Watsonian vs. Doylist

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See also: fanwank, OOC, retcon
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Watsonian and Doylist describe two ways to engage with canon.

The terms arise from Sherlock Holmes fandom, where the Holmes stories are presented as if they were actually written by Dr. John Watson, the fictional character. By contrast, actual authorship of the Holmesian canon is historically credited to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.[note 1]

A Watsonian perspective tries to interpret a text from the standpoint of the story and the characters within it. This is sometimes called an in-universe perspective. Storytelling forms that follow a Watsonian model (i.e. by providing explanations within the narrative) are sometimes referred to as diegesis. An in-universe perspective may thus be termed intradiegetic.

A Doylist perspective stands outside the text, and is sometimes called a real-world, out-of-universe, or extradiegetic perspective. Such perspectives seek to understand the text through the external circumstances or person(s) involved in its creation rather than through the internal explanations provided by the text itself. In this framework, things that happen in canon are the result of decisions made by the author or TPTB, and any inconsistencies are probably authorial error. Doylist explanations are sometimes retroactively integrated into canon by creators.


Some have theorized that the terms "Watsonian" and "Doylist" originated with the Holmesian fan club, the Baker Street Irregulars. On LJ Fail. Fandom. Anon, several comments about this assumption were made, in a short thread titled Explain to me like I'm six[1] in April 26, 2012 having been answered by May 3 of that same year. Different anon comments here says:

"I'm pretty sure that I remember seeing some variant of Watsonian/Doylist used in the Baker Street Irregulars zine back in the 80s, and the zines I was reading dated back a lot further than that."[2]
"it was already in common use when I was a baby fan in the 1990s (as backing, the earliest hit in Usenet is


which uses it as common usage with no need to explain)

I would be very surprised if the initial use wasn't in the proceedings of the Baker Street Irregulars or the like."[3]

A little over a month later a new topic was created where once again the topic was addressed, this time in a comment titled Meme grievances.[4]

It was being used in online, non-Holmesian fandom discussions on Usenet as early as the year 2000, more precisely on March 21 of that year, in a fan comment at alt.fan.blakes-7, regarding a possible continuity glitch in Blake's 7:

"If Feddie personnel used the word later, there's a couple of possible explanations. (Ignoring, of course, the Doylist answer that "the writers screwed up"). One might be that they picked it up from transmissions from the Liberator crew, or perhaps from people who came in contact with them. (Ok, so they aren't GOOD explanations, but I'll always *try* to come up with a Watsonian dodge. *grin*)."[5]

Rob Wynne

The terms were further spread throughout fandom by the Lois McMaster Bujold mailing list — see List Conventions, Abbreviations, and In-Jokes, #8. What is meant by "Watsonian" and "Doylist"? from the Lois McMaster Bujold List FAQ; the question regarding those terms was added in 2002.

They were brought to wider attention in livejournal-based media fandom in a December 14, 2005 post on LJ, entitled A Gift to Fandom: Doylist and Watsonian Explanations. Fairestcat explains about the terms and addresses their vision for their use.:

Isn't that beautiful?! Aren't those the best terms EVER. Especially for genre shows, where fans often seem to remember the continuity better than the show creators and characterizations vary from writer to writer.


Personally, I favor a mix of analysis. It's great fun to be all Watsonian and come up with ways to weave inconsistencies into canon but sometimes all I can manage is an extremely Doylist "ok, the writers? Are smoking crack?" And that, that's ok too.[6]


Both approaches have their appeal; a fan may enjoy analyzing the text from either perspective, or both, at different times. In January 30, 2010 Racheline Maltese posted on their LJ, with the title of sundries, totally personal edition:

Fanfiction is, arguably, largely a Watsonian pursuit. That is, we commit fic, often and in part, to solve issues within the canon as if they are true things within the canon (not a matter of writer error or external interpretation).[7]

In subsequent months same year, various opinions on the Watsonian vs. Doylist have been added in the comments of the rm post.

Again Fairestcat added their opinion in a new post, where described a Doylist perspective as follows, while explain her reaction to an episode of Stargate: Atlantis:

And sometimes, a Doylist perspective is necessary simply as a fannish coping mechanism. For myself and only for myself, the only way I can reconcile the characters of Critical Mass with the characters I love -- particularly Elizabeth and John -- is to say "ok, the writers were smoking crack this week and there must have been a hell of a lot going on off screen that we weren't privy to." Because if I try a Watsonian explanation I end up with characters I really don't like, and I'm not ready to reach that conclusion on the basis of this one ep.[8]

When canon is particularly contradictory, attempting to devise a Watsonian explanation can lead to theories so elaborate they become fanwank.


A classic example of the split between Watsonian and Doylist perspectives concerns Dr. Watson's given name. In earlier Holmes stories, he is introduced as "John H. Watson," but in a later story his wife calls him "James." Doylists assert that author Arthur Conan Doyle simply forget his character's name. Watsonians have crafted various in-universe explanations for the inconsistency, including that Watson's previously-established middle initial ("H") stands for Hamish, a Scottish form of James, leading his wife to call him "James" affectionately.

