Sherlock Holmes: To “Kill Off”, or Not to “Kill Off”

Sherlock Holmes
Sherlock Holmes in all of his sophisticated glory

Afraid to Kill Off Main Characters

The death of an important fictional character, whether it be in a movie, an anime, or a book, will almost always produce an effect on an engaged member of the audience. Not only that, but the entire story, depending on the significance and role of the character, will change in one way or another. It might be a slight or radical change, but the overall feel of the story, or how we experience the story thereafter will simply shift.

The Influence of the Audience

Many films, books, or animes are guilty of either refusing to have a main character die, or, in the event that a main character does die, the character somehow comes back from the dead. A loop hole is found (or created) in order to resurrect the character. It’s a Deus Ex Machina.

Are there times when keeping all the main characters alive produces a greater effect on the audience than not? Does preserving the life of the main characters enable the audience to have a clear experience of reality, of what life is really like? Some would argue not. The prospect that heroes will always make it out alive is a lie, and this lie takes effect especially when the film, anime, or book is geared towards children, who are easily influenced by the idea of heroes with incredible endurance, pain tolerance, willpower, and impeccable combat skills.

The Reichenbach Falls
A depiction of Sherlock Holmes pulling Professor Moriarty into the Reichenbach Falls in The Final Problem

A great example of a story in which the main character dies is Sherlock Holmes. The short story written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle about his famous, mystery-solving sleuth, The Final Problem, was supposed to bring about the end of his great mystery series. In The Final Problem, Holmes and his arch nemesis Moriarty scuffle with each other beside the Reichenbach Falls. In order to defeat Moriarty, Holmes grabs a hold of the professor and takes the plunge into the watery precipice, seemingly ending both his life and Moriarty’s.

It seemed like that was the sudden and yet climatic ending of Sherlock Holmes. However, urged by the voices of many upset fans, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle grudgingly agreed to devise a somewhat realistic way in which he could bring Holmes back to life. It would seem, to a degree, that we’ve come upon an important factor in the issue of raising main characters from the dead: the influence of an engrossed audience. This relates in a way, and rather indirectly, to “fan service”, which is changing or forming a story so that it suits whatever the fans want to happen. In “serving the fans”, the story is not necessarily improved. Rather, it is literally a “service” performed for the sake of satisfying the audience.

Both the notion of “fan service” and a persuasive, captivated audience, prompts a series of questions and observations. First, it seems like even though it is deceiving and unrealistic to make the main character come back from the dead, or somehow survive when he shouldn’t have, the audience delights in the pleasure of such fantasy. This is almost as bad as a kid’s movie giving off the message that the hero will always survive, and to a certain extent, it seems worse.

Adult audiences of such stories like Sherlock Holmes willing choose to be rendered child-like, in that they applaud the more unrealistic notion of Holmes surviving/coming back from the dead, instead acknowledging his noble, honorable demise. They don’t like to accept the fact that the hero doesn’t make it out in the end, that he has to perform some sort of self-sacrifice. They loathe the idea that “he’ll never come back”, or even the idea of those words “The End”.

Perhaps, this is a reflection of our culture. But what kind of reflection is it? Is it silly, childish, or foolish of adult audiences to forsake and refute the idea of the hero remaining dead, or any main character being killed off? Or can we learn something important from keeping the protagonists alive? Is there another side to this reflection of our culture?

No Pain, No Gain

One of the greatest faults pervading the prospect of heroes returning from the dead, or not even dying at all, is that it devalues both life and sacrifice. In regards to devaluing sacrifice, this is indeed a reflection of the fallen morality of our society.

the iron giant
The Iron Giant flies into the sky to intercept a missile with his body

When it comes to a hero making a sacrifice and then coming back from the dead, whether it be Sherlock Holmes dragging Moriarty over the Reichenbach Falls or the Iron Giant using his body to blow up a missile flying towards earth, one major thing is lacking. Society misunderstands sacrifice in namely one highly important way: sacrifice without consummation isn’t really sacrifice.

