[takes a huge swig of apple juice]

Let’s talk about Atticus O’Sullivan’s taste in fiction.

A while back I did an article about intertextuality in fiction, particularly in regard to Rick Riordan’s more recent work and the use of pop culture references. I’d love for you all to go check that one out, but in case you don’t feel like it, here’s a reminder:

Intertextuality is a fancy way of talking about when texts refer to other texts. And when I say ‘text’ I don’t just mean books. In this sense, ‘text’ can mean any form of media or medium of art—books, poems, stories, songs, movies, television shows, paintings, sculptures, video games, and so on and so forth. Kind of like when a movie quotes the Bible, or a nerd character on TV quotes Star Trek.

Last time I talked about using current pop culture references for intertextuality, and how in many cases it’s a cheap way to sound relevant and cool to your audience, but that it will make the work sound dated very quickly once those bits of pop culture become irrelevant. Mentioning one of the hottest songs on the radio’s not going to make much sense years after that song’s gone out of the popular focus, especially if the band ends up a One Hit Wonder. I talked a bit then about how intertextuality can relate to characterization, but I’m going to try to talk about it more here, in regards to Atticus. He’s a perfect example of what not to do in characterization and intertextuality, among many other things because he’s a terrible character. Maybe this one’s too similar to the last article I did on the topic, but ImpishIdea’s been kind of dead the past few months and I need something to do with my time other than cry in the corner.

So the second book of the Iron Druid Chronicles is titled Hexed and yes there is a sporking in development, hold on to your pants. But upon my reread I came again upon the part where Atticus is playing a stupid stoner type to fool the cops (again), and then decides he’d subvert expectations by revealing that he’s memorized all of Shakespeare’s works (no really).1

Why does Atticus know all of Shakespeare by heart? [shrugs] I dunno. At least, I don’t know in-story why he does. There’s no Watsonian explanation. The Doylist, meta explanation is this: Hearne was a high school English teacher, and he thinks Shakespeare is cool, and since Atticus is the Coolest, Cleverest, and Sexiest of Men, he therefore must also love Shakespeare and know his works by heart. There’s no other reason.

And to be fair, from an outside-the-text perspective it’s at least consistent. Atticus acts a certain way and likes specific things because those are things that Kevin Hearne thinks are cool. That’s not in and of itself a bad thing, a character being a reflection of the author’s interests, but if it’s not consistent, it’s bad writing.

Because again, there’s no in-story reason for his love of Shakespeare. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: for a character who is supposed to be the most Irish Irishman to ever Irish, Atticus doesn’t give two craps about Ireland or Irish culture. If the man cared about Irish literature or art, he’d be all over Oscar Wilde, or W.E.B. Yeats, or George Bernard Shaw, or James Joyce, or Pat O’Shea, or Bram Stoker, or Eoin Colfer, or Jonathan Swift, or Lord Dunsany, or Sheridan LeFanu.

Now one could argue that this is because Atticus isn’t really Irish. He seems to have very little attachment to Ireland after he left in the Iron Age. His attitude towards the Troubles in Ireland reads very much like he’s stamping it with ‘Not My Problem’ and not caring at all. But this is contradicted when we see other aspects of his personality. He has an Irish bar he goes to all the time. He worships the Irish gods. He has an Irish wolfhound. His public persona is as a young Irish-American college-aged man. In essence, he has some tacked-on Irish traits that makes me suspect that we are supposed to think of him as a very Irish person. And yet his Irish identity is all surface-deep.

But Shakespeare? Why on Earth would Atticus drift towards the works of William Shakespeare? Not just that he likes them, but that he adores them enough to memorize them. He cares more about Shakespeare than his own gods, if that gives you an idea of how absurd this is. Shakespeare’s often called universal, but mostly by Englishmen and American Anglophiles. He’s a very English author to get worked up about.

