May 10, 2014

Contesting History's Banishment of Characterization

In one sentence: Biography is valid, so the rest is negotiating details. By details, I mean the substance and style of creative non-fiction writing. I say "creative" because all writing is. We really should know this already...

For its part, Stephen Pyne's Voice & Vision (2009) offers only two rules for writing non-fiction historical narratives: "you can't make anything up, and you can't leave out something that really matters" (chp.3). Aside from that, the possibilities are endless! Regarding the book as a whole, Pyne's goal is to show us the finer points of non-fiction as creative writing. Let me say that again, differently. In Voice & Vision, Pyne's ambition is to teach us the art and craft of writing creatively while producing non-fiction.

A recent exchange has me diving back into this book more deeply and today I want to highlight Pyne's advice from chapter 13, on the treatment of characters in non-fiction history. Here's a one paragraph excerpt from Voice & Vision (2009).
For many scholars trained in social science, who view interpretative reality as grounded in the statistics of aggregate social action and who may regard any appeal to individual actors as suspect, an emphasis on character will be anathema, and a text organized around character profiles dubious. Highlighting characters is either decorative or diversionary, either an appeal to a prurient "human interest" or a device to avoid the real drivers of behavior. Yet one can hold a mirror to such blanket critiques: they are themselves ideological. The problem, if any exists, lies not in the literary techniques or characterization, but in the claims made about the role and significance of characters in the particular text at hand. If a character is wrongly portrayed, if a person's action is inflated beyond what the evidence supports, then the characterization needs rewriting. No text requires characters; if you simply distrust character, or human agency in general, write something else. (Besides, nothing lies like statistics, and experts in "hard" sciences who dismiss writings in "softer" fields as anecdotal because they don't include enough numbers or the numbers don't add up have a pretty dismal success ratio. The close observers and thick describers can get it right, and those implacable numbers frequently turn out to be themselves anecdotal.) Skillful characterizations will not make a text right; neither will the banishment of characterization. And most readers will likely agree with Shakespeare that the fault lies not in the stars but in ourselves.
A bit down the page, Pyne adds:
Depending on their purpose, characters can thus work in various ways in a mauscript. They may justify a passing reference, or a sketch, or a more robust profile; they may be developed once and then recalled without further elaboration, or they may be developed in sequence, with a different trait highlighted at each appearance; or they may command the entire manuscript with an outright biography. How to write each use depends, as always, on context: on setting, on sources, on purpose. The trick is to get the right particulars that make the abstract real and give heft to context without burying the personality in a sludge of specifics.
There is much more gold to be found, besides these nuggets. Get the book. Thank me later.

Happy writing...

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