Imagine a modern day Jewish Rabbi or a monk trying to teach his disciples about self discipline or self denial. The Rabbi or monk instructs his pupils, “To obtain self discipline and to practice self denial, go one month without eating dessert.”

Sacrifice is involved in this situation: in order to teach themselves self mastery and practice self denial, the students have to sacrifice their desserts for one month. It’s a trade off, like many sacrifices are. They trade their desserts for self-mastery.

Now, imagine further that at the end of his supper one student has the opportunity to eat dessert. He remembers his teacher’s instruction, and refrains. However, turning back to the main course of his meal, he decides that he’ll have another helping, since he can’t have dessert. Is he remaining true to the heart of his sacrifice?

In the example above, the disciple is practicing self discipline and self denial by not eating dessert. Nevertheless, knowing that he can’t eat dessert and trying to derive more satisfaction from his meal, his sacrifice for the sake of self mastery is incomplete. It lacks consummation. If the disciple truly wished to teach himself self denial or discipline, he would refrain from eating dessert and making up for this lack by eating more supper.

How does this relate to Sherlock Holmes, or any movie involving the somewhat sacrificial death of a main character?

Sacrifice is supposed to hurt. That is a fact that our society should never disregard. Finding someway to ease the pain, or make it okay in the end, is a cheap version of sacrifice. In the film Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (2011), Sherlock—played by Robert Downy Jr.—realizes that there is absolutely no way he can stop Moriarty from bringing war upon the world, unless Moriarty is killed. Nevertheless, playing out the fight between himself and Moriarty in his mind (the usual technique he employs before skirmishing), he also realizes that, when it comes to hand-to-hand combat, he can’t beat Moriarty without losing his life. Consequently, just as in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Final Problem, Sherlock clutches Moriarty and drags the professor with him into the Reichenbach Falls. Sherlock’s sacrifice creates one of the most powerful moments in the film.

Sherlock and Moriarty begin their face off above the Reichenbach Falls
Sherlock and Moriarty begin their face-off above the Reichenbach Falls

But then, what happens at the end of the movie? We see Dr. John Watson grieving, writing an article about the life of his friend. Then a package is delivered to Watson. It’s a breathing device Holmes had once shown him. Now the audience is catching on: Sherlock may not be dead! Watson leaves the room, his suspicions growing with the audience’s, and the moment he leaves his typewriter, we see Sherlock suddenly emerge, approach the typewriter, and, seemingly in favor of the modern day audience that refutes such sad “The End”s, he punches into the typewriter “The End?”.

There are a number of things to take into account regarding the near-death occurrence of Sherlock Holmes: first, it was a sacrificial act. But then, on the other hand, Sherlock certainly seemed to have planned out that he might have to take a plunge into the Reichenbach Falls. Otherwise, why would he have brought the breathing device with him? It may just be my opinion, but this seems to lower the value of Holmes’ sacrificial act, and the same would go for all stories in which the hero sacrifices himself, and yet comes out unharmed. There isn’t full consummation. Conversely, there is the existence of the notion that not all characters will know that they will come out unharmed. A character in a story may believe that he or she will die as the fruit of their sacrifice. In this case, if the character does happen to survive his or her own offering, subjectively the sacrifice is complete. Nonetheless, from the viewpoint of the story-writer, as well as the people viewing the story, it is a lie for society to believe that sacrifice mustn’t come with consummation, and that life will not require these types of sacrifices.

Death, Where is Your Sting?

While having main characters come back from the dead, or not die at all, may present a misinterpretation of reality or the meaning of true sacrifice, we can still draw some positives from such stories. The most prominent and important positive is that sacrifice is usually—or hopefully—followed by something very promising.

Like we determined before, sacrifice is like a trade-off. Usually, when somebody in a story (or real life) sacrifices himself, he does so with the hope that it will better the people he loves, or even the world itself. He sacrifices himself because he believes his offering will be repaid, or make enough difference, to keep the people he loves safe. Such is the case of Sherlock Holmes. And this is what makes it an honorable thing.

