Accuracy vs. Character: The Debate Around Biographical Fiction – by Chiara Fumanti

Reality is a fact. Right? Well…

In the realm of life writing, reality might not be as straightforward as it seems.

A few years ago, I asked my grandmother if she could tell me about her life. I wanted to write about it, but I never thought I actually would. A few months after she passed, I applied for a MA in Creative Writing and started going through her notes. I thought now I had been asked to write something, I might as well start my novel.

That is when I realised the immensity of the task at hand – which wasn’t only to decode thousands of shakily hand-written pages. The fact that I had decided to write about a real person came with many challenges. What truth do I want to tell? Which point of view? Is my judgement as the protagonist’s niece going to infiltrate? Do I want the facts to shine through, or the character? To answer all these, and the thousands more questions that buzzed in my head, I paradoxically had to ask myself something even more philosophical: what is truth?

If you’ve decided to write about a real person too, you might have asked yourself the very same thing. And your first answer might have been something along the lines of “history” or “fact”. And you’d be right, our concept of what’s real and true is based upon what we consider a fact. But maybe that’s the issue. What I consider a fact, might not be the same for you. Point of view and consciousness play a major role in our understanding of the world around us and therefore, of truth.

I am obviously not saying that World War II never happened. What I am saying is that a certain event will have a different meaning and effect on every person. Therefore, though there is no denying factual, historical truth – WWII did happen, that’s a universally agreed fact – I think the contexts around such facts – the experience, if you will – will change from person to person. Which means that my truth might be different from yours.

But what does this mean in the context of a book, or a movie, or any other work of fiction?

Well, every character, be it fictional or based on a real-life person, will have its own point of view of the historical context in which it lives. Also, we need to remember that as authors and individuals living years after the historical context we might have chosen for our novel or story, we have the luxury of hindsight. Our characters don’t have that – they don’t know the future; they don’t know the consequences of the events they are living through.

These ideas are at the very core of biographical fiction, a genre which encompasses works based on a real-life person, living or deceased – although some historical contexts, circumstances, or sometimes characters or events might be altered. Although this sacrifices historical accuracy, it might be worth it if these changes result in a more complex, tri-dimensional, human character who actually thinks like a real person; rather than it being just a flat portrait on the side of a history book’s page. In Barbara Mujica’s words, “facts can bog you down. They can overpower your characters and drain them of their vitality”.

This blend of reality and imagination is nothing new: I’d argue that Ancient Greek plays could be considered a form of biographical fiction. However, the boom of popularity this genre enjoyed during the last decade or so has opened a very heated debate between historians and authors of biographical fiction.

Before going any further, I should clarify that in this article I am going to refer to the blend of facts and fiction in a single biographical work as biographical fiction, although it must be noted that there are various degrees that this blend may happen – works may be more rooted in historical accuracy and only slightly tweak the story along, whereas other works may only use a certain historical character or event as a starting point and invent the circumstances around it. Also, for the purpose of this article, I am only going to refer to the genre of biographical fiction rather than going into similar genres such as historical fiction or faction – the lines can get a little blurry and confusing (I will save you the pain I felt when first delving into this world…).

But let’s get to the juicy stuff. Heated debate.

The Debate – Criticism of Biographical Fiction

In an (in)famous interview Andrew Marr conducted on BBC Radio 4 with historians Niall Ferguson and Gabriel Gorodetsky and author Jane Smiley, Ferguson argued that his work as a historian is “based on research, rather than our imaginations” and that he is not “allowed to just make it up”. To which Gorodetsky added – although he could barely put a word in, Ferguson was really going for it – that what novelists do is an “appropriation of the [historian’s] profession”. Smiley, although she was shut down often and fast too, defended herself with something I strongly agree with: that historians project their point of view on their work just as much as authors do. According to Ferguson, authors “are telling you what it must have felt like … [but] they are projecting back, in this case, early 21st century ideas on imaginary characters”, while “historians are in the business of reconstituting past experience”. To which Smiley swiftly replied, “You don’t think that’s projection?” (I recommend you go and listen the last 10 minutes or so of the interview, very entertaining. It is linked below).

Another critic of the genre is the historian Antony Beevor. Although he recognises that some novels “can raise interesting historical questions, because they are able to go where historians should never dare to tread”, he argues that the danger of biographical fiction is that the reader might struggle to distinguish fact from fiction. An understandable and valid point.

However, a work of fiction is not supposed to nor is attempting to be a documentary. Although I can understand the confusion the reader might experience, I also believe the reader should go into reading a novel, or watching a TV series or a film, with the knowledge that it might not be entirely historically accurate – unless of course we’re reading a history book (not historical fiction, I mean one of those humongous books we study in high school or university). Even though, we could still discuss how history is a construct written from the point of view of the historian and therefore, to an extent, fiction…

Beevor also wonders why novelists don’t just take the story and change the names of the characters: “A change of name, indicating a parallel yet still recognisable universe, provides that one remove which prevents the reader from being misled”.

In my own writing of a biographical fiction piece, I asked myself whether it might be worth doing so. I think the change of name might work for some pieces; it certainly has in the past. However, I don’t think that’s universal. In my case, at least, a big chunk of my characters’ impact comes from the person they are and how that relates to the context they are in. Not a parallel universe, this universe. Maybe it’s because my novel will be about a person close to my heart, but honestly, changing their name would nearly feel like an insult. Like I am telling someone else’s story, rather than theirs.

The Debate – Advocates for Biographical Fiction: Some Recommendations

If you are interested in reading more from the point of view of authors, here are a few articles you might enjoy:

Jay Parini discusses his work in both traditional biography and biographical fiction: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08989575.2016.1088732

Barbara Mujica discusses her biographical fiction works: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08989575.2015.1083217

Interview with David Lodge: https://lithub.com/on-the-limits-of-biofiction-bethany-layne-talks-to-david-lodge/

Jane Smiley writes about her experience on BBC Radio 4: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/oct/15/jane-smiley-niall-ferguson-history-versus-historical-fiction

I invite you to have a think about the meaning of reality and truth, both in a literary and historical context – especially when it comes to your own work as a writer. In my case, learning more about both sides of the debate has helped me understand that if by changing some circumstances I can not only stay true to my grandmother’s character, but possibly amplify it and give it a second life, I would choose that a hundred times over factual accuracy.

Whether you’re on the side of complete historical accuracy, are willing to sacrifice some of it for the sake of character, or are somewhere in between, one thing seems to be clear: the answer is not as straightforward as it may seem.

Works cited:

BBC Radio 4 interview: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/b06gqdwk

Beevor’s article: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/feb/19/author-author-antony-beevor

Another article by Beevor: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/jul/25/antony-beevor-author-faction

Mujica’s article: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08989575.2015.1083217

About the author – Chiara Fumanti

I am currently doing the MA in Creative Writing at University of Surrey, and I am loving it! I enjoy reading and writing in a variety of different genres, particularly drama, children’s and young adult, poetry and mystery fiction. Alongside my passion for books and reading is my acting career. I am thrilled to be part of the 2021 SNWF team! Find me on instagram @chiarafu94

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One thought on “Accuracy vs. Character: The Debate Around Biographical Fiction – by Chiara Fumanti

  1. Fascinating thank-you Chiara. As you say it is such a delicate balance and very difficult to decide how to approach writing the biography of a loved one. You have provided some excellent tips!

    Like

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