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Definition of biography

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So You've Been Asked to Submit a Biography

In a library, the word biography refers both to a kind of book and to a section where books of that kind are found. Each biography tells the story of a real person's life. A biography may be about someone who lived long ago, recently, or even someone who is still living, though in the last case it must necessarily be incomplete. The term autobiography refers to a biography written by the person it's about. Autobiographies are of course also necessarily incomplete.

Sometimes biographies are significantly shorter than a book—something anyone who's been asked to submit a biography for, say, a conference or a community newsletter will be glad to know. Often the word in these contexts is shortened to bio , a term that can be both a synonym of biography and a term for what is actually a biographical sketch: a brief description of a person's life. These kinds of biographies—bios—vary, but many times they are only a few sentences long. Looking at bios that have been used in the same context can be a useful guide in determining what to put in your own.

Examples of biography in a Sentence

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'biography.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

Late Greek biographia , from Greek bi- + -graphia -graphy

1665, in the meaning defined at sense 2

Dictionary Entries Near biography

biographize

Cite this Entry

“Biography.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/biography. Accessed 1 Jun. 2024.

Kids Definition

Kids definition of biography, more from merriam-webster on biography.

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Britannica.com: Encyclopedia article about biography

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What Is a Biography?

What is a biography?

Learning from the experiences of others is what makes us human.

At the core of every biography is the story of someone’s humanity. While biographies come in many sub-genres, the one thing they all have in common is loyalty to the facts, as they’re available at the time. Here’s how we define biography, a look at its origins, and some popular types.

“Biography” Definition

A biography is simply the story of a real person’s life. It could be about a person who is still alive, someone who lived centuries ago, someone who is globally famous, an unsung hero forgotten by history, or even a unique group of people. The facts of their life, from birth to death (or the present day of the author), are included with life-changing moments often taking center stage. The author usually points to the subject’s childhood, coming-of-age events, relationships, failures, and successes in order to create a well-rounded description of her subject.

Biographies require a great deal of research. Sources of information could be as direct as an interview with the subject providing their own interpretation of their life’s events. When writing about people who are no longer with us, biographers look for primary sources left behind by the subject and, if possible, interviews with friends or family. Historical biographers may also include accounts from other experts who have studied their subject.

The biographer’s ultimate goal is to recreate the world their subject lived in and describe how they functioned within it. Did they change their world? Did their world change them? Did they transcend the time in which they lived? Why or why not? And how? These universal life lessons are what make biographies such a meaningful read.

Origins of the Biography

Greco-Roman literature honored the gods as well as notable mortals. Whether winning or losing, their behaviors were to be copied or seen as cautionary tales. One of the earliest examples written exclusively about humans is Plutarch’s Parallel Lives (probably early 2 nd century AD). It’s a collection of biographies in which a pair of men, one Greek and one Roman, are compared and held up as either a good or bad example to follow.

In the Middle Ages, Einhard’s The Life of Charlemagne (around 817 AD) stands out as one of the most famous biographies of its day. Einhard clearly fawns over Charlemagne’s accomplishments throughout, yet it doesn’t diminish the value this biography has brought to centuries of historians since its writing.

Considered the earliest modern biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791) by James Boswell looks like the biographies we know today. Boswell conducted interviews, performed years of research, and created a compelling narrative of his subject.

The genre evolves as the 20th century arrives, and with it the first World War. The 1920s saw a boom in autobiographies in response. Robert Graves’ Good-Bye to All That (1929) is a coming-of age story set amid the absurdity of war and its aftermath. That same year, Mahatma Gandhi wrote The Story of My Experiments with Truth , recalling how the events of his life led him to develop his theories of nonviolent rebellion. In this time, celebrity tell-alls also emerged as a popular form of entertainment. With the horrors of World War II and the explosion of the civil rights movement, American biographers of the late 20 th century had much to archive. Instantly hailed as some of the best writing about the war, John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946) tells the stories of six people who lived through those world-altering days. Alex Haley wrote the as-told-to The Autobiography of Malcom X (1965). Yet with biographies, the more things change, the more they stay the same. One theme that persists is a biographer’s desire to cast its subject in an updated light, as in Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair that Shaped a First Lady by Susan Quinn (2016).

Types of Biographies

Contemporary Biography: Authorized or Unauthorized

The typical modern biography tells the life of someone still alive, or who has recently passed. Sometimes these are authorized — written with permission or input from the subject or their family — like Dave Itzkoff’s intimate look at the life and career of Robin Williams, Robin . Unauthorized biographies of living people run the risk of being controversial. Kitty Kelley’s infamous His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra so angered Sinatra, he tried to prevent its publication.

Historical Biography

The wild success of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is proof that our interest in historical biography is as strong as ever. Miranda was inspired to write the musical after reading Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton , an epic 800+ page biography intended to cement Hamilton’s status as a great American. Paula Gunn Allen also sets the record straight on another misunderstood historical figure with Pocahontas: Medicine Woman, Spy, Entrepreneur, Diplomat , revealing details about her tribe, her family, and her relationship with John Smith that are usually missing from other accounts. Historical biographies also give the spotlight to people who died without ever getting the recognition they deserved, such as The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks .

Biography of a Group

When a group of people share unique characteristics, they can be the topic of a collective biography. The earliest example of this is Captain Charles Johnson’s A General History of the Pirates (1724), which catalogs the lives of notorious pirates and establishes the popular culture images we still associate with them. Smaller groups are also deserving of a biography, as seen in David Hajdu’s Positively 4th Street , a mesmerizing behind-the-scenes look at the early years of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mimi Baez Fariña, and Richard Fariña as they establish the folk scene in New York City. Likewise, British royal family fashion is a vehicle for telling the life stories of four iconic royals – Queen Elizabeth II, Diana, Kate, and Meghan – in HRH: So Many Thoughts on Royal Style by style journalist Elizabeth Holmes.

Autobiography

This type of biography is written about one’s self, spanning an entire life up to the point of its writing. One of the earliest autobiographies is Saint Augustine’s The Confessions (400), in which his own experiences from childhood through his religious conversion are told in order to create a sweeping guide to life. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first of six autobiographies that share all the pain of her childhood and the long road that led to her work in the civil rights movement, and a beloved, prize-winning writer.

Memoirs are a type of autobiography, written about a specific but vital aspect of one’s life. In Toil & Trouble , Augusten Burroughs explains how he has lived his life as a witch. Mikel Jollett’s Hollywood Park recounts his early years spent in a cult, his family’s escape, and his rise to success with his band, The Airborne Toxic Event. Barack Obama’s first presidential memoir, A Promised Land , charts his path into politics and takes a deep dive into his first four years in office.

Fictional Biography

Fictional biographies are no substitute for a painstakingly researched scholarly biography, but they’re definitely meant to be more entertaining. Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler constructs Zelda and F. Scott’s wild, Jazz-Age life, told from Zelda’s point of view. The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict brings readers into the secret life of Hollywood actress and wartime scientist, Hedy Lamarr. These imagined biographies, while often whimsical, still respect the form in that they depend heavily on facts when creating setting, plot, and characters.

