Biography as a Source of Fiction

A consideration of using biographical works as a way of broadening your fictional outlook while helping understand where the pitfalls lie.

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People write (auto)biographies because they have stories to tell. This doesn’t mean that the events contained within a life naturally fall into a narrative form. Biographies are storied by running a thread through events in order to connect them. This writing style is similar but rarely the same as you’ll find in a work of ficiton. Fictional characters are more often an amalgam (or a generalisation) of personality traits, which are explored through a narrative. Novels are about awakenings and changing awareness, and yes this can be injected into biographies – the protagonist of a biography sat watching the sunrise having escaped over the border to Mexico. But it rarely feels like an organic part of the whole as it does in fiction, more like a set piece.

Lives as depicted in biography are often described as having moments of struggle followed by plateaus, failure vs success. This is true of numerous fictional characters too: Jane Eyre, for example. But it is likely a consequence of biographies borrowing from the bildungsroman rather than lives themselves falling so neatly into line. This is also no doubt why the lives of celebrities and historical figures are so familiar to us in the shape and form of their narrative before we even read their biographies.

I typically set out reading biographies with great enthusiasm when something about a person catches my imagination. By a couple of hundred pages in, I’m simply interested in knowing the main events and the ending. I rarely stay excited about the writing itself, or the efforts to make me read the life in a certain way.

To understand this short-lived enthusiasm, it is important to understand how the discipline of fiction instructs and informs historical and biographical writing. For works of non-fiction adopt established narrative forms and tropes, then use them over and over, which can lead to a sense of clumsiness and an all too obvious set of narrative aims being apparent within it.

If you are to take from biography as a source of fiction, it is important to scrub it down, to peel off the outer layers of storying so that you can apply your own, not simply as a fresh lick of paint but to attend to the substructure. You must question the integrity of the biographical portrait like a surveyor would a building. Better still take the whole thing apart and use the materials to build something new. This is especially true for those seeking to borrow more than character traits or details from a particular mode of life. If you are aiming to paint a real-life portrait, then it would be wise to read as many (auto)biographies and reports about the person in question as you can. Similarly, if you are reading biography in order to gain insights into a profession or living in a certain place, the more angles you have, the more easily you can imagine yourself into that person or place and avoid presenting cardboard cutouts.

Fiction does have its stock characters and stereotyping can be used to great comic effect but this likely isn’t the reason why you’d choose to research through biography – unless it is to uphold a stereotype as justified. This leads me to conclude that biography is a good source through which to go beyond your own experiences but that it should be approached with an awareness and understanding of the pitfalls alongside its possibilities.

Anthony Levings is a writer compelled by capturing moments in time and history.

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