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Sherlock Holmes: The Archetype of an Age

Mitchell Charman is a storyteller. He loves crafting new worlds, characters, and ideas, and studying why we as humans need story to survive.

The 'Sherlock Holmes' universe has inspired many imitators.

The 'Sherlock Holmes' universe has inspired many imitators.

Sherlock Holmes: The Celebrity

Sherlock Holmes is perhaps the most popular and most talked about literary figure today. His distinct personality, incredible skills, and accurate disposition of Asperger's Syndrome will be just as memorable 150 years from now as he was back in 1887 when Sir Arthur Conan Doyle published the first story. If you have not read any of the books or short stories, I will first yell at you for twenty consecutive minutes for having neglected such a staple part of life and then direct you over here for a stupidly cheap version of the collected works, which you will purchase (or get any other version from the library), read, and then come back. Done? Good.

Sherlock Holmes, the character, currently holds two Guinness World Records: one as the most portrayed human literary figure on film and TV, the other as the most portrayed detective.

The characters have been adapted over 250 times in the 44 films and 28 TV shows alone, not to mention the 26 video games and four graphic novels. Sherlock alone has been played by over 75 different actors, including William Gillette, Charlton Heston, Sir Christopher Lee, Robert Downey Jr., and Benedict Cumberbatch amongst many others.

But there are even more television adaptations of Sherlock and his companions than one may initially realise. Of course, these tend to not be noticed as they aren't about Sherlock, per se. Rather, they've simply used the same archetypal structure Doyle created in the original stories for a more effective show. Some make subtle references, others not so subtle, and some don't mention the base text at all.

They're all such great characters! Shame they're all the same person (the coolest of all).

They're all such great characters! Shame they're all the same person (the coolest of all).

The Modern Equivalents

Based on the psychological principles of story which will be discussed shortly, it can be argued any television show with a hubristic and difficult protagonist, among other factors, is based on Sherlock Holmes. The following shows, however, contain many more similarities. They are all about an arrogant, self-indulgent main character with an acute ability to read people and a hyper-observance for small details who proficiently uncovers deceptive secrets in their consultant position assisting the incompetent authorities of their field.

Here is a list of some (emphasis on 'some') of the TV shows similar, yet unrelated, to Sherlock Holmes. If you cannot see the similarities in character in any of these by the end of the article or you know of more, drop me a comment, and I'll revise the article:

  • House M.D.
  • Lie to Me
  • The Mentalist
  • Psych
  • Suits
  • Fringe
  • Forever
  • Backstrom
  • Endgame

The exception to the general structure of the Sherlock Archetypes would have to be Suits, in the case of both protagonists—Harvey Specter and Mike Ross—containing both Sherlockian and Watson-esque elements. If one had to decide, Mike Ross, the stronger protagonist of the two, would be more like John Watson in his rationality and inferiority to the other character, even though he holds the mental superpower. In this way, the roles shift slightly as the main hubristic character becomes the sidekick, but everything still flows as predicted.

The Story Psychology

So why is Sherlock Holmes such a good basis for modern TV show characters? I believe the answer is simple: before Doyle's stories, there were no (or very few) 'serial characters' as deeply evolved as those in Sherlock Holmes that made repeated appearances through a whole collection of stories.

As we began evolving film, individual chunks of standalone story no longer than a few hours, we could turn to many Aristotelian archetypes so the characters could evolve over the course of the plot as they had done for hundreds of years. Our films followed structures according to our basic needs for tension, release, and closure, developed over hundreds of years for relatively condensed story lengths.

When TV series came along, suddenly, there were longer stretches of time over which characters had to evolve, and movie character archetypes didn't cut it. They could only stay so interesting for so long. Turning to Sherlock was perfect because the characters were constructed in such a way to always maintain all forms of conflict: inner conflict of each character and outward conflict within the microcosm of a single scene, within the context of a whole 'episode,' essentially a short story or whole book, and within the macrocosm of the entire collected works (a 'season'). Sherlock's difficult personality made conversational conflict easy, his occupation made plot conflict consistently intriguing (birthing the modern detective genre, too: solving a case per episode while maintaining the same underlying conflict over many seasons).

Not only has the whole premise of Sherlock Holmes renewed our basic story structure, but it also presents a new collection of character archetypes we can relate with, adjusted for cultural relevance. While I disagree with the new morals these archetypes put forward (by themselves), they are certainly most relevant psychologically for today's culture.

Sherlock Holmes, the archetype for self-entitled assholes everywhere.

