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 and capture the reader as one would with a play. In the famous Parallel Lives, Plutarch wrote about not just one, but three famous people of his time. In it, he emphasized each person’s noble characteristics and deeds. His work became popular because of its delicate balance between research and observations.
All this 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.
What Is A Biography?
A biography is a detailed work narrating the life of a person. It is written in the third person, and therefore maintains a level of objectivity. A biography chronicles the person’s life story, including their relationships with their family and others, major events in their childhood, their accomplishments, and other significant life events they experienced throughout life.
But what makes a biography a biography is the way it presents these facts and events about a famous person. A biography ultimately tells the story—or a series of stories—about an individual’s life. When you write a biography of a famous person, you are not just restating facts, you are telling their life story. Thus, in a way, you can think of a biography as a narrative essay.
Although your teacher or professor may be asking you to write a biography as part of an assignment, don’t hesitate to think of it as a way for you to share the life of an inspirational person with others. A biography can be inspiring, as it may shed light on how an individual accomplished their achievements or overcame hardship. Keep in mind that biography is always about the person you are writing about, and not a defining or historical event.
Elements of a Biography
A biography is a breed between an essay and a short story. You research a real person and then write their story. No matter who you’re writing about or how long your biography is, it should always contain these elements.
1. Your subject
The focal point of any biography is the person. A biography cannot focus on an event or a group of people—it can only be about a person. So, the most important step when writing a biography is deciding on who to write about.
Writing a biography about a famous person would more fun if you chose a subject whom you find interesting or whom you look up to. This way you already have some basic information about your subject, which would make it easier to research about them.
Another consideration for choosing the subject of your biography is the availability of credible sources you have access to. If you will be relying on internet sources, make sure to evaluate the sources you will use for your biography. You are writing about a real person here, so you need to be careful about what you write.
2. The idea
What made Plutarch’s Parallel Lives revolutionary is that he wrote about historical figures as if they were characters in a short story, with a plot and a theme. Like a short story, your biography, therefore, should have a central idea or theme that will govern it. The theme will guide the structure and content of your biography.
The theme of your biography should come after you have researched, and hopefully reflected, on the life of your subject. The governing idea should be something that you noticed is a common occurrence or idea in their life. However, you should also remember that our lives don’t really have a theme. Events tend to unfold without any reason that we can comprehend, and writing a biography is one of the ways we try to make sense of the events in another person’s life.
3. Significant events
Now that you’re writing a biography of a famous person, keep in mind that you are turning life into a story. Treat it like one—carefully select the significant events you will include in the biography. Think of these events as the plot of your story. Always consider how each significant event will contribute toward the realization of your chosen theme. You are the narrator of this story, so you have the responsibility to guide your reader around the events and characters that comprise the life of your subject toward understanding the theme or ultimate message of your biography.
4. Critical character traits
Another important element of a short story that is useful in a biography is characterization. You should have a clear understanding of what your subject’s character is like, and decide which character traits you want to emphasize in your biography. By the end of your biography, your reader should have a clear picture of the person you wrote about. Even better if they feel like they know the subject of your biography like a friend.
Considering these four elements will make it easier to write a biography of a famous person. Before proceeding with writing a biography, think of these elements first. Try to fill them out so you have a concrete idea of what your end goal is for the biography.
Easy Step-by-step Guide on Writing a Biography
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. Here is the step-by-step guide on how to write a biography of a famous person.
1. Research and interview
A biography is a work of non-fiction although it employs techniques from fiction. Therefore, it is an absolute must to be factually correct and be as truthful as possible. There can be no errors or exaggerations in the biography. To get a more or less full and objective understanding of the person you are writing about, 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. You can go through articles, books, and interviews related to the person. Conduct your research and take down notes—these will help you easily find important facts and events when you start writing the biography.
If the famous person you are writing a biography about is available for an 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. Come to the interview prepared with a set of questions or topics that would help you encapsulate the person’s life story. Famous people are super busy, so if you can get some time with them, make the best of it.
2. Forming the theme
As mentioned earlier, the theme is the governing principle of your biography. After researching about and/or interviewing the subject of your interview, reflect on what you have learned. If they are a historical figure, try to analyze their story against the backdrop of the bigger historical picture.
- Another way to arrive at an idea to govern your biography is to reflect on these questions:
- Why do 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)?
Reflecting on these would help you find a theme that captures the life story of your subject and which other people may find inspirational or interesting. Treat your theme as the thesis of your biography. In fact, you could write a thesis statement that informs the reader what they will learn about the famous person in the biography.
3. Constructing the timeline
A biography is usually structured in chronological order. So, knowing the order of significant events is important. A timeline will work as an outline when writing a biography of a famous person. In your timeline, detail the significant events you will tackle. Under the significant events, outline your ideas, such as what insights or opinions you will present in or after each event and how you will show their character traits. These tips for writing an outline should help you construct a thorough timeline for your biography.
4. Writing the draft
When writing a biography, you need to keep in mind that you are writing about a real person, but also that you are writing for a reader. So, you need to find a balance between being informative and entertaining. 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.
Likewise, your writing should be clear such that nothing in the biography is subject to misinterpretation. You should try to be as truthful as you can be when writing a biography so that you don’t contribute to the growing misinformation in the US and all over the world.
When writing the first draft, focus first on the structure and content of your biography. Think of it as writing an academic essay. You may even need to write multiple drafts to get it right. But while you’re writing the draft, focus on the content and structure of your biography.
5. Finalizing the biography
When you are happy with the structure and content of your biography, it is time to move on to editing and proofreading. During the editing phase, focus on how each sentence is constructed and how the text flows. Your biography should be organized and easy to understand. You should also check your writing for any factual inconsistencies. Read our tips for editing your papers.
When you move on to the proofreading phase is when you focus on language and grammar. Sift through your biography for any grammatical errors and misused words. This is when you perfect your language to make it entertaining for the reader.
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 as we discussed could make your biography stand out from the rest of the class.
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