Sherlock vs Dracula: How Characters outlive their Creators

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if a series runs for long enough, sooner or later the protagonists will end up fighting Dracula.

No, really. There’s a TV Tropes page about it.

There’s some characters that just pop up everywhere. These are the characters that are so embedded in the popular consciousness that, like Madonna, you only need one word to remember them by: Sherlock, Bond, Dracula. They’re giants. Their names are so well-known that just to say it conveys everything – their personality, their appearance, their genre. They’ve continued to be popular long after they were originally conceived of – and, in some cases, over a century after the author’s death.

But why is this? What exactly is it that makes some characters last for hundreds of years, and some get forgotten within a decade or so? There’s plenty of fictional characters that stick in the mind, but why is it that only a handful of these keep popping up again and again?

Let’s find out, shall we?

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WOO YEAH (image: tumblr.com)

The one thing that characters like Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and Dracula have in common is that they’ve become archetypes. When you say ‘detective’, you might picture a guy in a deerstalker; when you say ‘spy’, you might picture a suave and besuited man with a predilection for explosions and shiny cars. Even though these characters were originally written just like any other, they have come to represent something much bigger than themselves.

This is really unusual. Archetypes are usually much more broadly-sketched – they don’t always have names attached (looking at you, ‘damsel in distress’) and they tend to represent characters in certain situations, rather than actual personalities. These are the kinds of characters that you find in fairy tales, myths and legends: in stories where it’s not always the character themselves which is important, but what they’re doing and what they represent. Fiction has, of course, moved on since fairy tales were originally conceived of, which is why it’s so unusual that characters with distinct personalities and development have been able to join this pantheon of clichés.

This is what happens when you write a really genre-defining character. When those kind of characters are written, they are not the only things being put on paper – what also gets written down are the things that eventually become the clichés that other writers will depend on. Everything that comes after these characters is, to a certain extent, a response to them. You can’t write a spy novel without people inevitably comparing it to Bond; you can’t write about vampires without the shadow of Dracula looming across the page.

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Much like this, actually. (image: blogs.exeter.ac.uk)

Let’s look at some examples. How many detectives can you think of who are described as ‘eccentrics’, who immerse themselves in their cases so completely that it eclipses everything else in their lives? That’s Holmes. How many spies can you think of with neat little gadgets, bevies of beautiful women in their contacts list and at least three international trips per book? That’s Bond. How many vampires can you think of who swan about in evening dress, with dark hair, pale skin and a tendency to go after young women? That’s Dracula. These were originally features of particular characters, but now these characters have become so widely-known that these traits have come to define the archetypes themselves. Of course, writers can choose to deliberately leave all of these things out – that’s where we see gritty, violent spy movies, or vampire stories were the undead schlub about in jeans and T-shirts – but that heavy-handed rejection of the archetype just makes you more aware of it. When you consume these types of stories, you’re constantly being reminded that these vampires aren’t like the ones you know, or that this spy movie is nothing like the slick, suave espionage thriller you usually get. It’s like ‘Not Like Other Girls’ all over again – something like that doesn’t work unless you know what ‘Other Girls’ are supposed to be.

Characters become archetypes when they step outside the bounds of what their authors originally wrote. A certain amount of ‘placelessness’ makes this process easier. You can put Sherlock Holmes anywhere in the world – the focus of his stories are the cases he solves, and these can happen anywhere. James Bond can go anywhere he likes too – he goes where the danger is, and that can be anywhere. Similarly, Dracula can go anywhere too (although he always comes from Transylvania) – all you really need for him to work as a character is a few blacked-out windows and a steady supply of necks to nom on and before you know it he’ll be flapping through every open window and buying up all your evening wear.

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Fun fact: all of those drawers are filled with cufflinks. (image: pinterest.com)

But to a certain extent, this needs to be possible for their characters too. It can only go so far, otherwise it ends up becoming the rejection of the archetype I described above, but a certain amount of wiggle room is necessary. In the original novel, Dracula started out as an old man with hairy palms – now, he’s being played by Luke Evans. He’s become a spooky sex symbol, which is really not what you’d expect to see if you read the description of the horrible moustache he has in the book. Likewise James Bond, once so typically stiff-upper-lip, has been increasingly portrayed as suffering from PTSD. The core elements of their characters are still there – Dracula is still sinister, Bond still blows things up for Queen and Country – but the way in which we view these things has changed. Dracula is still evil, but he’s been allowed to ramp up the charm as people stopped putting so much faith in the restrictive morality that is set against him. Bond still does his duty, but we see the toll this takes.

