Being an ardent fan of Sherlock (or any text) can be like playing a game of deduction: using the data you already have on the characters, you must often extrapolate and theorize if you want to know more about them. Writers of fan fiction must be especially comfortable with this process, since often they are filling in the gaps between scenes or between series, or even putting these beloved characters into completely different settings and situations.

One branch of literary criticism, reader response theory, argues that we all do this every single time we read or view something. We automatically fill in the gaps as we go, each of us pulling from our own experiences in order to make meaning from what we see. So we bring our baggage, good and bad, to everything we consume, incorporating the new text into all the texts we already have inside of us. Not only that, but we do this every time we interact with a text, so that the meaning we each create the first time we watch Sherlock will be different from the fifth (or fifteenth!) time.

This interaction is not one-way; in this theory, reading (or viewing) is a transaction between audience and text, a negotiation with the text that cannot happen without a reader or viewer to react to it. One way to view fanwork is as a transaction between a text and its audience. Consuming or creating fan fiction or art is an interchange between the show and its viewers, allowing us to become part of the process–a process that certainly continues beyond the moment when the credits roll on the screen. In choosing what to read or write about, fans pick out which aspects of canon engage them, and which facets need more exploration.

And many fan fiction writers, for various reasons, choose to focus on the female characters of the show.

The Gender Gaps

In Sherlock, like so many versions of the Holmes and Watson stories, we have two male main characters who control the narrative. We see events mainly through John’s or Sherlock’s eyes; we focus on their choices, their actions and reactions. And that’s the focus the storytellers have chosen for us. For better or worse, once again, the story is all about two white men.

And I love these two white men. I’ve obsessed over them, written dozens of fics about them, read hundreds more. I want to know all about their stories.

But I also want to know the stories of the female characters that surround them.

I’m greedy like that. When I get attached to a series or a film, I want to consume every bit of it, down to the most minor character, the smallest scrap of dialogue. Unfortunately, for many of the female characters on Sherlock, scraps are sometimes all we get.

Even the women we see the most on screen–Molly Hooper, Irene Adler, Mrs. Hudson, Mary Morstan–have gaps in their stories. Molly unknowingly dated Moriarty–what was that like? How did she feel when she realized his true identity? Did Irene forgive Sherlock for throwing her to the wolves? Who is Kate to her? How complicit was Mrs Hudson in getting her husband caught? How did she feel about being an exotic dancer? And there are so many questions about Mary, and about John’s sister Harry, that I’d better not even start.

Consider a female character we see only in a few very short scenes: Ella Thompson. We see her as John’s therapist in only two of the ten episodes, and then only for a matter of seconds. In “A Study in Pink”, she’s trying to help John “adjust to civilian life”; in “The Reichenbach Fall” she is trying to help him cope with Sherlock’s death, to say the “stuff” that John “wanted to say”. Both are crucial moments in John’s life, and Ella is in the challenging position of getting a man for whom “this sort of stuff” is “difficult” (to say the least!) to actually talk about his feelings. Does she succeed? What is that like for her, professionally? When their time is up, does she shelve her thoughts and feelings about her clients, or do they haunt her and follow her home?

As viewers, we will most likely never know much more about Ella. The only other mention of John being in therapy in canon is in “The Sign of Three”, when John mentions to Sholto that he still goes for a “top-up”; we can probably safely assume that he’s still seeing Ella, but who knows if we’ll see her on screen again. And so we are left with our imaginations if we want to know more about her.

This is, of course, true for any character, but it’s even more challenging to fill in the larger gaps left by those who have had less screen time–and many such characters have been female. We fill these gaps in lots of ways, by indulging in speculation and building headcanon, by using experience and logical deduction…and by reading and writing fan fiction.

Filling the Gaps with Fanfic

The reasons for turning to fan fiction are many. Sometimes, starved from the long hiatuses between series, we simply want to have more material. For others, fan fiction can be a venue for critique, whether to “fix” a bit of canon they take issue with or to balance out the representation they see (or, rather, don’t see) on a show whose main characters are predominantly white, male, and heteronormative. When the only canonically gay couples are never seen on screen (Harry and Clara, Mrs. Turner’s “married ones”) when the characters of color are all minor characters who either have limited screen time, are reduced to stereotypes or get killed (Soo Lin Yao, General Shan, Sally Donovan, Ella Thompson, Corporal Lyons) when a female character known from the original stories to be the only woman who has outsmarted Sherlock Holmes (Irene Adler) has her story changed so that she ends up losing to him instead there is a lot of room for improvement, and fan fiction often attempts to give these characters more presence, more agency, and more layers. Though I am half Mexican, I am white passing and have not had the same experiences as other people of color in this fandom; and though I hope fan fiction can be a way for fans of color to write about these often underdeveloped and maligned characters of color, I admit my first hope would be to see these characters be fully developed within canon. Fan fiction is but one important step to increasing representation.

Every writer and reader will have their own reasons for digging deeper into these characters and imagining how they might exist beyond what the show has given us. For me, focusing on these lesser known (or less popular) characters is a kind of writing challenge, of course: to take a less-defined character and fill them out, give them more depth and backstory. But, specifically for female characters, it’s also a form of wish-fulfillment in several ways. It satisfies my desire to know more about the female characters I have come to care about on this show. But, also, I can see myself in Molly, Sally, Sarah, Ella, Soo Lin, or Mary. I can connect to them in a way that I can’t connect with the male characters simply because we have the shared experience of being female. Writing them is an indirect way of seeing myself in the story; it slakes my thirst for more female-centered texts with women in crucial, lead roles within the narratives I encounter.

