One thing that's a bit challenging about talking about Holmes's character in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes is that most of the spadework establishing what he's like is accomplished in the earlier novels. Conan Doyle assumes that anyone reading his short stories already knows who Holmes is – and maybe he's right, because all we really need to know is that Holmes is a Great Detective. All the other details are broad-stroke points that take about one paragraph to remind everyone of. For example, take Watson's quick intro to Holmes at the beginning of "A Scandal in Bohemia":
Holmes, who loathed every form of society with his whole Bohemian soul, remained in our lodgings in Baker Street, buried among his old books, and alternating from week to week between cocaine and ambition, the drowsiness of the drug and the fierce energy of his own keen nature. [Holmes] was still, as ever, deeply attracted by the study of crime, and occupied his immense faculties and extraordinary powers of observation in following out those clues and clearing up those mysteries which had been abandoned as hopeless by the official police. (Bohemia.1.2).
Watson's not wasting any time here: the short story format is making him get right to the point. So we learn, in two sentences, that Holmes is: (a) not fond of other people, (b) ridiculously smart, (c) kind of a drug addict, (d) working unofficially to fight crime, and (e) did we mention wicked smart?
And, in fact, the whole Eccentric Genius thing Holmes is rocking is pretty much the only character development we get for him throughout the twelve stories: Watson keeps returning to Holmes's boredom when he's not on a case, the detective's lack of interest in other people except when they have cool stories to tell him, and his incredible smarts. Ta da! That's all you need to start a worldwide fandom.
OK, so we all know that Sherlock Holmes is beyond intelligent – it's pretty much his defining characteristic. Perhaps that's one reason why his forehead always looks giant in those early Strand magazine illustrations: his brain is just that big. But did you know that Holmes didn't always know that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not vice versa, at least as of A Study in Scarlet? True facts! When he's forced to know something not directly relevant to solving crime, Holmes works hard to forget about it – yup, the exact opposite of almost anyone's approach. One time he even goes so far as to scold Watson for his correction of Holmes's ignorance of the solar system. Watson and Holmes comment on Watson's earliest assessment of Holmes's character:
"A possession of all knowledge, which, even in these days of free education and encyclopaedias, is a somewhat rare accomplishment. It is not so impossible, however, that a man should possess all knowledge which is likely to be useful to him in his work, and this I have endeavoured in my case to do. If I remember rightly, you on one occasion, in the early days of our friendship, defined my limits in a very precise fashion."
"Yes," I answered, laughing. "It was a singular document. Philosophy, astronomy, and politics were marked at zero, I remember. Botany variable, geology profound as regards the mud-stains from any region within fifty miles of town, chemistry eccentric, anatomy unsystematic, sensational literature and crime records unique, violin-player, boxer, swordsman, lawyer, and self-poisoner by cocaine and tobacco. Those, I think, were the main points of my analysis." (Orange.114-5)
Here we see, once again, Holmes's character in a nutshell: he is, above all, single-minded in his detection. He's basically an instrument for finding out criminal stuff. This total lack of interest in anything outside of his chosen field of study actually makes Holmes the perfect star of a series of short stories or episodes. Why? Well, think about it: you know how, if you jump into a telenovela or a soap opera right in the middle, you have no idea why all of these people are sleeping together, who's related to who, and why everyone seems so upset all the time?
Conan Doyle conceived of his Holmes short stories as both united by Holmes's character and yet still potentially interesting to people who had never read any other Holmes stories. So he can't risk all the soap opera-ish entanglements that make long-running dramas hard to follow without a map. Therefore, in that respect, it makes sense that Conan Doyle emphasizes right away that "all emotions, and [love] particularly, [are] abhorrent to [Holmes's] cold, precise, but admirably balanced mind" (Bohemia.1). Even poor Watson, over the course of the Adventures, never gets to refer to his wife by name a single time. Everything takes a back seat to "the love of [Holmes's] art" (Band.1). For more on this, check out our "Character Analysis" of Watson.
We here at Shmoop tend not to spend a lot of time thinking over the physical appearance of fictional characters. After all, it's all about what you imagine, right? Each of us pictures Elizabeth Bennet (from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice) and Holden Caulfield (of Catcher in the Rye fame) differently. But Holmes is unusual in having a pretty iconic image: the sharp nose, the crooked pipe, that weird tweed cap with earflaps. Even though he's been played by about a kajillion different actors, we still tend to imagine the same features over and over again.
Conan Doyle's own words on the subject are pretty vague: Holmes's eyes are "sharp and piercing […] and his thin, hawk-like nose [gives] his whole expression an air of alertness and decision. His chin, too, [has] the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination" (A Study in Scarlet. 1.2.3). So where do we get the dark, slicked-back hair, the beaky nose, and the deerstalker hat? That would be from Conan Doyle's illustrator at The Strand magazine, Sidney Paget, who started working on Holmes for the release of "A Scandal in Bohemia" and ran with it for the rest of his career. (For the hat specifically, check out Paget's illustrations of "Silver Blaze," from The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes.)
Paget modeled Holmes's face on that of his younger brother and fellow artist, Walter Paget. Conan Doyle always felt that Paget made Holmes too handsome (source), but it was at least partly Paget's contribution of Holmes's appearance, as well as his skillful pen-and-ink images of Victorian England that has drawn the fictional detective's huge fan following.
It's also worth noting Paget's place in creating our image of Holmes because Holmes is one of those iconic characters who owes as much to outside myth-making as he does to Conan Doyle's actual words. After all, Holmes's most famous line – "Elementary, my dear Watson" – doesn't appear in any of Conan Doyle's stories or novels, but it's still the first thing we here at Shmoop think of when we hear Sherlock Holmes's name.
David Stuart Davies, in his "Afterword" to the Barnes and Noble edition of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (2004), produces a letter that was written to The Strand magazine in 1892, in which a fan of the Great Detective asks if Holmes is or is not a real person. The editor of the magazine replies, "if and when that time comes we should find that no such person is in existence we shall be then very much disappointed." Obviously, the magazine editor's being a bit silly here – he above all people should know that Sherlock Holmes is a fictional character. Yet something about Holmes keeps making people think (or wish?) that he were a real person.
There has been ongoing speculation about who the "real-life" Sherlock Holmes must have been. Conan Doyle himself cited an instructor of his, Dr. Joseph Bell, but he stresses that the only resemblance between the two is their skill at deduction (source). We here at Shmoop believe the conclusion of this author that Holmes is definitely an invention of Conan Doyle's own mind.
However, there's a constant, self-conscious commentary going on throughout these adventures that intentionally blurs the line between fact and fiction. Take Holmes's opening comment to Watson in "A Case of Identity." Holmes remarks that the real events taking place in London's houses every day "would make all fiction with its conventionalities and foreseen conclusions most stale and unprofitable" (Identity.1). But, this is a fictional story. So is the characteristic of fiction just that it's predictable? If a story is unpredictable, would that make it "true," in some sense? Check out our theme on "Literature and Writing" for more on Holmes and realism.