Chance is a Florida-born, aspiring writer who is currently crafting a short blog series about Florida folk legends. He is also working on various short stories about people and myths. Chance recently graduated from Delphi High School.
Life is one of the oldest stories ever told. It is preserved in the chapters of biography and memory that we create for ourselves and others. Biographies are a way of commemorating an individual, sharing their successful actions, or warning us away from mistakes. If you have ever wanted to write about and capture the essence of a friend or the intrigue of a historical figure, knowing how to write a biography is exactly for you.
Three ways to tell a life story
These books come in a small variety of shapes and sizes depending on whether the author is writing about themself, a select period of the author’s life, or another person entirely.
- A biography is written about the life of someone else. Sometimes this could be a friend or family member of the author. Other times the subject might be someone only discovered through heavy research. It’s important to note that a biography is always written in the third person.
- An autobiography is a biography centered around the author and is written in the first person. It covers the entirety, or at least the majority of, the author’s life.
- A memoir delves into a select period of the author’s life and is also written in the first person. It is similar to an autobiography in that it is about the life of the author, but usually only covers a smaller period.
Who is your subject?
When it comes to writing a life story, your protagonist’s life is the main subject of your work. The question is then, who are you writing about? If you choose to write about someone you know, a friend or family member, or maybe even a client, then your research is going to be a lot easier. After all, nobody knows themselves better than themselves.
If you decide to write about an influential figure you will need to worry about your research thoroughly–as your work can affect their image. This applies to historic figures as well.
Although you’ll be writing a biography in the third person, you’ll need to dig deep and work to discover their motivations as well as life lessons. Your reader will want to know why your subject made the choices they did and what their thought process was throughout.
When writing a biography, you need to consider your theme. A theme in writing refers to a message or philosophy behind the narrative for the reader to take away. Breaking it down further, you can explore theme concepts or thematic statements.
- A theme concept is a broad topic or idea that is carried throughout your book. For example, in Romeo and Juliet the main theme concept is love.
- A thematic statement is more sharply defined than the theme concept, usually acting as an argument or statement about the given subject. In Romeo and Juliet, there could be a couple of thematic statements, but the one relating to love can be argued to be about the passionate chaos of love.
In a biography, your theme will be demonstrated by whatever parts of the protagonist’s life you choose to show. When you’re doing your research you may find themes throughout the protagonist’s life that help connect the various events they lived through. Your commentary and your thoughts on the matter will show up in the theme when you tell their story.
Depending on who you chose in step one, your research may take different forms. If you’re writing a biography for a friend, family member, or client, then you’re in luck–the living tend to be easier to interview.
It’s important to remember whilst writing a book delving into someone’s life story that you’re not just talking about how the person lived–but about whatever made their life worth living. If you’re not sure what to focus on, try researching some of these points:
- What have they accomplished?
- What struggles did they need to overcome?
- How did their actions affect others?
- What do they think of themselves?
In addition, you’ll need to research their personality and character traits as if you were developing a character in a novel. The more you can find out and define what makes a person distinct, the closer you’ll be to finding what’s worth discussing about them in the first place. And to clarify, you’re not just going to tell your reader what your subject’s traits were. You’ll show moments from their lives, incidents that illustrate who they really were and how they behaved. Through your words, you’ll share with the reader how the subject’s life propelled them down the path they chose.
Dialogue is an excellent tool that can give the reader insight into how your protagonist thinks or feels about the world around them. Part of your research should involve reading and listening to any written or oratory works they may have produced, and if possible interviewing them yourself.
Every person has a unique way of speaking. It’s important to learn your subject’s speech patterns and favorite idioms.
Now if you’re writing a biography about a person long dead, you probably won’t have the benefit of audio recordings. In those cases, you’ll need to glean their spoken words by looking through documents they’ve written. In addition, if they were interviewed by a newspaper, that could be a goldmine for you. Also, notes or other written correspondences might give you insight into how they personally spoke. Now, if you intend to write a period piece, it never hurts to research the lingo, culture, and history of the area and the era.
Outlining the structure
Structure is the backbone of all forms of writing. This definitely applies when writing someone’s life story. Biographies are often told in chronological order, a series of events given one after another leading to the culmination of an event–usually an accomplishment or revelation.
In classic storytelling, a character prior to setting out on their journey often has a moment where they hit upon what they want–oftentimes missing what they actually need. A biography picks up right before the beginning of the subject’s journey towards a great accomplishment–or maybe even a series of great accomplishments.
Before you begin writing, figure out where you want your biography to start and end. Are you discussing your subject’s life in full, from birth to death? Are you talking about the start of their foray into a life-long career all the way to retirement? Or maybe you would like to talk about a journey, literal or metaphorical, they once took and how they returned home changed.
Once you know where it is they’re going, it will become much easier to isolate the details of how they got there and how they changed along the way. Although they may not have known where they were going at the time, you as the author have the benefit of hindsight to guide you along the way.
Crafting an engaging narrative
Good biographies utilize many of the same tools as fiction. Descriptive writing helps to bring the reader into the world of the subject. If you’re having trouble figuring out how to describe something, go get a look at it. Try describing snow when you’ve never seen it, felt it, or been in the remote presence of it. Second-hand accounts will help give you an idea, but it’s called second for a reason. Ideally, you can experience what you write about first-hand.
Don’t get frustrated if you can’t find the words. Take a break. Take a walk and find three things you’ve never seen in your environment. After, come back and write about what made them stand out. If you can’t find the words for one thing, exercise your ability on something else.
You can use vivid imagery and dialogue to help give greater insight into your subject’s thoughts, emotions, and surroundings. Showing who or what elicits emotion from them can go a long way in engaging the audience and bringing meaning to the subject’s decisions.
Editing and Revising
Nothing worth making usually comes out right the first time. At least, that’s what I like to tell my older sister. However, this is especially true when it comes to writing. Your first draft doesn’t need to be perfect. After you finish it, you can begin the editing process. Look through and search for weaknesses. Here are some things to consider:
- Did I include enough details?
- Are my researched points clear?
- Am I too detailed in places?
- Does my biography sound like a textbook–all facts and figures?
I would suggest you put your work aside for a few hours after finishing before coming back to edit. Coming back with a fresh set of eyes makes it a lot easier to spot mistakes, errors, or inconsistencies. After you’re done revising the content, you’ll probably want to make another read-through dedicated to fixing spelling errors.
Writing a biography will take time. Don’t rush the process. You’re reliving someone’s life, and it will take time to clarify your message. Research well, as you are shaping the image of how people will view this person. Their legacy could very well be in your hands–and life always needs someone to record the present chapter.