"I am writing biography, not history; and often a man's most brilliant actions prove nothing as to his true character, while some trifling incident, some casual remark or jest, will throw more light upon what manner of man he was than the bloodiest battle, the greatest array of armies, or the most important siege. Therefore, just as portrait painters pay most attention to those peculiarities of the face and eyes, in which the likeness consists, and care but little for the rest of the figure, so it is my duty to dwell especially upon those actions which reveal the workings of my heroes' minds, and from these to construct the portraits of their respective lives, leaving their battles and their great deeds to be recorded by others..."
Plutarch, The Life of Alexander
In the quote above, Plutarch compares himself with a portrait artist. When Plutarch relates his story of Alexander, he will not seek to describe the soles of Alexander's feet, the scars on his hands, nor his relative income on a year to year basis. Plutarch makes no attempt to precisely quantify his subjects. He instead focuses on the peculiar moments and attributes of an individual, particularly those that relate to character and personality. Like the portrait artist, Plutarch limits his subject intentionally and necessarily. He cares more about the subject's character, rather than the landscape behind them. Plutarch compares himself to an artist, and he prioritizes artistic character above scientific rigor.
Yet biography is not exclusively art. It can also resemble the work of 18th and 19th century naturalists, those individuals that sketched and wrote on the plants, animals and elements of the natural world. The trade of the naturalists morphed in the ethnographers of the 20th century. Ethnographers seek to study and understand life within its natural context. They want to bring the study of life out of the artificial abstraction of the laboratory.
In understanding human beings and human nature, we cannot exclusively adhere to artistry, lab work, or fieldwork. But we instead must lean upon the resources of all three. Each approach requires precision. The culmination results in accuracy.
Human beings, as authors, are not a blank slate--they cannot move freely between the approaches. We are too limited. But with enough resources we can bend our talents just enough to discard the greatest share of error and ignorance--if we're lucky.