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How to Write a Biography in 8 Steps (The Non-Boring Way!)

Compelling biographies help us better connect with others while fostering empathy and understanding. Discover the steps to write one that captivates your audience!

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Have you ever been captivated by someone’s life story? From the ancient tales of great conquerors to the modern accounts of influential figures, biographies have enchanted readers and viewers for centuries. 

The stories of real people’s lives not only entertain and educate but also provide a unique window into the human experience. In fact, according to research1, human stories like biographies can help us better connect with others while fostering empathy and understanding.

In this article, let’s dive into how to write a compelling biography, from the research phase to delivery.

What Are the Key Elements of a Biography?

The key elements of a well-written biography bring characters to life. They include thorough research, relevant interviews, clear structure, captivating prose, compelling themes, and a balance between objectivity and empathy. 

  • Thorough research: Helps create an accurate portrayal of your subject
  • Relevant interviews: Insights help provide a deeper understanding of your subject
  • Clear structure: Helps you outline your ideas for a compelling narrative
  • Captivating prose: Provides descriptive language to paint a picture of your subject
  • Compelling themes: Showcases the motivations and desires behind your subject
  • A balance between objectivity and empathy: Keeps biases in check and allows your subject to shine for who they are

As you develop your biography, remember that these stories hold an enduring appeal because they offer people an opportunity to explore the depths of the human psyche, unravel extraordinary accomplishments, and discover the vulnerabilities and triumphs of individuals who have left their mark on the world. 

Here are the topics a biography typically covers:

  • Early life and background: Provide context about the subject’s upbringing, family, and cultural influences.
  • Achievements and milestones: Highlight notable accomplishments, contributions, and significant events throughout their life.
  • Challenges and struggles: Explore the obstacles they faced, the lessons learned, and how they overcame adversity.
  • Personal characteristics: Describe their personality traits, values, beliefs, and motivations that shaped their actions and decisions.
  • Impact and legacy: Discuss the lasting influence and contributions of the subject, both during their lifetime and beyond.

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Let’s look at the six key elements of a well-written biography more closely and the steps you can follow to develop your own.

How to Write a Biography in 8 Steps Using Key Elements

Choose your presentation format

Presenting your biography can take on various forms, the most traditional being written form. The basis for this article assumes you’re writing a conventional biography; however, this foundation can also help you create a multimedia presentation or website as well. 

Consider these various formats to present your biography:

  • Traditional Written Biographies: This classic approach provides a comprehensive account of a person’s life through the written word. Traditional biographies can be published in print or ebooks, allowing readers to engage deeply with the subject’s story.
  • Multimedia Presentations: In the digital age, multimedia presentations offer a dynamic way to present biographies. Incorporate audio, video, photographs, and interactive elements to enhance the audience’s experience.
  • Online Platforms: Online platforms, such as blogs or dedicated biography websites, provide accessible avenues for sharing biographies. They allow for easy updates, reader engagement, and the incorporation of multimedia elements. 

Choose your subject and conduct research

To create a vivid and accurate portrayal of a person’s life, conduct extensive research. Dive into archives, read letters, examine diaries, explore photographs, and immerse yourself in the historical and cultural context surrounding your subject. This will help you unearth the small details that breathe life into your biography. 

Whether you’re writing a biography about a historical figure, contemporary icon, or everyday individual, you’ll want to consider the different factors to focus on. Here are some examples of three types of individuals and the kind of research that will be most helpful.

  • Historical Figures: When writing about historical figures, immerse yourself in their era. Understand the social, political, and cultural forces that shaped their lives. I recommend visiting your local library and connecting with a research librarian for support. Otherwise, other tools for historical research include Google Scholar. Analyze primary sources and multiple perspectives to present a well-rounded account.
  • Contemporary Icons: Biographies of modern icons offer a chance to delve into their ongoing impact. Conduct interviews or gather insights from their close associates to understand their present-day influence. Stay current with the latest developments, and be prepared to update your work as the subject’s story unfolds.
  • Everyday Individuals: Biographies need not be reserved for the famous. Every day individuals possess stories that can be just as compelling. Uncover the extraordinary within the ordinary, highlighting the struggles, triumphs, and personal growth of individuals who might otherwise remain unsung.
  • Yourself! Want to write a biography on yourself? Autobiographies are a great way to explore who you are. Get ready to do some serious self-reflection with the steps below.

Pro Tip: Compile your research digitally using helpful cloud filings systems like Google Drive, OneDrive, or Dropbox. Organize your files by category, including information about their youth, family, achievements, and life lessons. You may also choose to write down research references or collect paper clippings on note cards, categorizing your physical files of research along the way.

