What I Learned From Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
I learned how important it is to create memorable characters. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were so believable that during Doyle’s lifetime, some readers thought they were real people. Now they have moved into immortality.
You couldn’t have the one without the other. If you don’t believe me, read the two stories Holmes tells, “The Blanched Soldier” and “The Lion’s Mane”. While they are interesting, they aren’t like the others when the two are working together. Watson’s admiration and friendship make Holmes human.
Doyle also created strong secondary characters. He may have invented the idea of an arch-nemesis, a villain who shares some abilities as the hero but uses them for evil purposes. Professor Moriarty has inspired a a slew of imitators.
Irene Adler is another fascinating character. The one woman to foil Holmes and inspire his admiration, she appears in only one short story, “A Scandal in Bohemia”. We learn so many interesting tidbits about her history and character that she has fanned the flames of authors’ imaginations for a century. My favorite is a short story entitled “A Scandal in Winter” by Gillian Linscott and can be in Holmes for the Holidays and The Big Book of Christmas Mysteries.
When I create characters, I want them to come alive to my readers and dropping hints about their hobbies or opinions or dreams, as Doyle did, can aid that effort. With main characters, I have time to scatter in additional facts about their lives even though those facts are not critical to the plot. But I must not overload my story with unnecessary details.
Secondary characters are more difficult. I want to make them memorable but have little space to do it. I sometimes give them back stories, even though these stories won’t appear in print, so I have a better handle on how the character should act. Devising revealing traits, such as the character’s appearance, expressions, or speech pattern, can give him or her distinction.
In my novel, the owner of a notoriously wild bar is an important character in the last third of the book, but I didn’t want to bog down my narrative with long descriptions and backstory. So I tried to convey the character’s personality through dialogue and actions. For example, I have him say “You guys” instead of “y’uns” which is what everyone else in the county uses. That is a hint to the reader that the bar owner is not a local.
I have recently read to my kids adaptations of the Holmes stories for children. They can’t get enough of them. One more generation is becoming enthralled in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.
Holmes is my fave character of all time. His creator hated him, but we fans have adored him for more than a century now.
I wonder what Doyle would think of our 21st century fascination with Holmes.