This is where adaptations come in.

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Holla holla get that dollar. (image: giphy.com)

Everyone’s been getting a bit sick of adaptations lately, what with all the constant remakes we seem to be getting, but adaptations are one of the main things that help characters outlive their creators. Characters and stories only survive if they retain the public’s interest, and if they lose it, they get forgotten. Adaptation plays a huge role in helping to avoid that. Characters and their stories are updated for a new era, or brought to new audiences via a new medium. Being able to transcend one type of storytelling is part of the reason why these characters have lasted for so long – they’re accessible to a wider range of people and they stay stuck in the collective cultural consciousness for longer.

Let’s look at a couple of examples here. We’ll start with Dracula. He first appeared in the 1897 novel, which was rapidly turned into a play (which by all accounts, wasn’t very good). Then Stoker died, and Dracula appeared again in a collection of short stories, then in Nosferatu (which was rapidly hit with many a lawsuit, hence the vampire’s hasty name-change to Count Orlok), then another play, then several more films which may or may not have existed, then the 1931 movie with Bela Lugosi (which was actually an adaptation of the second play, which also starred Bela Lugosi), then several more Universal movies, then several Hammer movies with Christopher Lee, then more movies, then more plays, then a musical, an opera and a ballet and I haven’t even mentioned the TV shows, anime, manga, games, radio plays, cartoons and many a novel that have updated the original story since its publication.

My point is: it’s a lot. But it’s this kind of scatter-gun approach to adaptations that have made characters like Dracula stick in the mind. You can’t forget him, because he’s everywhere.

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I mean, yes. (image: imgur.com)

A large part of why this was possible in the first place is because of the time in which these characters were conceived. Sherlock and Dracula had their first appearances in literary works of the late nineteenth century. These characters have had time to disseminate through the popular consciousness and really burrow their way in. A certain amount of time is necessary to see if something’s going to last.

It’s also worth mentioning that for these two particular examples, part of the reason why they ended up being adapted to Hell and back is because both Sherlock and Dracula are in a slightly unique position with regards to copyright laws. In the case of Dracula, Bram Stoker didn’t fully comply with American copyright registration laws and made a mistake on his application – therefore Dracula wasn’t subject to normal term of copyright laws and was public domain in the US. In the case of Sherlock Holmes, there was a bit of a legal grey area about whether the author’s estate had copyright over the character of Holmes or just the copyright to the stories in which he appeared. It’s pretty complicated and I can’t say I understand it well, but I’m pretty sure that without this wobblyness around the copyright, we definitely wouldn’t have had all the adaptations that brought these characters into the popular consciousness.

Of course, these days copyright and intellectual property laws have been tightened up like nobody’s business – that sort of thing can’t happen again quite so easily. The spread of characters happens a lot faster now, too. Thanks to social media it’s easier to generate a buzz about a new character or story – before Twitter, this could’ve taken years, but now it takes minutes. But whether this will stand the test of time remains to be seen. There’s so much information out there that it’s difficult to say which characters are going to last and which are a flash in the pan. If I had to pick one, my money’s on Harry Potter, but even that’s not certain. It’s impossible to tell what will be able to transcend its original story and the author’s lifetime – despite its popularity, we may find that Harry Potter is just too tied into a specific place and time to properly last in the way that Sherlock and Dracula have done. Perhaps the same will be true for all modern characters, as storytelling has evolved to the point where fixing a story in a time and place – or fixing a character with very specific situational responses and traits – is generally seen as being a mark of what makes a book good. Who knows?

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Don’t ask me please please PLEASE (image: giphy.com)

There’s all sorts of things that lead to characters outliving their creators and unfortunately, there’s no magic formula that can replicate that kind of success. I’ve tried my best to sketch out the boundaries but frankly, there’s no way of knowing which characters will stand the test of time. You could write a memorable character that could easily get transferred into a range of different situations and still not come up with the next Dracula. All authors can really do is write a character they feel passionate about and see what happens. (And lock that copyright down.)

Who knows where it’ll take you?

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Book Recipes: How to Write a Classic Boarding School Story

Time for another book recipe! This one’s on classic boarding school stories, so grab your boaters and pull your socks up. Let’s get started!