Develop compelling themes and motifs 

Identify overarching themes or motifs that emerge from the subject’s life. These could be resilience, ambition, love, or societal change. Weave these elements into the narrative, highlighting their significance and impact on the person’s journey. Here are some examples:

  • Overcoming Adversity: These biographies feature perseverance, resilience, and determination. Examples include Helen Keller, Nelson Mandela, and Malala Yousafzai.
  • Pursuit of Excellence: These biographies highlight people who have worked tirelessly to achieve their goals. Examples include Steve Jobs, Serena Williams, and Michael Jordan.
  • Quest for Knowledge: These biographies focus on the curiosity that led to significant contributions to our world. Examples include Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, and Charles Darwin.
  • Personal Transformation: These biographies explore a change in beliefs, values, or priorities. Examples include Malcolm X, Oprah Winfrey, and Maya Angelou.
  • Legacy and Impact: These biographies examine a body of work that made a lasting contribution to society. Examples include Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, and Mahatma Gandhi.

Conduct relevant interviews 

Whenever possible, seek firsthand accounts from those who knew or interacted with the subject. Conduct interviews with family members, friends, colleagues, or experts in the field. Their insights and anecdotes can provide a deeper understanding of the person’s character and experiences.

When conducting interviews for a biography, consider the following tips to ensure a productive and insightful conversation:

  • Preparation:
    • Familiarize yourself with the interviewee’s background and accomplishments.
    • Develop a list of well-thought-out questions that cover key aspects of their lives and experiences, including questions about your subject’s youth, family, achievements, and life transitions or struggles.
  • Establishing Rapport:
    • Begin the interview by establishing a comfortable and friendly atmosphere to put the interviewee at ease.
    • Show genuine interest in their story and listen actively to their responses.
  • Open-Ended Questions:
    • Ask open-ended questions encouraging detailed and reflective responses.
    • Avoid yes/no questions and ask for their insights, memories, and personal perspectives.
    • Some topics you might consider for your questions include early life, achievements, challenges, motivations, values, relationships, lessons learned, and advice.
  • Active Listening:
    • Pay close attention to the interviewee’s answers, body language, and tone of voice.
    • Ask follow-up questions to clarify or delve deeper into specific topics.
    • Show empathy and understanding, creating a safe space for the interviewee to share personal or sensitive information.
  • Flexibility and Adaptability:
    • Remain flexible during the interview, allowing the conversation to flow naturally.
    • Be prepared to deviate from your prepared questions if unexpected but relevant topics arise.
    • Respect the interviewee’s boundaries and be mindful of any topics they may not wish to discuss.
  • Documentation:
    • Take thorough and organized notes during the interview to capture important details.
    • Consider recording the interview (with permission) to ensure accurate quotes and references.
    • Ask for permission to follow up with additional questions or for clarification.
  • Doing a biography on yourself? Ask yourself deep questions to harvest new stories and anecdotes.

Remember, the goal of the interview is to gather valuable information and personal perspectives that will contribute to the authenticity and depth of your biography. Approach the interview process with sensitivity, respect, and genuine curiosity about the interviewee’s life and experiences.

Develop a clear structure

Outline your biography, ensuring a logical and engaging narrative flow. Consider the chronological order, significant milestones, and turning points in the subject’s life. Organize your gathered information to capture the essence of their journey while maintaining a compelling rhythm throughout. 

A good outline for a biography can vary depending on the specific subject and the desired structure of the narrative. However, here’s a general outline that can serve as a starting point:

A. Introduction

a) Hook or engaging opening to capture the reader’s attention

b) Background information (birthplace, date, family, etc.)

c) A brief overview of the subject’s significance or why they are worth exploring

B. Early Life and Background

a) Childhood and upbringing

b) Influences, such as family, education, or cultural factors

c) Formative experiences or events that shaped the subject’s character or interests

C. Major Achievements and Milestones

a) A chronological exploration of the subject’s notable accomplishments, contributions, or milestones

b) Focus on key moments or achievements that highlight their impact or significance.

c) Provide context and details to paint a vivid picture of their achievements

D. Challenges and Obstacles

a) Discussion of the challenges, setbacks, or adversities the subject encountered

b) How they overcame obstacles or grew through difficult experiences

c) Insights into their resilience, determination, or problem-solving abilities

E. Personal Life and Relationships

a) Exploration of the subject’s relationships, such as family, friends, or romantic partners

b) Insights into their personal joys, struggles, or transformative experiences

c) How their personal life intersected with their professional or public achievements

F. Legacy and Impact

a) Examination of the subject’s lasting influence, contributions, or impact on society

b) Discuss how their work or actions continue to resonate or shape the world today

c) Reflection on their legacy and the lessons we can learn from their life story

G. Conclusion

a) Summarize the key aspects of the subject’s life and their significance

b) Provide a final reflection or insight on their overall journey or impact

c) Leave the reader with a lasting impression or call to action

Pro Tip: Looking for help drafting an outline to get you started? Use free tools like ChatGPT to jumpstart your outline by putting in a prompt request like, “Write an outline for a biography about X, including any relevant details on the subject that should be included.”

