May’s theme is all about characters, my favorite aspect of writing. All my stories are character-driven. Once I know my main characters, I can run with my plots and settings. Reading about characters who touch me or with whom I identify inspires me to develop my own.
I have lots of favorites, but these are some of the characters I visit over and over again.
The Sherlock Holmes stories have been analyzed in so many ways, but the key to their longevity and popularity is the friendship between the Great Detective and the Good Doctor. That relationship provides a model for literary friendships even now.
Friends should contrast
The friendship of Holmes and Watson works because they are so different. Holmes is the genius, who doesn’t run his household on anything like the conventions expected during Victorian times. He’s the cold, unemotional brain, the loner. Watson, on the other hand, has a variety of friends, marries, has compassion and interest in people as a doctor, did his duty in the army. He’s a very typical middle-class Englishman. Readers get two very distinct characters.
As I create characters, I check to make sure all of them, not just the major ones, are somehow different from each other. If I sense two are doing the same job in the story because they have similar personalities, I examine them to see if I need to get rid of one or give one a personality transplant.
A few months ago, I was working on the plots for the next novels after The Truth and Other Strangers. I realized a major character I’d planned to introduce in the second novel just didn’t work any more. I had developed several new characters who did his job for him. As fond as I was of this old character, I ejected him from my story. He wasn’t needed any more.
Friends should be compatible
Literary friends should be distinct but not so different that you can’t believe these characters are friends. Watson gives Holmes some normalcy, a support, and a sounding board for his theories. Holmes gives Watson adventure. The very proper Victorian doctor revels in the excitement of his friend’s escapades. This is clearly illustrated in the short story “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”. Holmes proposes to break into a professional blackmailer’s house and destroy the items he’s holding over a client. Watson insists on joining Holmes and while standing guard, writes “I thrilled now with a keener zest than I had ever enjoyed when we were defenders of the law instead of its defiers.”
Each character gains something from the other that he doesn’t possess himself. This is true for romantic characters, too. A serious man is drawn to a woman’s humor. Or an outgoing woman is attracted to a thoughtful, introverted man. I’ve seen this work in my own marriage. I’m artistic and my husband is logical, a nuclear engineer. When I run into trouble with a plot, I give him my parameters, and he will come up with a logical progression for the story.
Friends should have flaws
If two characters live in perfect harmony, they will annoy readers, who have yet to find such perfect friends in reality. Watson writes about Holmes’s stranger habits, like firing a gun indoors to make a design of bullet holes in a wall and keeping his unanswered mail stabbed to the mantel. Watson irritates Holmes with concern for his health.
Sometimes, when I create a character I enjoy, I have to make sure I throw in some kind of flaw. Often I just need one character to be irritated by what I like in the first character. So if I have a very outgoing, talkative man, some characters might find him colorful, while others find him a blowhard. Same quality, different perceptions.
What are some literary friendships that served as a model for you?
Sherlock Holmes. Hercule Poirot. Philip Marlowe. Kurt Wallander. Kinsey Milhone.
When fans talk about their favorite mysteries, they usually name their favorite detective, then mention their favorite stories featuring that character.
Mysteries, more than thrillers or suspense stories, depend on the appeal of their detective hero to keep readers coming back for more. Below are the characteristics I find appealing in a detective and try to include these in the crime-solvers I’ve written about.
As a reader, I want to feel like the detective is a friend I am accompanying on a case, someone I am excited to catch up with and learn about their latest adventures. The best description of how to create a detective, or any likable main character, I”ve heard comes from author Louise Penny, creator of Chief Inspector Armande Gamache, who works in the province of Quebec. You can watch the interview she did with CBS Sunday Morning.
If a detective’s major qualities are “strong”, “brave”, “handsome”, “beautiful”, “charismatic”, or any other in a long list of positive characteristics, I am likely to get bored. The characters I am drawn to aren’t the straight up, forthright detectives. I like the ones with quirks that break the typical hero mold. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle brilliantly combined the heroic elements with eccentric habits in Sherlock Holmes, making him far more interesting. He also tempered Holmes’s superhuman qualities with quirks that brought him down to earth.
A detective should never be correct all the time. That’s not human. But she also can’t blow a clue or a case so badly that the reader thinks she should go into another line of work. It’s a fine line. Readers will accept a detective making minor mistakes, if in the end, he solves the mystery. If he doesn’t solve the mystery, the ending still has to have some kind of satisfying pay-off.