 

Ingredients:

  • One plucky gel for your protagonist
  • A collection of grubby but well-intentioned misfits
  • One unreasonably cruel teacher
  • Silly nicknames
  • Very worrying standards of pastoral care
  • A teacher’s pet
  • One ridiculously sprawling castle-school
  • Hideous uniforms
  • Lashings of ginger beer
  • Some sort of pointless school competition

 

Method:

  1. It’s the start of a new school year! And who should arrive at our uber-fancy castle-school but our plucky protagonist.
  2. Ramble around the school for a bit so the readers can visualise.
  3. Time to make some friends! Introduce your protagonists to your grubby misfits. Get ready for japes!
  4. Ugh, lessons, I guess.
  5. Time to make some enemies! Here comes the teacher’s pet and nobody likes them. Here comes the mean teacher, too – they’re snooty at the protagonist and they’re just crushed.
  6. Sneak out of your dorm after hours for a midnight feast! It’ll be fine as long as you don’t –
  7. Get caught. Mean teacher strikes again!
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Foiled again! (image: giphy.com)
  1. The pointless school competition is announced. Our protagonist could never possibly win it though, so let’s just leave this information here until step nineteen.
  2. Lessons, s’pose.
  3. Get in trouble again, because of hijinks.
  4. For convoluted reasons, the protagonist has to enter the pointless competition! It’ll be so embarrassing you guys, she’s totally 100% going to lose, definitely.
  5. Get into some more scrapes, mainly just for filler.
  6. OK, let’s actually have a little go at this competition thing. Hey! Turns out the protagonist is actually good at this! WHO KNEW.

  1. Have another run-in with the teacher’s pet. Be snide to each other.
  2. Oh boy, we sure have been working hard on this competition thing! It’d be a real shame if something were to –
  3. OH NO SOMEONE HAS SABOTAGED OUR THING MY GOODNESS HOW UNEXPECTED
  4. Mope.
  5. But oh look! Here’s the protagonist’s plucky misfit friends, here to save the day! They all pull together and help fix the thing – just in time for the competition!
  6. Stride back into the competition like a BOSS with your newly-fixed thing and get declared the winner. Watch the mean teacher and her minion seethe, then celebrate with a secret midnight feast.
  7. The school year is only twenty steps long so it’s time to go home for the holidays. Reminisce about what you learned about the meaning of friendship, but with sweets.

THE END. Serve on my desk by Monday morning, or it’s detention.

 

Tips:

  • Make sure to give all your characters stupid boarding-school nicknames – it’s authentic.
  • Don’t bother about making sure your teachers actually look after the pupils. There’s hijinks to be had! They should only turn up to provide the necessary drama, or failing that, a backdrop.
  • Make sure to give everything its own weird name. It’s not homework, it’s prep. It’s not a canteen, it’s a refectory. It’s not elitist, it’s select.
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Sorry, your ladyship. (image: gifer.com)
  • Never include any mention of sex, drugs, alcohol or naughtiness that could not be committed with a catapult. Keep the socks pulled wholesomely up – the darker stuff is a whole other genre.
  • Prepare for the inevitable series – you can churn one of these out for every school year!
  • Teachers must always wear big black gowns and mortarboards.
  • So much hockey.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

“Pocko! Stop shoving!”

“I wasn’t shoving, Biffy, your arm was in my way –”

“You were shoving, I saw you shoving, and Figroll saw you shoving too – didn’t you, Figgers?”

“Mmm? Be a brick and pass the electrical tape.”

Philomena ‘Figroll’ Atkinson did not pay attention to the small riot breaking out behind her. It was the traditional way to resolve conflict at St Curlicue’s in the first year, edged weapons being reserved for the Upper Fourth onwards and pistols strictly the preserve of the Sixth Form. Pocko and Biffy would come away with a few bumps and bruises and – yes, a missing tooth, but Pocko was going to be fitted for braces in the summer anyway, so no harm done. She bent a hairpin out of shape and used that as a screwdriver instead; it would have to do.

When she’d unscrewed the top panel of the trophy case, and Pocko and Biffy’s fistfight had devolved into some limp kicking, she said “I thought you two were supposed to be my lookouts.”

Biffy wiped her bloody nose. “We are, but somebody couldn’t just budge over –”

“I was not shoving, I said I wasn’t shoving, didn’t I say –”

Figroll glared at the pair of them, pinafores crumpled, shirts liberally spotted with blood. “Did either of you bring a screwdriver? You know why we’re here.”

Pocko rummaged around in a grubby pocket and handed her a slightly fluffy screwdriver. She gave it a quick wipe before handing it over; it did not help.

