Part 3: Characterization
I love writers’ magazines and writers’ manuals. Nothing makes you feel more virtuous about not writing than picking up The Writer or a book by Donald Maass and telling yourself that you’re engaging in professional development.* And one of the staples of such books and periodicals (which you should read whilst curled up in a comfortable chair) is characterization–specifically, how to pull it off believably. Fiction writers devote huge amounts of time, index cards, notebook pages, and computer memory to make up people as real as their Aunt Nelly.** Authors of Sherlockian fiction don’t have to fuss with that, though, do they? After all, Conan Doyle has already done the heavy lifting, character-wise. All the pasticheur has to do is think up a decent plot, bring out the cast, wind them up, and let them go. Right?
Fortunately, it seems that most writers understand this. Occasionally, however, I’ll be reading along and all of a sudden, Holmes, Watson, or possibly even Lestrade does something so out of character that the story comes to a screeching halt. At this point, the pen comes out and does some shrieking in the margins, and I’m thereafter alert to any tiny deviation or error on the author’s part. Some readers don’t even bother to finish such a book. As an author, you don’t want either reaction, so here are some suggestions which I hope can help you avoid them.
Staying in Character
Let me say, right up front, that I am not talking about fan fiction here, although plenty of reviewers on those sites complain about characters being “OOC.”*** The thing about fan fiction is that it’s not for profit, so if you want to write about an incredibly emotive Holmes and a flinty Watson, it’s fine; you and your followers will have a great time and no harm done. But, if you’re writing for the larger market and hoping to get some royalties out of it, this may not be the best strategy. Not to disparage anyone’s artistic vision, but the truth is, most people who buy a Sherlock Holmes book do so with the strong expectation that they are going to read about the characters they already know and love. They are not going to permit you a lot of play.
This brings us back to research. It’s tempting to think that you already know all there is to know about the world of 221B, but it’s probably a mistake. Pretend, for a few days, that you’ve just met these people. Comb through the stories and pull out every fact and observation you can. Analyze speech patterns: the characters sound different, but why? How can you duplicate this yourself? What are their habits? How do they approach their daily lives? Try your hand at a little deduction: What do their thoughts and actions reveal about their inner workings? Their pasts? You may come up with a new revelation, but even if you don’t, that’s all right (some might say it’s preferable). The point of this is to truly understand your characters (for you are making them yours by writing about them), so that you can render them real and recognizable on the page. When fiction writers draw up those long character sheets with spaces for “favorite food,” “traumatic school memories” and “zodiac sign,” chances are good that all of that information won’t make it into the book, but the exercise itself ensures that once those people hit the page, they’re individuals. For example, we will never know everything there is to know about any person–not even those closest to us–but everything they’ve experienced is there, somewhere, and we’re seeing it constantly. The same is true of the fictional world. The trick with Sherlockian fiction, of course, is to keep your facts straight, and not go too far beyond the boundaries already set by Watson’s literary agent. That’s okay, though–he only created the most alive characters in English literature. You’re in good hands.
That’s all writerly theory. I love writerly theory. But, concretely, what does it mean? Are there things you can never do with Sherlock Holmes and John Watson?
Well, I hate to say “never,” because if you’re a good enough writer, and you can make the reader really, truly believe it, you may be able to make our boys do anything. But, that being said, here’s a short list. Guard rail, challenge–make of it what you will:
- Watson is a ladies’ man, but he’s a gentleman, always.
- Holmes is not a ladies’ man. It’s perfectly possible to hook him up with someone, but he’s not believable as a skirt-chaser or as someone who is promiscuous in any way.
- Holmes is, most of the time, tightly controlled and devoted to the life of the mind. We know that there’s something underneath that logical exterior, but that’s the whole point–it’s underneath. He is not going to have the overt emotional expressions of a teen-aged girl.† A tremendous number of Sherlockians live for a glimpse of those “hidden fires.” Use this to your advantage.
- Watson is a smart man–he’s a doctor, after all. But he is not, for the most part, going to be smarter than Holmes on a regular basis. He seems to be ok with this, so while it’s all right to give him the occasional burst of brilliance, he probably shouldn’t run the investigation, nor make Holmes look stupid.
