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Elementary, My Dear Sherlock


One of the most enduring of fictional characters would have to be Sherlock Holmes. 

So much so that many London tourists are surprised - and sometimes upset - to learn that, despite the master detective's fame and influence (and his real address at 221b Baker Street), Holmes is the imaginary creation of writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

What's fascinating about Sherlock Holmes is that he's almost too incredible to be believed. He's a drug addict (morphine - the forerunner of heroin - wasn't illegal in those days), he's a terrible musician, he has a knowledge of poisons that is almost alarming, and his deductive skills are nothing less than superhuman.

ASIDE: From this brief description you can see why the character would easily appeal to actor Robert Downey Jr!

In many ways Holmes is the first modern superhero - complete with costume and cloak. I think what humanizes him is that he's only ever presented through the eyes of his sidekick Watson - whose regard and wonder for his detective friend is infectious.

This is a clever literary trick that Conan Doyle employs to not only give veracity to the stories, but to allow us to empathize by default through a character (Dr John Watson), who is essentially the ordinary reader's perspective. 

It's a trick worth copying in your own writing if you're unsure how to present your own 'larger than life' character. Fitzgerald uses the same technique by presenting Gatsby through the eyes of Nick. As does Stephenie Meyer by showing Edward through Bella, come to think of it.

What's interesting to me is that successive biographers have tried to find the 'real' Sherlock Holmes. Most agree that he's based on Conan Doyle's tutor and mentor at Edinburgh University, Doctor Joseph Bell.

It's interesting because we often do this. We see a great fictional character and always assume there must be a real person in there somewhere.

Is Robert Langdon based on Dan Brown or his friend, John Langdon?

Is Somerset Maugham's Oliver Haddo based on Aleister Crowley?

Is Norman Bates based on Ed Gein?

Is Lady Macbeth really based on Lady Donwald?

It's almost as if we don't give writers any credit for coming up with original characters.

This can be especially alarming when we're faced with publisher's submission guidelines where they ask for originality in characters.

What are they really saying to us? That you must have more original friends? That you need more interesting influences? Or perhaps more compelling thoughts?

Seriously, of course we want to create characters that transcend time and exist beyond the ordinary. But we are all essentially the product of our influences - and can really only be original within somebody else's context.

Writers can tie themselves into knots over what is original and what isn't. Which is why I think it shouldn't be a consideration for writers. 

Our originality comes through how we approach a character, how we describe their actions and create empathy for them.

Trying to be original will often result in nothing of the sort.

Originality is in the eye of the beholder, not the creator - to whom the character is probably far from 'unfamiliar.'

Sherlock Holmes is a case in point. Even Conan Doyle grew tired of him and tried to kill him off - famously at the Reichenbach Falls.

Indeed, the super-detective and his sidekick was already an idea developed by Edgar Allan Poe in the Rue Morgue murder stories, as early as 1841. Wilkie Collins too had created the first modern detective, Sergeant Cuff, at least twenty three years prior to the appearance of Sherlock Holmes.

Originality is relative, clearly, and not always the intention of the writer.

So, my advice? Never feel intimidated by agents, editors and publishers who say they want originality. There's no such thing. And besides, I doubt they'd recognize it anyway.

And did you know that Holmes most famous phrase, "Elementary, my dear Watson," never actually appears in any of Conan Doyle's sixty one stories?

Now there's something for those London tourists to ponder. 

Keep Writing!

Rob Parnell
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