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Biographical hazards and characterization ramble

Last night as I was casting aside a library book with great prejudice (people: if anyone tells you that Thor was the king of the Norse gods–as a casual aside in a work of purported nonfiction, no less!–regard whatever else they say as suspect, because they do not know what they do not know), Mark suggested that this was the wrong approach because if I don’t finish books, I don’t blog about them to warn people. And it’s true, this is the tradeoff I make for not wanting to be unfair about books I don’t finish: I don’t warn you in advance that they are unfinishable. I’ve seen a couple of low-rated books on my mother-in-law’s Good Reads because of this and felt mildly guilty. It still feels like the right balance, but occasionally I make the “why I quit reading your book” posts to talk about general issues.

This one is with biographies. In order to write a biography of any length, it’s easiest to find the subject interesting, or you will be screamingly bored with your book. A good biographer understands the difference between “interesting,” “likeable,” and “sympathetic.” You’ll see the difference between interesting and likeable extremely clearly if you read corrective biographies, which are easiest to find about recent politicians: some historian or political scientist will get fed up with their sense that everything about Politician X is better referred to as St. X, and will write up a biography that corrects that view. Mostly these people have to be interested in X, or at least in X’s effects on the world, in order to do it at all–but sympathy and liking are definitely not required. (Good examples of this include Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy.) But outside politics, corrective bios are rarer, and the real pitfall is for the biographer to buy into their subject’s shtick. If your subject says, “I am the greatest musician of my generation!”, that’s an interesting window on your subject’s views, or at least on how your subject has tried to present them to the world. But for you to decide that this means your subject is the greatest musician of a generation–or more–is short-sighted and silly. And you should at least have some notion of who you are implicitly downgrading and why if you choose to accept the greatest musician notion.

The interesting/likeable/sympathetic split seems to come up with fictional characters, because a great many readers use the phrase, “I didn’t like any of the characters,” or, “I didn’t like this character,” pretty much interchangeably among these options. And I think the only one that’s really necessary for all readers is interesting. Some people really do want to read only about characters they’d be willing to have dinner with; some people really do want to read only about characters whose aims are compatible with their own. But some people don’t, in both of those cases, whereas nobody says, “This person is so boring to me, give me another hundred thousand words about them!”

One of the places this can go badly awry is if you need to kill off a major character. This can shift the balance of interesting/likeable/sympathetic in disastrous ways, because there will almost always be readers for whom Dead Guy A was the only one who fit the bill–they were reading for A. This is not a reason not to kill characters, but it’s certainly a reason to pay attention to what things people might like in your writing and why.

Last weekend a bunch of us were talking about bands that had broken up or carried on under the same name but without the exact group of people as before, and it looked to me like one of the most successful modes of carrying on is to not just replace the person who has left, but to add multiple people with slightly different (often overlapping) skills. Two of the places this has worked well for me are in the TV shows House and early seasons of MI5 (Spooks in the UK). One of the places it has not worked well despite my liking the show quite a bit is Criminal Minds. CM has a habit of replacing people demographically: Young Brunette Woman, Middle-Aged Dark-Haired Man, even a run at a substitution in the category of Young Blonde Woman. This encouraged me to compare directly or to scornfully refer to the replacement early on as The Fake [Character Name], whereas having a less direct substitution just shifts the dynamic overall.

Late seasons of MI5 have not succeeded nearly so well with this, I should say. The show is a bit infamous for being willing to kill or otherwise get rid of characters who would be pivotal in other shows–you really cannot count on any one character being around for the next episode. Early on, they were very good at fast characterization, giving me a quick hook to hang my caring on. Like many readers/viewers, I wanted to keep caring about a show I liked, so hey, look, it’s an older lady coming back to spy some more, and look at her doing the following things, hurrah! Ditto for various other characters. But by the time it got around to Tariq, it became clear that I wanted to like the character (young Near Eastern-British hacker nerd spy!) more than I was actually being given very much of the character to like. He was filling a role, and the other new S9/S10 spies even more so. I have three episodes left, and it’s begun to look a lot more like, “We need somebody to do such-and-such! You’re a warm body, and such-and-such is exciting! Go do such-and-such!” So if you’re going to substitute in a new bass player and keyboardist for your old bass player, you need to write pretty cool solos for bass and keys. Or at least let them improvise.

Biography does not have this benefit. Sometimes the person you find interesting is surrounded by interesting people up to a point, and then you run into the Great War or the Black Death or whatever, and suddenly everyone interesting has died and there’s nothing you can do about it. This is why I would not be a real historian if you paid me. All sorts of things happen that you cannot fix. Even Hilary Mantel can decide that somebody needs to have better lines than history might give them, but when you’re a real historian, you’re stuck.

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