There is also another side to this, however. Deeply routed in many of the concepts found in Christianity, the notion of “rising from the dead” is something that the hero of a story earns. The greatest example would always have to be—from a Christian perspective—Jesus Christ. By Christian belief, Jesus takes on the sins of the world, and after doing so, He dies for the world. And the sacrifice is consummated on the Cross, upon which He breathes His last. However, what do Christians believe that happens three days later? Jesus is resurrected.

The risen Jesus exiting the tomb
The risen Jesus exiting the tomb

The importance of this example is that it possesses a theme very common in stories that have heroic characters returning from the dead. And the theme is that death should not prevail over people that fight for life, or for that which is good. Death cannot hold such people. Or in the case of Jesus, He “destroys” both sin and death. As St. Paul writes, boasting about Jesus’s resurrection, “O Hell, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15: 50)

Perhaps, while audiences should still be given stories that reveal the reality of death, and the worth of life and sacrifice, it’s okay for them to delight in the fantasy—or for Christians, the supernatural reality—that death and evil should not be able to triumph over those that live righteously, or even sacrificially. And should a movie, book, or anime try to promote such a theme of light triumphing over darkness, or life being unstoppable by death, perhaps we should take the time to understand what this symbolizes and means in our lives.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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Dominic Sceski is an aspiring author in love with the Creator of the world and the creation of his own worlds through stories--in that order!

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  1. There is a great truth about humans being unable to accept bad things happening to people who are trying to do the right thing. Especially in fiction. Of course, Sherlock Holmes is a poor example on sacrifice, due to him not caring about the greater good of humanity or anything good for that matter. His character is that of a man who cares for himself and perhaps a few people around him. His true goal in life is not to be idle and having someone, such as Watson, keeps him on the right track of getting a high off of the chase. So, him being brought back, only confirms his character of being the jack-*** with a heart of gold. Of course, if he stayed dead, then it would have been the ultimate redeeming quality of a man who played a good game and lost with his arch nemesis; allowing the world to live in peace from the mad man James Moriarty. But that is a high stretch from his character, which makes him living, the ultimate justification for the way he lives and what he does to fill up his time. Even though I do agree that we need to stop babying ourselves on the subject of death and just kill off some characters like George R. R. Martin; I do believe that Sherlock Holmes as an example was a poor choice.

  2. Eddard Stark’s death was a pure shock to me.

    • Not Bogan

      I’ll admit I was pretty pissed when Eddard Stark got his head lopped off. I do understand the value to the story but it was still pretty infuriating…still is. I guess that means GRRM did his job LOL. I have a couple of character deaths planned for my WIP. They are necessary to the plot and hopefully they’ll affect the readers (but not so much they throw my book across the room LOL).

  3. Nice article! I’m going to look back at this later because I’m writng a book right now and one of my characters are going to die in a chapter or two, so thank you.

  4. Personally, I don’t have mercy on the characters I kill. I actually tend to kill off my favorites. You spend the first third of the book getting to know this sweet character who is so dear to the entire cast because he’s amiable and the only one who can keep a light heart despite the war they’re fighting. He’s genuinely part of the team. … Then he dies to save his friends. He was my favorite for sure.

    • Tigey

      Reminds me of Vonnegut’s advice on writing, to drag the protagonist rough as much pain as possible.

  5. Aaron Hatch

    One thing that I hate is when a character has a death that completes his or her story arc, and then they bring them back to life. I feel either let the character stay dead so their death can have meaning, or don’t kill them at all. Take Agent Coulson from the Marvel Cinematic Universe for example. He death was generally saddening in The Avengers, but his death lost all meaning when he was brought back in Agents of Shield. It’s just a cliche that I really bothers me.

