Specificity is key.
The ability to think from entirely logical and reason driven perspective, relying only on observations made about your opponent and the environment, empirical data and authoritative knowledge. In this sense, intuitive knowledge drawn from your beliefs, faith, or intuition fall secondary to logic and hard facts during the decision making process.
You also need to know your shit.
The trick to writing a Sherlock Holmes is, in large part, being a Sherlock Holmes. Not in the sense that you yourself are a highly intelligent individual (you may be, you may not), but in that you are accumulating vast stores of seemingly random information. Some may seem useful, some may not. The good news is that this is a large part of what you should be doing already as a writer. Constantly learning, constantly developing, constantly seeking out new kinds of information to aid you in your quest to tell the best stories you possibly can. Whether that’s learning about forensics, going to the gun range and studying different kinds of firearms, accumulating massive medical textbooks, developing a grasp of a multitude of poisons, learning how to break out of handcuffs, or simply picking the brain of a local martial arts instructor or ex-Navy Seal.
The issue with writing a convincing Holmsian character is that one must be precise. In order to precise, one must know. Knowing requires advanced knowledge, knowledge you may not yet have access to. In terms of combat, advanced knowledge that is difficult to come by (though in the advent of the Internet far less so than it used to be).
These two fight sequences from the Robert Downey Jr. Sherlock Holmes are excellent examples to get you started.
From the opening.
The boxing match. Also with subtitles.
The reason why I suggest these (more so from the first movie than any of the others) is because it’s exactly what I’m talking about. Holmes makes observations and suppositions about his opponent both in terms of their physical condition, mental outlook, and emotional state, then acts on those in a exceedingly specific way utilizing a greater understanding of the human body and medical knowledge, he tells the audience what he believes the results will be both for short term and long term recovery, he tells us why he is doing this very specific thing and what this attacks purpose is then how it leads to create openings for the followup X, Y, and Z.
He understands precisely what he is doing to the other person, and so we understand that he knows what he’s doing. In doing so, he takes the blame for it and is not shunting blame off to anyone else.
Understand, the more a character knows then the more responsibility they take for their actions. This is true for people in real life too. The more you know, the more capable you are at hurting someone else, then the more responsibility one has morally, ethically, and legally not to go too far.
Mind Games versus Baiting
A character who loves mind games is usually a character in love with their own cleverness or the author is in love with theirs. That or they’re a sadist. The issue with mind games primarily in a combat context is that they’re cruel. The more damning for the analytical character is that it involves provoking an opponent to do something, challenging them to be inventive and creative, which means they will act in a way that the analytical fighter does not expect and did not plan for.
There is no way to account for all possibilities or prepare for them. If you are writing a character who is purely driven by logic then they will not up their own chances of failure for what will most likely be a very minor soothing of their own ego.
The truly confident do not need their opponent to know how clever they are because they know already. The one who lords their intellectual superiority over someone else by actively antagonizing those they know to be inferior is a bully. Too often characters of this type fall into the latter category, especially when they are engaging in mind games.
The key term here to understand is “game”. If your character is thinking about combat and the act of harming others as a game then, no matter how skilled they or their author think they are, they are not a very good combatant. (Keep in mind that there’s a difference between a game and having fun. A character can approach the killing of someone else as a fun activity that they enjoy while still taking the act itself very seriously. The term “game” denotes the act of killing or harming someone as a safe and consequence free environment where one is able to play. Part of where game becomes sinister in the context of violence is that it dehumanizes the victims into toys. Objects. Mind games are ultimately about dehumanizing other people, turning them into vessels for your amusement.)
The Sherlock Holmes of the Arthur Conan Doyle short stories had a brusque and abrupt manner because he rejected Victorian social niceties/polite society behavior as unimportant. He saw no point in engaging with those who did not intellectually interest him. By and large, Sherlock Holmes was not a bully. His brusque attitude was off-putting because, again, he was not engaging in cultural niceties. He also wasn’t cruel. He never forgot his humanity or that he was dealing with real people and real feelings. He simply refused to let rigid social stratification define who it was acceptable for him to care about. He was rude but he didn’t fuck with people, and there is a difference between A and B.
Though they may seem like the same thing, baiting is different from playing mind games. The primary reason being that you’re not playing. Mind games are prodding the bull to see what it’ll do or how far you can go before you get some kind of reaction. Baiting is performing a very specific action in order to engage a very specific kind of response from your opponent.
Baiting is about control. It’s also, usually a single action.
Think about it this way: in fishing, you need different kinds of bait to attract different kinds of fish. If you provide the wrong bait or a poorly made lure then the fish won’t go for it. You want your fish to bite so you can get them on the line and reel them in. What you are doing when you bait a person is setting a trap.
Like with fish, baiting a human requires that the person baiting understands the other person. It’s predictive. “If I do this, then they’ll do that.”
For example, your character could make a crack about another character’s mother in order to offend them and then get them to lunge blindly out of anger. This will only work if that character is the kind of person who responds to that kind of bait and are not aware enough of their surroundings to see the basic trap for what it is. You see this all the time in movies. The mistake many writers and authors make is the assumption that because it works successfully on one kind of person that it will work on everyone. It will not.
When writing any kind of Holsmian/analytical character, your workload will double because the character must tailor each approach to the other characters they’re facing, even more so than a character who is less aware of their environment and their surroundings. There is no “general approach”, every approach is unique because every individual is unique and require different weaknesses be exploited.
You are writing a character who is on the cutting edge, who is highly knowledgeable about a great many things. One of the reasons why Conan Doyle used a Watson as his viewpoint character rather than a Holmes was so he wouldn’t have to do the extra legwork. It also gives the reader a character who is “more like them”, who they can relate to and who grounds them in what is familiar. It’s your choice whether or not you want to use this technique to make it easier on yourself. You don’t have to. Recognizing the character you want to write will be a challenge is part of the process of putting them together.
Check out good martial artists on the likes of YouTube that explain what they’re doing and why, what the techniques are for. Get an anatomy textbook. Criminology. Forensics. There are countless books out there for writers to help them write better crime fiction. You might want to engage with them. Check out your local precincts to see what they might offer.
Start by making observations when you’re writing about the environment and the characters. What does this analytical character notice about their environment? What pops out to them? When they’re studying another person, what do they see?
Practice this when you’re in your own environment. What do you see? What do you notice? What do you look for?
How is it different?
Learning to differentiate yourself from your characters, what you notice versus what they look for, is helpful for crafting a different persona and different headspace to keep “Me the Author” and “X the Character” apart for the purposes of storytelling. Recognize that they don’t, can’t, and won’t know everything. Sherlock Holmes made mistakes. Sherlock Holmes was fooled on more than one occasion. Highly intelligent and analytical characters are not infallible. Try not to romanticize intelligence too much.
Can this character be interesting, skilled, and very good at what they do? Yes. Can they also be a cliched mess of stereotypes like so many Holmes knockoffs (and more than a few adaptations of Holmes himself)? Absolutely.
This could be difficult for you if your brain is not already geared to think in an analytical way. However, the good news is that you can learn. You can teach yourself to think like Sherlock Holmes. If you haven’t read them yet, then the Conan Doyle short stories are an excellent place to start.
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