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Definition of Biography

A biography is the non- fiction , written history or account of a person’s life. Biographies are intended to give an objective portrayal of a person, written in the third person. Biographers collect information from the subject (if he/she is available), acquaintances of the subject, or in researching other sources such as reference material, experts, records, diaries, interviews, etc. Most biographers intend to present the life story of a person and establish the context of their story for the reader, whether in terms of history and/or the present day. In turn, the reader can be reasonably assured that the information presented about the biographical subject is as true and authentic as possible.

Biographies can be written about a person at any time, no matter if they are living or dead. However, there are limitations to biography as a literary device. Even if the subject is involved in the biographical process, the biographer is restricted in terms of access to the subject’s thoughts or feelings.

Biographical works typically include details of significant events that shape the life of the subject as well as information about their childhood, education, career, and relationships. Occasionally, a biography is made into another form of art such as a film or dramatic production. The musical production of “Hamilton” is an excellent example of a biographical work that has been turned into one of the most popular musical productions in Broadway history.

Common Examples of Biographical Subjects

Most people assume that the subject of a biography must be a person who is famous in some way. However, that’s not always the case. In general, biographical subjects tend to be interesting people who have pioneered something in their field of expertise or done something extraordinary for humanity. In addition, biographical subjects can be people who have experienced something unusual or heartbreaking, committed terrible acts, or who are especially gifted and/or talented.

As a literary device, biography is important because it allows readers to learn about someone’s story and history. This can be enlightening, inspiring, and meaningful in creating connections. Here are some common examples of biographical subjects:

  • political leaders
  • entrepreneurs
  • historical figures
  • serial killers
  • notorious people
  • political activists
  • adventurers/explorers
  • religious leaders
  • military leaders
  • cultural figures

Famous Examples of Biographical Works

The readership for biography tends to be those who enjoy learning about a certain person’s life or overall field related to the person. In addition, some readers enjoy the literary form of biography independent of the subject. Some biographical works become well-known due to either the person’s story or the way the work is written, gaining a readership of people who may not otherwise choose to read biography or are unfamiliar with its form.

Here are some famous examples of biographical works that are familiar to many readers outside of biography fans:

  • Alexander Hamilton (Ron Chernow)
  • Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Caroline Fraser)
  • Steve Jobs (Walter Isaacson)
  • Churchill: A Life (Martin Gilbert)
  • The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (Simon Winchester)
  • A Beautiful Mind (Sylvia Nasar)
  • The Black Rose (Tananarive Due)
  • John Adams (David McCullough)
  • Into the Wild ( Jon Krakauer )
  • John Brown (W.E.B. Du Bois)
  • Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (Hayden Herrera)
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot)
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Doris Kearns Goodwin)
  • Shirley Jackson : A Rather Haunted Life ( Ruth Franklin)
  • the stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit (Michael Finkel)

Difference Between Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir

Biography, autobiography , and memoir are the three main forms used to tell the story of a person’s life. Though there are similarities between these forms, they have distinct differences in terms of the writing, style , and purpose.

A biography is an informational narrative and account of the life history of an individual person, written by someone who is not the subject of the biography. An autobiography is the story of an individual’s life, written by that individual. In general, an autobiography is presented chronologically with a focus on key events in the person’s life. Since the writer is the subject of an autobiography, it’s written in the first person and considered more subjective than objective, like a biography. In addition, autobiographies are often written late in the person’s life to present their life experiences, challenges, achievements, viewpoints, etc., across time.

Memoir refers to a written collection of a person’s significant memories, written by that person. Memoir doesn’t generally include biographical information or chronological events unless it’s relevant to the story being presented. The purpose of memoir is reflection and an intention to share a meaningful story as a means of creating an emotional connection with the reader. Memoirs are often presented in a narrative style that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Examples of Biography in Literature

An important subset of biography is literary biography. A literary biography applies biographical study and form to the lives of artists and writers. This poses some complications for writers of literary biographies in that they must balance the representation of the biographical subject, the artist or writer, as well as aspects of the subject’s literary works. This balance can be difficult to achieve in terms of judicious interpretation of biographical elements within an author’s literary work and consideration of the separate spheres of the artist and their art.

Literary biographies of artists and writers are among some of the most interesting biographical works. These biographies can also be very influential for readers, not only in terms of understanding the artist or writer’s personal story but the context of their work or literature as well. Here are some examples of well-known literary biographies:

Example 1:  Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay  (Nancy Milford)

One of the first things Vincent explained to Norma was that there was a certain freedom of language in the Village that mustn’t shock her. It wasn’t vulgar. ‘So we sat darning socks on Waverly Place and practiced the use of profanity as we stitched. Needle in, . Needle out, piss. Needle in, . Needle out, c. Until we were easy with the words.’

This passage reflects the way in which Milford is able to characterize St. Vincent Millay as a person interacting with her sister. Even avid readers of a writer’s work are often unaware of the artist’s private and personal natures, separate from their literature and art. Milford reflects the balance required on the part of a literary biographer of telling the writer’s life story without undermining or interfering with the meaning and understanding of the literature produced by the writer. Though biographical information can provide some influence and context for a writer’s literary subjects, style, and choices , there is a distinction between the fictional world created by a writer and the writer’s “real” world. However, a literary biographer can illuminate the writer’s story so that the reader of both the biography and the biographical subject’s literature finds greater meaning and significance.

Example 2:  The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens  (Claire Tomalin)

The season of domestic goodwill and festivity must have posed a problem to all good Victorian family men with more than one family to take care of, particularly when there were two lots of children to receive the demonstrations of paternal love.

Tomalin’s literary biography of Charles Dickens reveals the writer’s extramarital relationship with a woman named Nelly Ternan. Tomalin presents the complications that resulted for Dickens from this relationship in terms of his personal and family life as well as his professional writing and literary work. Revealing information such as an extramarital relationship can influence the way a reader may feel about the subject as a person, and in the case of literary biography it can influence the way readers feel about the subject’s literature as well. Artists and writers who are beloved , such as Charles Dickens, are often idealized by their devoted readers and society itself. However, as Tomalin’s biography of Dickens indicates, artists and writers are complicated and as subject to human failings as anyone else.

Example 3:  Virginia Woolf  (Hermione Lee)

‘A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living’: so too with the biography of that self. And just as lives don’t stay still, so life-writing can’t be fixed and finalised. Our ideas are shifting about what can be said, our knowledge of human character is changing. The biographer has to pioneer, going ‘ahead of the rest of us, like the miner’s canary, testing the atmosphere , detecting falsity, unreality, and the presence of obsolete conventions’. So, ‘There are some stories which have to be retold by each generation’. She is talking about the story of Shelley, but she could be talking about her own life-story.

In this passage, Lee is able to demonstrate what her biographical subject, Virginia Woolf, felt about biography and a person telling their own or another person’s story. Literary biographies of well-known writers can be especially difficult to navigate in that both the author and biographical subject are writers, but completely separate and different people. As referenced in this passage by Lee, Woolf was aware of the subtleties and fluidity present in a person’s life which can be difficult to judiciously and effectively relay to a reader on the part of a biographer. In addition, Woolf offers insight into the fact that biographers must make choices in terms of what information is presented to the reader and the context in which it is offered, making them a “miner’s canary” as to how history will view and remember the biographical subject.