Sherlock Holmes, the archetype for self-entitled assholes everywhere.

The 'Sherlockian Hero' Archetype

This updated protagonist is largely adapted from the 'tragic hero', an Aristotelian archetype that poses three broad restrictions. The protagonist must have a fatal flaw, often hubris, that will ultimately lead to their demise; they're generally in a position of stature; and their fatal failure has to be the result of their own free will: the hero must choose one course of action over another based on his or her flaw which leads to their suffering rather than an externally enforced demise.

The protagonists this tragic hero structure generated had always been demigods, kings, or other people of literal power. Today, working-middle-class prevails and superiority comes in the form of intelligence or a unique skill: this is, after all, what defines a successful person. Sherlock Holmes was the first to recognise this, pioneering an updated model on the traditional archetype. The others have followed suit with House as the best in the medical field, Cal Lightman as best in the world at reading expressions, Patrick Jane pioneering crime-fighting mentalism, Harvey Specter as the best lawyer, and the list goes on.

An exception to this guide is Shawn Spencer. While he is inarguably very intelligent, he's presented as profoundly stupid at times. The purpose of the 'position of power' element of the tragic hero is so they have higher stakes, further to fall, and greater tragedy when they do. Shawn is riding a lie from the very first episode with stakes that get higher and higher every season, so he still has this required room to fail.

But this is where the archetype shifts dramatically from the original tragic hero: our modern protagonists never fall. Today's audiences far more enjoy watching these heroes teetering on the edge of demise every single episode with higher stakes as the series progresses, and TV shows that continue for indefinite lengths can't make them tragically suffer because they'll have no more story to tell. Luckily, we love the tease of the conflict getting more and more intense as the protagonist, the character we most relate with, rides the edge of their flaw and faces imminent demise every episode. Sherlock Holmes certainly did this up until he, quite literally, throws himself over the 'edge.'

Another way the archetype has been redefined by Sherlock Holmes is the whole 'fatal flaw' concept. While Sherlock is absolutely flawed, he is a completely intolerable ass, Doyle has attributed it as being one with his greatest strength. He calls himself a, "high-functioning sociopath." He's verbally linking his strength with his fatal flaw: he's extremely antisocial, but it allows him to have a superhuman mind. The two are one.

The most likely reason for this is human beings don't like being told we're not perfect. We know we have flaws that make us less than pleasant on occasion, but we don't want to recognise them or, worse, have to face them to become a better person. It's much easier to switch off and pretend all those bad bits are inevitable byproducts of our strengths and, if possible, can be justified as crucial inclusions that make us better than others.

So this modernised, Sherlockian archetype has fatal flaw that has become his or her greatest strength, is insanely intelligent, and frequently brushes with demise. That sounds pretty engaging to me!

Dr. John Watson takes so much flak. Shows where a doctorate gets you!

Dr. John Watson takes so much flak. Shows where a doctorate gets you!

The 'Watsonised Sidekick' Archetype

The protagonist, the Sherlockian archetype, isn't a very pleasant person. It doesn't matter how much good they're doing, audiences don't like someone with a bad personality. So how do writers persuade audiences to side with them (and, ultimately, like them as a strong character)? They include a rational, socially credible sidekick to validate the Sherlockian archetype's methods.

Enter Dr. John Watson, Sherlock's faithful companion. He neglects his relationships and his career and is often seen rolling his eyes at another one of Sherlock's cerebral pursuits. But the important thing is: he follows with complete loyalty. Without him, Sherlock is a crazy man running around being an asshole.

It's the same in any of the series: House has Dr. Wilson, Cal Lightman has Dr. Gillian Foster, Patrick Jane has Special Agent Lisbon, Shawn Spencer has Gus, a pharmaceutical salesman (a.k.a. a try-hard doctor), the list goes on.

The Watson character needs to be three things to work successfully: they have to be of a similar age as the protagonist to be seen as a social peer, not some older or younger person with different cultural beliefs. They must also be highly proficient in a credible, socially responsible career (notice their doctorates or special titles) to add social credibility to their thoughts and actions. Lastly, they must follow the Sherlockian archetype blindly in any situation.

These traits give the Watsonised character credibility and work in the same way as a 'nodder' behind a political speaker (the person who just stands there in a press conference and nods, which they do to add credibility to the speaker's statements). An audience can justify a terrible personality if someone we look up to, often in a prestigious social position, believes the attitude is worth the benefits the individual can produce.

