Looking back on the five years since I seriously started writing, I consider myself lucky to have come into the business through a door opened to me by what is now known as the New Pulp movement. I’m still doing pulp work and loving every minute of it, even though I’ve expanded my work to include projects with other publishers in other genres.
Being a New Pulp writer has allowed me to learn to write in two very different, but equally satisfying ways. Sometimes, I write my own characters. In those cases, I have complete control over everything. I decide the personalities, looks, and circumstances of the people I create to populate the worlds I write about.
But on other occasions, I’ve entered pre-existing fictional universes and been given opportunities to work with characters and situations originally conceived by others, some of them very well known. I’ve written numerous stories featuring Sherlock Holmes and the associated cast of characters. I’ve used various characters created by Bram Stoker, and I’ll soon be celebrating the publication of my first story about H. Rider Haggard’s 19th century adventurer Allan Quatermain.
As I often bounce back and forth between two in-progress stories, I sometimes find myself thinking about the differences in mindset when it comes to writing my own creations versus borrowing characters who did not originate in my imagination.
In many ways, writing my own stuff is easier. There are no rules except the one all-important law that says that once I decide on something, it must remain consistent. But writing other author’s characters requires, in my experience, a certain amount of restraint. I can write in my own way (and I must, for I’m not going to pretend to be Sir Arthur Conan Doyle or Bram Stoker!), but I feel compelled to demonstrate a certain amount of respect for those who created the wonderful characters that I’ve been privileged to be allowed to borrow from time to time.
I recently said on Facebook—and this statement seemed to hit a positive nerve with a lot of people—that being a writer is like having a big box full of action figures and getting paid to play with them. This feels most true when I can write about Holmes or Quatermain or others that came into literary being long before I was born.
To put it simply, I play with those characters in a way that reflects who I am as a writer but also, I hope, retains the essence of what made them great characters to begin with. I try very hard to make sure I include the souls of the characters, and the qualities that have made them last so long and made them beloved enough that people are still willing to spend money and time to read about them even if the new stories are not by those who created them.
Using Sherlock Holmes as an example, this is how I approach working on the character: I do not try to write like Doyle, but I do try to maintain the atmosphere and style of his stories. It’s not hard to do, considering how many times I’ve read Doyle’s work, and I seem to have been at least somewhat successful at it, if the reactions of readers are any indication. Watson is the narrator, of course, and I try to keep the personalities of Watson, Holmes, and all Doyle’s supporting characters in line with what Doyle showed in his stories. I will not have Holmes facing supernatural threats. Something might appear to be supernatural, but must have a logical, earthbound explanation in the end. (A semi-exception was my novel, Season of Madness, in which Watson teams up with Dr. Seward of Dracula, but Holmes himself did not appear in that story, so I technically didn’t break my own rules!) I will not bring any elements into one of my Holmes stories that scream to me that they would not fit into the world depicted by Doyle when he created the character and made him one of the most popular characters in the world. I try my hardest to write Watson as Doyle’s Watson, Holmes as Doyle’s Holmes, etc.
In other words, it comes down to respect. Respect for the original author’s intentions (so far as we can recognize those intentions from the works left behind after the author’s death), and respect for the millions of readers who love Holmes as he was brought into the world by Doyle.
When I get the chance to work on a character I’ve loved reading about, I go into the project assuming that those who will read my work want the character to be as he’s always been. I know I feel that way about my favorite characters when I encounter the work of someone new adding to the body of work based on that character. And I’m incredibly disappointed when someone who’s been entrusted with a great character or set of characters drops the ball and makes changes that strip the character of their original essence and appeal.
I don’t want Sherlock Holmes as an action hero. I want him as a detective with a razor-sharp intellect and a brave, smart companion. There can be action scenes in a Holmes story, but a certain recent series of Holmes-based movies has gone too far in that direction. I cringe at the de-intellectualizing that’s been done to Star Trek. I can’t stand the majority of the recent product from Marvel and DC comics: characters I grew up reading about who are now unrecognizable near-parodies of what they used to be, stripped of nobility and other inspiring qualities. I’m tired of altered versions of my favorite characters.
Maybe some readers or movie-watchers do want updated, drastically changed versions of classic characters. If that floats their boats, fine. Let them have what they want. There’s plenty of that going around. But I’m confident that there are fans of Sherlock Holmes, Allan Quatermain, Dracula, and many other long-established fictional icons that like things as they long have been. There’s an audience for continuations of the traditional versions of those characters and that’s the audience I hope to entertain when I’m handed those action figures to play with, and many of my fellow New Pulp writers seem to feel the same way.
I’m fortunate to have the opportunity, from time to time, to borrow great characters. I see that as a serious responsibility and I promise to do my best to maintain those characters as I think their creators intended them to be. I won’t dumb down Watson or de-age Quatermain or rearrange fictional history by having Moriarty stand atop the Reichenbach Falls shouting, “’Lock…I am your father!” And I probably won’t resurrect Dracula and have him stalk new victims in the modern era (although that last one’s pretty hard to resist sometimes!). After all, I’d be horrified if I looked over a future writer’s shoulder in my ghostly form long after I’d died and saw him doing something like that to my characters.
I don’t own Holmes and Watson. Allan Quatermain is not my property. I stake no claim on Dracula. I just borrow them from time to time and I try to do that responsibly. I hope I succeed in that task.
Aaron Smith is the author of published stories in genres including mystery, horror, science fiction, and fantasy. He often visits the 221B Baker Street in his mind to write new stories for Airship 27 Productions’ Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective series of anthologies. His latest novel, 100,000 Midnights was released in 2012. Information about his work can be found on his blog at www.godsandgalaxies.blogspot.com