Furthermore, there are several points in the books where Atticus, talking about mythical or fantastical creatures, will riff on modern pop cultural depictions, and say something like, “Oh these stupid people don’t know that’s not what faeries are really like! Those idiots!” and then go on to explain how they are in Hearne’s fictional world. Shakespeare is apparently the exception though; the faeries of the Hearne’s books are (in-theory) based in Irish mythology, but A Midsummer Night’s Dream certainly isn’t. Yet this apparently doesn’t bother Atticus, who named his dog after the Shakespeare character (or possibly the folklore character Shakespeare based him off of, but I suspect given what we’ve been told and the specific spelling that it’s probably a Shakespeare reference).

So why is he such a fan of the Bard?

I imagine a large part of this is because Hearne, in naming Shakespeare as one of Atticus’s faves, is pulling a famous name that (if you live in the US) you’re bound to have heard of even if you failed every history class since middle school. That’s why he spent so many years hanging out with Genghis Khan, but doesn’t so much as mention Ogodei Khan, or Bato Khan, or Timur Lane, or Oda Nobunaga. Because they’re Asian conquerors you might not have heard of, despite being massively influential in their roles in history and being very well-known in their own times and cultures, so of course Atticus doesn’t so much as mention them.

That’s why Atticus likes Shakespeare. Because it’s recognizable to everyone in the English-speaking world. It’s certainly not because it fits with his character. The book tells us that Atticus is a paranoid and cautious man who avoids drawing attention to himself. Now let’s be honest based on what we actually see: Atticus is a violent sociopath who gets off on killing things for his own benefit. In either case, there’s no reason he would hang out with the equivalents of big name celebrities of different places in different parts of history. And why would he memorize Shakespeare? It’s like it’s supposed to be an example of what TV Tropes calls ‘Hidden Depths’, where a character shows a side you wouldn’t expect. But it’s not that this is a different side of a well-rounded character, it’s just… tacked onto a character it doesn’t make sense for.

Have you ever read Artemis Fowl? The title character has a bodyguard named Butler. Big bloke, good with guns and martial arts. Very serious. One of the tie-in books has interviews with all of the characters, and Butler’s interview has him admit that he doesn’t actually like action movies, because they’re too much like his own real life. He prefers romantic comedies. Then he says if the interviewer tells anyone that he’ll hunt them down. Now that is a hidden depth, because it shows a side of the character we’ve never seen before, but it doesn’t contradict what we’ve already seen. In fact, it kind of makes sense that he prefers to keep his mind off of work when he’s trying to relax.

Whereas with Atticus, we’re shown that he likes killing, he likes screwing with people using magic, he likes proving he’s Better Than You, and he likes sex. And yes, for the sake of fairness I must acknowledge that Shakespeare’s work has all of those things in it, but we don’t see that Atticus likes going to the theater or even reading. I don’t know if he really reads or watches anything that isn’t already incredibly popular. He very explicitly does not read books about Irish mythology, despite being an ancient Irish pagan; he tells the audience in the first book that he had to Google Irish myths on Aenghus Og to see what people today thought about him. He doesn’t know the first thing about Jane Austen, as he seems to think that all the characters spend their time swooning. He quotes Kill Bill and then refers to it as an anime. There is no mention of going to the theater, the opera, the library, or even seeing a movie or television that isn’t a mainstream pop cultural mainstay, like Star Wars or South Park. He seems to mock anyone with “nerd interests,” as well as the idea of getting acquainted with the politics in the country he currently lives in. I wouldn’t be surprised if he expressed disdain for the idea of reading, telling us that it’s uncool.2 After all, he keeps telling us how all the supernaturals should fit into the normal world, and then expressing the shallowest understanding of how modern people think and act, based on stereotypes dumber than the ones you’d get in political cartoons mocking millennials.

All of this adds up to a man who, by all reason, should not care one whit about the works of William Shakespeare. Whatever you think about Willy Shakes, his is a set of works immersed very heavily in politics and the arts. If you’re into Shakespeare, you will find yourself on the arts scene, and you will see people trying to apply it to politics both modern and historical.

