We have always been obsessed with the lives of other people. It is little wonder that biographies and autobiographies have always been among the best selling literary works. Biographies appeal to readers because they want to know more about a person or events. Can a writer somehow “get inside” a person and reveal something new?
The limitations on writing a biography are that the events have been established and the characters are well defined. Capturing events and making compelling characters of real people challenges even experienced writers. The more well-known a person or event, the tougher it might be to find something new to teach readers.
There are biographies and autobiographies, as well as different types of each. A critical biography tries to answer what motivated the subject to act in certain ways. A scholarly biography is a detailed, factual account of events without any attempt at psychoanalysis or specialized critique.
Life with a Purpose
We suggest beginning your work on a biography with a simple question: what is the purpose of this work? Do you want to add to the historical record? Do you want to study motivations and psychology? Do you want to capitalize on a person’s popularity or infamy by rushing a book to press?
Once you determine your own motivation, then focus upon the theme of the work. The lives of most individuals are marked by several themes — each theme marked by a defining moment forcing a decision of some sort. If you are writing about a portion of the person’s life, select a period marked by a single theme. If you plan to write a complete biography, organize the work to reflect these defining moments.
Before writing a single word of the biography manuscript, research, research, and then do more research. Know your subject better than you know yourself. If you are the subject, dare to know yourself better than you might like. Locate articles, personal records, interview individuals, and use modern technology to gather facts. Some biographers hire research firms to locate records; trained researchers save a lot of time, but charge a lot, too.
The variety of documents you can locate varies by the time and place involved. Government documents are sometimes restricted for a set number of years after an individual’s death. Getting the help of your subject makes things a lot easier. Family members might have records, sparing you the hassle of trying to order records from a government agency.
Nothing beats the personal writings of your subject. If you have access to diaries and letters, those are probably the most useful documents you can possess when writing a biography. The more famous a person is, the more likely diaries will be published without commentary or analysis.
When the research seems complete enough to start an outline, consider how best to present your theme to readers. Not every biography is written in chronological order, as we explain later. Simply because a form of writing depends upon facts does not mean that creativity loses importance. Still, outlines and timelines are essential before you write because do not want to make errors within the text.
Issues of Style
Every writer develops a personal style, especially for memoirs. There is a marked difference between writing about yourself and writing about others. In some ways, it is much easier to be humorous, mocking, or self-deprecating when writing an autobiographical work. As with stand-up comedy, pain and suffering hide behind the humor in many memoirs.
Unless preparing an academic biography, a more casual style helps reach a wider audience. The more “conversational” a biographical work, the more approachable it is. However, there are historical figures for whom a casual style simply does not work. Writing about a world leader in a casual tone can humanize the person, making him or her seem more like everyone else. At the same time, many major figures did not have average, or common, backgrounds.
Tips for Biographers
Whether writing your own story or telling the story of another person, there are some guidelines masters of the form suggest for first-time biographers. We like to offer a basic foundation, which we know is never fixed in stone. Some suggestions for writing an effective biography:
- Begin with a defining event, regardless of its chronology.
- Maintain consistent voice and style.
- Use dialogue or excerpts from historical records when possible.
- Describe all scenes as they relate to your protagonist — especially if you are the protagonist.
- Omit events and even people when they add nothing to the theme.
- End the biography with another defining moment, a personal revelation, or a recounting of the opening moment.
The Beginning Isn’t the Start
Some writers depict the event as a short chapter, then start the second chapter at the “beginning.” Other writers employ a series of flashbacks. Be creative and capture your readers. Too often writers assume a biographical work must be linear. Your real concern is what organization tells the best story and teaches most effectively.
Words Belong to People
We believe that words belong to people. When you say or write something, you are revealing a lot about yourself. How you express yourself exposes issues of education, status, culture, and much more. When people in a biography speak, the words help the reader understand these real individuals. Do not invent dialogue, although some critics accept the practice as “interpretation.”
It is unlikely that a professor of English would speak like a business person. Nor does a soldier talk like a politician. Capturing how a person expressed his or her views and desires is essential to writing a good biography. This is why research often takes longer than the writing.
Writing is better with quotes, since quotes can reveal so much. Look for letters, personal notes, journals, or any other places a person might have written or spoken. Also, remember that political speeches are the works of writers and advisers, so explain to readers when the words attributed to someone might not be his or her own.
Closing the Book
Offer readers a sense of closure. You do not have to end with the death or the current status of a subject. Instead, consider repeating an important event from the subject’s life. Maybe a more detailed, nuance version of the opening scene would be effective. What you want to avoid is a weak ending, leaving the reader unsatisfied.
Extras for Readers (and Researchers)
We believe a good biographical work should include sample documents, research notes, and photographs or other images when possible. Graphical items can appear as inserts, a common practice in publishing with glossy photo pages in the middle of a paperback book. Some items, especially research notes, should appear in appendices.