Sherlock Holmes should be dead.
I mean, the original version of Sherlock -- not the one played by Benedict Cumberbatch or Robert Downey Jr. -- is dead in the sense that his originator, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, will never write another story about him (because he’s also dead), but in his own fictional universe, he never died. The last we see of the good detective and his companion Dr. John Watson, he’s well into a comfortable retirement where he spends his days taking care of bees. So far as readers are concerned, he’s still doing that, forever deducing in a farm in the south of England.
This wasn’t always the case.
For a period of time, Sherlock Holmes did actually die, a victim of Doyle’s desire to write more serious works. In “The Final Problem”, Holmes and his adversary Professor Moriarity had (off-screen) tumbled to their mutual deaths off the Reichenbach Falls in Switzerland. Holmes was dead, but in a way that Doyle felt was appropriate -- grappling with the one man (aside from Holmes’ brother Mycroft) who could be considered the great detective’s intellectual equal. Fans would be satisfied, and Doyle, as he wrote in a letter to his mother, could move on to “better things”.
His mother anticipated the reaction of his fans in her reply: “You won’t! You can’t! You musn’t!”
Fans have odd relationships with the creators of their favored works. Any person who likes a piece of media will naturally be appreciative of the person who came up with it, with that appreciation often morphing into a kind of love. So long as the fan maintains his love of the creation, his love of the creator remains undiminished. As anyone who’s ever been in love knows, however, it’s a matter of a knife’s edge for love to turn to hate.
Remember the status George Lucas use to hold among Star Wars fans? The original Star Wars trilogy was the easiest thing in the world to love -- it didn’t create modern sci-fi fandom, but it certainly brought it into the mainstream. Lucas was kind of a svengali figure, a man who had created something people could devote their entire lives to. He was, in the most minor of senses, a modern-day god.
Then: the prequel trilogy. Jar Jar Binks. Midichlorians. Pod racing. Poop jokes. Child actors. Blue screens. Awful dialogue Slightly racist alien character designs. Thousands of brightly colored explosions with no substance. Darth Vader literally shouting “Noooooooo!” at the end of the third movie.
Lucas may have been a god before that, but he did the worst thing a god can do -- he bled, all over the screen.
Broadly, there are three things creators can do to their works to make fans hate them:
1) Lead them on
Don’t go and promise the reveal of a great mystery at the end of your novel if you haven’t, like, actually figured out said reveal yourself. Fans will remember your marketing, and if you blow the dismount, they will not be forgiving.
Examples: Lost (kinda), Mass Effect, The Wheel of Time
2) Ruin everything
It’s hard enough having one good idea -- what happens when you run out just when things are starting to heat up on your fantasy epic? Maybe you start to shake things up a bit -- switch the genre around, introduce extreme new characters, maybe do the whole thing as a prequel. Mike Stoklasa of Redlettermedia, the team behind an epic series of breakdowns of the Star Wars prequel trilogy, described this less as “ruining my childhood” (a common complaint regarding remakes, sequels, and prequels) and more “disappointing my adulthood”. This is basically what happened to Lucas.
Examples: Star Wars, Sonic the Hedgehog, Indiana Jones
In a way, this is the least offensive thing you could do to make your fanbase revolt. It’s also the most painful.
Imagine you’re a contemporary Sherlock Holmes fan. There aren’t a whole lot of people writing high-quality detective stories, so you’re basically totally reliant on Doyle to give you your fix. Luckily, he publishes them fairly regularly, so you’re in a good spot. In fact, you’re about to finish The Final Problem, so you’ll have even more to discuss with your friends who also love Holmes. Maybe you can even speculate on what Holmes’ next adventure will be!
Then, you get to the ending, and he dies. Worse, he dies off-screen, in the middle of his career, with dozens of theoretical cases left unsolved. He’s died twice on you in the space of a minute -- once when he tumbled over the falls, locked in combat with Moriarity, and the second time when you realize that’s it for him. If Doyle had decided to hold fast, you’d never see Holmes again.
Doyle might have thought that Sherlock Holmes was his, but he was only partially right. A piece of media stands on its own artistically, but the creator needs people to like it -- otherwise, he’s writing to no one. Fan demand may be suffocating, or petty, or downright frightening, but if it’s loud enough and persistent enough, you’d be foolish to simply ignore it.
After years of petitioning from his fans, Doyle revealed in “The Adventure of the Empty House” that Holmes had faked his death. The great detective was back, and fans rejoiced. Doyle went on to write over thirty more Holmes stories. Maybe Doyle felt that he had to give up his dreams of high art in order to do this, but he should have known he wasn’t done with Holmes once he detected the first inklings of love from his fans. No one ever said love was without sacrifice.
Joe DeMartino is a Connecticut-based writer who grew up wanting to be Ted Williams, but you would not BELIEVE how hard it is to hit a baseball, so he gave that up because he writes words OK. He talks about exploding suns, video games, karaoke, and other cool shit at his blog. He can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org and tweeted at @thetoycannon. He writes about sports elsewhere. The sports sells better.