  6. I have noticed that trend before and it really bothered me over the years. Knowing that the main character will come back kills the suspense and makes the story very predictable. When a series of circumstances occur and make it that the protagonist has to die, the author needs to commit to it. It is important to note that during the writing process, it is not uncommon for the author himself to get attached to his or her characters and concede to their wish of having the character they’ve developed and got to know and explore, overcome all obstacles.

  7. The problem with plot armor or bringing back supposedly dead characters is that it ruins any suspense that the prospect of death might create for a character as there is always chance they will just be brought back again.

  8. Great read. While I do agree with the above user that an excessive use of the resurrection trope does to an extent nullify the dramatic power of the death itself, and as you say it’s ‘hurt’ effect on the viewer/reader. The trick is to find some way to make it contingent with the fictional universe.

  9. Crenshaw

    Make it sudden and unexpected.

  10. But killing characters is legal! Oh and fun, don’t forget fun!

  11. I am definitely thinking about killing off one of my characters as a form of self-sacrifice and that character being redeemed at the end. It may add more emotional depth to the other characters that have fallen in love with the character who dies in the story.

  12. TopMuch

    The most shocking death was probably Johnny Cade from S.E Hinton’s, The Outsiders. It was both shocking and mesmerizing. You could tell he was going to eventually die from those injuries he got, but it was still shocking no matter what. The backstory Johnny had was just incredibly shocking, and it did make us readers feel bad for Johnny and care for him, so when he died, it made us really upset.

    • Johnny’s death is indeed pretty shocking and a great example of weltschmerz at work.

  13. Often when a character (main or side) is killed, that means their story has come to an end. That they have completed whatever role they were intended for when they were written. At least, that’s what a character’s death is supposed to be. So, in agreement with several others here, if they die/are killed, they should stay dead. It makes it more interesting for both the readers and for the other characters in the story.

  14. Lately, I have been reading a lot of Jodi Picoult novels. Besides being great books, they are powerful social commentaries. I also like that she will kill a character to underscore a message. I wish more authors would allow their characters to die, it would show the unpredictability of life. Everything doesn’t always have to be bright and shining, sometimes a little grit is needed.

  15. Bula Masterson

    Death is necessary.

  16. The way a character dies and when they die both play into how the characters and audience will react.

  17. Whenever I write a story SOMEOBODY has to have died or someone dead has to be mentioned in the story. To this day, I still have no idea why…

  18. Lindsay

    Great post. I do think sometimes killing off a character is necessary.

  19. claytonpitcher

    I don’t find the example of Sherlock Holmes fitting. He’s not a particularly heroic character outside of his brilliance. Even though it was a “fan service” to contrive a way to have Holmes’ intelligence save him, there’s satisfaction in the success of wit. The details of characterization, in this case, matter.

  20. Thought provoking…I agree with some that Sherlock was not the best example, if only because his sacrificial death – if it had actually been such – may have almost been taken to be out of character. Would the great Sherlock Holmes simply allow himself to die, or would he be smart enough to have come up with a plan just in time? Part of the reasons these stories, or rather this effect, has such appeal is because they give the audience a sense of hope, a sense of wonder that is hard to glean from other things. Though it is important that we as individuals understand the true concept of sacrifice, and what that really means for each of us, this sense of hope is also incredibly important, for if it did not exist, we may not be able to see what there is to sacrifice for.

  21. Insightful article with a fresh perspective on sacrifice as a trade-off.

  22. Killing bring more realism to the work.

  23. Killing off a character can be a very powerful plot device if done well. Unfortunately, there are a lot of shows that misuse it (EX. Supernatural, which also misuses the resurrection trope) and take the value away by killing off characters either unnecessarily or too often so the audience is desensitized, thus losing its kick.

  24. I think part of the reason killing a hero off at the climax, and then bringing him back just in time for the credits, is so prominent now is because of the obsession with franchising works. They (whoever they are) want to kill the character to create a better single work, but they need to him to be alive at the end in case it’s successful enough to warrant a sequel. This doesn’t apply as much to Sherlock Holmes on account if it already being the sequel and it being an adaption of a already written death and return, but I think the point stands.

