The Barrow

2/18/09

It's the Characters, My Dear Watson

I've temporarily put down Hal Duncan's brilliant-but-dizzying fantasy pastiche Vellum so I can concentrate on reading something that's a little easier to digest with screaming infants in the house. What am I reading? Elementary, my dear Watson! I'm reading the complete Sherlock Holmes stories of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Even though I've started the complete Holmes several times, I've never actually made it all the way through. And the more I read, the more obvious why that is: Doyle really didn't have enough material to fill four novels and fifty-six short stories' worth of paper. The plots are fairly trite, the mysteries are sometimes clever but mostly commonplace, the insights into human nature are fairly shallow, and the prose is expedient if unremarkable. (The pacing is good, I'll give Doyle that.)

But there is one thing Doyle had that makes up for all the other shortcomings: he had a frickin' incredible character in Sherlock Holmes himself.

Even 120 years later, the dude is sui generis. He's awesome. Holmes's contention that you can learn everything there is to know about someone by studying the smallest item in their possession -- as he does in "The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle" by reconstructing a stranger's history and identity by examining his hat -- is endlessly fascinating. So too his axiom that if you can eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

It's a great reminder that, in mysteries as in science fiction as in fantasy as in any other genre, good characters are the most important ingredient to the story. Doyle has proven that all it takes is one.

(Oh, come on, Dr. John Watson isn't really a character. He has one of the most commonplace names imaginable, he has hardly any distinguishing characteristics besides his war wound -- which moves from place to place depending on the story -- and his dialogue consists chiefly of such insightful statements as "My dear Holmes, you must be jesting!" and "Really, Holmes, I don't see how you could have possibly deduced that." The dude's a foil for Holmes and a surrogate for the reader, plain and simple.)

I find that when I think back on the great stories I've read in my lifetime, SF/F or otherwise, it's generally the characters that I remember. That's why I can barely remember a single plot from the original Star Trek, but I know the triad of McCoyKirk, Spock and Bones like the back of my hand. (Same goes for The Next Generation, though the only truly great character from that show was Picard.) That's why I remember Long John Silver but barely remember Treasure Island. And that's why, for all of J.R.R. Tolkien's insane worldbuilding and linguistic inventiveness, the first thing I think of when I think of The Lord of the Rings is Gandalf leaning on his staff (or Gollum writhing on the ground pining for his preccccccccious).

Ideally, in a great story you have a terrific plot that dovetails with the characters. (See Macbeth and Hamlet.) That's the whole point of a plot in a first place: to test characters' beliefs and abilities, their credos and promises and premises.

That's not to say that you can't have a great story without great characters. I've read most of the great SF novels of Doyle's Brit contemporary H.G. Wells, for instance, but the only memorable character I can recall from the canon is Dr. Moreau. The Time Machine might be one of my all-time favorite novels, but the only character from that book I can remember with any degree of clarity is Weena, the little Eloi woman who gives the Time Traveler a flower. Still, even though The Time Machine is a greater story than anything Sir Arthur Conan Doyle put to print, I'll bet Sherlock Holmes stays in the popular consciousness longer.

Update 2/19/09 @ 12:39 AM: Fixed the trio of Star Trek characters to Kirk, Spock and Bones. Duh, I knew that.

3 comments:

Mary Robinette Kowal said...

Interesting premise and one that bears thinking on some more. The only stories that I'm coming up with to refute you are all twilight zones, where the characters are peripheral to the story.

Eric said...

I, too, recently began reading the complete Holmes canon (beginning with the short stories instead of the novels). Holmes is indeed a compelling character. I might quibble a bit with your brushing aside of Watson, though. In addition to being a foil I think his presence allows the reader to approach Holmes in the first place. Otherwise the great detective's eccentricity might never be penetrated to reveal the genius beneath.

Watson humanizes Holmes, too, bringing to light the somewhat tortured humanity held in tension with razor-edged logic. Re-read the beginning of The Man with the Twisted Lip where Watson finds Holmes in the opium den. There's some depth there, I think.

One final thing, and yes it's nit-picky, but I'm a Trekker from way back. I think you meant Kirk, Spock, and Bones. McCoy and Bones are the same character.

Nice article. I thoroughly enjoyed Infoquake and am looking forward to Multireal (as soon as I whittle down my "must read" pile some more).

David Louis Edelman said...

Eric: I agree with you that Watson is necessary to understanding and appreciating Holmes. That doesn't really make him particularly memorable or interesting in his own right, however.

And crap, you're right, can't believe I flubbed the Star Trek trio. Fixed.

And lastly, glad you enjoyed Infoquake! I think MultiReal's even better. ;-)