Tag Archives: character

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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Tales as Old as Time: How Stories Age

Picture this. You’ve just picked up a copy of a classic book. It’s the kind of thing that people study in English lessons or write dissertations on. People you know can quote one or two of the lines off the cuff. There’s about seventy million adaptations of this thing, usually featuring Hollywood’s latest chiselled British darling as the leading man. Cultured and intelligent people read this book in tweed jackets and discuss it over port, and now that you have finally got a copy, you’ll be able to talk to them about it instead of sitting in the corner and hoarding all the cheese.

So, you read it. And it’s kind of disappointing.

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Apart from the chiselled British darlings. They never disappoint. (image: pinterest.com)

This has happened to me too many times to count – especially the part where I eat cheese in a corner instead of joining in a conversation. I’ve read quite a few classic books and it’s very rare that they live up to the hype. Part of this is probably because hype is kind of everywhere now, and when you’re in the middle of a constant cycle of “This feels-wrenching drama will stop your heart and set your soul on fire” -style advertising, it can be very difficult to go into stuff believing that this heart-stopping, soul-searing experience is actually going to happen to you.

But it did also get me thinking. On my Strong Female Characters series, one of the things that came up most often for classic books was that when they were originally written, their characters were ground-breaking. Now that time has passed, they’re not. The way that we receive and interpret stories depends entirely on the context in which they are read, and this includes time and place. Meanings get lost over time. The definitions of words change over the years, and implications that might have been obvious to a historical reader are lost on a modern one. Similarly, readers bring new interpretations to historical texts because we are looking at those texts having grown up with ideas that hadn’t been conceived when they were first written. Context is everything.

Plots and clichés are an excellent example of how stories have changed over time. Modern readers expect different things from the things readers expected fifty years ago, let alone a hundred years ago. Ideas that were original and unsettling when they were first introduced have been used so often that the shine wears off and they become clichés.

The perfect example of this is that classic trope, ‘The Butler Did It’.

We’ve all seen this cliché before – in fact, I had a lot of fun with it in one of my Book Recipe posts. A bunch of people are invited to a mysterious old house, there’s probably a murder or two, and our plucky detective eventually discovers that the culprit was the butler all along! What shock. What horror.

But it’s worth remembering that when this trope was first introduced, it wasactually shocking. Servants were not just people who came to a rich person’s house, sloshed some bleach in the toilet and then went home. They lived with them. They washed and dried their clothes. They cooked their food. They made their beds. They helped them dress. They helped them wash, sometimes, or helped them clean their teeth. It was incredibly difficult to have secrets from a servant, because you had to depend on them for so many things. The idea that the person who cleaned the lipstick off the collar of your shirt, who swept up the pieces of your mother’s favourite vase, who saw how many cigarette butts you left in the bottom of your ashtray could also be plotting your death – it’s kind of horrifying.

It’s not just clichés. What is acceptable in terms of plot has completely changed. This is something that dates way beyond the invention of the novel. In the original epic fantasies – stories like The Iliad, The Odyssey, and Beowulf– storytellers would often take time out to send their heroes off on interesting little sidequests because they were fun and exciting. Sometimes these are pertinent to the plot, sometimes they’re completely irrelevant. Then, with the gradual move away from storytelling as a spoken form, there’s a trend to keep the plots more linear. You’ll still get little anecdotes off to one side sometimes, but generally these all serve a purpose for the story as a whole (probably because by this point editors had been invented). And then, later still, you have the move towards modernist fiction. In modernist fiction the idea of a plot can go completely out the window if that’s what the author wants. There’s more of a focus on mood, style and ideas, and most of the time that makes my head hurt a bit. We’ve come to expect different things from stories, and so we’ve rolled them out into new shapes.

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Like this, but hopefully with less ruining cookies. (image: giphy.com)

This shifting definition of what is and what is not acceptable for a plot also affects characters too. Over the past few years there’s been a move towards stories that are more character-driven than plot-driven, and this changes what people expect from a protagonist. Stories where a character gets sent on a quest because of ~*Destiny*~ are slowly being replaced by stories where a character goes on a quest because they’ve decided to do it. It’s no good to have a protagonist who just sits around waiting for the plot to happen – much more compelling are protagonists who go and makethe plot happen for themselves. The classic example of this is the characters in fairy tales. When the stories were originally told the characters weren’t really much more than archetypes. You had your handsome prince, your wicked witch, your pure and beautiful girl, and that was about it. There wasn’t necessarily a lot of detail about the characters’ personalities. But when you look at modern adaptations of fairy tales, the characters tend to be a lot more fleshed out. Writers will make a lot more effort to give them goals, preferences and personalities so that they can move away from the archetype. The perfect example of this is Belle’s character in Beauty and the Beast. The Disney film went out of its way to establish Belle as a bookworm who felt isolated by having an interest that nobody in her village shared – something which is completely absent from the original fairy tale.

