3 Tips for Writing New Characters for Old Stories

3 Tips for Writing New Characters for Old Stories

As many of you will know, Spiral Mind and its sequel The Coriolis Effect are with the imprint Orange Pip Books who champion new characters in Sherlock Holmes stories. Having recently been working on weaving two new characters into the last instalment of the trilogy as one of the rewards chosen in my Kickstarter, I thought it was high time I shared what I’ve learnt in my process about bringing new characters into an old canon like that of Sherlock Holmes.

1) Enhance the Core of the Story

This is possibly the only rule in the process, everything else is just advice. Your new character shouldn’t jar with the world or the message of the canon in such a way that makes them unrecognisable. That’s not to say your character can’t be at odds with say the main character. Your new character can also be a main character, making the original main character a side character, like e.g. in Enola Holmes. What is important, though, is that the other original characters you have chosen to keep in your story are portrayed in a recognisable way and that they don’t get completely changed in their behaviour or personality.

If a new character came into 221B, offered Sherlock a billion pounds and Sherlock took it to build a spa hotel in the highlands, that wouldn’t work with Sherlock as a character, not just because this story would be devoid of a detective case, but also because it robs Sherlock of two characteristics that are integral to him: he doesn’t care about money or business and he certainly wouldn’t take a large sum without investigating it.
Your new character should serve a story that fits well within the world of the original stories, whether it’s updated in time or space or adapted in some other way, the reason people used to read these stories should still be the same for yours.

I personally enjoy it the most if the presence of a new character is woven into the stories in a way that doesn’t contradict the old plot lines as well, and if their absence from the original makes sense from the perspective of the new story. It requires a great deal of weaving loose ends together where old and new plot lines branch off and have to be brought back together, but that is one of the most fun puzzles I know.

2) Bring Variety to an Old Canon

That said, new characters shouldn’t just be slaves to the old stories either. They’re there to bring some variety, because many fans will have read the canon over and over and are hungry for new stories, so you needn’t be afraid of adding new aspects to the old stories that weren’t there before or bringing new issues, new problems or new opinions into the old world to see what the original characters would do if they were faced with them. This is why the above paragraph is all about keeping the core of the canon, not all of it.

As an example, you could very much introduce a new character who is a flute teacher and ends up teaching Sherlock how to play the flute. Of course, he doesn’t play the flute in the original, but he does play the violin and it would fit his character well especially if this aided solving a case for him to learn to play another musical instrument. I, for one, would be curious to learn from this story which instrument Sherlock prefers in the end, if he sees music in a different way now, what his choice of instrument might say about his mood, or how playing the flute could play into solving cases in the future. Learning these new things about Sherlock would enrich the original world without being untrue to the original.

3) Don’t Just Make Them a Plot Device

You may remember Mrs Hudson complaining rather brilliantly in BBC Sherlock’s Christmas Special “The Abominable Bride” that she is “not a plot device.” Even though she is just a minor character even in the BBC series, she is given a very rounded character with hints at a background characters and audience alike have been surprised by. Now, Mrs Hudson is by no means a new character, but a lot of these facets are new to her. Whether you are adapting old characters or introducing a new one, don’t be afraid to make them a rounded character that has their own personality, backstory and principles to add to the original world. The core of the story should perhaps not be broken, but the core leaves so much room around it.

It should always be worth it to introduce new characters into an old story. If they are just there to solve a plot hole, they aren’t going to come across as a full character and the writing can be perceived as contrived or lazy plotting, which especially in a Sherlock Holmes story should be avoided, because it so heavily relies on details coming in as clues at the end. If you know something in your story happens that requires a new character, give them room to breathe, devise a backstory for them, even if it’s not featured in the story directly, and allow the reader to get to know them a bit. They have just as much right to be in this story as the original characters do.

Live performance of Anne Boleyn's story at the Tower of London.
Live performance of Anne Boleyn’s story at the Tower of London.

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