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Marissa Lingen

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Biographical hazards and characterization ramble [Jun. 30th, 2013|07:56 pm]
Marissa Lingen
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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.




Originally published at Novel Gazing Redux

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Comments:
[User Picture]From: madwriter
2013-07-01 01:14 am (UTC)
"if anyone tells you that Thor was the king of the Norse gods..."

Well, not yet. I think he's first in line to the throne nowadays, though. :)
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-01 02:31 am (UTC)
Thor is the god of peasants. If he gets to be in charge, then I expect it to be--

Oh. I think I just figured out Scandinavian socialism.
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[User Picture]From: blue_hat_guru
2013-07-01 03:31 am (UTC)
Tee hee.
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[User Picture]From: wild_irises
2013-07-01 05:01 am (UTC)
Two things: first, are you aware that papersky's WisCon speech was about likable characters in fiction? So the two of you are tracking some similar things.

Second, where I think about this most is in the biographical novel. A few years back, I read Barbara Hambly's The Emancipator's Wife, and what struck me is that while Mary Todd Lincoln is incontrovertibly fascinating, and in some odd ways likable, her life didn't track like a fiction story, and Hambly is stuck between the rock of biography and the hard place of novel structure.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-01 12:27 pm (UTC)
I was not aware, but I am not surprised; we talk about books and writing and stuff kind of a lot.

And yes: biographical novels are very VERY difficult, and not always the fun kind of difficult.
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[User Picture]From: between4walls
2013-07-01 06:10 am (UTC)
"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."

This breakdown helps me figure out the two different tonal failure modes of biographies for me. Someone who likes their subject has to be careful of over-familiarity (especially those bios that refer to their subject by first name, or worse still, nickname throughout). You're not their best friend, author!

Someone who lacks any sympathy for their subject can fall into the trap of a snide and over-distant tone. Now I like a good bit of snark as much as anyone, but if I'm reading a biography I would like to get, insofar as evidence permits, a sense of how the subject saw and experienced the world and how their mind work. And there's a distance at which that becomes impossible. I don't know if sympathy (in a broader sense, as an mental faculty, not necessarily with the aims of one's subject) is necessary, but in the complete absence of sympathy I'll start reading purely for the source quotes and facts and ignore the thesis or interpretation.

"the real pitfall is for the biographer to buy into their subject’s shtick."

The most annoying part of this (imo) being when authors portray/judge people besides their subject based solely on their relation to the subject.

"Even Hilary Mantel can decide that somebody needs to have better lines than history might give them"

She writes such glorious sentences. Have you read A Place of Greater Safety? It's amazingly ambitious (and imo more interesting than the Cromwell books because it has several POV's, each with the immersive depth of Cromwell's, but sometimes undercutting each other). But the temptation to give "better lines" or at least a more interesting motive gets the better of her with the result that a crucial twist becomes way less interesting than it was in real life. Being stuck might have been better.
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[User Picture]From: between4walls
2013-07-01 06:11 am (UTC)
Despite that caveat, I highly recommend it.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-01 12:28 pm (UTC)
I have not yet read A Place of Greater Safety, but alecaustin has a copy he is reading, and I hope to borrow it after him.
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[User Picture]From: between4walls
2013-07-04 08:22 pm (UTC)
Oh, good. It was her first novel (though published later on) so it has some first novel issues, but it's astounding in its scope and ambition.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-01 12:43 pm (UTC)
The most annoying part of this (imo) being when authors portray/judge people besides their subject based solely on their relation to the subject.

OH YES OH LORDY YES. I find it SO ANNOYING when they do this.
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[User Picture]From: oursin
2013-07-01 07:38 am (UTC)
All sorts of things happen that you cannot fix.

