Plutarch was the first person to write a biography. He revolutionized historical writing by focusing on the story, the feelings, and motivations of the people involved in history, instead of focusing only on facts. It was considered revolutionary because it gave the writer the opportunity to give their insight as well as entertain/capture the reader. He wrote the famous Parallel Lives wherein he wrote about not just one famous person of his time, but three. In it, he emphasized on each person’s noble characteristics and deeds. His work became popular because of its delicate balance between research and observations.
All these leads us to the present where your professor is asking you to write a biography of a famous person. No one is expecting you to write like Plutarch, or any famous biographer. However, we can all get a tip or two about how to write a biography worthy of the person you want to write about.
There are three important aspects involved in writing a famous person’s biography.
Hopefully, the person you have chosen to write about is someone you are already familiar with. That way you have an idea about the person and their accomplishments. Nevertheless, it’s good to start your research with some basic information about the topic of your biography. Then, you can expand your research to primary sources so you can learn more about this famous person’s characteristics and accomplishments.
To get a more or less full and objective, it’s important to look for diverse but credible sources. This especially applies if the famous person you are writing a biography about is a historical person. However, there are also some famous living persons about whom pieces have been written about. You can go through articles, books, and interviews related to the person. Conduct your research and take down notes—these will help you later on.
If the famous person you are writing a biography about is available for interview, this is also a great way to get to know the person. If you’re able to conduct an interview, make sure to still do your research beforehand. It’s better to come prepared with a set of questions or at least the topics you want to talk about. Famous people are super busy, so if you can get some time with them, make the best of it.
Before starting to write the biography, remember what Plutarch did in Parallel Lives that differentiated his writing from typical historical writing. Plutarch essentially wrote the biography like a story—with characters that come to life and a plot. Therefore, the tip is to find a theme for your biography. The theme will govern the structure and content of your biography. The governing idea should be something that you noticed is a common occurrence or idea in their life.
Another way to arrive at an idea to govern your biography is to reflect on these questions:
Why you want to write a biography about this person?
Why people would want to read this biography (instead of going to a website that simply presents the facts)?
Now that you’re writing a biography of a famous person, keep in mind that you are turning a life into a story. Treat it like on—give it a theme, structure, and be selective on what you’re including. You could even make use of plot in telling the person’s story to make the biography more interesting. Think of yourself as the narrator, too, and guide your reader around the events and characters, towards understanding the theme.
What truly makes the theme the center of the biography is the fact that our lives don’t really have one. Events tend to unfold without any reason, and in researching someone’s life, it’s not difficult to get lost in the chain of events.
If we have to characterize what writing a biography is, we would say that it is entertaining but informative. The reader should be entertained enough to keep reading the biography, no matter how short or long. But at the end of it, the reader should know more about the subject of your biography. It is a difficult balance that needs to be achieved nevertheless.
A biography is a work of non-fiction. Therefore, it is an absolute must to be factually correct. There can be no errors or exaggerations in the biography. Likewise, your writing should be clear such that nothing in the biography is subject to misinterpretation.
With that said, as with most works of non-fiction, you can borrow writing styles employed by fiction writers. Hold your readers in suspense; make them feel various emotions; develop the characters; and so on.
The usual writing process applies to biographies, as well. Draft, revise, and edit. If you want your biography to be any good, go through each of them. You may even have to revise and edit multiple times if you’re writing a longer biography. The goal of this is not only to perfect the language, but also to remove any inconsistencies.
Writing a biography is quite a feat. You are taking someone’s story and telling it to someone who may or may not be interested. Even if you’re writing this biography for a class, all these considerations apply. It doesn’t matter that your professor already knows the famous person you are writing a biography about, make some attempt to entertain them. Sticking to a theme and adding some of your insight like we discussed could make your biography stand out from the rest of the class.