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What Is Biography? Definition, Usage, and Literary Examples

Biography definition.

A  biography  (BYE-og-ruh-fee) is a written account of one person’s life authored by another person. A biography includes all pertinent details from the subject’s life, typically arranged in a chronological order. The word  biography  stems from the Latin  biographia , which succinctly explains the word’s definition:  bios  = “life” +  graphia  = “write.”

Since the advent of the written word, historical writings have offered information about real people, but it wasn’t until the 18th century that biographies evolved into a separate literary genre.  Autobiographies  and memoirs fall under the broader biography genre, but they are distinct literary forms due to one key factor: the subjects themselves write these works. Biographies are popular source materials for documentaries, television shows, and motion pictures.

The History of Biographies

The biography form has its roots in Ancient Rome and Greece. In 44 BCE, Roman writer Cornelius Nepos published  Excellentium Imperatorum Vitae  ( Lives of the Generals ), one of the earliest recorded biographies. In 80 CE, Greek writer Plutarch released  Parallel Lives , a sweeping work consisting of 48 biographies of famous men. In 121 CE, Roman historian Suetonius wrote  De vita Caesarum  ( On the Lives of the Caesars ), a series of 12 biographies detailing the lives of Julius Caesar and the first 11 emperors of the Roman Empire. These were among the most widely read biographies of their time, and at least portions of them have survived intact over the millennia.

During the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic Church had a notable influence on biographies. Historical, political, and cultural biographies fell out of favor. Biographies of religious figures—including saints, popes, and church founders—replaced them. One notable exception was Italian painter/architect Giorgio Vasari’s 1550 biography,  The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors, and Architects , which was immensely popular. In fact, it is one of the first examples of a bestselling book.

Still, it wasn’t until the 18th century that authors began to abandon multiple subjects in a single work and instead focus their research and writing on one subject. Scholars consider James Boswell’s 1791  The Life of Samuel Johnson  to be the first modern biography. From here, biographies were established as a distinct literary genre, separate from more general historical writing.

As understanding of psychology and sociology grew in the 19th and early 20th centuries, biographies further evolved, offering up even more comprehensive pictures of their subjects. Authors who played major roles in this contemporary approach to biographing include Lytton Strachey, Gamaliel Bradford, and Robert Graves.

Types of Biographies

While all biographical works chronicle the lives of real people, writers can present the information in several different ways.

  • Popular biographies are life histories written for a general readership.  The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks  by Rebecca Skloot and  Into the Wild  by Jon Krakauer are two popular examples.
  • Critical biographies discuss the relationship between the subject’s life and the work they produced or were involved in; for example,  The Billionaire Who Wasn’t: How Chuck Feeney Secretly Made and Gave Away a Fortune  by Conor O’Clery and  Unpresidented: A Biography of Donald Trump  by Martha Brockenbrough.
  • Historical biographies put greater understanding on how the subject’s life and contributions affected or were affected by the times in which they lived; see  John Adams  by David McCullough and  Catherine the Great  by Peter K. Massie.
  • Literary biographies concentrate almost exclusively on writers and artists, blending a conventional  narrative  of the historical facts of the subject’s life with an exploration of how these facts impacted their creative output. Some examples include  Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay  by Nancy Milford and  Jackson Pollock: An American Saga  by Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh.
  • Reference biographies are more scholarly writings, usually written by multiple authors and covering multiple lives around a single topic. They verify facts, provide background details, and contribute supplemental information resources, like bibliographies, glossaries, and historical documents; for example,  Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007  and the  Dictionary of Canadian Biography .
  • Fictional biographies, or biographical novels, like  The Other Boleyn Girl  by Philippa Gregory, incorporate creative license into the retelling of a real person’s story by taking on the structure and freedoms of a novel. The term can also describe novels in which authors give an abundance of background information on their characters, to the extent that the novel reads more like a biography than fiction. An example of this is George R.R. Martin’s  Fire and Blood , a novel detailing the history of a royal family from his popular  A Song of Ice and Fire

Biographies and Filmed Entertainment

Movie makers and television creators frequently produce biographical stories, either as dramatized productions based on real people or as nonfiction accounts.

Documentary

This genre is a nonfictional movie or television show that uses historical records to tell the story of a subject. The subject might be a one person or a group of people, or it might be a certain topic or theme. To present a biography in a visually compelling way, documentaries utilize archival footage, recreations, and interviews with subjects, scholars, experts, and others associated with the subject.

Famous film documentaries include  Grey Gardens,  a biography of two of Jacqueline Kennedy’s once-wealthy cousins, who, at the time of filming, lived in squalor in a condemned mansion in the Hamptons; and  I Am Not Your Negro , a biography of the life and legacy of pioneering American author James Baldwin.

Television documentary series tell one story over the course of several episodes, like  The Jinx :  The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst , a biography of the real estate heir and alleged serial killer that focused on his suspected crimes. There are many nonfiction television shows that use a documentary format, but subjects typically change from one episode to the next, such as A&E’s  Biography  and PBS’s  POV .

These films are biographical motion pictures, written by screenwriters and performed by actors. They often employ a certain amount of creative liberty in their interpretation of a real life. This is largely done to maintain a feasible runtime; capturing all of the pivotal moments of a subject’s life in a 90- or 120-minute movie is all but impossible. So, filmmakers might choose to add, eliminate, or combine key events and characters, or they may focus primarily on one or only a few aspects of the subject’s life. Some popular examples:  Coal Miner’s Daughter , a biography of country music legend Loretta Lynn;  Malcom X , a biopic centered on the civil rights leader of the same name; and  The King’s Speech , a dramatization of Prince Albert’s efforts to overcome a stutter and ascend the English throne.

Semi-fictionalized account

This approach takes a real-life event and interprets or expands it in ways that stray beyond what actually happened. This is done for entertainment and to build the story so it fits the filmmaker’s vision or evolves into a longer form, such as a multi-season television show. These accounts sometimes come with the disclaimer that they are “inspired by true events.” Examples of semi-fictionalized accounts are the TV series  Orange Is the New Black ,  Masters of Sex , and  Mozart of the Jungle —each of which stem from at least one biographical element, but showrunners expounded upon to provide many seasons of entertainment.

The Functions of Biography

Biographies inform readers about the life of a notable person. They are a way to introduce readers to the work’s subject—the historical details, the subject’s motivations and psychological underpinnings, and their environment and the impact they had, both in the short and long term.

Because the author is somewhat removed from their subject, they can offer a more omniscient, third-person narrative account. This vantage point allows the author to put certain events into a larger context; compare and contrast events, people, and behaviors predominant in the subject’s life; and delve into psychological and sociological themes of which the subject may not have been aware.

Also, a writer structures a biography to make the life of the subject interesting and readable. Most biographers want to entertain as well as inform, so they typically use a traditional  plot  structure—an introduction,  conflict , rising of tension, a climax, a resolution, and an ending—to give the life story a narrative shape. While the ebb and flow of life is a normal day-to-day rhythm, it doesn’t necessarily make for entertaining reading. The job of the writer, then, becomes one of shaping the life to fit the elements of a good plot.