Jane Leeves, the actress who played Daphne Moon on the American sitcom Frasier, became pregnant in 2000 at the point when her character began dating Niles Crane. A previous episode had established Daphne as eating compulsively when nervous and being mistaken for pregnant by family members. Leeves went through a brief episode arc in a fat suit in an unlikely plotline about Daphne gaining weight due to binge-eating. Daphne's departure for a weight-loss retreat coincided with Leeves' maternity leave, and in a subsequent episode Niles states "She's already lost nine pounds, four ounces", a clear reference to the actual weight of Leeves' newborn daughter.[9] Leeves' second pregnancy in 2003 was able to be written into the show as Daphne and Niles' relationship had progressed to marriage by that point. Similarly, Lisa Kudrow's pregnancy was written into Friends in 1998 as her character Phoebe volunteering as a surrogate for her brother's girlfriend.

In the pilot of Starsky & Hutch, Hutch mentions his ex-wife, Nancy. In a later episode, her name is Vanessa. The Doylist explanation is that this is a continuity error. One early S&H fic writer wrote a story in which she advanced the following Watsonian explanation: Hutch's ex-wife's name was actually Nancy, but Hutch was in the habit of calling her Vanessa when she was acting a certain way.[note 2][note 3][citation needed]

In Doctor Who fandom, see the UNIT Dating Controversy, which attempts to pin down the exact years in which the Third Doctor worked with UNIT.[10][11]

From Sharyn McCrumb and Bimbos of the Death Sun:

"Some post-teen English major enslaved to the publisher to proof copy could go through and make sure that Runewind's horse was not black on one page and brown on another. Really, he didn't know why they bothered. The demented fans who read the series had hours of fun devising plausible explanations for his sloppiest screwups. They would churn out endless articles in their unreadable mimeographed excrescences trying to explain why Runewind's sword changed lengths or why his mother was known by two different names. So far, the two likeliest explanations -- apathy and Chivas Regal -- had not been suggested." [12]

In the second half of season two of Leverage, the character of Sophie (played by actress Gina Bellman) is in very few episodes. The Watsonian explanation is that Sophie, the character, went away on a personal soul-searching journey. The Doylist explanation is that Gina Bellman, the actress, was pregnant and went on maternity leave.

With the rise of the Internet and "insider" information becoming available, many fans of Professional Wrestling view events from the Doylist perspective. If a wrestler suddenly disappears from TV without a proper storyline explanation, it will often lead to speculation that he/she is on his/her way out of the company and where he/she might turn up next. There is also the suggestion that he or she is getting "buried"/had fallen out of favor with The Powers That Be in the promotion. Sometimes that is the case, sometimes it's as simple as the wrestler is getting repackaged with a new gimmick, and the promotion took him or her off TV in order to build up to the new character's debut. Or sometimes a storyline explanation is used to cover for something more mundane.[note 4]

For more examples, see Watsonian Versus Doylist on TVTropes and Series Continuity Error for the types of continuity errors that prompt many fans to devise Watsonian explanations.

A Third Perspective

In her post titled Doylist or Watsonian?, damned_colonial proposed a third way of engaging with Sherlock Holmes canon, which she called Forsythian analysis, after Sherlock Holmes fic writer Katie Forsythe:

A Forsythian perspective interprets the text from the standpoint of the text as written by Watson while trying to divert attention from his and Holmes's homosexual relationship. Any discrepancies, such as jumps in time, gaping plot holes, or bizarre non-sequiturs (as, for instance, Holmes's musings on a rose during The Naval Treaty) are due to this attempt to rewrite history. The more irreconcilable the discrepancy, the hotter the sex being covered up.[13]

Fans comment about the Third Perspective

Such a proposition brought in comments, which give more insight into how other fans feel about this third term and its ramifications in other fandoms. Below are some of them:


Forsythian perspective is the most plausible explanation EVER. gods, I can't count how many times I've done that.


The more irreconcilable the discrepancy, the hotter the sex being covered up.

It all makes so much sense, now.


Your ideas intrigue me, etc. Fortunately, I am already subscribed :)

I am pleased that Mel and I now have a name to put to our "you don't have to believe that the two main characters are having grownup fun times in the margins in order to enjoy the show/story/etc., it's just that that's the only way the text makes sense" theory of narrative structure.


