Writing Tip — Holmes & Watson: a Model of Literary Friendship

magnifying-glass-w1450691_1280The 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?

Writing Tip — Favorite Stories: Classics of Crime Fiction

nightw-578091_1280Trying to pick one favorite story to highlight this month’s theme proved impossible for me. There are so many stories in crime fiction I love. So I decided to select a variety of stories from the classics of crime fiction. Over the years, I have discussed these stories in more detail, so I’m putting links to those posts.

Sherlock Holmes

“The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” from The Return of Sherlock Holmes — Holmes and Watson decide they are justified in committing burglary to save a woman from a professional blackmailer. I love this story because we get to see how much Watson enjoys his adventures with Holmes. He’s thrilled to the core to be sneaking through the night to commit a noble crime.

“The Illustrious Client” from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes — I tend to like the stories where the superhuman reasoning machines are shown to be human after all. While trying to prevent a woman from marrying a sexual predator, Holmes is beat up, Watson is outraged, and once again, Holmes believes he needs to break the law to achieve justice.

“The Three Garridebs” from The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes — While trying to help a client who will receive a large bequest if three people with a rare last name are located, Holmes finally reveals the depth of his feelings for Watson. Watson’s description of seeing this side to his best friend’s nature is both touching and funny.

Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin

“Christmas Party” from And Four to Go — As with Sherlock Holmes, I like the stories that humanize Wolfe, who I find much less likable than his assistant/bodyguard Archie Goodwin. Wolfe becomes a suspect in a murder when he thinks Archie might be considering marriage.

“Black Orchids” and “Cordially Invited to Meet Death” from Black Orchids — The rare black orchid ties these two novellas together. The first concerns how Wolfe acquires the black orchid. It’s hilarious to read how he’s eaten up with envy when a rival orchid fancier cultivates it. This story also has a clever way of forcing a murderer to reveal himself. In the second story, a client meets a particularly nasty end. When Archie sees that Wolfe has sent a spray of black orchids for the funeral, he knows his boss is paying for than his condolences. But why?

Hercule Poirot and Jane Marple

Death on the Nile — Hercule Poirot has no shortage of suspects to consider when a beautiful young heiress is murdered on a boat cruising the Nile. I saw the movie of this book when I was in sixth grade, and the plotting blew me away. I think it’s one of Agatha Chrisities’ more clever puzzles, and the relationship between the two murderers is unusually complex.

Thirteen Problems — Miss Jane Marple solves a variety of mysteries in this short story collection. I’ve always like this characters because younger people and the authorities think the elderly spinster is too sheltered to know anything about real life. But because Miss Marple is a keen observer of human behavior in her small hometown, she understands people better than anyone.

And now for something really obscure …

The Third Omnibus of Crime, edited by Dorothy L. Sayers — I stumbled across this collections of mystery and horror short stories at my library when I was searching for titles by Dorothy L. Sayers. Compiled in the 1930’s, it features two mystery stories which are among my favorites. In “Wet Paint”, fishermen of the Pacific Northwest are disappearing from the boats while out fishing, leaving no clues. The sense of growing dread the fishermen feel is expertly conveyed. And the solution is perfectly reasonable and still perfectly surprising. “Inquest” has the most original motive for a murder I’ve ever read.

If you like classic crime fiction, what are some of your favorites?

 

 

 

 

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