Writers Known for Biographies

Many modern writers have dedicated much of their careers to biographies, such as:

  • Kitty Kelley, author of  Jackie Oh! An Intimate Biography; His Way: The Unauthorized Biography of Frank Sinatra ; and  The Family: The Real Story of the Bush Dynasty
  • Antonia Fraser, author of  Mary Queen of Scots ;  Cromwell; Our Chief of Men ; and  The Gunpowder Plot: Terror and Faith in 1605
  • David McCullough, author of  The Path Between the Seas; Truman ; and  John Adams
  • Andrew Morton, author of  Diana: Her True Story in Her Own Words; Madonna ; and  Tom Cruise: An Unauthorized Biography
  • Alison Weir, author of  The Six Wives of Henry VIII; Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God; Queen of England ; and  Katherine Swynford: The Story of John of Gaunt and His Scandalous Duchess

Examples of Biographies

1. James Boswell,  The Life of Samuel Johnson

The biography that ushered in the modern era of true-life writing,  The Life of Samuel Johnson  covered the entirety of its subject’s life, from his birth to his status as England’s preeminent writer to his death. Boswell was a personal acquaintance of Johnson, so he was able to draw on voluminous amounts of personal conversations the two shared.

What also sets this biography apart is, because Boswell was a contemporary of Johnson, readers see Johnson in the context of his own time. He wasn’t some fabled figure that a biographer was writing about centuries later; he was someone to whom the author had access, and Boswell could see the real-world influence his subject had on life in the here and now.

2. Sylvia Nasar,  A Beautiful Mind

Nasar’s 1998 Pulitzer Prize-nominated biography of mathematician John Nash introduced legions of readers to Nash’s remarkable life and genius. The book opens with Nash’s childhood and follows him through his education, career, personal life, and struggles with schizophrenia. It ends with his acceptance of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Economics. In addition to a Pulitzer nomination,  A Beautiful Mind  won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Biography, was a  New York Times  bestseller, and provided the basis for the Academy Award-winning 2001 film of the same name.

3. Catherine Clinton,  Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom

Clinton’s biography of the abolitionist icon is a large-scale epic that chronicles Tubman’s singular life. It starts at her birth in the 1820s as the slave Araminta Ross, continuing through her journey to freedom; her pivotal role in the Underground Railroad; her Moses-like persona; and her death in 1913.

Because Tubman could not read or write, she left behind no letters, diaries, or other personal papers in her own hand and voice. Clinton reconstructed Tubman’s history entirely through other source material, and historians often cite this work as the quintessential biography of Tubman’s life.

4. Megan Mayhew Bergman,  Almost Famous Women

Almost Famous Women  is not a biography in the strictest sense of the word; it is a fictional interpretation of real-life women. Each short story revolves around a woman from history with close ties to fame, such as movie star Marlene Dietrich, Standard Oil heiress Marion “Joe” Carstairs, aviatrix Beryl Markham, Oscar Wilde’s niece Dolly, and Lord Byron’s daughter Allegra. Mayhew Bergman imagines these colorful women in equally colorful episodes that put them in a new light—a light that perhaps offers them the honor and homage that history denied them.

Further Resources on Biography

Newsweek  compiled their picks for the  75 Best Biographies of All Time .

The Open Education Database has a list of  75 Biographies to Read Before You Die .

Goodreads put together a list of readers’  best biography selections .

If you’re looking to write biographies,  Infoplease  has instructions for writing shorter pieces, while  The Writer   has practical advice for writing manuscript-length bios.

Ranker  collected  a comprehensive list of famous biographers .

Related Terms

  • Autobiography
  • Short Story

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Wonderopolis

Wonder of the Day #44

What Is a Biography?

Wonderopolis

LANGUAGE ARTS — Literature

Have You Ever Wondered...

  • Who wrote the first biography? 
  • How do you write a biography? 
  • What is a memoir?
  • biography ,
  • Biography ,
  • Autobiography ,
  • James Boswell ,
  • Samuel Johnson ,
  • Slave Narrative ,

Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Chgvlokdkl. Chgvlokdkl Wonders , “ Who was the first biography on? ” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Chgvlokdkl!

If you’re reading this, chances are that you enjoy learning about people, places, and new ideas. That’s what Wonderopolis is all about! Every Wonder you read is a nonfiction article. Nonfiction means that it is based in fact —it is true. Many Wonders are about famous or important people. These are biographies! And today we’re WONDERing—what is a biography?

Simply put, a biography is the true story of a person’s life. Of course, writing a biography might not be so simple! How does someone write a biography? Some authors write a biography of someone that they knew. One of the most famous biographies in ancient times was the descriptions of Socrates by his student, Plato. Plato wrote about what he saw and experienced with Socrates.

Most biographers have to research their subjects. Writers can learn about them by reading their diaries or other papers they wrote. They can also read what other biographers have written about them. If their subject is alive, a writer might interview them to learn more about their perspective. Sometimes, a writer may know his subject , but they also research them in order to give a fuller account of their lives. One of the first modern biographers was James Boswell. He knew his subject , Samuel Johnson, very well. He also learned more about Johnson by reading his papers and journals. Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson became one of the most famous biographies in history!

Another kind of biography is the autobiography. “Auto” means self, so an autobiography is a biography written by oneself! One kind of autobiography is a memoir. Memoirs are usually about one part of a person’s life—not their entire life, like an autobiography. Both biographies and autobiographies are often written about well known or important people. Many may already know of them and are interested in learning more about them. That isn’t always true, though.

There are a few different reasons why people would write a biography or autobiography. The first is to teach others about someone who is already well known. Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton , that inspired the musical Hamilton , is one example. Another is to inform about other places, times, or events. Biographies of famous generals, for example, help teach us about the conflicts they were a part of. Travel memoirs show us what it is like to live in other places.

Many memoirs focus on someone’s unique life. Helen Keller ’s book tells of her life as a person who was both blind and deaf. Maya Angelou wrote about her life growing up as a Black girl in Arkansas.

Autobiographies can also be used to draw attention to important issues. They can help people empathize with the author. One genre of autobiography called slave narratives were written for this purpose. Authors like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs told about their lives as enslaved people. They hoped that by telling their stories, they might inspire others to work against slavery .

Autobiographies and memoirs about the Holocaust also seek to inform and teach others. Two of the best known Holocaust memoirs are Anne Frank ’s Diary of a Young Girl and Elie Wiesel ’s Night . These books help readers feel connected to the authors and understand how they felt.

Writing a biography requires a lot of research . Writing an autobiography or memoir means you will need to know all about yourself! Who would YOU like to write about? Who would YOU like to read about?

Common Core , Next Generation Science Standards , and National Council for the Social Studies ."> Standards : CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.3, CCRA.R.7, CCRA.R.8, CCRA.R.9, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.4, CCRA.L.5, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.W.2, CCRA.W.3, CCRA.W.4, CCRA.W.7, CCRA.W.9

Wonder What's Next?

