The Biography Continuum

I’ve recently read two biographies – one on Clementine Churchill and another on Wallis Simpson. Actually the second is labelled fictional biography which brings me to the point of today’s post: the biography continuum.

In a post called Three Flavours of Historical Fiction, I suggested a taxonomy for historical fiction to illustrate the varying ways novels adhere to historical fact, present historical characters, and present historical detail. And what can be said about biographies of historical figures?



The facts, the facts: Some biographies – the one on Penelope Fitzgerald is an example – adhere so strictly to fact that the reader can discover the name of an individual’s favourite stuffed animal or their preferred brand of tea and likely both. No doubt I’m doing an injustice to Hermione Lee, however, the detail in this biography was so dense and, to my mind, irrelevant, I did not read past Penelope Fitzgerald’s early life. Alternatively, Patton: Blood, Guts and Prayer by Michael Keane weaves facts drawn from biographies, family papers, speeches, and Patton’s personal diaries to illustrate the complexities of this famous soldier while building a compelling picture of dedication and leadership.

Story elements: Some biographers incorporate a sense of story to the biography, captivating readers with a more selective approach to their subject’s biography and creating a story arc (to borrow a concept from fiction) that includes tension, conflict and rich character development. Sonia Purnell might be offended but I’ve put her biography of Clementine Churchill in this category. One aspect Purnell is particularly adept at is creating dialogue using actual words from the extensive correspondence between Clementine and Winston as well as friends and other family members.

Fictional biography: With fictional biography, authors more freely imagine aspects of their subject’s life to weave a novel from the facts. We might think of the facts as the background and the story as the foreground. The Shadow Queen by Rebecca Dean includes so much detail of Wallis Simpson’s life, I actually thought I was reading a biography for the first several chapters. Alternatively, when reading Circling the Sun by Paula McLain, I had no doubt I was in the grip of fiction.

I enjoy biographies and have been totally engrossed by many over the years. What are your thoughts and preferences?

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M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website

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11 Responses

  1. Interesting post. Even with “pure” biography I suspect there is a certain amount of choice and sifting.

    The term fictional biography is new to me. How was the Wallis Simpson book? She always struck me as a fascinating subject.

  2. I enjoyed this – it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently, with the start of my second historical fiction novel. With my first, The Popish Midwife, I was lucky enough to find the story was already there, already exciting and interesting. Like Clementine Churchill, I’ve used a lot of Elizabeth Cellier’s own words, woven into the story. But, with the next book, I have less to work with, and more to imagine. I suspect the story’s going to be another place along the continuum 🙂 (I do like that idea of a continuum! It’s something that comes up over and over!)

  3. Thank you Mary for this very interesting post! I will make sure to go back to it next time I read a biography.

    I am generally a big fan of biographies that read like novels, and my preference goes for the “story elements” kind. I was especially impressed by “Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman” by Robert K. Massie. Like Prunell, Massie manages to create dialogues using actual words written by Catherine. I also thoroughly enjoyed the biography of Louise-Marie d’Orléans, the first Queen of Belgium, by Mia Kerckvoorde (which I think is only available in French and Dutch).

    That said, one of my favourite books is Margaret George’s novel “Mary, Queen of Scotland and the Isles”, which I guess would fall under the “fictional biography” category.

  4. I had missed your “Three Flavours of Historical Fiction” last year (sorry!). My ILLUSIONS OF MAGIC, as you know, falls into your class of historical novels that concern ordinary people. The true-life assassination attempt on FDR and wounding of Chicago’s mayor, however, form an essential complement, and if I may disagree slightly, become more than background as the story completes its arc.
    Concerning your “Three Flavours,” I admit to not quite understanding the final sentence’s reference to “…the right hand side of …these spectrums.” Would you care to elaborate?

    1. Hi J.B. … and thanks for your comment. Here’s a few paragraphs leading up to your questions. “From an article in The Telegraph, David Mitchell, author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Groot, had this to say about historical fiction: “One reason [for its continued popularity] is that it delivers a stereo narrative: from one speaker comes the treble of the novel’s own plot while the other speaker plays the bass of history’s plot.”

      Mitchell goes on to say: “Perhaps this is the paradox that beats inside historical fiction’s rib cage: the “historical” half demands fidelity to the past, while the “fiction” half requires infidelity – people must be dreamt up, their acts fabricated and the lies of art must be told.”

      Using Mitchell’s analogy: the bass of history’s plot booms louder and the fidelity dial is tuned more acutely when authors create novels on the right hand side of each of these spectrums.”

      What I was trying to say is that stories on the right hand side of each spectrum (famous historical figures, or fiction close to non-fiction, or plot driven by history) requires history’s plot and adherence to fact to be more prominent in those types of novels. Hope this helps.

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