Writer Wednesday – Throwing Holmes Off a Cliff

The Death of Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle is most well known for his character Sherlock Holmes. The character is featured in 56 stories and 4 novels written by Doyle in all. In all, this was just a small number of the many works of Doyle and his prolific work spanned plays, romances, fantasy stories, science fiction stories, non-fiction and historical novels. He wrote a great many things with fervor, but Holmes is the character that has made the greatest impact.

The character was complex, with flaws as grand as his skills. It was a milestone in crime fiction that has been mirrored hundreds of times since. The characters have been so compelling that endless authors and screenwriters have used them as part of their own works. Undeniably, it is the most powerful and lasting legacy Doyle offered us.

That’s why it is a shock that Doyle hated Holmes passionately. Never once did he enjoy writing those stories or publishing the novels. He only created the character out of a need to publish more works and earn money. When it became popular, it meant he could earn more. Eventually, his hatred of Holmes grew strong enough that he decided “”I think of slaying Holmes … and winding him up for good and all. He takes my mind from better things. “ to which he meant his historical novels. Those he felt, would be his legacy.

Public outcry was tremendous when The Final Problem was published in December of 1893. The story saw Holmes and Moriarty plunged to their deaths down the Reichenbach Falls. Doyle knew the character was popular, but not to the degree that the death would drive fans to madness and bitter anger. Reluctantly, he published The Hound of the Baskervilles in 1901 to stave off the public ire at his murder of their beloved character. This only drew a deeper desire to see more, rather than placating readers.

Eventually he relented and two years later released The Adventure of the Empty House, where he explained that Holmes had not died, but that it had been made to look that way to throw off his other enemies. Holmes lived, thanks to a reluctant retcon, and even to this day we don’t think of him as ever having died at all. Doyle would just as well have seen that he had stayed dead.

I think there is an incredible lesson to take from this. Doyle owed his first sale to the character he had made only for a passing fancy to make money. A follow-up was commissioned and so he wrote more. Holmes was his foot in the door, but to Doyle, it was just a character he’d made while struggling. It wasn’t a character he loved like his others. His least favorite character became his one true legacy.

How many of us write stories that we expect to be one-shot deals? How often do we write our best work passionately, but not because we love the character as much as we love the story or the writing. That oddly popular work that we would just as well we never wrote might be the one thing that outlasts us. It may be the thing that our unique perspective wrote in a way no one had ever thought to before. Don’t judge your own works. Write anything that comes to you and do so with passion. If you don’t like the character, that’s fine. You don’t have to like someone to admit they are interesting. Just don’t deny them their rightful place among your writing.

What are your thoughts?

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