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21 July 2009

The Marriage of Two Minds


I seem to have a knack for missing RWA conferences where my friends win Rita Awards. I wasn't at either of the conferences where my friend Penelope Williamson won twice in the 90s. In those pre-internet days, I didn't know she'd won until she got back from the conference and telephoned me. Last Saturday, thanks to Twitter, I knew Pam had won the Rita for Best Historical Romance for her wonderful The Edge of Impropriety at almost the same moment it was announced from the stage.

One of the things I love about Pam’s writing is that her characters have, in Regency terms, “a keen understanding”–they’re brainy people who enjoy talking about ideas (The Edge of Impropriety’s hero and heroine are a classical scholar and a Silver Fork novelist respectively). This past week, while a lot of my writer friends were at RWA, a post by Jean on the All About Romance blog on “The Beautiful Minds of Heroes” got me thinking more about brainy characters.

The first brilliant hero Jean mentions falling in love with is Sherlock Holmes. I confess I discovered Sherlock Holmes first through dramatizations (notably the fabulous Jeremy Brett series). I didn’t actually read the Arthur Conan Doyle stories until I discovered Laurie King’s Russell & Holmes books. Because much as I love brainy characters on their own, I particularly love intellectual and romantic partnerships between two exceptionally brilliant people. There’s the fun of watching two fine minds click over solving a problem. I love the scenes of Russell and Holmes talking through a case. The same is true of Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane--I’m particularly fond of a scene in Have His Carcase where they break a code together. Mulder and Scully’s debates about science and paranormal phenomenon were one of the delights of The X-Files.

There's the delight of clever wordplay, such as Lymond and Philippa's improvised "Languish Lock'd in L" play in The Ringed Castle. And the tension of emotion simmering beneath a coolly intellectual façade, which comes out so beautifully in the scene following the play in The Ringed Castle where Lymond realizes he's in love. Or, as Russell's friend Veronica says in A Monstrous Regiment of Women (speaking, indirectly, about Holmes, or rather someone she's comparing to Holmes) "A challenge, I suppose, to break through that ascetic shell and set loose the passion beneath. Because one could feel the passion. My God, you couldn't miss it, in his eyes and his mouth, but it was under control."

There’s also the inevitable clash of two people who love to think. As Miss de Vine says to Harriet in Gaudy Night, “A marriage of two independent and equally irritable intelligences seems to me reckless to the point of insanity. You can hurt one another so dreadfully.” That’s certainly true of Peter and Harriet and also of Holmes and Russell and Mulder and Scully. In all three cases, a determination to battle a problem through intellectually and a refusal to open up emotionally can leave the other partner feeling shut out. Peter in Busman’s Honeymoon, Holmes in The Language of Bees, Scully battling her cancer, Mulder coping with family revelations.

I love writing about brainy characters. The intellectual debates, the fun with words, the angst of clashing minds. In theory, at least, Mélanie, Charles, and Raoul in my books are all brilliant. Of course, that means the author has to keep up with them, which is sometimes a challenge :-) . It took me a long time (and a consultation with a friend who was a math major) to devise the code Charles and Mel break in Secrets of a Lady (much simpler than the one Have His Carcase).

Do you like reading about brainy characters? Do you like them paired with a partner of equal brilliance? Any interesting examples to suggest? Writers, do you like writing about brainy characters? What are the challenges?

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6 Comments:

Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Well, you know *I* like to write about brainy characters, Tracy. And yes, there are pitfalls to look out for -- the one that I need to be careful of is the danger of giving every brainy character the same kind of introspective, wordy inner life (which resembles my own a little too much).

4:52 PM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

That's a really good point, Pam. In addition to differentiating the way characters talk, one has to differentiate their patterns of thought. As my dad used to say, there are all different types of intelligence.

5:32 PM  
Blogger Pam Rosenthal said...

Another comment about brainy romance (and brainy erotica): a bunch of years ago my non-romance erotic novel, Carrie's Story w/a Molly Weatherfield, was on some small Amazon best-of list along with 13 techie books (serious stuff for the Java hacker) and one novel by the sci-fi/fantasy writer, Lois McMaster Bujold.

And I know from the fan mail my erotica has gotten that this was not as outre as you might at first think.

My theory is that BDSM particularly appeals to people who enjoy the notion of mastering a code and set of rules. And I'm guessing that this applies to many forms of genre fiction.

6:47 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Love the story about "Carrie's Story" and the Amazon list, Pam!

Interesting point about codes and rules. I think that's definitely true of mysteries and any books that involve puzzles, but it's true that all genres in a sense have their own codes.

9:34 AM  
Blogger Lauren Willig said...

Tracy, I couldn't agree more-- there's nothing more attractive than watching two wits pitted against each other. I find Carole Nelson Douglas' books very good on that score, particularly "Lady Rogue," although her Irene Adler books (a very different take on Holmes from Russell's) are also brilliant.

What I find so interesting, thinking through my mental catalog of brainy characters, is how often they suffer from a crippling blind spot of some kind, brilliant in some ways but handicapped in others, so that part of the tension of the pairing of minds becomes the ways in which each forces the other to encounter and grow past whatever the lack is in his or her character.

9:48 AM  
Blogger Tracy Grant said...

Wonderful insight about the crippling blind spot, Lauren! That's sort of what I was getting at with the "refusal to open up emotionally" (a sort of emotional blind spot). Pretty much all the characters I mentioned in the post have difficulties forming relationships in one way or another. But in general when a character is good at looking at the world through a particular lens, it can be that much harder to develop a different part of one's brain or approach things from a different angle (Mulder and Scully being great examples--they definitely both grow through their interaction, both emotionally and in their approach to problems).

11:04 AM  

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