My book-related gratitude this year is for my book club. One of many things I love about being in this club is the diversity of genres we explore. I’ll always read mysteries, but I need to go outside my genre. It challenges me to learn new information and do more critical thinking. Reading other genres also makes me a better writer.
For October’s read, we chose Ron Chernow’s extensive biography of George Washington, an 800-plus- page book. We had to postpone our discussion into November so we could finish it. Many times, we select a book that one or two members decide not to finish or that someone feels no need to have completed before we meet. This book was different. We all wanted to read every page before we talked about it. What makes this enormous volume so compelling? After all, we know the plot—the main character’s career, who he marries, who won the war, and of course, who won that first presidential election.
I’ve tried to identify the features of this biography that could provide lessons for any story-teller and which make it a page-turner above and beyond the question that keeps a lot readers going in fiction—“how will it end?”
Friendships make great stories. It’s easy to think the strongest drama is in romantic love, but in some lives it isn’t. George and Martha Washington’s marriage was long, affectionate, stable and free of scandal. His friends provided more drama—not that he liked drama, but a reader does. Alexander Hamilton was a powerful, valuable and difficult friend, a needed ally but not an easy one. Lafayette was loyal and affectionate, almost like a son to Washington. The contrast between his emotional, open personality and the reserved Washington makes the reader care about both of them and understand their rapport. A story about friendships could be filled with enough variety that no romantic drama is needed: Friends who support the main character and friends who undermine or disappoint him; friends who fail in their struggles; friends who challenge and refine his character and ideas. Washington had all of these.
Enemies make great stories, too, of course, if they are well-developed characters. Washington’s colleagues who wanted to supplant him in the army provide some lively incidents. The way he let these ambitious fellow generals destroy themselves without his taking any action against them is amazing. He could foresee how his enemies might trip themselves up and then wait and let them do it. Once in a while, however, he failed to read character well. Benedict Arnold and his wife Peggy are fascinating, more so than any British general. Betrayed trust makes a more complex story than frank, constant opposition. (Historical fiction writers: There’s potential for a novel in Peggy Arnold.) Do you know if Thomas Jefferson and James Madison were Washington’s friends or enemies? Did he know? Read the book and find out. It gets complicated.
Unexpected characteristics are engaging: Imagine a president who hopes he’ll only be needed for two years and can then resign. (Obviously, he didn’t get his wish.) Washington described being elected in dismal terms. In a letter to his friend and trusted general Henry Knox, he said this of being elected president: “…movement to the chair of government will be accompanied by feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of execution.” Martha dreaded being first lady, too, and felt like a prisoner in that role. The aversion this couple had to being famous and powerful is a trait that contrasts with our common expectations of people in politics.
Secondary characters can be compelling—and reveal a lot about the main character. Washington’s mixed feelings about slavery show in his relationships with his slaves, refusing to permanently separate married couples or to break up families. His personal attendant, William Lee, who went through the war with him, married a free black woman in Philadelphia and asked that she be brought to Virginia when Washington returned home. He didn’t like Lee’s wife and yet he did as Lee asked. (What a complicated life this couple must have had when she arrived. Lee is another figure would make an intriguing central character for a historical novel. My book club told me I have to write it. I think someone else should.) In many ways, Washington treated Lee like a valued employee, but he owned him. He showed solicitude about all of his slaves’ health and family relationships, but they still were slaves and he expected them to work as if they were being paid for the labor. The inconsistency in his behavior reveals what he felt inside. It took him his whole life, literally, to resolve his inner conflict about slavery.
Washington’s attitude toward women was positive. He found them better company than men socially. A dinner party was disappointing if it was lacking ladies. He admired female historians and poets, and never seemed to think them inferior to male writers, and he conversed with intellectual women like Elizabeth Powel as his equals. The idea that women might vote never came up, of course, no matter what political insights Mrs. Powel could give him. And, as a man of his times, he advised a headstrong niece that she should learn to submit her will more to her husband’s.
Family conflicts create empathy. Who would imagine that a great leader had a whiny, you-never-take-care-of-poor-me mother? Think of the Dwayne-and-Mom sketches on Prairie Home Companion and take them back to the 18th Century, and you have an idea what it was like for our first president to deal with Mary Washington.
Flaws and failures are important. If the main character doesn’t have pain and weakness, there’s no interest. No matter how strong someone is, that person has troubles—family, health, finances, all of the above—and sometimes makes major blunders. A character who can hold a reader’s attention usually has more virtues than flaws, but the balance can be close to fifty-fifty, if the flaws are traits readers can identify with and are paired with the opposite virtue, or are its shadow side. Washington tried to keep his temper but he couldn’t always. He tried to be honest, but he could tell a lie, even though he preferred not to. His respect and admiration for women was a virtue, but it was a blind spot that let Peggy Arnold get away. His generosity was a good trait, though he often spent money he couldn’t spare, being short of funds due to crop failures and because he shopped, redecorated and remodeled far more than he reasonably should have. This didn’t stop him from paying for the college education of various young relatives and other deserving young men, and entertaining every stranger who dropped by Mt. Vernon. It would be hard to like a character who only spent too much on his home décor, but when his extravagance is extended to paying tuition also, the reader’s feelings lean in his favor. Some of the provisions made in his will say even more about his character, but to reveal them would be a spoiler.
I opened the first page already knowing how the main character lived and died, but all of the features above kept me turning the pages.