A biography, or biography essay, is the written account of a person’s life, written by someone else. A biographical essay is often written about a famous person, although it does not have to be. Not to be confused with an autobiography, which is the story of your own life—a biography, at its simplest definition, is someone else’s life story.
When writing about a subject’s life, it is easy to hit the high points, the important dates, and the events that the person lived through. It is often focused on important events in someone’s adult life. So you can write a full and rich biography essay or story about someone’s life, there are undoubtedly important and interesting facts and topics that you should cover. This article will discuss these, specifically the best topics for biography. Your next biography essay should be entertaining and interesting rather than dry and incomplete.
Interesting Biography Topics
Biographical essays and biographies do not have to be boring. A subject’s life story is more than what they lived through or accomplished. For example, if you are writing a biography essay about Franklin D. Roosevelt, you do not only want to discuss his leadership during World War II. While the historical context and significant events of a person’s life should be discussed in a biography essay, you want to accomplish more than listing accolades. You want the reader or target audience to know your subject, relate to, feel something, or develop an opinion. You can do this by including interesting facts and topics.
1. Family Members
Did the subject of your biography essay grow up with a parent who had an extraordinary career, background, hobby, culture, or story of their own? Were they raised by their grandparents? Were they an orphan? Discussing and including family makes the subject’s life seem more real. None of us would tell our story without discussing the role of family, so why would we leave that out?
Telling readers about the background and family dynamic of the subject of your biography helps the reader understand the person your paper’s subject grew up to be. For example, suppose you wrote about a notable soldier from the Civil War. In that case, you might include his family story and factual information like his rank in the army, his responsibilities in the army, and which battles he was a part of.
If his family had moved to the South from the North just a few years before the war began, his loyalties would have affected the cause. If his family were enslavers, that would affect his involvement. If his family were outspoken abolitionists, that would affect which side he fought for.
2. How They Have Influenced Present Day Life
Most biographies tend to stay in the era in which the story occurred. They stick to the basic facts of a person’s life rather than giving us insight into how that person impacted the lives of other people who are alive right now, in this day and age.
For example, if someone made a great discovery of some sort of useful medicine or technology, how has it contributed to the advancement of the world as we know it now? If Alexander Graham Bell had not come up with the telephone, would we have smartphones? Rather than pondering this and discussing it, many biographers go only a bit further than 1876, when his invention was brought to life when there is a much bigger and more exciting story to tell.
3. The Subject’s Early Life
Suppose you are writing about the heroes of the American Revolution, such as George Washington or Alexander Hamilton. In that case, it is important to note who they were as a child, rather than as simply the first president and the founder of our banking system, respectively.
Writing about people who are important to our history should include a discussion of how that person grew up, where they grew up, and who they were before they made a significant contribution to the world. Similar to how it is important to write a biography that includes family to give the reader a sense of who the subject is, the younger life of a subject is also important to include.
It is odd to imagine such a heavy name as Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton ever having been a teenager, but they both were. In fact, Hamilton was an immigrant who lived through his family’s illnesses, suicides, and poverty before he was sent to America by his own country. This sort of information is important to include when writing the history of a famous person. First, it normalizes the person and makes them relatable. And second, it helps the reader understand that because of his difficult life and the fact that his people believed in him, Hamilton most likely felt that he owed it to the world to make something of himself.
How to Write a Biography About a Famous Person
If you have to write or are considering writing the story of someone’s life, there are several steps that you can take to make the process easier. First, decide what moves you personally and what interests you. Then, choose a person who fits within those parameters. For example, if you care deeply about the Civil Rights Movement, you might want to write about Martin Luther King, Jr. or Rosa Parks. If you are interested in the Civil War, you might consider writing about Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis. Staying in your wheelhouse as far as your interests and passions lie will make your job as a writer easy.
Steps to Write a Biography
You can follow and take the following steps if you are writing about someone else’s life. Depending upon the length of your writing, you may not include every step, but generally speaking, the following is a great guideline.
