If you’ve been following my blog for a while (if that’s you, thank you) you’d know that I love writing and reading. I love books; both reading and writing them. I love biographies. Biographies are great repositories on wisdom for both life and leadership. How people not only led themselves but the impact they had on others, and the world at large. I’ve recently completed two biographies. As I was about to review one of them, I thought it might be helpful to think, “What makes great biographers and biographies?”
Questions About The Subject(s)
I guess this is always the first and greatest question. The choice of subject is important. Because biographies are about a central character, he or she needs to be interesting. Either that or the author, as storyteller needs to be compelling.
Either get an interesting character or make the character interesting. I think this is a critical foundation of any biography. I’m not suggesting embellishing for sensation or being flippant with the truth.
I’m just saying, there is a way of telling the truth that can make the body of work something difficult to engage with. Neither am I suggesting the author spews facts. Some biographers mistake their role to that of merely giving facts. That is boring, uninspiring and honestly, a betrayal of the life of their subject.
On another note: what is an interesting character or story? Very subjective. Just as people are diverse, so are the things that appeal to them about someone’s life story as well as how it is told.
I guess the “What?” question is also about where to shine the spotlight in the different phases on one’s life. Some known subjects or characters are often known for particular things.
Nelson Mandela, for example, for his imprisonment and then becoming the first democratically elected president of South Africa. A grand story.
We can learn a lot from just about anyone. The question is, “What about anyone’s life is ‘biography-worthy?’” Am thinking out loud. I wanted to delete the question I just asked after I realised how stupid it must seem after what I’d just said about learning from anyone.
I guess, ultimately the people who decide whether something is biography worthy, are the readers. Nothing validates a biography, book or any art, for that matter, than the people who engage with it and place value on it.
What Makes Great Biographers and Biographies?
I’ve already alluded to the importance of choosing a great subject. A great subject is a biographer’s dream. Some can argue that it wouldn’t be difficult to pen a biography with an interesting character. Not so.
If anything, the ‘larger-than-life’ characters can be the most challenging to chronicle. What is important? What to include or leave out?
The pressure of doing their legacies justice is something every biographer must not only be inspired by, but filled with fear and awe. Telling an unbiased and integrity-laden story must come foremost.
The challenge of biographers is shedding light on their characters so that readers (or listeners) can see the character. So, that the readers can deduce themselves the kind of person one was.
Writers must be careful to do their job and not the readers’ (Click to Tweet).
It is the role of a biographer to shed light. To help us see the character, the things that defined him, his thinking and motives, the things important to the subject.
One of the challenges for great writers is making sure they don’t get in the way of the story. Biographies are challenging in the sense that the author, through his skill and personality must illuminate other personalities. How not to contaminate? How can authors make sure they don’t end up telling up what they think of their subject and allow us (the readers) to decide for ourselves?
I’m saying all this, of course, assuming we’re all agreed that the writing itself must be, ‘great’. We know when writing is great. It is easy to read, follow and captivating, at the very least. One doesn’t feel like he’s in a lecture but a conversation at a campfire. We’re talking in the context of biographies, of course.
On that note, I think it’s also worth noting that great biographies and biographers are not lectures or lecturers respectively.
Do you read biographies? What’s your take on what makes biographies and biographers great?