The person to whom they wrote long gossipy letters about what they really, really thought about their colleagues died.
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[User Picture]From: fidelioscabinet
2013-07-01 02:08 pm (UTC)
Robert Caro was clearly fascinated by both Robert Moses and Lyndon Johnson. It's also pretty plain he didn't care much for Moses and alternates between horror and admiration where Johnson's concerned. So, yeah, I think you're right.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-01 02:36 pm (UTC)
Another good US Presidential biographer example is Morris on Roosevelt. If there's anybody fascinating whose shtick should not always be believed....
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[User Picture]From: arielstarshadow
2013-07-01 02:24 pm (UTC)
Thoughts! I have some!

1. Fleetwood Mac (a band that did very well for a while in terms of continuing on despite a change in the members... not so well when they tried to replace Buckingham years back, but that's because Buckingham is, in my opinion, a genius both in terms of his guitar playing as well as songwriting and musical arrangement, and one can't simply replace him and expect the music to be of the same quality)

2. I am one of those who almost always needs to feel a connection to the characters to continue reading. I say "connection to" instead of "like" because there have been books I've read where I didn't necessarily like the characters, but they were compelling enough for me to connect with them and thus want to keep reading. Frankly, the Dresden Files falls into this category - I don't necessarily like Harry, but he is compelling enough as a character that I can enjoy the books (and it definitely helps that there are a lot of awesome secondary characters). This is one reason why I never made it through GRRM's Game of Thrones: the only character to which I felt any connection was Ned Stark, and so after the first book? I had no real reason to keep reading. I tried, made it to about 1/3 of the way through the second book before admitting I had no interest.

3. Thor as the king of the Gods... oh my.

4. I agree, Criminal Minds is awful at replacing people. I love the show, but... yeah. "Quick! We need a brunette!" "We've lost JJ! Another light blonde, stat!"
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-01 02:37 pm (UTC)
Interesting that you should use the Dresden Files as an example. For awhile I was calling them the "Molly, Murphy, and Mouse books" because of my reasons for reading, but it's gotten to the point where that's just not enough for me any more.
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[User Picture]From: rushthatspeaks
2013-07-01 04:01 pm (UTC)
Yeah, this is why Fiona MacCarthy's biography of Byron is one of the most fascinating bios I've ever read, because she was commissioned by her publisher and couldn't get out of it, and she is one of the best and most professional biographers now working. And she hates Byron. Like, the more she finds out about him, the more she just clearly hates him and everything about him. But she manages to deliver a bio where her total hatred bleeds through in every sentence, and yet you can see why it is that people who aren't her (such as, for example, me) are interested by and quite fond of Byron. I was very impressed and I don't think I've seen anyone else pull that off quite so well.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-01 07:25 pm (UTC)
Oh, that sounds like quite a feat. Nifty.
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[User Picture]From: pameladean
2013-07-01 05:53 pm (UTC)
You make me feel that the best attitude to have towards one's biographical subject is a kind of exasperated fascination, an eye-rolling affection. It's not a bad attitude to have towards one's fictional characters, either.

P.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-01 07:24 pm (UTC)
Indeed! Well, one's characters are often like that.
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[User Picture]From: alecaustin
2013-07-04 06:04 pm (UTC)
Truer words.
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[User Picture]From: between4walls
2013-07-04 08:20 pm (UTC)
That can easily slide into condescension, though.
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-01 07:20 pm (UTC)
I expect to finish Wednesday or so.
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From: dsgood
2013-07-01 11:42 pm (UTC)
I stopped reading one travel book (on taking a year off to go around the world, I vaguely recall) because the writer said that if you rented out your house while you were gone, you'd have no reason to worry about the house.

I don't finish Old Tymes fantasy by writers who think feudalism and absolute monarchy are the same thing.

I no longer finish stories by writers who get synesthesia wrong, wrong, wrong.
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[User Picture]From: blue_hat_guru
2013-07-02 04:45 am (UTC)
And now I am reminded of the biography I read in which the lines "It is common for a biographer to develop greater sympathy and understanding of their subject in the course or research and writing. That did not prove to be true in this case."
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[User Picture]From: mrissa
2013-07-02 12:13 pm (UTC)
Hee!
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