In your opinion, what makes a great detective? Who are your favorites?
Victorian era — Especially Europe, but any location during this time period in which Sherlock Holmes could plausibly appear.
Golden Age of Hollywood — Since I love movies from the 1930’s, ’40’s and ’50’s, I’ve already read a lot about the people working in the Hollywood studio system. A mystery set then would be fun to write.
Easter contains so many themes to inspire stories. Last year I wrote about how the drama of Holy Week could be adapted for a storyline. This year I wanted to focus on the theme of resurrection which leads to change.
Pretending to kill off a character only to have him return may be the most dramatic plot twist a writer can use. One of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories is “The Empty House”. In it, Holmes reveals to Watson that he didn’t die battling Professor Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls. In The Lord of the Rings, Gandalf the Grey’s resurrection as Gandalf the White is a major plot point.
Survival stories are a good way to use the resurrection theme without it seeming contrived. The extreme demands of a hostile environment on a character provide reasons for the character to reevaluate her life and, if she lives, to return to her old life changed for the better or worse.
In Inferno, a wealthy husband and wife and the husband’s business partner are traveling on horseback in the Mojave desert, looking for a mineral deposits. When the husband falls and breaks his legs, the wife and partner say they will send help. But instead, they mislead the authorities with a false trail, leaving the husband to die. The husband becomes determined to make it back to civilization and exact his revenge.
Because the husband is alone, we learn his thoughts through voice–over narration and can follow the change in his character. The actor portraying husband, Robert Ryan, is so skilled that his expressions and body language perfectly accompany his narration. (It’s also a great visual example of the writing concept “Deep POV” but that’s for another post.)
If I wanted to just relax on my vacation, I would look for a house with a circle door to rent in the Shire. I would talke long walks, mix with the local hobbits, sample the regional cuisine, and do research on the area.
But if I was looking for adventure, I would book passage to London 1895 and join Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson and solve a mystery.
I love parodies. And I love the Sherlock Holmes stories, so reading a Sherlock Holmes parody is a lot of fun. But only if the parody is good-natured. If I read a story and sense the author’s aim is to be mean-spirited, then all the fun drains out of the parody.
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 Holidaysand 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.
I discovered the Sherlock Holmes stories when I was in high school through the British series starring Jeremy Brett as the Great Detective. That sent me to the original short stories and four novels. I don’t think the novels are as good as the short stories. I still enjoy reading the short stories and recently introduced children’s versions of them to my kids.
Back in high school, one thing that intrigued me about Sherlock Holmes was that the character had taken on a life of his own. So many different people had written about him or performed as the character that I found it interesting to read about Holmes as Doyle originally conceived him.
The details Doyle dropped about Holmes – his pipe smoking, love of the violin, eccentric personal habits – made him seem all the more real. As I have grown older, I have developed an appreciation for the Good Doctor, John Watson. He’s the kind of friend all of us want or would like to be – loyal, patient, ready at a moment’s notice for adventure. Because Watson tells almost all the stories, he also makes Holmes, as another writer pointed out, much more approachable.
I personally love all the stories Watson hints at but never describes in full. At the beginning of the story “The Golden Prince-nez”, Watson writes about:
“the repulsive story of the red leech and the terrible death of Crosby the banker. Here also I find an account of the Addleton tragedy and the singular contents of the ancient British barrow. The famous Smith-Mortimer succession case come also within this period, and so does the tracking and arrest of Huret, the Boulevard assassin”.
Doyle dropped many such teasers in the introductions to his short stories but nothing tops the one in “The Sussex Vampire”. Holmes says, “Matilda Briggs . . . was a ship which is associated with the giant rat of Sumatra, for which the world is not yet prepared.”
Did Doyle add those hints to make another layer of reality, as if Holmes was so busy that Watson couldn’t possibly relate all their adventures and readers could imagine him at work in between stories? Or did Doyle just enjoying toying with his readers? He couldn’t foresee what those hints would generate: hundreds of short stories and books as writers use those few clues to flesh out complete adventures. I have read two explanations for “the giant rat of Sumatra”, one pure science fiction, the other more like an adventure. Doyle couldn’t have left better inspiration for future writers.