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