A Study in Sherlock--Finding a Character Through Deduction

Katherine Longshore 5 Tuesday, August 27, 2013
How do you create a character who is different?  One who stands out on the page, full and alive and vibrant and unique.  One who brings with him voice and attitude and color.  Given the basics of human description—eyes, nose, mouth, hair color—how do you find the ways to bring something new to the reader’s experience?  I think (and worry) about this a lot because many of my characters have been known for centuries.

As writers, I think we all approach our characters differently.  Maybe we sneak up behind them, stealthily, and follow them around like a hidden camera.  Or build them from the ground up from clay, like Adam (or the Gingerbread Man).  Or wait for them to whisper in our ears, telling all their secrets one by one, out of order and certainly not always at the most convenient time.  Maybe their voices are always in our heads, like Joan of Arc at the beck and call of the saints.

Maybe we all experience all of these ways of approaching character.  Every character—like every writer—is different.  That’s what makes this writing malarkey so much fun.

I come to character development from an acting background.  Once I got over my rather misguided crush on Mark Hamill and started falling head over heels over actors who could, you know, act, I started to see that every actor brings something different to character, too.

Look at Sherlock Holmes (thank you, Lia, for bringing him up yesterday!). 

Basil Rathbone played Holmes as laconic, reserved and ever-so-slightly smug.  This set the Holmesian standard for many years until Robert Downey, Jr. played a slipshod, enigmatic, pugilistic (but still quite smug) Holmes in the 2009 film.  Then came Benedict Cumberbatch, whose intense, rapid-fire, socially inept (and utterly egotistical) Holmes inspired the biggest actor-crush I’ve had since I was sixteen (my husband says I’m a Cumberbitch). And what about Johnny Lee Miller? I have yet to see Elementary (see earlier comment about massive actor-crush on my darling Benedict), but the clips I’ve seen show a Holmes who is a bit more haunted, and just slightly more hesitant, both qualities I find appealing in a character who began as nothing but words on a page.

Words on a page.

This is what we work with, my friends.  But it is nothing less than magic.  If an actor can dive into the well-trodden shoes of a Holmes or a Hamlet or a Juliet and bring to it something beautiful and fresh, why can’t we?  Every character is different, whether she treads the boards or flickers on a screen or lives within the pages of a book.  Every character has the potential to be nothing but words—a cardboard cutout—and it is our job to instill life into those words, to breathe onto the spark that sets that cardboard alight.

You take the facts—female, sixteen years old, blond, blue-eyed, medium height.  You add some defining physical characteristics—she plays soccer, so she’s quite fit, she has a mole behind her right ear, she only wears eyeliner and lipgloss, her clothes are socially acceptable, but not fashionably noticeable. 

All of these things give you a picture.  But just a sketch.  This could be any girl.  Just like a tall, clever, emotionally-distant Sherlock Holmes creates the outline that an actor has to fill in.  We could—every one of us—take this outline of this sixteen-year-old girl, and make her into something amazing.  She could be haunted or bubbly or brilliant or a mean girl.  She could be anything.  Given the right tools and timing, she could inspire a massive character-crush. 

It’s up to the artist—writer, actor, painter—to create the real person within the outline.  To fill in the sketch.  This girl’s nails are ragged because she bites them.  Her hair comes down to the middle of her back and the ends are always trimmed clean.  Her teeth are straight, but she runs her tongue over them frequently because she just got her braces off.  She also doesn’t smile often, and when she does, she will put her hand up over her mouth.  She won’t look you in the eye unless she’s talking about something she feels is important, and then she doesn’t look away—to the point of being unnerving.  She moves her hands a lot—from pockets to hips to folded arms—like she isn’t entirely sure what to do with them.  But when she talks, she uses her hands for punctuation and emphasis.  And when you watch her walk away, you notice her stride is slightly off—like she’s trying to hide a limp.

Every single one of these physical descriptions tells us something about the character—and she has yet to say a word.  We don’t know what she sounds like, what she talks about, who her family is.  But we have already started to form ideas about her, who she is, what she might be like inside.

Every single one of these physical characteristics is a seed—something that points to the backstory and leads to the reveal that Lia talked about so eloquently yesterday.  Use them wisely, but don’t be sparing in your description (unless you’re Ernest Hemingway).  Characters become more appealing, more sympathetic, more relatable the more we know about them.  Just like friends.  You learn about loved ones over a lifetime.  You never stop learning new things about each other, about what you can love and what you need to forgive.  Give your characters the same kind of opportunity by doling out description and detail over the course of the entire novel. 

After all, we don’t discover that Sherlock has the capacity for romantic love until Irene Adler comes on the scene and suddenly he goes all schoolgirl crush (a little like me.)


Beautifully written post, Katherine, with an
especially brilliant example of interpreting a character who is well known. I, too, am a Cumberbitch. But you must see Elementary if you can. Johnny Lee Miller may not be crush-worthy, but he and Lucy Liu are an incredible Sherlock-Watson pair who'll break your heart and make you laugh.

Character development is so important. Thanks for reminding us to think about every aspect of our characters right down to the way they walk. My 13 year old is writing his own book and I'll have to show him this post. My same son and I co-authored our own series of books. The first one, Mason Davis and the Rise of the Storm Makers, just came out this summer and can be found on Amazon and Barnes and Nobles. We tried to capture some of these same techniques in our writing.

Thanks, Robin! And yes, I'm definitely planning on it--I've long admired both Miller and Liu as actors, and think they'd make a great team! Plus, I need to get my Holmes fix until Season 3 of Sherlock comes around...

That's fantastic, Karen! And yes, all those little details can really make a character. Best of luck to your son!

Oh, I love the reminder to consider not just their physical features, but their physical BEHAVIOUR, the physical ticks that can be such useful 'reveals' to their state of mind or heart. Just what I needed today, Katherine! Thank you.

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