Tomorrow’s palm-sized Wonder of the Day has a long tail and is sometimes gray. However, we’re not sure if it likes cheese.

Whether you’d like to read or write, try it out here! 

  • There are so many Wonder biographies—which is your favorite? With an adult’s help, search our website and see what biographies you can find. You might try Sandra Cisneros , James Baldwin , or Henry David Thoreau —who all wrote memoirs of their own! Share what you learn with a friend or family member. If you can’t find the biography you’d like, suggest it in the Wonder Bank ! 
  • Ready to try it for yourself? Write a small biography! You can either write about someone you already know, or not. With an adult’s help, use your research skills on the Internet or at the library to learn more about your subject. If your subject is a friend or family member, interview them to learn more. Then, organize and write what you have learned. Share your biography with a friend or family member! 
  • Are your experiences unique enough to write about? We think so! Try your hand at writing a memoir. You can write a poem, short story, or even try a six-word memoir . Share what you create with a friend or family member!

Wonder Sources

  • https://www.britannica.com/dictionary (accessed 19 July, 2023)
  • https://www.britannica.com/art/biography-narrative-genre (accessed 22 May, 2023)
  • https://www.authorlearningcenter.com/writing/i-have-an-idea/w/choosing-your-topic/6397/the-differences-between-memoir-autobiography-and-biography---article (accessed 24 May, 2023)
  • https://celadonbooks.com/what-is-a-biography/ (accessed 24 May, 2023)

Did you get it?

Wonder contributors.

We’d like to thank:

Ivy for contributing questions about today’s Wonder topic!

Keep WONDERing with us!

Wonder Words

Wonderopolis

biography is about a person and that person wrote it

Thanks for sharing your thoughts about biographies, Taylor! They are fun to write and read! :)

Wonderopolis

That sounds very interesting, Morgan! We enjoy reading biographies, too! :)

Wonderopolis

Wonderopolis

Hi, kay! We're sorry to hear that. Reading and writing biographies are both WONDERful ways to learn about historic people. We encourage you to think of your historical hero ( Wonder #1119:Who’s Your Historical Hero? ) and research him/her at the library. You might change your mind! :)

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Hi Derek! We're excited that you're the first to comment too! We are so glad you're WONDERing with us! Who's your favorite biography about? Thanks for WONDERing! :)

We are undergoing some spring clearing site maintenance and need to temporarily disable the commenting feature. Thanks for your patience.

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Question 1 of 3

This Wonder is mostly about . . .

  • a How to write a memoir Not Quite!
  • b The importance of slave narratives in the abolitionist movement Not Quite!
  • c James Boswell Not Quite!
  • d Different kinds of biographies Correct!

Question 2 of 3

How do we know that autobiographies can be used to draw attention to important issues?

  • a One genre of autobiography, called slave narratives, were written for the purpose of inspiring others to work against slavery. Correct!
  • b Writing a biography requires a lot of research. Not Quite!
  • c One of the most famous biographies in ancient times was the descriptions of Socrates by his student, Plato. Not Quite!
  • d Many memoirs focus on someone’s unique life. Not Quite!

Question 3 of 3

How is an autobiography different from a memoir?

  • a Memoirs are shorter than autobiographies. Not Quite!
  • b Memoirs are usually about one part of a person’s life—not their entire life, like an autobiography. Correct!
  • c Autobiographies are about someone else, whereas a memoir is about oneself. Not Quite!
  • d Memoirs are about famous or important people; autobiographies are about ordinary people. Not Quite!

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Biographies: The Stories of Humanity

  • An Introduction to Punctuation
  • Ph.D., Rhetoric and English, University of Georgia
  • M.A., Modern English and American Literature, University of Leicester
  • B.A., English, State University of New York

A biography is a story of a person's life, written by another author. The writer of a biography is called a biographer while the person written about is known as the subject or biographee.

Biographies usually take the form of a narrative , proceeding chronologically through the stages of a person's life. American author Cynthia Ozick notes in her essay "Justice (Again) to Edith Wharton" that a good biography is like a novel, wherein it believes in the idea of a life as "a triumphal or tragic story with a shape, a story that begins at birth, moves on to a middle part, and ends with the death of the protagonist."

A biographical essay is a comparatively short work of nonfiction  about certain aspects of a person's life. By necessity, this sort of essay  is much more selective than a full-length biography, usually focusing only on key experiences and events in the subject's life.

Between History and Fiction

Perhaps because of this novel-like form, biographies fit squarely between written history and fiction, wherein the author often uses personal flairs and must invent details "filling in the gaps" of the story of a person's life that can't be gleaned from first-hand or available documentation like home movies, photographs, and written accounts.

Some critics of the form argue it does a disservice to both history and fiction, going so far as to call them "unwanted offspring, which has brought a great embarrassment to them both," as Michael Holroyd puts it in his book "Works on Paper: The Craft of Biography and Autobiography." Nabokov even called biographers "psycho-plagiarists," meaning that they steal the psychology of a person and transcribe it to the written form.

Biographies are distinct from creative non-fiction such as memoir in that biographies are specifically about one person's full life story -- from birth to death -- while creative non-fiction is allowed to focus on a variety of subjects, or in the case of memoirs certain aspects of an individual's life.

Writing a Biography

For writers who want to pen another person's life story, there are a few ways to spot potential weaknesses, starting with making sure proper and ample research has been conducted -- pulling resources such as newspaper clippings, other academic publications, and recovered documents and found footage.  

First and foremost, it is the duty of biographers to avoid misrepresenting the subject as well as acknowledging the research sources they used. Writers should, therefore, avoid presenting a personal bias for or against the subject as being objective is key to conveying the person's life story in full detail.

Perhaps because of this, John F. Parker observes in his essay "Writing: Process to Product" that some people find writing a biographical essay "easier than writing an  autobiographical  essay. Often it takes less effort to write about others than to reveal ourselves." In other words, in order to tell the full story, even the bad decisions and scandals have to make the page in order to truly be authentic.

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Cambridge Dictionary

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Meaning of biography in English

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  • This biography offers a few glimpses of his life before he became famous .
  • Her biography revealed that she was not as rich as everyone thought .
  • The biography was a bit of a rush job .
  • The biography is an attempt to uncover the inner man.
  • The biography is woven from the many accounts which exist of things she did.
  • exercise book
  • novelistically
  • young adult

biography | American Dictionary

  • biographical

Examples of biography

Translations of biography.

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on top of the world

extremely happy

Keeping up appearances (Talking about how things seem)

Keeping up appearances (Talking about how things seem)

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[ bahy- og -r uh -fee , bee- ]

the biography of Byron by Marchand.

  • an account in biographical form of an organization, society, theater, animal, etc.
  • such writings collectively.
  • the writing of biography as an occupation or field of endeavor.

/ baɪˈɒɡrəfɪ; ˌbaɪəˈɡræfɪkəl /

  • an account of a person's life by another
  • such accounts collectively
  • The story of someone's life. The Life of Samuel Johnson , by James Boswell , and Abraham Lincoln , by Carl Sandburg , are two noted biographies. The story of the writer's own life is an autobiography .

Discover More

Derived forms.

