While these books are generally non-fiction, they may include elements of a biography in order to more accurately reflect the nature of the subject’s life and personality, Writing about someone who actually existed, whether it’s a family member, close friend, famous person, or historical figure, involves certain elements. A person’s life story is being told, and the subject’s life needs to be organized in such a way that the reader is interested and engaged.
Biographies can easily read as boring announcements of only a human’s accomplishments in life, and if you want the bio you write to stand out, you should try to avoid that.
When you’re writing a biography or even a short professional bio, ask yourself what sorts of things you’d like included if someone was writing your biography.
You would most likely want people to get a feel of who you were as a person, and to be able to understand the way that you felt, what moved and motivated you, and what changes you wanted to see and make in the world.
Do the same thing when you write about someone else. Do the subject the favor of treating them like a real person instead of a stiff and boring character that students will dread having to learn about at school each year. Getting students excited about history, historical figures, and people of interest can inspire them to work hard to make a difference as well.
Keep It Real
Don’t fictionalize the life of the person you are writing about, but remember your sense of humanity when you write, and do what you can to make sure that your subject can be viewed as a real person who existed, rather than just a name on a monument.
It’s a thin line between rumor, speculation, and fact when telling the stories of people, especially people who are long dead and can’t verify or refute it for themselves. Be sure that if you do research and something is speculated, you state that in your writing.
Never claim something is fact when it’s isn’t a known and proven fact. This will cause you to lose credibility as a nonfiction writer.
What to Include in a Biography
When you read or write a biography, most of them have the same basic details of a person’s life. The person’s date of birth, date of death, and the major accomplishments and key events in between those two dates are all important to include in the writing process. These are elements that need to exist within the story of the person to be considered a full biography.
Keep in mind that these are the minimum elements that need to be included. Expanding on these elements and adding meat to the bones of your story will engage readers.
If you only include important dates and accomplishments, you might as well direct the reader to visit the headstone of the person you are writing about, and they’ll get almost as much information.
Personal details offer a more intimate look into the subject’s life and can help the reader to relate or at least understand some of the decisions made by the person, as well as the influences that played a part in steering the person’s life.
If the subject had any passions that he or she voiced throughout his or her life, mentioning those in your story of their life will elevate your biography.
Family members are often mentioned in biography and major details of the person’s career. If the person was known for their accomplishments in their field of work, there is often more content there than a brief career summary.
The result is usually more of a professional bio than a personal one. Basic facts of the person’s education are often mentioned as well. If you are writing a biography about someone, try to remember to write about more than just their job.
Remember that you aren’t writing a resume, and the subject isn’t asking you to help them get a job. You are tasked with writing about the entire life of someone. You are more than your job, so the subject of the biography you are writing should get to be more, as well.
Biographies don’t have to be boring. Personal stories, interesting stories, and funny quips are sometimes used to make the readers identify with the subject.
When included in a biography, these details give the reader a chance to feel as though the subject was a real person with opinions, feelings, flaws, and a personality, rather than a stuffy person who is significant to history and not much else.
Providing the audience with these lighthearted but not necessarily crucial elements of a biography will make the biography more interesting and appealing.
Narrator and Order
Point of View
An important element in most biographies is establishing the point of view. You don’t want to write it like a novel and have it written in a first-person point of view. This will result in something that is somewhat fictionalized and something that more closely resembles an autobiography, which is the personal story of a person’s own life.
Biographies should be written in the third person point of view. In third person, someone outside of the story, who has all of the information, is the narrator.
Try not to be biased. Stick to the basic facts, major events that you have researched, and keep the story interesting but accurate. A biography is not meant to be a fictional adventure, but the subject’s life was significant in some manner, and the details of that can still be interesting.
Biographies usually begin, well, in the beginning, at the birth of the subject. The first sentence usually includes the basic information that a reader needs to know: who the person is, where the person is from, and when the person was born. A biography that doesn’t include these details but starts at the most important life events can exist, but they aren’t common. You may see this tactic used in a short biography or a brief bio.
Usually, chronological order is the best course of action for a biography. A person’s life begins in childhood, so details of that childhood, even briefly, are necessary before getting to the subject’s adult life.
Describing the subject’s early life to the audience usually means you should research and write about the family they came from, their early education, what kind of student the person was, where they came from, any close bonds they had as children with people.
As well as their interests and whether or not they pursued the life they ended up with as an adult, or if greatness and accomplishments were thrust upon them by events outside of their control.
As you progress into a subject’s adult life, you should add achievements to the biography. Focus not only on the major achievements as acts but also try to fill the audience in on what the motivation for the achievements was.
For example, Abraham Lincoln was the sixteenth President of the United States. That’s a well-known fact. Students learn about him in American grade schools and then over and over until their educational careers are over. In a bio about Lincoln, you may discuss the fact that Lincoln freed the slaves.
While this is true, you need to research deeper into that. Just stating that a person did something doesn’t make it an interesting read. Ask yourself why he freed the slaves.
Do your research, speak to an expert, and search for journals and letters that a subject might have written to describe how they felt to the audience and how they drove the person to do what they did.
Focus on the Impact the Person’s Life Had
After you have gone over the person’s life in the biography, you should share with readers what impact the subject’s life had on the rest of the world, even (sometimes especially) after their death. Many of the important people in history who have biographies written about them are deceased.
When you write a biography, ask yourself why anyone cares what that person accomplished. What did they do for one or two people to make them important enough to have a biography?
For example, many students learn about George Washington. He gave America the sense of hope and patriotism that they needed to declare and then achieve freedom from English rule.
When we search for information about Washington, we find not only his bio and his painted picture, but we also see and learn about the things he influenced, inspired, and the feelings he invoked among the people around him.
When we give a well-rounded look at not only what the person did in their lives, but how they changed the world, even just for those around them, we start to see the bigger picture and appreciate the person more.
Students can go from being bored and obligated to reading sentence after sentence about a boring guy who lived hundreds of years ago to being excited to learn more about the founding fathers. As a writer, it is your job to inspire these feelings for the reader.
When you write a biography, it’s important that you thoroughly research and fact-check everything you are writing about. Everyone knows that Lincoln freed the slaves, but you should still research it to ensure that everything is accurate as far as dates, places, speeches, and motivations go.
Make sure that you are getting your information from reputable resources. If you are interviewing live people, be sure to verify their credentials and use a tape recorder when doing so.
A biography is not an opinion piece or a novel, and there is no room for error, miscalculation, or falsification when you write a biography.
The Importance of a Biography
It is important to include all of the elements of a biography because a biography is the story of a person’s life, and that’s a big undertaking. The subject is often no longer alive and can’t dispute what we write about them, so we have to get the information right and do the best we can when writing.
Students work on writing biographies and research papers about people in school so that they can learn more about the people who helped us get to where we are today in terms of society.
We teach students the skills and elements of a biography so that the practice of telling the story of a person’s life never gets lost. We need to focus on the future, but we cannot do that without understanding the past.
Other people may one day come along and write your bio, and when that happens, you have to hope that the first step they take is to do the research thoroughly so that they can do your story justice. That is what we owe the person we are writing about when we start to search for information about them.
Be respectful of the biography because it is the telling of those who came before us and can serve as a guidebook for the future or even a warning.