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?