  • biˈographer , noun
  • biographical , adjective
  • ˌbioˈgraphically , adverb

Word History and Origins

Origin of biography 1

Example Sentences

Barrett didn’t say anything on Tuesday to contradict our understanding of her ideological leanings based on her past rulings, past statements and biography.

Republicans, meanwhile, focused mostly on her biography — including her role as a working mother of seven and her Catholic faith — and her credentials, while offering few specifics about her record as a law professor and judge.

She delivered an inspiring biography at one point, reflecting on the sacrifice her mother made to emigrate to the United States.

As Walter Isaacson pointed out in his biography of Benjamin Franklin, Franklin proposed the postal system as a vital network to bond together the 13 disparate colonies.

Serving that end, the book is not an in-depth biography as much as a summary of Galileo’s life and science, plus a thorough recounting of the events leading up to his famous trial.

The Amazon biography for an author named Papa Faal mentions both Gambia and lists a military record that matches the FBI report.

For those unfamiliar with Michals, an annotated biography and useful essays are included.

Did you envision your Pryor biography as extending your previous investigation—aesthetically and historically?

But Stephen Kotkin's new biography reveals a learned despot who acted cunningly to take advantage of the times.

Watching novelists insult one another is one of the primary pleasures of his biography.

He also published two volumes of American Biography, a work which his death abridged.

Mme. de Chaulieu gave her husband the three children designated in the duc's biography.

The biography of great men always has been, and always will be read with interest and profit.

I like biography far better than fiction myself: fiction is too free.

The Bookman: "A more entertaining narrative whether in biography or fiction has not appeared in recent years."

Related Words

  • autobiography

Literary Devices

Literary devices, terms, and elements, definition of biography.

A biography is a description of a real person’s life, including factual details as well as stories from the person’s life. Biographies usually include information about the subject’s personality and motivations, and other kinds of intimate details excluded in a general overview or profile of a person’s life. The vast majority of biography examples are written about people who are or were famous, such as politicians, actors, athletes, and so on. However, some biographies can be written about people who lived incredible lives, but were not necessarily well-known. A biography can be labelled “authorized” if the person being written about, or his or her family members, have given permission for a certain author to write the biography.

The word biography comes from the Greek words bios , meaning “life” and – graphia , meaning “writing.”

Difference Between Biography and Autobiography

A biography is a description of a life that is not the author’s own, while an autobiography is the description of a writer’s own life. There can be some gray area, however, in the definition of biography when a ghostwriter is employed. A ghostwriter is an author who helps in the creation of a book, either collaborating with someone else or doing all of the writing him- or herself. Some famous people ask for the help of a ghostwriter to create their own autobiographies if they are not particularly gifted at writing but want the story to sound like it’s coming from their own mouths. In the case of a ghostwritten autobiography, the writer is not actually writing about his or her own life, but has enough input from the subject to create a work that is very close to the person’s experience.

Common Examples of Biography

The genre of biography is so popular that there is even a cable network originally devoted to telling the stories of famous people’s lives (fittingly called The Biography Channel). The stories proved to be such good television that other networks caught on, such as VH1 producing biographies under the series name “Behind the Music.” Some examples of written biographies have become famous in their own right, such as the following books:

  • Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (made even more famous by the musical “Hamilton,” created by Lin-Manuel Miranda)
  • Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
  • Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder
  • Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson

Significance of Biography in Literature

The genre of biography developed out of other forms of historical nonfiction, choosing to focus on one specific person’s experience rather than all important players. There are examples of biography all the way back to 44 B.C. when Roman biographer Cornelius Nepos wrote Excellentium Imperatorum Vitae (“Lives of those capable of commanding”). The Greek historian Plutarch was also famous for his biographies, creating a series of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans in his book Parallel Lives . After the printing press was created, one of the first “bestsellers” was the 1550 famous biography Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari. Biography then got very popular in the 18th century with James Boswell’s 1791 publication of The Life of Samuel Johnson . Biography continues to be one of the best selling genres in literature, and has led to a number of literary prizes specifically for this form.

Examples of Biography in Literature

And I can imagine Farmer saying he doesn’t care if no one else is willing to follow their example. He’s still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.

( Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder)

Tracy Kidder’s wonderful example of biography, Mountains Beyond Mountains , brought the work of Dr. Paul Farmer to a wider audience. Dr. Farmer cofounded the organization Partners in Health (PIH) in 1987 to provide free treatment to patients in Haiti; the organization later created similar projects in countries such as Russia, Peru, and Rwanda. Dr. Farmer was not necessarily a famous man before Tracy Kidder’s biography was published, though he was well-regarded in his own field. The biography describes Farmer’s work as well as some of his personal life.

On July 2, McCandless finished reading Tolstoy’s “Family Happiness”, having marked several passages that moved him: “He was right in saying that the only certain happiness in life is to live for others…” Then, on July 3, he shouldered his backpack and began the twenty-mile hike to the improved road. Two days later, halfway there, he arrived in heavy rain at the beaver ponds that blocked access to the west bank of the Teklanika River. In April they’d been frozen over and hadn’t presented an obstacle. Now he must have been alarmed to find a three-acre lake covering the trail.

( Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer)

Jon Krakauer is a writer and outdoorsman famous for many nonfiction books, including his own experience in a mountaineering disaster on Mount Everest in 1996. His book Into the Wild is a nonfiction biography of a young boy, Christopher McCandless who chose to donate all of his money and go into the wilderness in the American West. McCandless starved to death in Denali National Park in 1992. The biography delved into the facts surrounding McCandless’s death, as well as incorporating some of Krakauer’s own experience.

A commanding woman versed in politics, diplomacy, and governance; fluent in nine languages; silver-tongued and charismatic, Cleopatra nonetheless seems the joint creation of Roman propagandists and Hollywood directors.

( Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff)

Stacy Schiff wrote a new biography of Cleopatra in 2010 in order to divide fact from fiction, and go back to the amazing and intriguing personality of the woman herself. The biography was very well received for being both scrupulously referenced as well as highly literary and imaginative.

Confident that he was clever, resourceful, and bold enough to escape any predicament, [Louie] was almost incapable of discouragement. When history carried him into war, this resilient optimism would define him.

( Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand)

Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling biography Unbroken covers the life of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, who lived through almost unbelievable circumstances, including running in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, being shot down as a bomber in WWII, surviving in a raft in the ocean for 47 days, and then surviving Japanese prisoner of war camps. Zamperini’s life story is one of those narratives that is “stranger than fiction” and Hillenbrand brings the drama brilliantly to the reader.

I remember sitting in his backyard in his garden, one day, and he started talking about God. He [Jobs] said, “ Sometimes I believe in God, sometimes I don’t. I think it’s 50/50, maybe. But ever since I’ve had cancer, I’ve been thinking about it more, and I find myself believing a bit more, maybe it’s because I want to believe in an afterlife, that when you die, it doesn’t just all disappear. The wisdom you’ve accumulated, somehow it lives on.”

( Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson)

Steve Jobs is one of the most famous cultural icons of modern-day America and, indeed, around the world, and thus his biography was eagerly awaited. The author, Walter Isaacson, was able to interview Jobs extensively during the writing process. Thus, the above excerpt is possible where the writer is a character in the story himself, asking Jobs about his views on life and philosophy of the world.

