Too Much Personality

When writing nonfiction that has a historical aspect, many authors prefer to focus on a person as a narrative thread. This strategy makes sense for several reasons. First, it gives the book, or section of it, a focal point around which other material can align.  For instance, information on the growth of intercontinental missiles, or ICBMs, can be attached to an account about John F. Kennedy. Second, readers like to read about famous and/or heroic people. In the previous example, the draw of a historical figure like Kennedy is self-evident. 

Most nonfiction books also contain dominant themes, and in many cases the main theme is the new prism through which a historical period is viewed. To continue with JFK, think of all the books that have been written about Camelot. Each one has to contain a new prism, because the amount of new research any new author can uncover by now is fairly slight.  So, one new prism might be along the lines of “The Nuclear Strategy of John F. Kennedy.” 

The problem is, you can get lost in the details. Because material about your lead figure is often plentiful—since so many comments have been made about her—you can get lost in the minutia about the person. If she kept her cards close to the vest, say, instead of delegating responsibilities and contacting other players for points of agreement, then the narrative may get caught up in personal spats she had. While such altercations are entertaining, the theme of “she listened to too few people on nuclear arms policy” may get lost for pages at a time. Your new book is not so special now, particularly if you have used older books as a source for those spats.

Even worse, getting too involved in personalities can lead an author to make an unsupported case either for or against the historical figure. Plenty of examples can be found to make any argument. If you’re down at the level of spats, the failure to delegate starts to look like a real problem. But that’s not the point. The theme was: what was the impact on U.S. nuclear policy during that era? 

Journalists are known for finding opposite views for an article. While this in itself can create bias (e.g., giving scientists on either side of the global warming debate equal weight), it is a useful corrective for a nonfiction author. If you find you are  ganging up personal facts on one side, you have stop yourself. Don’t get carried away in your own tide. If you’re accenting the negative, deliberately look for positive examples. That will allow you rise up once again to more of the helicopter view, where you can see the entire landscape of your project.

Exercise: Write a list of the themes you want to emphasize. Now read through a chapter, keeping that list right next to your screen. Are your examples aligned with the themes, or are they burrowing down into personal trivia? Look in particular for personal interactions. Are you displaying theme or a personality trait?

“A bad review may spoil your breakfast, but you shouldn't allow it to spoil your lunch.” —Kingsley Amis

Copyright @ 2021 John Paine. All rights reserved.

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Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.