And this is a shame because there are so many cool things you can do with characterization and intertextuality. For instance, my go-to example for intertextuality is always Star Trek 2: Wrath of Khan because Khan goes to his death quoting Moby-Dick. And he has it memorized, because that’s one of the few books he had to read in his exile, but also because it is something he identifies with; Khan has this overwhelming hatred for Captain Kirk, just as Ahab does for the white whale. And he knows it’s unreasonable and in the end he knows he’s doomed, but he doesn’t care; he just needs to keep trying to kill this guy, even when it’s in his advantage to surrender, because he. Just. Can’t. Stop. Hating. This man.

Or with another science-fiction example: James Holden of The Expanse is such a huge fan of Don Quixote that he names his ship the Rocinante after the title character’s horse. And it fits, because Holden’s such a massive idealist who is willing to recklessly go and do things because they’re right, even if it messes with the status quo. And because the books aren’t stupid, it’s pointed out that Don Quixote isn’t actually supposed to be endorsing this kind of behavior; if anything, it’s mocking it, showing how it’s stupid and foolhardy. So when Holden sticks to this philosophy he’s always getting himself into unnecessary trouble that could have easily been avoided. Just like whoever wrote the musical Man of La Mancha, Holden doesn’t get that Cervantes didn’t want you to be like Don Quixote. And the narrative of The Expanse keeps showing us why.

Or hey, if we want to hop back to Shakespeare, from the first volume we see the title character of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman quoting Shakespeare. And considering that he is Morpheus, Dream of the Endless, the personification of creativity, yeah, it makes sense that he’s quoting someone who is considered by many in the English-speaking world to be one of the greatest writers of all time. But we learn later that he actually knew Shakespeare, and commissioned him to write the play he’s quoting, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, as a gift to the king and queen of Faerie.

Or… fun example, the Pixar movie Coco. The song that Miguel’s ancestor Imelda falls back on in the film when she decides to sing is “La Llorona.” This is a song that has a lot of history in Mexico; a lot of its lyrics were written in the Mexican Revolution. The movie doesn’t really do much with dates, so it’s unclear when the deceased ancestors lived in an ordinary viewing. But by having this be the song that Imelda knows by heart, that she falls back on when she displays her singing abilities, indicates that she lived some time around the Mexican Revolution. More than that, it says a lot about her character; “La Llorona” is not about the ghost story, it’s about a woman who has been left by her lover and is completely devastated (hence she is “la llorona” or “the weeping woman”). And though Imelda tries to hide her pain by a tough exterior, her singing shows exactly how she really feels about her husband leaving her family.

We could keep doing this all day long: the movie Bruce Wayne saw before his parents died? Zorro, the prototypical superhero story about a badass who pretends to be a rich buffoon in public while using his wits and martial arts skills to fight for the people at night. The Creature in Frankenstein gets really attached to Paradise Lost because he feels, like Satan, to be someone rebelling against his creator, and also utterly hates himself. V for_V for Vendetta_ is obsessed with The Count of Monte Cristo because he thinks of himself as Edmond Dantes, a man wrongfully imprisoned who escapes and makes a convoluted revenge plan, not realizing, much like Dantes, that revenge will consume his reason and humanity.

But Shakespeare and Atticus is none of these things. It’s not a point of character development.

Atticus’s love of Shakespeare isn’t because it fits the character. Like Rick Riordan throwing pop culture references at you, it doesn’t mean anything at all. It’s built entirely on the Rule of Cool. And to be clear, there’s nothing wrong with writing based on the Rule of Cool, but it has to actually be, y’know, cool.

Atticus knowing all of Shakespeare isn’t there because Hearne genuinely cares about Shakespeare. To him, this is the height of intelligence. Atticus is not just an incredibly hawt guy who has goddesses in his bed regularly, he’s not just an uber-Druid who can heal from an injury and overpower all his foes with eco-friendly magic, he’s not just a clever, witty youth who can run circles around his stupid enemies, he’s ALSO so smart that he has all of Shakespeare memorized. I’d not be surprised if as the series went on Hearne also decided that he’s also a world-class chess player who can defeat champions in three moves and understands mathematics better than Stephen Hawking.

