Claude vs a real novel

At recent workshop on how to handle AI in the classroom, someone mentioned that Claude is better at faking fiction than ChatGPT.

Okay, I said, let’s just see. Claude, please begin a story where a girl drinking from a pool in the forest sees a man walk out of the light. He doesn’t notice her and walks away.

***

Claude:

The cool water trickled down my throat as I knelt by the small forest pool, cupping handfuls of the crisp liquid to my lips. The slender beams of early morning sunlight filtered through the canopy of leaves, dappling the pool’s surface with ever-shifting patterns of light and shadow.

I paused mid-sip as a movement in my peripheral vision caught my eye. There, at the edge of the trees where a slightly wider ray of sunshine broke through the branches, a flickering luminance seemed to intensify and expand. I froze, my eyes straining to make sense of what was unfolding before me.

In a seamless cosmic blurring, the fabric of the light itself appeared to part and reshape into an upright human form. My jaw dropped as the radiant silhouette of a man steadily gained definition and solidity, coalescing into an apparent flesh-and-blood person before my astonished gaze.

Dressed in simple clothing that seemed almost archaic in its neutral earth tones and simple cut, the mysterious man stood calmly blinking as if getting his bearings. He ran a hand over his short-cropped hair and beard, taking in his surroundings with an enigmatic half-smile.

Too stunned to make a sound, I remained motionless by the pool, the faint gurgling of the water the only noise in the suddenly electrified air. Then, with a last squinting look around the sunlit trees, the strange man turned and set off at an unhurried pace deeper into the forest, disappearing as nonchalantly as he had arrived.

I could only gape at the spot in the treeline where he had vanished, my mind reeling. What in the world had I just witnessed? And who – or what – was that man who had seemingly materialized out of thin air?

*****

Patricia McKillip, Winter Rose:

They said later that he rode into the village on a horse the color of buttermilk, but I saw him walk out of the wood.

I was kneeling at the well; I had just lifted water to my lips. The well was one of the wood’s secrets: a deep spring as clear as light, hidden under an overhang of dark stones down which the brier roses fall, white as snow, red as blood, all summer long. The vines hide the water unless you know to look. I found it one hot afternoon when I stopped to smell the roses. Beneath their sweet scent lay something shadowy, mysterious: the smell of earth, water, wet stone. I moved the cascading briers and looked down at my own reflection.

Corbet, he called himself to the villagers. But I saw him before he had any name at all.

My name is Rois, and I look nothing like a rose. The water told me that. Water never lies. I look more like a blackbird, with my flighty black hair and eyes more amber than the blackbird’s sunny yellow. My skin is not fit for fairy tales, since I liked to stand in light, with my eyes closed, my face turned upward toward the sun. That’s how I saw him at first: as a fall of light, and then something shaping out of the light. So it seemed. I did not move; I let the water stream silently down my wrist. There was a blur of gold: his hair. And then I blinked, and saw his face more clearly.

I must have made some noise then. Perhaps I shifted among the wild fern. Perhaps I sighed. He looked toward me, but there was too much light; I must have been a blur of shadow in his eyes.

Then he walked out of the light.

Of course I thought about him, at first the way you think about weather or time, something always at the edge of your mind. He didn’t seem real to me, just something I dreamed on a hot summer day, as I swallowed water scented with roses and stone. I remembered his eyes, odd, heavy-lidded, the color, I thought then, of his hair. When I saw them a day or two later, I was surprised.

I gathered wild lilies and honeysuckle and bleeding heart, which my sister, Laurel, loved. I stayed in the wood for a long time, watching, but he had gone. The sky turned the color of a mourning dove’s breast before I walked out of the trees. I remembered time, then. I was tired and ravenous, and I wished I had ridden to the wood. I wished I had worn shoes. But I had learned where to find wild ginger, and what tree bled a crust of honey out of a split in the wood, and where the blackberries would ripen. My father despaired of me; my sister wondered at me. But my despair was greater if I caged my wonder, like a wild bird. Some days I let it fly free, and followed it. On those days I found the honey, and the secret well, and the mandrake root.