Craft captivating prose

Employ descriptive language to transport readers into the subject’s world. Paint vivid portraits of their physical appearance, mannerisms, and surroundings. Use sensory details to evoke emotions and create a strong connection between the reader and the subject. 

Here are some examples:

  • “She was a force of nature, with a fierce determination and an unwavering commitment to justice.” (Ruth Bader Ginsburg)
  • “His piercing blue eyes seemed to look right through you, and his voice had a commanding presence that demanded attention.” (Winston Churchill)
  • “She moved with a grace and elegance that belied her inner strength and resilience.” (Audrey Hepburn)
  • “His rugged features and piercing gaze made him a natural leading man, but it was his depth and vulnerability that set him apart.” (Marlon Brando)
  • “She had a contagious energy and a magnetic personality that drew people to her like a moth to a flame.” (Princess Diana)
  • “His quiet intensity and unwavering dedication to his craft made him one of the greatest artists of his time.” (Leonardo da Vinci)

Action Step: While writing descriptive prose takes some practice, it’s an art you can master with little creative writing skills. To help you write descriptive prose, practice closing your eyes and imagining your subject. 

  • What expression is on their face? 
  • How are they dressed? 
  • What does their body language express? 
  • How do they smell? 
  • How do they make you feel? 
  • How do they make others feel? 
  • What’s in their surroundings? 
  • What are they doing with their hands? 
  • What do you imagine they’re thinking about? 

With questions like these, you’ll start to use descriptive language to bring your subject to life.

Build a balance of objectivity and empathy

Strive for an objective portrayal while infusing empathy and understanding into your writing. Remain aware of biases and preconceived notions, giving your subject the space to shine in their unique light. 

To check yourself, filter your writing and interviewing with these tips:

  • Verify Information: Cross-reference information from various sources to ensure accuracy. Use tools like Fact Check Explorer to fact-check claims, dates, and events to avoid errors or inaccuracies that could skew the narrative. 
  • Multiple Perspectives: Seek out different viewpoints on the subject. This includes interviewing or reaching out to people with significant interactions or relationships with the subject. Incorporating diverse perspectives can counterbalance biases and provide a broader understanding.
  • Empathetic Listening: During interviews or conversations, practice active listening and empathize with the interviewee’s experiences and emotions. This allows you to understand the subject’s perspective and incorporate their insights and feelings into the narrative.
  • Contextualize Emotions: When sharing the subject’s emotional experiences or personal struggles, provide sufficient context and background. This helps readers understand the motivations and circumstances behind their actions and allows for empathetic understanding without veering into excessive sentimentality.
  • Credible Interpretation: While interpreting the subject’s thoughts, motives, or intentions, be clear about what is factual and what is speculative. Clearly distinguish between evidence-based information and your interpretations to maintain objectivity.
  • Respect Boundaries: Be mindful of the subject’s privacy and any requests they may have regarding sensitive or personal information. Respecting their boundaries shows empathy and allows for a respectful portrayal while maintaining the necessary level of objectivity.
  • Acknowledge Limitations: Recognize that achieving complete objectivity in a biography is challenging. Biases can inadvertently seep into the narrative. However, by being aware of your biases and consciously presenting a fair and balanced account, you can mitigate their influence.

Respect truth, privacy, and sensitivity

Remember, writing biographies carries ethical responsibilities. It’s important to maintain accuracy through credible research and gain consent while being sensitive to controversial or difficult topics. Here are some considerations:

  • Accuracy: Maintain a commitment to truth and accuracy. Verify facts and corroborate information from multiple sources to ensure the reliability of your narrative. Cite your sources and be transparent about any uncertainties or gaps in knowledge.
  • Privacy and Consent: Respect the privacy of living individuals mentioned in your biography. Seek consent when sharing personal details or sensitive information. Balance the subject’s right to privacy with the importance of honesty and transparency.
  • Sensitivity: Approach sensitive or controversial topics with care and empathy. Consider the potential impact of your words on the subject’s loved ones or affected communities—present differing perspectives without sensationalism or bias.