This isn’t good writing. This is pretty bad writing, actually. This is like having your Bad Boy leading man playing piano—a tacked-on trait to make someone feel smart. This is like putting quotes at the beginning of your book that have nothing to do with anything. This is like having your protagonist beat someone at checkers/chess in a few moves. It’s telling you that a character is smart without doing any of the work to show you.

And it’s a shame. Because if you’re writing a character, and your character has an obsession with a piece of art or an author, there should be a reason for it. Maybe it doesn’t have to have Plot Relevance, but it should have Character Relevance.

If you’re going to go through the effort of telling us that your character is a fan of this or that author, or watches this or that show, there has to be a reason behind it. Don’t just make your characters fans of the same fiction that you are if it doesn’t make any sense for them to be. Atticus has no reason to care about Shakespeare. It’s another (failed) attempt to impress the reader with how smart and cool he is.

Maybe I’m overreacting; this is far from the most egregious thing to happen in the Iron Druid Chronicles from a critical perspective. Maybe I just care because intertextuality is my jam. But hear me out: Hearne specifically made Atticus a fanboy of one of the most popular and talked about writers in the history of the English-speaking world, having him go so far as to memorize all of his work, which would take years of effort… and it doesn’t mean anything. It’s just there to prove how his protagonist is Better Than You. Not to indicate how far this character will go to try to prove that he’s better than everyone else, like an actual character flaw; no, you’re supposed to read about this trait and be utterly in awe of this manly and witty specimen of a man.

And we’re not. We’re just disgusted by this gross, monstrous character, and baffled by the author’s numerous attempts to tell us he’s an admirable man instead of the lecherous, violent sociopath he is.

1 “Wait a minute,” you might be saying. “Wouldn’t revealing that he’s memorized Shakespeare prove that he’s not the stupid stoner he’s pretending to be? And blow his cover? And make this whole charade pointless? Doesn’t that make him incredibly short-sighted and stupid?” Yes, dear reader. Yes it does. And you can bet your bottom dollar that Hearne plays the entire situation as if Atticus the cleverest man alive.

2 This sounds counterintuitive, a book telling you that books are uncool. But it’s happened to me before: the book fantasy novel Fell (which is about talking wolves) has several Author Tracts about how using stories to teach lessons is harmful propaganda meant to enslave us and fairy tales are the opiates of the masses. Yes, really.

Tagged as: , ,

Comment

  1. The Smith of Lies on 25 August 2020, 02:50 said:

    [takes a huge swig of apple juice]

    You know it is going to be good if Juracan needs to steel himself with apple juice before starting the article.

    Also you know it is gonna be good when Iron Druid is being discussed.

    So the second book of the Iron Druid Chronicles is titled Hexed and yes there is a sporking in development, hold on to your pants.

    I am possibly the only person who cares about it, but I am gonna wait patiently and keep checking I.I. to avoid missing it.

    “Wait a minute,” you might be saying. “Wouldn’t revealing that he’s memorized Shakespeare prove that he’s not the stupid stoner he’s pretending to be? And blow his cover? And make this whole charade pointless? Doesn’t that make him incredibly short-sighted and stupid?” Yes, dear reader. Yes it does. And you can bet your bottom dollar that Hearne plays the entire situation as if Atticus the cleverest man alive.

    Technically having memorized works of Shakepeare does not signify any kind of smarts, just lots of work put in. Still, not something one would expect from a stupid stoner persona.

    The Doylist, meta explanation is this: Hearne was a high school English teacher, and he thinks Shakespeare is cool, and since Atticus is the Coolest, Cleverest, and Sexiest of Men, he therefore must also love Shakespeare and know his works by heart. There’s no other reason.