“The least you can do is keep watch,” Figroll muttered, starting work on the bottom panel. “If we want to claim the Cup for House Boadicea we’re going to have to steal it now, before the others do.”

“All right, Figgers, all right. But I wasn’t shoving.”

Figroll turned back to the trophy cabinet with a sigh. Her plan was not going well. Prof and Cheddar had performed their parts nicely: Prof had used her glasses to start a small fire in the Refectory, thereby causing a mass evacuation; Cheddar was faking a convincing stomach-ache to keep Dr Cripskett, languages mistress and head of House Bathory, safely out of the way. In theory, Pocko and Biffy were supposed to act as lookouts at either end of the corridor while she took the panels off the trophy cabinet and stole the House Cup – picking locks was so déclassé. But now, she was wondering if she should have just taken Miss Snyde’s advice and worked on her lock-picking. It was taking a lot longer than she thought.

The House Cup glinted at her, big and shiny, and Figroll imagined the look on Mildred ‘Winky’ Stanton’s face when she saw the empty, glass-fronted cabinet tomorrow morning. She grinned. It would all be worth it to put one over on Winky – Dr Cripskett’s favourite and Form Captain, no less. If she could only get the bottom panel off –

“Footsteps!” hissed Biffy, “hurry up!”

Figroll panicked. She wound the electrical tape around her hand, whispered the school motto (“furor, ergo sum”) and punched through the glass. It hurt like the blazes, but the tape kept the worst of the glass out. She snatched up the Cup, sprang to her feet, and the three of them tore down the corridor. If they could just make it back to House Boadicea, they could hide the Cup in the Junior Common Room before –

“Philomena Atkinson!”

Figroll skidded to a halt. The jig was up. All their efforts had been for nothing. The Headmistress, Professor Alnworthy, was coming down the corridor. Beside her, Pocko and Biffy stopped too. The Headmistress could bring down a girl at two hundred paces, three with a slingshot – there was no point trying to outrun her.

They turned to face her.

Professor Alnworthy was striding down the corridor, black gown billowing out behind her. She marched up to them, face set. Figroll put the Cup behind her back, but she knew the handles were sticking out.

“Well,” said Professor Alnworthy, “I never thought I’d see the day. Look at the state of you! Elizabeth Johnson, brass knuckles are not ladylike. Maria Poccolino, if you’re going to get blood all over your shirt at least tuck it in.”

Biffy slipped off her brass knuckles and stuck them, guiltily, in a hidden pocket. Pocko squirmed about trying to tuck in her shirt in a sufficiently ladylike manner. Professor Alnworthy glared at Figroll.

“And as for you, Atkinson. Setting fire to the Refectory. Stealing a trophy. Destroying school property. That is hardly the behaviour of a St Curlicue’s lady. Why aren’t you wearing your burglary gloves?”

“Professor?”

“Your burglary gloves, Atkinson – a quintessential part of any good heist and, you will note, the fourth item on the school’s kit list. Where are they?”

“I think I must have –”

“And that is not regulation electrical tape – dear me, that’s barely a step above parcel, no wonder you’re bleeding. And where, might I ask, is your standard-issue lock-pick?”

Figroll shuffled her feet, feeling very small. “I think I lost it, Professor.”

“Was it named?”

“Yes, Professor.”

“Hmm. Well, pop along to Lost Property in the morning. In the meantime, get Matron to see to your hand. She’s got some Lower Fourths lagging in Field Remedies. They’ll stitch you up, but the whiskey will sting.”

“Yes, Professor. Sorry, Professor.”

Professor Alnworthy straightened up. “I suppose that’ll have to do for tonight. Poccolino, I believe this is yours. I won’t have littering in the corridors.”

She held out a tooth, still bloody. Pocko took it and shoved it in a pocket, very embarrassed.

“Get to bed, you three,” said Professor Alnworthy. “I daresay House Bathory will conduct a vengeance raid tomorrow; you’ll need your rest. No running, mind you.”

They all nodded and shuffled their feet, mumbling “Yes Professor,” and “Sorry, Professor” until it sounded convincing. They slunk off down the corridor, ears burning.

“Girls?” Professor Alnworthy called. “One more thing.”

They turned.

“This is St Curlicue’s,” she said. “We have a reputation to uphold. The next time you try and pull off a heist, do try for a little more panache. A classic ‘smash and grab’ is really not what I expect from students of your calibre. Remember, you are ladies.”

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

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Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)