Mrs. Hudson seems like such a throwaway character, but perhaps there's more going on than meets the eye . . .

Mrs. Hudson seems like such a throwaway character, but perhaps there's more going on than meets the eye . . .

The 'Hudson-esque Superior' Archetype

Ah, Mrs. Hudson, the landlady. The superior force symbolic of those who don't like our hero's methods but inevitably give in to them anyway. In traditional story character archetypes, such as those proposed by Joseph Campbell in A Hero With A Thousand Faces, this character would be very similar to the protagonist's mentor, a character with relevant experience to impart to the hero crossed with a threshold guardian, a character who withholds what the protagonist needs. In the context of a TV show, this character always cautions the hero to tread carefully yet constantly gets annoyed at them, creating playful tension to keep things interesting over many episodes.

In House, it's the Dean of Medicine, Dr. Cuddy. She's always telling House to stop being a tool but ends up doing things his way after he completely ignores her. In Psych, it's Shawn's dad Henry. Lie to Me is interesting because the Hudson-esque character is, in fact, Cal Lightman's daughter. She's still superior (she's definitely more mature) and has the ability to withhold her daughterly affection but mixes things up because of her age.

Inspector Lestrade has it tough. He's just doing his job, trying to balance being a good cop and a good person, and Sherlock tramples all over him.

Inspector Lestrade has it tough. He's just doing his job, trying to balance being a good cop and a good person, and Sherlock tramples all over him.

The 'Lestradic Commoner' Archetype

In Sherlock's world, Inspector Lestrade is the Scotland Yard detective that demonstrates how someone with a similar gift to our Sherlockian hero operates without the hero's flaw. Lestrade is good at his job, but runs to Sherlock when he can't handle it (every episode).

This character is everywhere. In House, the Lestradic Commoner is House's team of diagnosticians; the young doctors he employs to assist him but are always being corrected by him. It's Detective Lassiter in Psych, Cal Lightman's employees in Lie to Me, Lois Litt in Suits, and the list continues.


The 'Scotland Yard' World/Plot Structure

They're the main character archetypes Doyle proposed in Sherlock Holmes, but even the world Sherlock exists in is a founding structure for modern TV shows to mimic.

Scotland Yard, in Sherlock's context, represents the whole word: one giant institution that needs his help. In movies and stories and the story structures we have followed, it can literally be the whole world that the hero enters and tries to fix, but in a television series, the audience is expecting a similar thing over and over. No one would watch a Sherlockian hero take down an evil force one episode and have a Sex and the City relationship conflict in the next; it needs to be consistent. So Doyle, and the writers following his structure since, revised the 'world structure', a snapshot of the whole world relevant to the Sherlockian hero, often in reference to his or her job, where they can take on their conflicts in a consistent manner.

In House, the world for House to resolve over and over again is the hospital, in Lie to Me it's the clients drawn to the Lightman institute. The Mentalist has the FBI, Psych has the SBPD, Suits has Peason-Hardman, and so on.

But the 'resolution' does exactly that: resolve the conflicts set up earlier. Sometimes, especially in tragedies, the resolution might not resolve the issue but rather show the hero suffering at the hands of corruption he or she couldn't fix, but either way, the end of the story has to result in either things being fixed or things going so dreadfully wrong the hero can no longer attempt to fix them. In a television show, every episode has an ending that must either resolve the problems faced or show the hero failing to solve the problems of the world, but writers can't use the process set up by typical plots because they have to write another episode for next week. Doyle proposed an extremely good method: serial conflicts. Clients, customers, patients, and individual conflicts that can arise and be solved within an episode without affecting the characters's major conflicts.

Thus the modern serial, a continuous story with the same characters, the same problems, but standalone micro-conflicts exclusive to each episode, was born. And the world has been much better since.

Final Thoughts

This has been an incomplete, fragmented, and very long list. I certainly welcome your thoughts, any disagreement, and your feedback. I feel as thought I've tapped into a new aspect of story psychology but I'm not ignorant enough to think I've realised something others haven't. If anyone knows of a story before Sherlock Holmes that proposes such ideas, let me know because I'd love to read them.


Christopher Peruzzi from Freehold, NJ on June 29, 2016:

Great angle with the archetypes. It's a good read.

Mitchell Charman (author) from Western Australia on August 23, 2015:

Thanks FatBoyThin! Complimentary, as always.

Colin Garrow from Inverbervie, Scotland on August 23, 2015:

Well written and very thorough. Nice work.