    Also, Shakespear is considered part of “high culture” these days, so it is a chance to show that Atticus is cultured and sophisticated. Which goes hand in hand with rather obnoxious and condescending way the pop-culture references are written.

    Because again, there’s no in-story reason for his love of Shakespeare. I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: for a character who is supposed to be the most Irish Irishman to ever Irish, Atticus doesn’t give two craps about Ireland or Irish culture.

    This would actually make a lot of sense. Atticus is 2000 years old and spend that time wandering the world. He has no real cultural background anymore, the culture he was raised in stopped existing gods know how long ago. He’d probably be a cultural amalgam, having soaked up bit here and there.

    But of course the narration does not reflect it and Atticus talks a lot about being an Irishmen who Irishes.

    He has an Irish bar he goes to all the time. He worships the Irish gods. He has an Irish wolfhound. His public persona is as a young Irish-American college-aged man. In essence, he has some tacked-on Irish traits that makes me suspect that we are supposed to think of him as a very Irish person. And yet his Irish identity is all surface-deep.

    Yup. Exactly what I meant above.

    One of the tie-in books has interviews with all of the characters, and Butler’s interview has him admit that he doesn’t actually like action movies, because they’re too much like his own real life. He prefers romantic comedies.

    Now that is pretty clever bit of characterization.

    This sounds counterintuitive, a book telling you that books are uncool. But it’s happened to me before: the book fantasy novel Fell (which is about talking wolves) has several Author Tracts about how using stories to teach lessons is harmful propaganda meant to enslave us and fairy tales are the opiates of the masses. Yes, really.

    Now if that isn’t the biggest example of “do as I say not as I do” that I’ve seen in years, I don’t know what is…

    But even closer to our backyard, we have talked about “nerdy books telling you that nerds are uncool” (including the Iron Druid) a lot. So no surprises that Atticus’s book implies books are uncool, it is par for the course.

    This isn’t good writing. This is pretty bad writing, actually. This is like having your Bad Boy leading man playing piano—a tacked-on trait to make someone feel smart. This is like putting quotes at the beginning of your book that have nothing to do with anything. This is like having your protagonist beat someone at checkers/chess in a few moves. It’s telling you that a character is smart without doing any of the work to show you.

    Would you say it is a… Perense?

  2. Juracan on 25 August 2020, 22:06 said:

    You know it is going to be good if Juracan needs to steel himself with apple juice before starting the article.

    Also you know it is gonna be good when Iron Druid is being discussed.

    Glad I can bring entertainment just by opening the article.

    Also I totes didn’t have enough juice today…

    I am possibly the only person who cares about it, but I am gonna wait patiently and keep checking I.I. to avoid missing it.

    That’s the spirit.

    Also, Shakespear is considered part of “high culture” these days, so it is a chance to show that Atticus is cultured and sophisticated. Which goes hand in hand with rather obnoxious and condescending way the pop-culture references are written.

    I am considering, for the first time, adding counts to the next sporking. And one of them will be a count titled ‘Better Than You’ in which Hearne tries to convince you that Atticus is better than the people around him/the reader.

    Him referencing Shakespeare will probably be in that count.

    This would actually make a lot of sense. Atticus is 2000 years old and spend that time wandering the world. He has no real cultural background anymore, the culture he was raised in stopped existing gods know how long ago. He’d probably be a cultural amalgam, having soaked up bit here and there.

    But of course the narration does not reflect it and Atticus talks a lot about being an Irishmen who Irishes.

    See, I’m kind of wondering why Hearne made him an Irish Druid to begin with? Hearne doesn’t seem very interested in Irish mythology or history, the way he kind of skims through it without much depth. If he’s not invested in doing anything with Atticus being Irish, why does he do it? Does he just.. like the idea of it? Is Hearne of Irish descent and so it makes a better self-insert? I don’t know.

    Now if that isn’t the biggest example of “do as I say not as I do” that I’ve seen in years, I don’t know what is…

    You can understand why I’ve never picked up this author ever again, huh?