Test Your Knowledge of Biography

1. Which of the following statements is the best biography definition? A. A retelling of one small moment from another person’s life. B. A novel which details one specific character’s full life. C. A description of a real person’s entire life, written by someone else. [spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″] Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following scenarios qualifies as a biography? A. A famous person contracts a ghostwriter to create an autobiography. B. A famous author writes the true and incredible life story of a little known person. C. A writer creates a book detailing the most important moments in her own life. [spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″] Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following statements is true? A. Biographies are one of the best selling genres in contemporary literature. B. Biographies are always written about famous people. C. Biographies were first written in the 18th century. [spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″] Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

define biography book

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Biography: A Very Short Introduction

Biography: A Very Short Introduction

Biography: A Very Short Introduction

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Biography: A Very Short Introduction looks at the origins and development of biographical writing. Why do certain people and historical events arouse so much interest? How can biographies be compared with history and works of fiction? Does a biography need to be true? Is it acceptable to omit or conceal things? Does the biographer need to personally know the subject? Must a biographer be subjective? This VSI considers the cultural and historical background of different types of biographies, looking at the factors that affect biographers and whether there are different strategies, ethics, and principles required for writing about one person compared to another.

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Posted on Jun 30, 2023

How to Write a Biography: A 7-Step Guide [+Template]

From time to time, nonfiction authors become so captivated by a particular figure from either the present or the past, that they feel compelled to write an entire book about their life. Whether casting them as heroes or villains, there is an interesting quality in their humanity that compels these authors to revisit their life paths and write their story.

However, portraying someone’s life on paper in a comprehensive and engaging way requires solid preparation. If you’re looking to write a biography yourself, in this post we’ll share a step-by-step blueprint that you can follow. 

How to write a biography: 

1. Seek permission when possible 

2. research your subject thoroughly, 3. do interviews and visit locations, 4. organize your findings, 5. identify a central thesis, 6. write it using narrative elements, 7. get feedback and polish the text.

FREE RESOURCE

FREE RESOURCE

Biography Outline Template

Craft a satisfying story arc for your biography with our free template.

While you technically don’t need permission to write about public figures (or deceased ones), that doesn't guarantee their legal team won't pursue legal action against you. Author Kitty Kelley was sued by Frank Sinatra before she even started to write His Way , a biography that paints Ol Blue Eyes in a controversial light. (Kelley ended up winning the lawsuit, however).  

define biography book

Whenever feasible, advise the subject’s representatives of your intentions. If all goes according to plan, you’ll get a green light to proceed, or potentially an offer to collaborate. It's a matter of common sense; if someone were to write a book about you, you would likely want to know about it well prior to publication. So, make a sincere effort to reach out to their PR staff to negotiate an agreement or at least a mutual understanding of the scope of your project. 

At the same time, make sure that you still retain editorial control over the project, and not end up writing a puff piece that treats its protagonist like a saint or hero. No biography can ever be entirely objective, but you should always strive for a portrayal that closely aligns with facts and reality.

If you can’t get an answer from your subject, or you’re asked not to proceed forward, you can still accept the potential repercussions and write an unauthorized biography . The “rebellious act” of publishing without consent indeed makes for great marketing, though it’ll likely bring more headaches with it too. 

✋ Please note that, like other nonfiction books, if you intend to release your biography with a publishing house , you can put together a book proposal to send to them before you even write the book. If they like it enough, they might pay you an advance to write it.  

FREE RESOURCE

Book Proposal Template

Craft a professional pitch for your nonfiction book with our handy template.

Once you’ve settled (or not) the permission part, it’s time to dive deep into your character’s story.  

Deep and thorough research skills are the cornerstone of every biographer worth their salt. To paint a vivid and accurate portrait of someone's life, you’ll have to gather qualitative information from a wide range of reliable sources. 

Start with the information already available, from books on your subject to archival documents, then collect new ones firsthand by interviewing people or traveling to locations. 

Browse the web and library archives

Illustration of a biographer going into research mode.

Put your researcher hat on and start consuming any piece on your subject you can find, from their Wikipedia page to news articles, interviews, TV and radio appearances, YouTube videos, podcasts, books, magazines, and any other media outlets they may have been featured in. 

Establish a system to orderly collect the information you find 一 even seemingly insignificant details can prove valuable during the writing process, so be sure to save them. 

Depending on their era, you may find most of the information readily available online, or you may need to search through university libraries for older references. 

Photo of Alexander Hamilton

For his landmark biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow spent untold hours at Columbia University’s library , reading through the Hamilton family papers, visiting the New York Historical Society, as well as interviewing the archivist of the New York Stock Exchange, and so on. The research process took years, but it certainly paid off. Chernow discovered that Hamilton created the first five securities originally traded on Wall Street. This finding, among others, revealed his significant contributions to shaping the current American financial and political systems, a legacy previously often overshadowed by other founding fathers. Today Alexander Hamilton is one of the best-selling biographies of all time, and it has become a cultural phenomenon with its own dedicated musical. 

Besides reading documents about your subject, research can help you understand the world that your subject lived in. 

Try to understand their time and social environment

Many biographies show how their protagonists have had a profound impact on society through their philosophical, artistic, or scientific contributions. But at the same time, it’s worth it as a biographer to make an effort to understand how their societal and historical context influenced their life’s path and work.

An interesting example is Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World . Finding himself limited by a lack of verified detail surrounding William Shakespeare's personal life, Greenblatt, instead, employs literary interpretation and imaginative reenactments to transport readers back to the Elizabethan era. The result is a vivid (though speculative) depiction of the playwright's life, enriching our understanding of his world.

Painting of William Shakespeare in colors

Many readers enjoy biographies that transport them to a time and place, so exploring a historical period through the lens of a character can be entertaining in its own right. The Diary of Samuel Pepys became a classic not because people were enthralled by his life as an administrator, but rather from his meticulous and vivid documentation of everyday existence during the Restoration period.

Once you’ve gotten your hands on as many secondary sources as you can find, you’ll want to go hunting for stories first-hand from people who are (or were) close to your subject.

With all the material you’ve been through, by now you should already have a pretty good picture of your protagonist. But you’ll surely have some curiosities and missing dots in their character arc to figure out, which you can only get by interviewing primary sources.

Interview friends and associates

This part is more relevant if your subject is contemporary, and you can actually meet up or call with relatives, friends, colleagues, business partners, neighbors, or any other person related to them. 

In writing the popular biography of Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson interviewed more than one hundred people, including Jobs’s family, colleagues, former college mates, business rivals, and the man himself.

🔍 Read other biographies to get a sense of what makes a great one. Check out our list of the 30 best biographies of all time , or take our 30-second quiz below for tips on which one you should read next. 

Which biography should you read next?

Discover the perfect biography for you. Takes 30 seconds!

When you conduct your interviews, make sure to record them with high quality audio you can revisit later. Then use tools like Otter.ai or Descript to transcribe them 一 it’ll save you countless hours. 

