Where Logic Meets Love

Am I The Only One Who Notices These Things?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

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Am I The Only One Who Notices These Things? | Faith Permeating Life
Having editor blood can be somewhat of a nuisance at times. For example, flinching at the abundance of badly punctuated signs in store windows or other advertisements (most recently, a truck with a Coke ad saying, "Lets drink two"), or groaning when yet another faculty member at work sends me an e-mail mixing up basic words like your/you're, their/there/they're, etc.

Worst of all is in books, typically consisting of finding a typo that made it through what should have been multiple rounds of editing. Because it's there -- it's so permanent -- forever wrong.

Less common is the problem I've come across in two different books in the past week, and that is character inconsistency. As an author, you're really responsible for keeping track of your characters. It's hard enough as a reader to keep all the names and relationships straight, but if the author doesn't keep track of their characters well enough, s/he can end up imbuing the same character with contradictory characteristics -- such as being both married and not married. At the very least, the copyeditor should have a style sheet that keeps track of character details and catches this sort of thing.

The first instance of this was in the book The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith, which I borrowed from the community bookshelf at work. When the character Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni is first introduced, he is described thus:

He was a comfortable man, and she wondered why he had never married. He was not handsome, but he had an easy reassuring face. He would have been the sort of husband that any woman would have liked to have about the house. . . . But he had remained single, and lived alone in a large house near the old airfield. [Emphasis mine]

Now, this is pretty clear: He has never married. He has remained single. This jumped out to me immediately as memorable, since it was Foreshadowing 101 that he was going to end up proposing to the main character. Therefore I was surprised to read later:

Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni warmed to his theme.

"I have made hundreds of mistakes in my lifetime," he said, frowning at the recollection. "Hundreds and hundreds."

She looked at him. She had thought that everything had gone rather well in his life. He had served his apprenticeship as a mechanic, saved up his money, and then bought his own garage. He had built a house, married a wife (who had unfortunately died), and become the local chairman of the Botswana Democratic Party. [Emphasis again mine]

Hold up -- what? If you knew he had married, then why were you wondering earlier why he had never married? No new information had been revealed between these passages -- it was just given as background knowledge that the main character had. Did no one notice this glaring inconsistency?

That book was a relatively quick read, which I finished early in the week and then moved on to The Children's Book by A.S. Byatt. This book introduces so many characters is such a short span of time that even 200 pages in, I'm still struggling to keep them all straight. I try to create mental pictures of the characters and identify them with people I know so I remember who's who.

One particular character was close to my sister's age, so that's how I remembered her. On page 27, the narrator gives us some insight into this particular character, Dorothy, and tells us,

She was just eleven -- born in 1884, "the same year as the Fabian Society," Violent pointed out.

This scene happens a few days after the opening scene. When the book opens, it tells us that it's June 19th, 1895. So far, so good -- if Dorothy was born in early 1884, she would indeed be 11 years old. Then on page 36, we get the history of her parents and when all of their various children were born. And we read,

Dorothy was born in the late autumn of 1884.

Huh? But that makes her . . . 10 years old, unless you somehow consider June to be late autumn. (And no, they live in Europe).

Now a later scene, in January 1896. By this point, she is finally 11, right? And now she wants to go to school.

It turned out that Etta had an answer to propose. She herself did some teaching at Queen's College, in Harley Street, which gave classes to females of any age over twelve years. . .

Well, sorry, sweetheart, you're only 11. But apparently no one notices this.

Dorothy isn't the only character whose life timeline is screwed up. Eventually the narrator tells us about her mother, Olive, whose father was a miner. We read this:

There were five children, Edward, Olive, Petey, Violet and Dora, who had been an unexpected baby, and had died with her mother, of pneumonia, when Olive was twelve. Edward and Petey had both gone down the mine at the age of fourteen.

OK, Olive's mother dies when Olive is 12. Petey starts going down the mine when he is 14. Straightforward, yes?

Then we learn that Petey "was a year older than she [Olive] was," which is why he chooses to cling to Olive and tells her how freaked he is when he learns he has to start going to the mines. So he's 14 at this point, according to the above passage.

He had been tugging his string in the dark [his job in the mine] just under a year, when . . .

Basically he dies in the mine. So he's 15 or almost 15 when he dies, meaning Olive, a year younger, should be at least 13. Right? Which means her mother should be dead at this point, because her mother died when she was 12.

But no, Olive's pregnant mother is crying at her son's funeral.

Go ahead, argue that Petey was still 14, and Olive was not exactly a year younger but maybe 18 months younger, so she was still 12 at this point, almost 13. Well, six months later there's an earthquake and her mother's still alive. Then her mother gives birth. Then her mother starts to die and there's a long process of taking care of her. You really think Olive's still 12 at this point? No.

I think what's most annoying is how easily fixable these problems would have been with an attentive editor. Cut the line about that guy's wife dying. Change Dorothy's birthday to January 1884. Say that Olive was 14 when her mom died. Problems solved.

Am I just a freak who notices these things? Anyone have any examples from other books?

1 comment:

  1. I love this. I love you. You're awesome. Also, I'm sorry I was over a month behind reading your blog. :) I'm caught up now.



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