Why writing a biography is a bit like writing a novel

The essence of a biography, at least to me, is exploring the character of a person. Merely knowing what somebody did in their life isn’t enough: we have to know why. And that, of course, is also what novellists do.

This doesn’t mean that a biographer makes stuff up. On the contrary, the data is immutable. But the artistry required to tease out the character from that data is almost identical to that used by novellists to present the essence of character to a reader. Think of it this way: a biographer is a photographer, working with what is supplied to them in the real world. Whereas a novellist is more like an artist, able to flex what they see in subtle ways. And yet the artistry and technique required of photography is no less than that of a painter. Both outcomes require meaning.

It was in a quest to find out more about the person that I wrote Freyberg: A Life’s Journey, a biography of a New Zealander who was a household name in his day. What he did is so well known as to scarcely need repeating: a First World War action hero, Second World War commander and later Governor-General whose nickname, ‘Tiny’, belied his 6’2” stature; and whose kindness and empathy belied the steely gaze with which he presented himself to photographers. But why his life took the course it did – what made him tick – was another matter. I’d already written a military biography of his Second World War activities. Now I wanted to find out about the man behind them.

Photography as art. Freyberg Beach, in Wellington’s Oriental Bay.

As with photography the question with a biography – or, indeed, any non-fiction – is how the topic is to be framed: what will be captured in the book, and what questions will be answered? The first step is to find those questions. The next is to figure out how to work the answers into a linear thread – for that, in essence, is what writing must be. Novellists do that all the time with plot, crafting events to highlight different aspects of the characters they portray. For a biographer the obvious structure is chronology, and – because a book is always of defined length – the question then is what events best answer the questions posed about the character?

Publisher contracts always specify intended length; it’s a necessary part of the process. For Freyberg: A Life’s Journey I had 70,000 words. This is a standard scale for a book, but it’s not huge. As with a novellist I had to be very circumspect about the detail I could go into. There was space for just one theme or thread. It wasn’t hard to find: Freyberg’s life events, it turned out, closely matched the ‘hero journey’ of fiction – the story of the mis-matched child who leaves the comfort of home and grows as a person during adventures in the ‘outside world’. It’s the plot of Star Wars, The Hobbit and Wizard of Oz among others. Freyberg’s life also matched the pattern, and with reason: the archetype – identified by the master myth-analyst Joseph Campbell – is built on the essence of the human experience. The ‘hero journey’ strikes chords because it idealises the experience many of us have growing up. So that became the primary framework of what followed, containing the book to length and giving it the necessary tight focus. The issue then was to develop answers to the various questions I had about Freyberg’s nature and character, and place them within that framework.

What emerged was an even more extraordinary figure than I had envisaged when I began writing. Freyberg was simply extraordinary. He was openly called ‘Peter Pan grown up’ by Peter Pan’s creator, James Barrie. He came across as a fourteen year old to some, yet was intellectually able to foot it with the higher end of Britain’s literati of his day. He mastered anything he turned his hand to, be it swimming, writing, administration – or military command. And his adventures along the way included a fling with Cynthia Asquith, no less.

Want to know more about this remarkable man? Check out Freyberg: a life’s journey – click to buy from the publisher, or at any good bookshop.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2020

5 thoughts on “Why writing a biography is a bit like writing a novel

  1. You know, a big part of the reason I tend to shy away from reading biography or even heavily biographical historical fiction is because life rarely follows a good story arc. I think the biographer faces a much bigger challenge than the novelist in that regard. Sounds like you’ve worked really hard to rise to the challenge, and I have no doubt you’ve succeeded.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. By sheer chance Freyberg’s life was precisely a story arc – kind of like a photographer suddenly being able to capture an evanescent burst of sunlight on a scene. Another bio I wrote, of a dour, Scots land buyer in 19th century NZ, focused on the endless self-doubt of my subject… he never grew out of it. Freyberg, by contrast, was a simply amazing subject to write about at every level.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I agree with Sarah above – I think you have nailed it, Matthew. But once you’ve finished with Freyberg, I wonder if you’d consider doing a biography of that PM, Savage? Sorry, I’m terrible with names. Anyway, ever since you told us that little bit about the sacrifice he made, I’ve been drawn to the ‘character’. To be honest, I’m not that interested in conventional heroes, but saints…now there is a form of courage that resonates with me. It’s one thing to be ‘brave’ in the heat of battle. It’s another thing entirely to stick to your chosen course over slow, relentless weeks and months during which the window of hope inevitably closes. Sorry, but he really does fascinate me.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks – good thought about Savage. A colleague of mine, Barry Gustafson, has already written just that biography! I am sure there is room for more (after all, I’ve written two of Freyberg). I do intend writing a book on NZ’s neo-liberal experience, which betrayed and reversed everything Savage stood for, and one never knows where that will lead.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hope you do write that book, and that’s a great hook too. I’ve only read maybe 2 or three biographies in my entire life, but you’ve really intrigued me with Savage. Write it! lol


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