1. Basic Information
It is a good idea, when writing a biography, to start with the key points and basic information. This way, someone can get the major points of your writing in reading just the first paragraph or two.
This includes things such as:
- When and where was the subject born?
- Where did the subject spend his or her childhood?
- What contributions to society did the subject make?
- What career did the subject have?
- What struggles or major events did the subject experience? (Civil Rights Movement, wars, the Great Depression, Hurricane Katrina, etc.)
- What is or was the subject’s relationship with society? (recluses like Poe or an orator like Winston Churchill?)
- What personality traits is the subject known for? (Churchill’s cigars, Robin Williams’ charitable demeanor)
- When and how did the subject die?
- Is or was there a memorial erected in their honor?
- How did the subject make a difference in the world?
2. Expand on Each of the Different Topics
If you write a biography that addresses the key points and still have space to tell more about the subject to the readers, it is a great idea to expand on each topic, adding things like anecdotes, quotes, and stories from the person’s more personal life.
For example, in your biography, you can expand on the personality of someone like Albert Einstein by saying that the story about the science and mathematics genius being illiterate and not speaking until he was four is simply a myth. You could discuss the childhood of Abraham Lincoln as a regular boy in Illinois. This gives a sense of entertainment to the biography and a real personality to the subject.
Writers can go through the words they have already written, focus on each different key piece of information, and add something personal or entertaining to it. This will show that you did your research and that you, as the writer, are invested in telling a whole story that will help students or readers identify with the lives of the people you are writing about.
3. Inspiration and Challenges
Most worthy subjects of biography had personal challenges or relevant issues to overcome. There are very few people who reach greatness without facing a struggle. Do your research, find out your subject’s struggle, opposition, and inspiration, and include them.
For example, Helen Keller had many disabilities that made life difficult for her. She had to learn to identify things without sight or hearing. While she did not experience this from birth, she was just an infant when an illness took her sight and hearing, and she had to adapt to a dark and silent world. Her amazing progress and grace have inspired the lives of teachers, students, advocates, and people with disabilities. Reflecting on her legacy, the world is better because she existed in it.
Another example of inspiration is Martin Luther King, Jr. His death inspired numerous speeches, articles, movements, and law changes. When we talk about MLK, it is difficult to do so without mentioning his dream for the society that inspired equality and education on things like racial discrimination, diversity training, and equal pay.
4. Photos, Relevant Tips, and Articles of Interest
Sometimes it is appropriate to include photos in biographies. This is especially true when the biography covers an artist. It is difficult to tell the tragic life and death story of Vincent Van Gogh without including a picture of a few of his paintings, especially his self-portrait and Starry Night. Students are often more eagerly drawn to such biographies when they have photos, diagrams, articles, and other extras that are attention-grabbing.
Remember that your goal for writing biographies should not just be to enrich the reader’s education or students with your essay. You should also use your words creatively to draw in and then grab people’s attention so they can focus on the person as a human, rather than just a name they have heard in school or as a part of history.
When writers of biographies can make the students or audience care about the cause, life, or contributions to society made by the essay’s subject, you create and influence minds that encourage them to know more about the person. Your essay could spark enough interest for people to do their research to learn more about the person you have put your focus on.
Fact Check Your Information
When you set out to write a biography, make sure that everything from childhood to politics and the subject’s quotes is accurate. Do not fall victim to reporting hearsay, gossip, rumors, or false information simply because it seems interesting or you think it may make for an entertaining anecdote. Do your research and be sure to fact-check everything you can to ensure that students, peers, and your audience will be genuinely interested in the subject of your work.
You are not obligated to only write about people who made positive contributions to society. In fact, some would go so far as to say that the life story of villains should be told, as well. Writers often write these biographies as a cautionary tale of sorts to make the reader aware of where the person potentially went wrong.
For example, Hitler was rejected from art school, illegitimate, and power-hungry. Charles Manson was evil, deranged, and institutionalized to the point that he knew what he needed to say to authorities to make himself seem harmless and trustworthy. Any person who impacted society in some way, good or bad, is a free game for a research paper or biography.