    But even closer to our backyard, we have talked about “nerdy books telling you that nerds are uncool” (including the Iron Druid) a lot. So no surprises that Atticus’s book implies books are uncool, it is par for the course.

    It’s baffling? I get that it’s in part because nerd culture has only just become mainstream, and just about every popular movie mocked nerds, but considering how much of this has those same people as your audience… it’s weird. I feel like it’s become less common now, or maybe I’m just picking up better fiction.

    Atticus is bizarre though because he’s like the middle school class clown telling everyone that “Cool Kids Don’t Read or Do Anything Remotely Smart” and we’re supposed to think he’s cool??

    Would you say it is a… Perense?

    I don’t… understand.

  3. The Smith of Lies on 27 August 2020, 02:20 said:

    I don’t… understand.

    My fault for commenting while tired and being sloppy. It was supposed to be “Pretense” because the whole thing is pretentious.

    I am considering, for the first time, adding counts to the next sporking. And one of them will be a count titled ‘Better Than You’ in which Hearne tries to convince you that Atticus is better than the people around him/the reader.

    Something, something, over 9000. I don’t know what other counters you are considering, but I am willing to be this one will go up well into triple digits.

    If he’s not invested in doing anything with Atticus being Irish, why does he do it?

    Because Tuatha are underrepresented pantheon and using them gives him Hipster cred?

  4. Juracan on 27 August 2020, 21:44 said:

    My fault for commenting while tired and being sloppy. It was supposed to be “Pretense” because the whole thing is pretentious.

    It is VERY pretentious, but in the cheapest way. Not even in the obnoxious modern artist way.

    I don’t know what other counters you are considering, but I am willing to be this one will go up well into triple digits.

    It may. But then, the others might get pretty high as well.

    Hang on, let me get my notebook.

    The 6 counts are:

    -Better Than You

    -Make It Easy!

    -The Kids These Days

    -LAUGH, DAMNIT!

    -Didn’t Do Homework (Reference Fail)

    -Paranoia? What’s that?

    The Paranoia one could do with a different name though.

    Because Tuatha are underrepresented pantheon and using them gives him Hipster cred?

    Maybe. I mean, I picked up the book because I thought to myself, “I should read more about Irish mythology. Here’s a book that features it!” So maybe that’s the angle he’s going for??

  5. The Smith of Lies on 28 August 2020, 14:16 said:

    -Make It Easy!

    This one sparks joy. I know it is stolen from Obscurus Lupa, but the way it fits Atticus’s shenanigans so well juest speaks to me.

    The Paranoia one could do with a different name though.

    In the spirit of intertextuality and in-jokiness I suggest “You keep using that word.” as per the Princess Bride quote.

    Also, does “Kids these days” include obnoxious pop-culture references? Because those caused you some grief in the first spork.

  6. Juracan on 28 August 2020, 21:54 said:

    In the spirit of intertextuality and in-jokiness I suggest “You keep using that word.” as per the Princess Bride quote.

    It shall be considered.

    Also, does “Kids these days” include obnoxious pop-culture references? Because those caused you some grief in the first spork.

    It basically means any time Atticus tells a character or the audience that humans now talk a certain way, or do things a certain way, in an obnoxious condescending way as if we’re all idiots. Kind of like the way he does everything!

    So like when Morrigan mentions Mesopotamia, and Atticus is like, “Well they call it Iraq now,” or he tells Flidais, “Oh people don’t say ‘Vent their spleen, they say ‘go apeshit’ now!’

  7. Francois Tremblay on 2 September 2020, 19:35 said:

    Actually, I really like the idea of a book telling you why you shouldn’t read books. I’m definitely going to use that. But I should probably mention it’s satire.

  8. LoneWolf on 4 September 2020, 01:24 said:

    I like reading sporks, I’d certainly read a mockery of Atticus’ further ridiculous Mary Sure adventures.

your_ip_is_blacklisted_by sbl.spamhaus.org