Writing a Biography FAQs

How long should a biography be?

The length of a biography can vary greatly, depending on the subject and the depth of exploration. Some biographies span a few hundred pages, while others extend to multiple volumes. Focus on capturing the subject’s life’s essence rather than strictly adhering to a predetermined length.

What are some common mistakes to avoid when writing a biography?

Some common mistakes to avoid when writing a biography include the following:
Lack of thorough research or reliance on a single source.
Inaccurate or misleading information.
Excessive personal bias or projection onto the subject.
Neglecting to verify facts or failing to cite sources.
Poor organization or a disjointed narrative flow.
Neglecting to balance objectivity with empathy.
Overloading the biography with irrelevant details or digressions.
Failing to respect privacy or ethical considerations.

Is it necessary to write a chronological biography?

While chronological order is commonly used in biographies, it is not required. Some biographers employ a thematic approach or explore specific periods or events in the subject’s life. Experiment with different structures to find the most engaging way to tell your subject’s story.

What is the purpose of writing a biography?

The purpose of writing a biography is to capture and share an individual’s life story. Biographies provide insights into a person’s experiences, achievements, and challenges, offering readers inspiration, knowledge, and understanding. They preserve the legacy of individuals, contribute to historical records, and celebrate the diversity of human lives.

How do I choose a subject for my biography?

When choosing a subject for your biography, consider someone who inspires you, interests you, or has significantly impacted society. It could be a historical figure, a contemporary icon, or even an everyday individual with a remarkable story. Choose a subject with sufficient available information, access to primary sources or interviews, and a narrative that resonates with you and potential readers.

What are the key elements to include in a biography?

Key elements to include in a biography are:
Early life and background: Provide context about the subject’s upbringing, family, and cultural influences.
Achievements and milestones: Highlight notable accomplishments, contributions, and significant events throughout their life.
Challenges and struggles: Explore the obstacles they faced, the lessons learned, and how they overcame adversity.
Personal characteristics: Describe their personality traits, values, beliefs, and motivations that shaped their actions and decisions.
Impact and legacy: Discuss the lasting influence and contributions of the subject, both during their lifetime and beyond.

Should I include personal anecdotes in the biography?

Including personal anecdotes can add depth and humanize the subject of your biography. However, be selective and ensure that the stories are relevant, contribute to understanding the person’s character or experiences, and align with the overall narrative. Balancing personal anecdotes with factual information is critical to maintaining accuracy and credibility.

How do I conduct research for a biography?

Conducting research for a biography involves exploring a variety of sources. Start with primary sources such as personal papers, letters, journals, and interviews with the subject or people who knew them. Secondary sources such as books, articles, and academic papers provide additional context and perspectives. Online databases, archives, libraries, and museums are valuable resources for finding relevant information.

What sources should I consult when writing a biography?

Consult a wide range of sources to ensure a comprehensive and accurate biography. Primary sources, such as personal documents, letters, diaries, and interviews, offer firsthand accounts and unique insights. Secondary sources provide broader context and analysis, including books, articles, scholarly works, and historical records. Remember to evaluate the credibility and reliability of your sources critically.

How do I organize the information in a biography?

Organize the information in your biography logically and engagingly. Consider using a chronological structure, starting with the subject’s early life and progressing through significant events and milestones. Alternatively, adopt a thematic approach, grouping related information based on themes or significant aspects of their life. Use clear headings, subheadings, and transitions to guide readers through the narrative flow.

Writing Biographies Key Takeaways

In summary, take note of these ideas and tips before you start writing your biography:

  • Biographies hold enduring appeal, offering a glimpse into the human experience across time.
  • Thorough research, interviews, and captivating prose are essential for crafting compelling biographies.
  • Ethical considerations, such as accuracy, privacy, and sensitivity, are crucial when writing about real people’s lives.
  • Choose subjects that genuinely inspire and resonate with you.
  • Immerse yourself in the subject’s world to understand their motivations and challenges.
  • Develop strong research skills and utilize a wide range of sources.
  • Craft a compelling narrative that engages readers from the very first page.
  • Seek feedback from trusted sources to refine your writing and storytelling abilities.
  • Continuously explore new biographies to broaden your understanding of different styles and approaches.
  • Embrace the unique voice and perspective you bring to the storytelling process.

Writing a biography book? Check out this helpful article, How to Write a Book: 10 Questions to Ask Before You Start Writing!

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