Harrumph! Harrumph! I must object to this, on the grounds that the Forsythian perspective is indistinguishable from that of every slash fandom ever, save for its focus. (See: Starsky & Hutch, The Sentinel, Supernatural, etc.) Also, it is CLEARLY wrong and my perspective, which is that Holmes is totally in love with Watson, who is utterly, blissfully, mindbogglingly oblivious of this, is CLEARLY right harrumph harrumph. :)


Pffffff excuse me the canon of The Sentinel makes TOTAL SENSE and is completely internally consistent without dragging in any sort of conspiracy theories! Sometimes a guy just decides to let another guy live with him for years and years and make him breakfast in the morning and sometimes "borrow" his shirts out of the laundry and, you know, when he dies, follow him into the land of the dead and drag his spirit back from the undiscovered country and...

oh wait


The thing about Forsythism is that it really works a lot better for explaining discrepancies in the case of Holmes than plain Doylism does. There are just so many of them in canon that collectively they indicate either a huge confluence of improbable small circumstances/small factual errors, or a single elephant in the room with a carpet draped over it. Of course, in reality the elephant was the fact that ACD didn't care about continuity or facts, but if you want to address discrepancies, and you want to do it from a basically Watsonian (er, or non-Doylist?) perspective, you need some sort of ~conspiracy to refer to anyway. Which is why Katie Forsythe's approach is so brilliant. You keep going "That explains so much!", which leaves the fanfiction feeling even more potentially true than the canon. (I also feel this way about the alterations made in the Granada film canon, such as Watson never getting married in the first place.)


(Lurker here, and I just joined [community profile] queering_holmes, so please forgive my butting in.)

See, the Forsythian perspective is the only one that makes canon make actual sense. Whenever I read through my copy of Klinger's annotated Holmes, and I read his long explanations about why there is a discrepancy in the text (and they are usually long, convoluted, and generally make me squint a lot), I just say, "this is so much easier to explain if you just think that Watson is deliberately lying to cover up what he doesn't want readers to know... which is to say, that he and Holmes are at it like rabbits."

I love the idea of naming the perspective after Katie Forsythe, though. She's basically my companion to canon.

External links

Notes and References


  1. ^ A case has recently been made that Sir Arthur's first wife, Louise, was Holmes' actual creator and the primary author of his adventures, and that his second wife, Jean, authored many of the later tales. Stylometric Analysis of the Sherlock Holmes Canon by John Allen, 2018 on Louise Conan Doyle - Cyclopedia. Accessed: February 9, 2021
  2. ^ Liviapenn says: I don't remember the title of this, but I'll see if I can find it again.
  3. ^ KTJ says: Her name was McGill, she called herself Lil, but everyone knew her as Nancy.
  4. ^ One example: The tag team The Dynamic Duo ("Gentleman" Chris Adams and Gino Hernandez) broke up in late 1985 while wrestling for World Class Championship Wrestling in Dallas. They had a match where Gino "blinded" Chris with The Fabulous Freebirds' "hair cream." The actual explanation was that Chris had requested time off so he could go back home to England to visit his family.


  1. ^ anonymous (2012-04-26). "Explain to me like I'm six (comment thread) - Click and Be Counted - Fail. Fandom. Anon". LiveJournal. Archived from the original on 2022-11-03.
  2. ^ anonymous (2012-04-27). "Re: Explain to me like I'm six (comment thread) – Click and Be Counted - Fail. Fandom. Anon". LiveJournal. Archived from the original on 2022-11-03.
  3. ^ anonymous (2012-04-27). "Re: Explain to me like I'm six (comment thread) – Click and Be Counted - Fail. Fandom. Anon". LiveJournal. Archived from the original on 2022-11-03.
  4. ^ anonymous (2012-05-03). "Re: Meme grievances (comment thread) – Survey Time v.2 - Fail. Fandom. Anon". LiveJournal. Archived from the original on 2022-11-03.
  5. ^ Rob Wynne (2000-03-21). "Time Squad – alt.fan.blakes-7". Google Groups. Archived from the original on 2022-11-03.
  6. ^ fairestcat (2005-12-14). "A Gift to Fandom: Doylist and Watsonian Explanations". LiveJournal. Archived from the original on 2017-10-30.
  7. ^ Racheline Maltese (2010-01-31). "sundries, totally personal edition". LiveJournal. Archived from the original on 2012-12-25.
  8. ^ fairestcat (2005-12-14). "(no subject): OK, now that I've explained the terms Doylist and Watsonian, anyone want to talk SGA??". Dreamwidth. Archived from the original on 2021-09-09. Originally this was published on LJ fairestcat account[Dead link] in December 14, 2005. Accessed: October 31, 2010. Blocked/Purged: January 12, 2016.
  9. ^ "Jane Leeves - Trivia". IMDb. Archived from the original on 2022-11-03.
  10. ^ "UNIT - Article". Wikipedia. Archived from the original on 2022-11-03.
  11. ^ "UNIT dating controversy – TARDIS DATA CORE". FANDOM. Archived from the original on 2022-11-03.
  12. ^ Sharyn McCrumb (2010-07-01). "Bimbos of the Death Sun (1988)". Google Books. RosettaBooks. Archived from "apathy+and+chivas+regal"&source=bl&ots=NtVNEi5HmB&sig=uOTaN6C0sBHk_OxuWft5oPdAfJc&hl=en&ei=JCXNTNruO4b6sAPH75naDg&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result#v=onepage&q="apathy%20and%20chivas%20regal"&f=false the original on 2022-11-03.
  13. ^ a b c d e f g h "damned_colonial Doylist or Watsonian?". 2010-04-22. Archived from the original on 2013-05-06. Accessed: October 31, 2010