- Neither Holmes nor Watson are evil criminal masterminds or serial killers. Nor are they “dirty” cops. They are decent men on the side of Justice.
- Watson is more into the creature comforts of life, and while Canon Holmes is not necessarily as ascetic as, say, BBC’s Sherlock, he’s also not as concerned with substantial regular meals and sleep as is his friend. It is disconcerting to see a version of Holmes agree, seemingly without irony, that a good meal aids his thought processes.
- Whatever you do, don’t alter a character solely to further the plot or the dialogue at hand. You may need to put out a violin-centered clue, but please don’t suddenly make Holmes a musical dolt so that you can do so.
I’m sure as you read this, you thought of successful books which flouted at least some of these stipulations. M. J. Trow’s Inspector Lestrade series portrays both Holmes and Watson as being less-than-heroic, and Michael Kurland’s Moriarty books feature the detective as drug-addled nitwit. Michael Dibdin’s controversial Sherlock Holmes is…wellllll, let’s say he’s not on the side of the angels. And of course there’s always the film Without a Clue, in which Watson is the brains of the operation. So, marry, murder, whatever you like, but do your homework and remember that the onus is on you, the author, to make it believable. Remember that the best lie is surrounded by truths.
Real Historical Personages
These characters are also prefab, in a fashion, and they appear frequently in Sherlockian fiction, sometimes as bit players, and other times as major actors. Some show up more often than others: various Churchills, Teddy Roosevelt, King Edward VII (before and after coronation), Jack the Ripper, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Sigmund Freud, H.G. Wells, Houdini, Dracula, and the Titanic make regular appearances. Using real people as characters can either enhance your story, or prove an annoying distraction. Here are some things to keep in mind:
- Be accurate. Make sure that this person was alive and in the area at the time he or she encounters your characters. Readers will often know more about these people than you think. Holmes is not going to meet George Washington, unless it’s during a seance or stepping out of a time machine. Oh dear. Please forget I said that.
- Treat the historical person with some respect. I recently finished a book in which a very prominent individual–who was most certainly not a serial killer–was put forth (to the reader) as a possible….serial killer. Part of the suspense came from wondering if the author would actually pull that trigger. Unless you have evidence–real evidence–this seems unwise. Best to simply let your Real Historical Personage appear as him or herself, without drastic fictionalization.
- Make the historical person three-dimensional. Teddy Roosevelt needs to have a reason to interact with Holmes beyond providing a history lesson to your readers. Likewise, social justice is great, and Victorian living conditions and attitudes could be appalling, but that Real Person should not preach and leave. If they stood on a soap box on a daily basis in life then, by all means, let them have a bit of a say, but don’t use them to heavily underline A Message. Nor should they appear just to highlight another’s character trait. Is Holmes in favor of women’s suffrage in 1897? I dunno; give it your best shot, but don’t have Millicent Fawcett pop up with a pamphlet just to make the point that he’s a free-thinking man or a card-carrying member of the patriarchy.
- Finally, limit your list, particularly if your Real Historical Personages are walk-ons. Don’t use them constantly as chronological props (Look, Holmes! It’s Lily Langtry! Walking past Rudyard Kipling! It’s 1897!). It’s perfectly legitimate to expect Holmes in particular to encounter some of the famous people of his time, either through his work or through Mycroft, and in some settings (such as the theatre) there will be more than one. Still, name-dropping for its own sake gets annoying, particularly when you’re dealing with a man who seems to disdain fame, power, and wealth on a philosophical level. And those chance sightings of famous people as children (“That 10 year-old clog dancer will be a remarkable actor one day, Watson, mark my words!”)? Weave it into the plot, or just say no.
Chances are good that you won’t be using only canonical or historical characters in your story. You’ll add a few of your own. Oddly enough, for all of the space dedicated here to keeping Holmes and Watson recognizable, I’ve found that in most commercial Sherlockian fiction, authors do a decent job writing them in character. No, in general, the weakest characters are those created from scratch. Writer, this need not be so.
