s all of the good stuff with none of the weaknesses. And do you know what makes a character, especially a male character, compelling? Weakness. You know what makes Superman boring? No weakness.
By the way, I’m talking about the weaknesses the Harkness meant to attribute to Matthew. Believe me; I think there are some serious issues outside the realm of authorial intent. But let’s start with the ‘flaws’ that Harkness paints directly.
Okay, so maybe Matthew’s hamartia is his anger/desire complex. He flies into murderous rages and accidentally murdered his girlfriend in centuries past. Yeah, that doesn’t sound too fantastic. But really, the woman he killed wasn’t a true love. Ergo, the fact that he isn’t chowing on Diana is a testament to his restraint and demonstrates the extent of his feelings for her. It’s a positive flaw. If he hadn’t killed anyone, he wouldn’t get to demonstrate his superpower of not committing homicide. Which, ideally, should be a baseline quality in a romantic lead rather than a bragging right. Ideally.
Instead, the reader is encouraged to admire his capacity to show a modicum of self-control in his interactions with Diana. And I do mean a modicum; the guy is a raging control-freak who will go off his head if Diana even asks fairly innocuous questions, such as what ties together Matthew’s academic research interests. This happens in almost every conversation. It’s a bit schizophrenic. But, you know, dark and brooding and sexy and stuff.
He’s also a chauvinistic ass.
If this is a tenor of romantic historical fiction (not my description, there is little in the line of history aside from Diana’s research), then I think a dangerous precedent lingers in our society, given the wild popularity of this book. Twilight was bad enough, but if you thought it represented a somewhat abusive relationship, wait till you get hold of A Discovery of Witches. It’s a bit like reading a textbook and identifying symptoms. Matthew:
- Establishes dependence. (Makes Diana believe she is incapable of caring for herself, despite evidence to the contrary and her immense supernatural abilities.)
- Isolates and cuts victim off from existing social relations. (He removes her from her life in Oxford and places her in a new situation that necessitates further dependence on him.)
- Applies intense surveillance and scrutiny to the victim’s everyday life. (Dude either stalks her himself or makes sure his personal assistant does so. Sometimes this is with Diana’s knowledge, sometimes it is not.)
- Threatens violence in the face of noncompliance. (In every argument, he becomes needlessly and senselessly aggressive.)
- Invades safe spaces and ignores boundaries. (He breaks into her house while she is sleeping and watches her. Gee, where have we heard that before?)
- Removes access to autonomous action. (Any time Diana proposes an action, he tries to dissuade her from it. Usually he talks her out of it; if he does not succeed, he takes charge of implementation of the action. See: Diana wanting to take a blood test.)
But the violence gets much more direct than that. In one particularly disturbing scene, Diana tries to leave Matthew’s lodgings. When she turns her back on him, he pins her against his body from behind. Despite her violent struggles and sincere protests, he refuses to release her until she answers a question. This isn’t a short conversation either. Diana tries to stamp on his foot, relax and slip free, and pull her head away from his mouth. He tells her to stop struggling because he is stronger than she is, he has better reflexes and anyway, she’ll get tired. Diana has little choice but to answer him. He calls this a “talk(ing) like civilized creatures”.
I’m sure female readers of this article will easily understand the fear this kind of situation would evoke in real life. It isn’t about sexiness, but power. It’s saying, ‘you are small and powerless, and I am big and you will listen to me or I will harm you.’ This is not critiqued in A Discovery of Witches.
Instead, these acts of abusive control are labeled as “protective” or “possessive”. I’m going to go right ahead and call ‘bullshit’ on that. Protective would be ensuring other people don’t hurt Diana, not inflicting hurt yourself. On a separate (and oh are there many) occasion of Matthew physically restraining Diana during personal conversation, she fears he may have left bruises on her arms.
Mission control: Are there any alarm sirens going off? Anywhere?
To those who may be in any doubt: Bruises are not a nice thing to give a person you have just met.
I think fiction needs to loosen its hold on the obsession with male love interests who spend 90% of their time trying not to maim and kill the object of their affections. Because, seriously? I understand that the dark and broodies need to seem dangerous, but there are so many other (exciting!) ways to create a badass that don’t involve that… desperate… struggle…not…to…eat…my…helpless… girlfriend…
- Repetitiveness of Diana’s daily life is maddening. Oh, let me guess, you are stressed? Let’s go for a row on the river!
- Ergh. Wealthiness. Wine-talk. Horse riding. Multiple cars. Big antique houses. You and your sexy, sexy money, Matthew. *snores*
- Descriptions of food and decor. Dear God. I don’t care about the caper and gherkin garnish or what you used to season the salmon. WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME ABOUT THE SHAVED PARMESAN? IS THIS RELEVANT TO THE PLOT?
- All people do is talk. They talk and talk and talk and talk and…
- Matthew hosts yoga classes. Enough said. (Or so I would say, were I able to get the image of him balancing vertically on one ear out of my head. Yeah, go ahead and find the animal magnetism in that.)
For Feek’s sake.