My sister, Laurel, is quite beautiful. She has chestnut hair, and skin like ripened peaches, and great grey eyes that seem to see things that are not quite discernible to others. She doesn’t really see that well; her world is simple and fully human. Her brows lift and pucker worriedly when she encounters ambiguities, or sometimes only me. Everyone in the village loves her; she is gentle and sweet-spoken. She was to marry the next spring.

That twilight, when I came home barefoot, my skirt full of flowers, her lover, Perrin, was there. Perrin looked at me askance, as always, and shook his head.

“Barefoot. And with rose petals in your hair. You look like something conceived under a mushroom.”

******

What do you think?

I think there is not the remotest comparison. Compared to McKillip, Claude looks practically illiterate. Where does Claude fall down on the job?

–Cliched reactions; cliched phrases throughout. That’s what strikes me first, and then —

–Way too little voice. The protagonist does not yet exist as an individual in the reader’s mind. That’s what strikes me second. This is connected to the first problem. The dependence on cliches is one thing that prevents the protagonist from becoming an individual.

–Way too little setting, and what setting there is has been rendered boring. Oddly, though this is huge contrast between the generated text and the real thing, this struck me third rather than first.

Honestly, I think the above comparison really illustrates what creativity and individuality in writing looks like: McKillip’s work has it and Claude’s does not. This would no doubt become more obvious with a longer excerpt, even if you pitted Claude against a less skilled author than McKillip.

This kind of comparison might be useful in talking about “voice” in a class on fiction. That’s so nebulous, but it’s so plain here — that McKillip’s Rois has voice and is already an individual in this short snippet, and Claude’s unnamed protagonist is an undifferentiated Everyprotagonist.

This paired comparison also shows the importance of putting the protagonist in the world. Setting is important. Do it right, and you pull the reader into your world. Leave it out, or barely nod to it, and the story becomes unengaging.

*****

I should perhaps add here that Winter Rose is a lovely story as a standalone, but I so vehemently disliked the so-called sequel that I gave it away and I’ve tried hard to pretend I never read it. I therefore do recommend caution here, in case you read the above snippet, immediately buy Winter Rose, and then think about going on with the putative sequel.

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7 thoughts on “Claude vs a real novel”

  1. Isn’t comparing claude to mcKillip a bit unfair? Most actual humans can’t match her writing :)
    Of course, who’s interested in fairness

    Off topic, but the latest ilona Andrews serial is coming down off their site soon, so last chance to read it before it’s published this summer

  2. Well, SarahZ, I actually did do a comparison with a more average author first, but then I decided, you know what, this “fairness” idea is overrated anyway, let’s pull out the big guns! Take that, Claude!

    I’ll look forward to whatever Ilona Andrews book comes out this summer.

  3. I was dropping “The Maze, The Manor, And The Unicorn” in a search engine. The AI gave me a summary of it that started with quoting the blurb and then went off into flights of fancy about a unicorn in a tapestry.

    groan

    No. Not at all. No tapestries appear. What Cecily finds is a unicorn.

  4. This made me think of the exercise I’ve seen occasionally where a group of writers all get the same prompt and it’s fascinating to see how many different directions people can take a story from the same starting block. Now I want to do that with the AI as one of participants and see how distinguishable its output is from a group of average writers.

  5. OtterB, I would LOVE to try that. It would be a fantastic workshop exercise. Throw in three different AI text generators and see whether they can all be picked out and how they differ from each other as well as from real people.

  6. Kim Aippersbach

    Wow. That was extremely instructive! I can definitely see AI being used as a way to teach not just voice, but all aspects of good writing.

    (No one should be allowed to publish a YA fantasy without first asking an AI to generate prose with the same plot, and then making sure their novel sounds different!)(Sort of the reverse of checking for plagiarism, I guess?)

  7. Kim, yes, that would be “checking to make sure my protagonist is actually my very own protagonist, not Everyprotagoinst.

    I realize McKillip was a stunning writer, but still, Claude’s prose is almost physically painful to read after reading something by McKillip.

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