First, of course, you should give your original characters the same treatment you did those from canon. Here, you can relax a bit and let your imagination have more rein. Get to know these people really well, so they’re not just a cardboard audience for Holmes’ revelations. You probably don’t have to imagine favorite colors for every walk-on part (and most of the time, you’re advised to keep your character list small), but the more alive your original characters are, the more real the world of your book will be. Your goal is to make the reader believe that your story really happened–that Watson just didn’t get around to recording it. You want her to make it part of her “headcanon,”and to devoutly wish it were true. You want him to wonder, just for a moment, if that quote is from canon…or from your book. You cannot achieve this if your own characters aren’t as living as Doyle’s.
This leads us to two common character issues: the self-insert character, and the “Mary Sue/Gary Stu.” It can be argued that most of our original characters carry something of ourselves in them, some more than others. Just don’t make it obvious. Your main original character doesn’t have to share your appearance, birthday, occupation, and every one of your personality traits. I particularly advise this if your character is going to be a romantic interest. Don’t kid yourself into believing that people won’t know. They will. They won’t see themselves as the horribly murdered victims or criminals you’ve made them, but they’ll immediately recognize you in that scene. For the sake of your own sanity and self respect, mix it up a little.
The other frequent character issue–and one to which readers are very sensitive–is the “Mary Sue.” This is the main character (or, for our purposes, the main original character) who is flawless. She’s tough, she’s tender, she’s brilliant, she’s talented, she’s kind, she’s beautiful, she’s athletic, she loves children and puppies and kitties and sings even more beautifully than she plays piano and if she had three wishes all of them would be for world peace. She even has a tattoo, because she has street cred. If she has any flaw, it’s that she’s too feisty, or too liberated for her time. Mary Sue inspires instant feelings of love and desire in whichever character you’ve designed her for. He wants to protect her, all the while she’s throwing knives at ninjas and saving his skin. There are a lot of Mary Sues in Sherlockian pastiche, and even more who come dangerously close. It’s so tempting, I know, because you love your original character, and want the reader to love her (or him–the less common male version is known as a Gary or Marty Stu) as much as you do. The trouble is, adult readers tend to not be fond of this type. Your original character often serves as the reader stand-in, and they want to be able to identify with him or her, which they really can’t do if this person is perfect. Instead of rooting for him or her, they find themselves vaguely resentful, the way one might feel towards the goody-goody kid in school who excelled at everything. They nurture hostile thoughts and wouldn’t care if one of those expertly thrown knives were a boomerang. It may be petty, but there you are. Do all you can to create, not a paragon, but a flesh-and-blood human being with fears, faults, and failures, some of which are not at all adorable. Fiction feeds on conflict and imperfection; provide some in your characters.
One final note on the Original Character: try not to fall in love. This is very, very hard to do, but it is probably essential if you are writing a novel which purports to be about Sherlock Holmes. The thing is, when people buy your book because it has “Sherlock Holmes” somewhere on the cover, they expect him to play a major role, not be a bit player in your character’s story. I can’t be the only one who finds herself flipping past pages and pages of Original Character scenes in such books to find the five pages on which the Great Detective appears.†† Eventually, it’s difficult not to lose interest in such series entirely, not because they’re badly written, but because one feels cheated. This is not to say that you can’t write a book about your characters in which Holmes, Watson, or other Doylean people appear; obviously, you can. Just don’t market on the strength of their names; it’s not playing fair.
Well, there you have it: some thoughts on characterization in pastiche. This was, so far, the hardest post for me to write, simply because I’m well aware that it’s possibly the most subjective. So I’d like to know what you think–or, rather, what you like or dislike in a pastiche character. And if you write Sherlockian fiction, how do you deal with issues in characterization? Leave your views in the comments!
*And you are, but after several months of this, let’s be real….. By the way, Donald Maass’ books are excellent, inspiring you to close them and get some work done, the best kind of writing manual.
**Sometimes, in fact, they are Aunt Nelly, but all authors hold to the belief that people won’t recognize themselves on the printed page, or at least won’t take family to court.
*** “OOC” is fan fiction parlance for “Out Of Character.”
†Unless, of course, you re-imagine him as a teen-aged girl, but even then…. “Hidden fires” refers to Holmes’ emotional reaction at finding that it is Selden, the convict, who has fallen prey to the Hound (of the Baskervilles) and not Sir Henry. His relief is extreme, and Watson is a little shocked.
†† Or I may be, and am a horrible person.