Even Jane the Virgin does research

Image source: Wikipedia 

With Jane the Virgin coming to an end soon, I wanted to spend a little time writing about an aspect of the show that caught my attention but which probably never gets talked about: its portrayal of research as part of the creative writing process.

If you’re not familiar, Jane the Virgin is a show about a woman whose life is changed after she accidentally gets inseminated as a result of a mix-up at her gynecologist’s office. I know. The show is a spin on the telenovela genre and is also one of the best-reviewed series on TV (for good reason).

From the beginning of the story, Jane wants to be a writer. Specifically, a romance writer. Eventually, she goes to grad school for writing and the audience sees her working on the first of many big writing projects: a novel loosely based on the history of her grandmother’s relationship with her grandfather that also examines the relationship between Jane, her mother, and her grandmother.

In Season 3, while Jane is working on this project, she is shown going through old letters, photographs and diaries. She interviews her grandmother about that time in her life. A lot of this is just a vehicle to deepen and complicate Jane’s understanding of her grandmother and her family history (and therefore also the viewer’s) but still. What Jane is doing here is research. For her novel.

This is especially significant because Jane is essentially writing about herself and her family, albeit a fictionalized version of them. You would think that writing about yourself is the epitome of “write what you know” but even then writers encounter gaps in their knowledge and Jane the Virgin shows this. Specifically, Jane’s gap in knowledge is that she doesn’t actually know what it would have been like for her grandmother to be a young woman in Venezuela during that time period.

Also important: Jane isn’t shown using a library to get this information. Or Google. She uses the artifacts of her family’s history. She interviews her grandmother and other family members. I liked this because I think part of what’s behind the resistance to the idea that research plays a role in fiction writing is this misconception that research automatically equals time spent in a library with a stack of books or sitting at microfiche readers. Those are usually the shortcuts television and movies use when they bother to show the research process at all (or, at least, Serious Research). But here the sources are not library books. They’re more personal. That makes sense both for the plot of the show and the plot of Jane’s book.

Ultimately, Jane does become a published writer, though the project that gets her there is a different one from her grad school novel. The show’s more recent episodes show her trying to write a second novel, one that will hopefully be more successful than the first. Here, the show falls back on the more common image of a writer locked away, feverishly working in the throes of creativity with only her laptop for company, not stopping to so much as Google the meaning of a word.

On the one hand, this is disappointing. On the other, this particular project of Jane’s is playing a different role in the story than her earlier one. Before, Jane’s project was an excuse for her and the audience to learn more about her family history and relationships. Now, the content of her current project is meant to move the character toward something the series has been leading her to since the beginning. So in this case it makes sense, narratively speaking, to use the “inspired genius” shortcut.

There are many things I will miss about Jane the Virgin when it’s over and I’m sure it will be appropriately eulogized by viewers and critics alike. But I wanted to touch on this one detail because it enhances my own appreciation for the show all the more.

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