Whether you’re hoping to become a published author or have a school assignment, writing a biography requires care and tact. In a biography, you’re telling the story of someone's most prized possession, their life.
Therefore, everything you write must be presented accurately while being interesting and engaging. What is it about your subject’s life that will strike a chord or educate people? In this article, we’re going to show you the steps necessary to create an intriguing body of work.
The first step in writing a biography is choosing your subject. Is that subject living or dead? For the most part, the process will be the same. You’ll want to examine major life events, relationships, and their influence on society. However, with someone who’s already passed, you won’t have access to their voice and will never know their feelings on your work.
When choosing a subject, there are two important questions to ask yourself.
Is the person’s life interesting enough to warrant a biography? Did they make an impact or meaningful decisions that will encourage others? Will their life connect with an audience? Much of this will depend on the subject's experiences and how long the biography has to be.
Is the subject already famous or a lesser-known person who should be brought to the forefront? Celebrities and famous figures are universally viewed as interesting and will have a wider audience. Someone unknown will be a tougher sell because you have to convince people to care about this unknown entity.
That said, if you know an ordinary person with an extraordinary story that could strike a chord with people, don’t be afraid to write about it. Just be sure to narrowly focus the biography on those striking components that will connect with the readers.
Once you’ve chosen your subject, you’ll likely need their permission. This isn't always a prerequisite; plenty of "unauthorized" biographies have been written about celebrities based on information available in the public domain. However, a biography is usually far more compelling if the subject is willing to talk to you.
Also, if you don’t get permission and you still wish to publish, you’ll have to make sure you don’t print anything untrue that could be viewed as slander or libel. If you hurt someone's reputation through your unauthorized biography, you could be setting yourself up for a lawsuit.
Before you’ve gathered all your intel, you need to decide what you’re going to do with it. Generally, it’s best to start with an outline so you know what details are going to be included in the biography.
Determine the main point, or thesis, and then outline how each section or chapter tells a part of the story to support that thesis. Do you want to cover a person's entire life, or focus on one significant aspect of their story? A timeline of their life will help you paint a picture and decide what to highlight. This will also help you decide if you want to present your biography in chronological order, by major life events, or in some other fashion.
Now you know what information you need to fill in the details.
As you conduct your research, the ultimate primary source is the subject themselves. But, whether they’re living or dead, that may not always be an option. Thankfully, primary sources are more than just the subject of your biography.
They also include the subject’s personal writings, those with firsthand information about the subject, original historical or legal documents, statistical records, and audio or video recordings. A piece of writing created during the time of an important event, such as a news article, may also be considered a primary source.
Secondary sources will be helpful to your research too, if you choose wisely. A secondary source is something created by someone who didn’t know the subject directly or didn’t witness an event with their own eyes. A secondary source was created at a later time, based on primary or secondary sources, such as a review, analysis or documentary. When using these sources, be sure to delve into the writer’s credibility in order to ascertain whether they can be trusted.
Since a biography is a non-fictional account of a person's life, starting at the beginning will probably set the rest of the story up nicely. That said, your audience may not want the details of your subject’s happy-yet-uneventful childhood when a heroic or evil deed is on the horizon. So, the manner in which you organize your ideas should be determined before you really dig in. Here are some other ways to format your biography, aside from chronological order.
By topic – Focus on the topics that affected the person's life. Detail each major event one by one.
Through interviews - Talk to your subject, if you can. Ask people close to the subject what they thought of them, the people around them, and key events. Relay the story through these first-person accounts.
In media res - In media res is a literary term meaning "in the middle of things". Stories written in media res do not lead up to the main event but begin in the middle of the tale and work backwards to hit on crucial elements, only to then resume a forward-moving account.
The key to organizing a biography is to tell a story that always comes back to a theme. Is it about a person’s resilience? Is it about their sense of adventure and exploration?
Once you’ve decided that, the order in which you choose to lay out the details is entirely up to you. So, trust your instincts. Beyond that, keep to the narrative you’d like readers to pick up on. (Researching other biographies is an excellent way to draw inspiration.)
Remember to present your subject accurately and tell a compelling story. Include relevant details, stick to that theme you’re trying to convey, and draw your reader in with intrigue and motivating elements.
As you edit, make sure you’ve stuck to the outline you’ve selected, whether that’s chronological, event-based, or in media res. Tie every major element back to the theme and teach your readers something, whether that’s the power of resilience, the impact of an adventurous heart, or the need for goodness in the world.
Have fun with it. If you’re invested in the story you want to share through the chronology of someone else’s life, that will translate well. Your readers will absorb your enthusiasm and give credence to your subject. You’re about to take on a project that can shape the hearts and minds of others. So make sure you enjoy the ride.