  25. Such a fantastic take on this iconic role. The ending of this movie was phenomenal and while I’m a massive fan of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s incarnation, RDJ will always have my heart.

  26. The death of a main character definitely produces a reaction from an audience. In a digital culture of “fandoms,” I feel there is an increased pressure on the creator to please the audience and pay attention to their reactions.

  27. Interesting perspective! I think this also calls into question the idea of a happy ending. If filmmakers continue to fall into the trap of predictability, the film loses its meaning and becomes unable to relate to the audience.

  28. As a writer, I think it’s more noble to kill off a main character and keep him/her dead. The issue of franchising was brought up in another comment, but I challenge writers to refrain from revival. A few movies did this very well:

    Gravity – George Clooney’s character floats off into space
    Independence Day – The hillbilly guy crashes his plane into the aliens
    Interstellar – Anne Hathaway doesn’t die but she decides to be the only human on a mysterious planet

    The list goes on, but the point is that a true, one time death is more impactful than a hero who keeps coming back.

  29. Really interesting post.

  30. The “fan service” thing really resonates with me since many of my favorite shows have morphed into half-dead imitations of what they used to be due to season renewals based off fan requests. I don’t mean to point fingers (ehm, Supernatural) but shows that are running a 5 season-long plot line that all interconnects and ends on a perfect note with everything neatly tied into a bow should not be continued just because its popular. The overall quality of literally everything degrades the longer the series is dragged out, because there is nowhere for the characters, the universe, or the authors to go except on and on, just for the sake of it, and get nowhere. Anyhow, the ending of a good show is sad, but the figurative dead horse it becomes is all the more tragic.

  31. Emily Inman

    This is such a compelling piece, I enjoyed reading. I think humankind needs hope for deliverance from Death, and they see film as an escape from the looming fear of their life ending. They see the film in order to see their hero transcend Death itself, as Jesus and so many other figures. Your article makes the reader think deeply, well done!

  32. I also agree that sacrifice and death should be a more explored theme in todays writing; however, I see why it would be so tempting to bring back a person from the dead. So many times in real life there is nothing we can do about death and there is never a way to bring them back to life. But in the reality we create as writers there are infinite possibilities and it is always tempting to want to play god and have the hero come out on top for once. That doesn’t mean that makes it a more effective device for a story. I believe that a characters destiny lies in what works best for the story.

  33. Francesca Turauskis

    Part of it could simply be that in fiction we can get the things we want, but can’t get, in real life. If we want to read a bit more deeply into it, I could suggest that people, and writers, want this kind of ‘resurrection’ (whereas in the past people might have sacrificed themselves) because in the real world self-sacrifice (epecially needless self sacrifice) is less valued than logic, reason and smarts.

  34. Death should not be a selling point. If it happens naturally, it can be great. But killing off main characters for the sake of killing them off is getting old. Saying that, if you kill someone, stick to it. And if you have to bring them back, then again, if it happens naturally, it can be great. I like a lot of what you said, and this doesn’t just apply to film. Watching the TV series Arrow, it feels like they just keep bringing back every character they’ve ever killed off. It makes actual deaths lose their impact, because you expect them to simply come back. I really liked how The Iron Giant did it. Hinted at early on in the movie as to how he could survive, and leaving it ambiguous but hopeful in the end. Who knows if he’d ever get reassembled? But the fact is that there is a possibility. I’ll admit that I’m one of those people who (almost) always wants the main characters to live. But I can always accept it if they die.

  35. There’s almost nothing more painful than a character you’ve fallen in love with being killed off in the story. Especially a main character. I definitely agree with the fact that bringing Holmes back to life at the end of the movie, while entirely amusing, did decrease the value of his sacrifice.

