What Makes a Good Biography or Autobiography?
May is Personal History Awareness Month with May 16th identified as the International Day for Sharing Life Stories. I know lots of people who plan on writing their autobiography ‘some day’ so this month just might be as good a time as any to get started on that.
It would be fair to say that the more talented, famous, accomplished or successful a person is, the more interesting their life story will be. However, everyone has a unique set of experiences that can make for a highly entertaining and worthwhile biography or autobiography.
Whether your are creating a written, audio, video or pictorial biography about a widely recognized celebrity, a pioneering genius, a powerful statesman or someone who led a relatively quiet life out of the limelight, he or she still represents an entirely individual perspective on the world. As they say, the devil is in the details and if told by an insightful writer or director, those can be fascinating to learn about no matter whose life a biography is based on.
The particulars of a person’s childhood, family and friends, cultural background, religious beliefs, trials, tribulations and passions all define them. So too do their personal tastes, sense of humor, jobs, hobbies, travels, and their involvement in whatever community or communities they belonged to along the way. In short, no two people have the exact same story and when told with flair, any life can serve as a compelling biographical subject.
If you undertake such a venture for the sake of chronicling your own life or someone else’s, there are some basic rules for researching, organizing, writing, recording and filming biographic materials that can help make your project more successful. They apply equally to family histories, personal narratives, executive tributes, personal biographies and autobiographies in written, audio, video and other formats.
Mechanics aside, for beginners and veteran biographers alike, the challenge is always the same – to find a unique angle or a theme best suited for telling the individual story of your subject in a way that is both informative and entertaining. You need to choose a perspective that transcends the mere facts and allows the reader to peer into the heart and soul of the person you are writing about. Get into their heads, get to know all you can about them as individuals and think about the events of their lives as adventures that nobody else has experienced in quite the same way. Try to identify a defining moment that molded them into the wholly original person they came to be.
From there you can build a series of scenes around the chronological events of a person’s life that tell their story as it unfolded. To embellish the text, you can employ whimsy, wit, humor, romance, drama, irony and even tragedy as literary or cinematic devices. After all, everyone experiences all those things at one time or another and they can make the difference between a dry, boring read and a real page-turner.
If possible, end your biography with a revelation or an honest sentiment about the uniqueness of your subject – something that has universal appeal or relevance but can only be said about them. The following passage is an example of an appropriately thoughtful ending for the life story of an “average” person who never achieved great fame or fortune yet still touched many lives in a special way. “Of all the grandmothers that ever selflessly cared for and nurtured we children of the south, no other made more lip-smackingly delicious peach cobbler with fresh, hand-churned vanilla ice cream than Josephine. You could literally taste her love in each and every heart-warming bite.”
Writing with Writers – Biography Writer’s Workshop with Patricia and Fredrick McKissak
A good little 4-step online primer tutorial geared for students and beginners that covers the basics of writing biographies
Another 4-step online tutorial for beginners that covers the process of questioning, learning, synthesis and telling the story. Also includes a very helpful section on the Six Traits of Effective Writing in the categories of ideas and content, organization, voice, word choice, sentence fluency, and conventions.
How to Write a Biography
A short but helpful article for beginners.
Stefani Twyford is a personal historian and video biographer sharing life stories, connecting generations and preserving legacies. To learn more, visit her web site, find her on Twitter as @stefanitwyford, visit the Legacy Multimedia Facebook Fan Page, or send her an e-mail.