Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Out of Character

Sherlock Holmes--a quintessential essence of the presence needed in a character, he is the embodiment of curiosity-as-agenda, happiest when engaged in solving problems, so comfortable with his considerable abilities and deductive process that he walks the sharp cusp between being right and being insufferable. Truth to tell, Holmes, in his deductions, is often right, which has a direct, supportive effect on his insufferable behavior. This volatile combination of traits should and does make it difficult for Holmes to find happiness between mysteries to solve, leaving him vulnerable to boredom which, in his case, leads to violin playing and cocaine.

Added truth to tell, Sherlock Holmes cannot be trusted with his own point of view; he'd not only put off too many readers, he'd tick them off as well. This sets the stage for John Watson, M.D., a filter for narrating the Holmes adventures, and a perfect foil for allowing Holmes to explain the force of logic behind his reasoning. The presence of Dr. Watson as buffer allows Holmes to talk down to Watson without talking down to the reader while explaining the Holmesian logic.

The buddy system has been with us in storytelling as far back as Aristophanes' memorable The Frogs, in which a slave and his master are setting forth the story through dialogue and action. True dat; Sherlock Holmes is mystery fiction, but any number of buddy teams work the genre, Archie Goodwin coming to mind as a Dr. Watson surrogate for Nero Wolfe. A Sherlock Holmes-like character has weathered six seasons of TV in the persona of Gregory House, M.D., emerging as a preternaturally bright diagnostician who is given a team of associates with whom to consult, said consultations often involving House's impatience, irony, bluntness bordering on rudeness, and bluntness bordering on childishness. Instead of Holmes' cocaine use, House is addicted to pain killers, instead of a violin, his musical interests are considerable and extensive. The popularity of the series and its potential for quirky puzzles speaks to the point of major characters who are the literary equivalents of extraordinary individuals wearing ordinary clothing.

Strong characters such as, variously, Captain Ahab, Captain Nemo, Nora Helmer, The Wife of Bath, and Sir John Falstaff, do not have to rely on the obvious strength of being diagnosticians; any laser-like focus will do, whales, for instance. All support the vision that strength of character resides primarily within an overriding passion for some thing; the surplus strength may spill over into morality or even empathy. Followers of Sherlock Holmes, Gregory House, M.D., and some of the others listed here are well aware of the numerous puzzles solved by these individuals. Indeed, they are followers precisely to see the solutions. But they are also followers out of the curiosity to see what these iconic characters will do when there is no readily available solution.

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