    Any mention of ‘main character death’ elicits terrible memories of Code Geass. While I don’t want to spoil it for anyone who reads this comment but doesn’t know the glory of Code Geass yet, the fandom is still embroiled in debate over the ending, to my knowledge. It was soul-crushing to watch the last few minutes of R2, EP 25, but there was finality to it. And it’s probably one of the reasons Code Geass has remained at the top of my favorite animes list throughout all this time.

  36. Sherlock’s sacrifice was still a sacrifice in my mind. Yeah he had the breathing device, but there was still risk involved with it. It would have been so easy for Sherlock to hit a rock or lose the breathing device in the water. He knew it was going to be of use, so he brought it with him. However, I don’t think he never imagined it would be have been used in that particular way.

  37. At the end of the day, I think that authors have to have some kind of supremacy over what happens to their characters. Whether a character should live or not depends entirely on the story and the meanings associated with it. Sometimes stories have to kill their protagonists, because otherwise the rest of the story wouldn’t make any sense symbolically or textually. It all comes down to the choice of the author and the needs of the story. But like Sherlock Holmes, there are plenty of characters worth keeping alive!

  38. The book did a great job on revived Sherlock Holmes, and fill the need of the fans.

  39. I feel like killing off main characters has become sort of cliche in the past few years, especially when dealing with Harry Potter and Game of Thrones. On the contrary, it’s always fun to shock your readers with an out of nowhere death that pushes your story forward.

  40. Dominic Sceski

    Thanks for the comments everybody!!! You’ve definitely given me some serious things to think about, both in how they apply to my writing and the stories of others.

  41. I am a massive fan of the Sherlock Holmes short stories and everything to come after. I think the demand to bring Holmes back and Doyle’s compliance really set a trend and was definitely an example of historical fan service. Doyle rather disliked Holmes by the end of his life and I wonder if that’s because the character seemed to stop belonging to him, but rather, belonged to the public.

  42. Evan Webster Wiley

    Always great to talk more about the form of a film and the way in which that can alter the spectatorship of a film. Well done!

  43. Well apparently my thoughts are a bit outside the norm. But here they are anyways.

    While I don’t always like when a character comes “back to life”, there is something very thrilling when you get to see your favourite character on screen/page/what-have-you again. Don’t you feel that rush when you get to someone whom you have missed for so long? I sometimes get that feeling when seeing a familiar, favourite face. I know I did when I saw Sherlock Holmes after his “death”, or you first realized that Harry Potter isn’t dead. I think that sometimes it is a sign of a good character, when you realize that they haven’t died, and therefore, viewers/readers get to spend more time with them.

    One last thing, I also see the value in the “good vs. evil” theme in movies or books. They are not always realistic, but I think that they can teach us something, hope.

    I’ll leave with this quote from The Shawshank Redemption, “hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things, and no good thing ever dies”.

  44. Sometimes, killing off a character just has to do with knowing the audience. Are Game of Thrones viewers open to the idea of watching beloved main characters die? Apparently, because while people get mad when it happens (and understandably so), they keep watching. It keeps their interest because it keeps it real. Are viewers of other shows, or audiences of other works, willing to accept this? In a movie for a less mature audience, maybe.

    It also raises questions of how we interpret “reality” in fiction. Fiction, by definition, is not reality–so how much reality do we expect, or need, from our fiction? Are we willing to make concessions for the sake of keeping a story alive, or do we stick to the brutal facts of death?

  45. In 2015, “Mr. Holmes” hit theaters very quietly across the country. For Holmes fans, it is an elegant and profound film that allows us to watch Holmes solve his last mystery and learn yet one more lesson before he dies.

    I gave it an A on my movie review blog at:

    What did you think of it?

  46. What’s interesting is that Sherlock Holmes blurs the fiction and nonfiction lines. There are people who believe him to be real and when Conan Doyle killed him off, the nation was in mourning. People wore black when Holmes died.

  47. Natalie

    Can you please tell me where you found the image of the risen Jesus leaving the tomb? I am trying to find the original source of the image and have been unable to do so. Thank you!
    Natalie Roberts

  48. Joseph Cernik

    A good essay, insightful.

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