But this cuts both ways. As expectations move forward, some characters are going to get left behind. Details about characters are lost because modern readers aren’t reading literature in the same context as it was written. Take, for example, the first mention we have of Mr Bingley in Pride and Prejudice. We’re told that when he was seen about town he was wearing a blue coat, and we don’t get any more detail than that. For the modern reader, this illustrates the gossipy nature of Mrs Bennet and not much else. But for the Regency reader this was a pertinent detail. Blue dye was expensive and not many people wore it. The coat itself is a piece of outerwear and worn in the daytime, so it wouldn’t be the fanciest piece in Mr Bingley’s wardrobe. The fact that Mr Bingley’s coat he wears for slouching about town is blue would have spoken volumes to the Regency reader – it’s signalling that he has mad stacks of cash.

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

But it’s not just the minor details that get lost in translation. What constituted a radical and ground-breaking character a few centuries ago is now seen as old hat. This is particularly obvious in female characters, as the social and political capital of women has changed so much over the past few hundred years. When she was first introduced to readers, Lizzie Bennet was radical by anybody’s standards. She was cheeky, she got her clothes dirty, she turned down a marriage proposal from a man she didn’t love. But two hundred years on these things aren’t radical any more. They’re normal. Modern readers go into Pride and Prejudiceexpecting a character who’s radical and game-changing, and meet someone who is pretty conventional by today’s standards. It’s not hard to see why some people might find this disappointing.

So the big question is this: how do you make a story that lasts? Well, luckily for you I have the answer right here in my new book, How to Write an Epic that lasts for One Billion Years, very reasonably priced at $99.99 per chapter…

…I’m kidding. But it is a question that’s worth asking. How come some stories have lasted for centuries while others have been forgotten?

I don’t have a definite answer, but this is what I think. Let’s jump back to fairy tales for a moment. Yes, they’re vague, and yes, the characters are basically fill-in-the-blanks exercises. In this case, that’s what works in their favour. As the detail just isn’t there, this means the reader, listener or writer can fill it in themselves. It’s easy to make a new adaptation of a fairy tale because the basic shape of the story isn’t tethered to time, place or the personality of its characters. Cinderella can be a cyborg, Snow White can be a vampire, Red Riding Hood can be a werewolf (and yes, all those stories do exist). These are stories that have got legs.

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Goddammit, Baba Yaga, that’s not what I meant. (image: everything.wikia.com)

More complex stories are harder to preserve because so much of a story’s meaning is enmeshed in a social and cultural context. I talked about this briefly in my worldbuilding post so do look there for more detail, but what’s important to remember is this: what informs a setting also informs its characters. This applies as much to historical fiction as it does to fantasy epics. Stories written hundreds of years ago are caught up in a framework of cultural norms and societal beliefs that probably isn’t there any more. This is why editions of Shakespeare’s plays and Jane Austen novels so often come with big wodges of footnotes at the back – they’re crammed with references that modern audiences just wouldn’t get without some serious background reading. Going in blind would be like showing a doge meme to someone from the 1500s and expecting to get a laugh. At best, you’d get a ‘sayest thou what?’ and at worst, you’d get burned as a witch.

But obviously, more complex stories do last. We’ve got Shakespeare’s plays, we’ve got The Iliad, we’ve got The Journey to the West. Countless stories have outlived their authors and gone on to become beloved classics for generations of readers. There’s no hard and fast reason as to why this is. It isn’t just good writing, compelling characters and an interesting plot that makes a story get remembered. You’ll still need all those things, but there’s always something else in the mix as well – some mysterious alchemy that lets good mature into great. I don’t know what this is. If I did, I’d probably have my own island or something.

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Or just this. (image: giphy.com)

Context is everything. Unless the details of a time and place are meticulously preserved, as Shakespearean scholars have done, then modern readers will miss something and the original meaning will slip away. But modern readers bring their own contexts too, and can shed new light on old stories. Adaptations aren’t always a way for an author or a movie studio to make a quick buck: done right they can be a thoughtful and compelling examination of something we thought we knew. Readers and audiences have new opportunities to see familiar stories with fresh eyes, and that’s something that shouldn’t be forgotten. Perhaps that’s as close as we’ll get to seeing the impact of these stories when they really were new.

Stories that have lasted have something in them that speaks to people regardless of time and place. It can be anything from a feeling to a turn of phrase. Maybe it’s Shakespeare’s description of loss in MacDuff’s speech from Macbeththat speaks to you, or maybe it’s Cinderella’s message that no matter how bad things may get, things will, one day, turn out all right. Whichever classic you pick, there’s something there that has spoken to hundreds, thousands or even millions of people. And whether you like or dislike the actual story, it’s always worth acknowledging that that is truly extraordinary.