One of my favorite things to do as a writer of fan fiction is to investigate the empty spaces, to sift through the canon scenes we do have for clues and then “deduce” how that character might behave in the in-between. Then, if I can take that character and put her in new situations and alternate universes, hopefully she will become more than the constraints of the show have allowed her to be. In fan fiction, she has room to grow, and space to be.

My Attempts

Though I am in no way a paragon of anything, I have endeavored to fill in some of the gaps when it comes to the female characters of Sherlock. Could I do better? Could I do more? The answer is a resounding ‘yes’. And so I hope to keep writing about these characters for a long time to come! Here is some of what I’ve done so far.

The first story I wrote in the Sherlock fandom was almost entirely from Molly Hooper’s point of view. I wanted to explore how a woman with what initially amounted to a crush on a brilliant but brusque man could eventually be willing to break the law and lie in order to protect him. We see her on screen with an interesting and realistic blend of traits–feminine, smart, sometimes awkward, but also unfailingly honest and willing to speak up for herself. I wanted to see her struggle with her decision to help Sherlock fake his death and the consequences of that, so I forced her into a situation that would test her choice. (Rarely Pure and Never Simple).

In this vein, I also wrote about Sarah Sawyer, whom we learn a lot about in “The Blind Banker”, after which she essentially disappears from the narrative. However, in the time she was on screen, we saw that she could have been a fully-drawn character who might fit nicely into John and Sherlock’s lives–and they into hers. She’s a doctor who is smart, resourceful, and good in a fight, and, like John, she seems to accept the chaos and danger inherent to Sherlock’s profession. So I started with the question of how these three could be drawn together into a successful relationship, each of them equal and choosing to be together. (And Not Or).

Anthea, Mycroft Holmes’ assistant, is a fascinating character despite her having had perhaps five minutes total of screen time among the ten episodes. In that time, she has shown herself as unflappable, loyal, and sassy, and I love writing from her point of view. In one fic, I wrote her almost as a sentinel, watching over Mycroft when he’s ill. (Measured).

From there, I wanted to explore a fic idea with no men involved at all–just Molly and Irene, in 1940s London, separated from all the canon details in order to investigate the idea of them being attracted to each other. (Diversionary Tactics).

In the future, I want to investigate the Sherlock universe from Ella’s point of view. What does she think of all this? What is her life like outside of her sessions with John? What challenges and joys does she have of her own?

I’d also love to put together a female Holmes and female Watson, but not by changing the genders of John and Sherlock. Instead, I’d like to investigate a similar dynamic but with a pair of existing female characters, maybe with the acerbic and clever Sally Donovan as the genius detective and Sarah as the loyal doctor–or perhaps Mary and Molly, or Kitty Riley and Ella.

I’ll always want more versions of the Holmes and Watson story, and I’ll always want to know more about the people in their lives who challenge them and support them. I’m hoping someday soon we will have a mainstream version of these tales in which both main characters are played by women. Until then, we can enjoy fanart and fanfic that includes rich and varied portrayals of the female characters in the Sherlock universe; it may never be as voluminous as the body of work focused on Watson and Holmes, but it is out there, and it is worth pursuing.

The Attempts of Others: Fanfic Recommendations

The following list is a sampling of stories that I feel do a fantastic job of rounding out female characters from Sherlock. I received many great suggestions from folks on tumblr and combed through bookmarks and tags on archiveofourown.org; I aimed for one story per character to provide a varied list. For some characters (such as Ella), it was difficult to find works that focused on them or their point of view, but for others (like Molly) there were many, many fics to choose from. This list is just a starting point, and I, of course, encourage everyone to read and write more about these women! (As always, caveat lector; read the tags and author notes for each work to get a better sense of possibly upsetting content.)

  • An Avalanche of Detour Signs by gyzym. The author takes us through several years of Molly Hooper’s life; we see the world from Molly’s point of view as she pursues her own professional and personal goals.
  • In Flames: The Life and Death of Soo Lin Yao by radial_symmetry. This fic uses poignant imagery to create a detailed, vivid backstory for Soo Lin Yao (from the problematic episode “The Blind Banker”), painting her as a fully-developed character with agency.
  • Say My Name by etothepii. This fic focuses on Anthea, Mycroft’s personal assistant, blending third person narrative with entries from Anthea’s blog and allowing us to see through her eyes.
  • My Best Friend Margaret by bubblesbythebeach. In “The Sign of Three,” Mrs Hudson mentions her best friend’s early exit from her wedding; this fic gives life to that friendship and suggests why Margaret might have left early.
  • The Woman Who Was by LyraNgalia. Even with amnesia, Irene Adler is a force to be reckoned with; in the cocoon of 221b she rebuilds, transforms, and emerges victorious.
  • Disregard the Danger by destinationtoast. This novel-length fic from Mary Morstan’s point of view remains compliant with events from the third series while illuminating Mary’s past and present in rich detail.
  • Sally and the Genius by pennypaperbrain. This fic is short but packs a wallop, giving us a powerful backstory for Sally Donovan.
  • Command and Control by gloria_scott. Mycroft tries to get information out of John’s therapist, Ella Thompson, but what she gives him instead is insight.
  • Lorem Ipsum series by saathi1013. All together, the stories that make up this series build a complex, layered depiction of Sarah Sawyer and how she builds a life that includes both the men of Baker Street.
  • Affirm Me by rachel4revenge. This fic casts Janine as a (mostly) knowing participant in Sherlock’s plan to confront Magnussen, and reunites them when Sherlock needs a safe place to hide.
  • Me Too by whitchry9.  In this short piece, we see Kitty Riley react to the consequences of her actions.
  • The Least of All Possible Mistakes by rageprufrock. This fic casts Lestrade as a female detective inspector; Georgiana Lestrade is a richly developed lead character who works to maintain her principles as she navigates relationships with the Holmes brothers (including a romance with Mycroft).