You can approach the interview with a specific set of questions, or follow your curiosity blindly, trying to uncover revealing stories and anecdotes about your subject. Whatever your method, author and biography editor Tom Bromley suggests that every interviewer arrives prepared, "Show that you’ve done your work. This will help to put the interviewee at ease, and get their best answers.” 

Bromley also places emphasis on the order in which you conduct interviews. “You may want to interview different members of the family or friends first, to get their perspective on something, and then go directly to the main interviewee. You'll be able to use that knowledge to ask sharper, more specific questions.” 

Finally, consider how much time you have with each interviewee. If you only have a 30-minute phone call with an important person, make it count by asking directly the most pressing questions you have. And, if you find a reliable source who is also particularly willing to help, conduct several interviews and ask them, if appropriate, to write a foreword as part of the book’s front matter .

Sometimes an important part of the process is packing your bags, getting on a plane, and personally visiting significant places in your character’s journey.

Visit significant places in their life

A place, whether that’s a city, a rural house, or a bodhi tree, can carry a particular energy that you can only truly experience by being there. In putting the pieces together about someone’s life, it may be useful to go visit where they grew up, or where other significant events of their lives happened. It will be easier to imagine what they experienced, and better tell their story. 

In researching The Lost City of Z , author David Grann embarked on a trek through the Amazon, retracing the steps of British explorer Percy Fawcett. This led Grann to develop new theories about the circumstances surrounding the explorer's disappearance.

Still from the movie The Lost City of Z in which the explorer is surrounded by an Amazon native tribe

Hopefully, you won’t have to deal with jaguars and anacondas to better understand your subject’s environment, but try to walk into their shoes as much as possible. 

Once you’ve researched your character enough, it’s time to put together all the puzzle pieces you collected so far. 

Take the bulk of notes, media, and other documents you’ve collected, and start to give them some order and structure. A simple way to do this is by creating a timeline. 

Create a chronological timeline

It helps to organize your notes chronologically 一 from childhood to the senior years, line up the most significant events of your subject’s life, including dates, places, names and other relevant bits. 

Timeline of Steve Jobs' career

You should be able to divide their life into distinct periods, each with their unique events and significance. Based on that, you can start drafting an outline of the narrative you want to create.  

Draft a story outline 

Since a biography entails writing about a person’s entire life, it will have a beginning, a middle, and an end. You can pick where you want to end the story, depending on how consequential the last years of your subject were. But the nature of the work will give you a starting character arc to work with. 

To outline the story then, you could turn to the popular Three-Act Structure , which divides the narrative in three main parts. In a nutshell, you’ll want to make sure to have the following:

  • Act 1. Setup : Introduce the protagonist's background and the turning points that set them on a path to achieve a goal. 
  • Act 2. Confrontation : Describe the challenges they encounter, both internal and external, and how they rise to them. Then..
  • Act 3. Resolution : Reach a climactic point in their story in which they succeed (or fail), showing how they (and the world around them) have changed as a result. 

Only one question remains before you begin writing: what will be the main focus of your biography?

Think about why you’re so drawn to your subject to dedicate years of your life to recounting their own. What aspect of their life do you want to highlight? Is it their evil nature, artistic genius, or visionary mindset? And what evidence have you got to back that up? Find a central thesis or focus to weave as the main thread throughout your narrative. 

Cover of Hitler and Stalin by Alan Bullock

Or find a unique angle

If you don’t have a particular theme to explore, finding a distinct angle on your subject’s story can also help you distinguish your work from other biographies or existing works on the same subject.

Plenty of biographies have been published about The Beatles 一 many of which have different focuses and approaches: 

  • Philip Norman's Shout is sometimes regarded as leaning more towards a pro-Lennon and anti-McCartney stance, offering insights into the band's inner dynamics. 
  • Ian McDonald's Revolution in the Head closely examines their music track by track, shifting the focus back to McCartney as a primary creative force. 
  • Craig Brown's One Two Three Four aims to capture their story through anecdotes, fan letters, diary entries, and interviews. 
  • Mark Lewisohn's monumental three-volume biography, Tune In , stands as a testament to over a decade of meticulous research, chronicling every intricate detail of the Beatles' journey.

Group picture of The Beatles

Finally, consider that biographies are often more than recounting the life of a person. Similar to how Dickens’ Great Expectations is not solely about a boy named Pip (but an examination and critique of Britain’s fickle, unforgiving class system), a biography should strive to illuminate a broader truth — be it social, political, or human — beyond the immediate subject of the book. 

Once you’ve identified your main focus or angle, it’s time to write a great story. 

Illustration of a writer mixing storytelling ingredients

While biographies are often highly informative, they do not have to be dry and purely expository in nature . You can play with storytelling elements to make it an engaging read. 

You could do that by thoroughly detailing the setting of the story , depicting the people involved in the story as fully-fledged characters , or using rising action and building to a climax when describing a particularly significant milestone of the subject’s life. 

One common way to make a biography interesting to read is starting on a strong foot…

Hook the reader from the start

Just because you're honoring your character's whole life doesn't mean you have to begin when they said their first word. Starting from the middle or end of their life can be more captivating as it introduces conflicts and stakes that shaped their journey.

When he wrote about Christopher McCandless in Into the Wild , author Jon Krakauer didn’t open his subject’s childhood and abusive family environment. Instead, the book begins with McCandless hitchhiking his way into the wilderness, and subsequently being discovered dead in an abandoned bus. By starting in medias res , Krakauer hooks the reader’s interest, before tracing back the causes and motivations that led McCandless to die alone in that bus in the first place.

Chris McCandless self-portrait in front of the now iconic bus

You can bend the timeline to improve the reader’s reading experience throughout the rest of the story too…

Play with flashback 

While biographies tend to follow a chronological narrative, you can use flashbacks to tell brief stories or anecdotes when appropriate. For example, if you were telling the story of footballer Lionel Messi, before the climax of winning the World Cup with Argentina, you could recall when he was just 13 years old, giving an interview to a local newspaper, expressing his lifelong dream of playing for the national team. 

Used sparsely and intentionally, flashbacks can add more context to the story and keep the narrative interesting. Just like including dialogue does…

Reimagine conversations

Recreating conversations that your subject had with people around them is another effective way to color the story. Dialogue helps the reader imagine the story like a movie, providing a deeper sensory experience. 

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One thing is trying to articulate the root of Steve Jobs’ obsession with product design, another would be to quote his father , teaching him how to build a fence when he was young: “You've got to make the back of the fence just as good looking as the front of the fence. Even though nobody will see it, you will know. And that will show that you're dedicated to making something perfect.”

Unlike memoirs and autobiographies, in which the author tells the story from their personal viewpoint and enjoys greater freedom to recall conversations, biographies require a commitment to facts. So, when recreating dialogue, try to quote directly from reliable sources like personal diaries, emails, and text messages. You could also use your interview scripts as an alternative to dialogue. As Tom Bromley suggests, “If you talk with a good amount of people, you can try to tell the story from their perspective, interweaving different segments and quoting the interviewees directly.”

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These are just some of the story elements you can use to make your biography more compelling. Once you’ve finished your manuscript, it’s a good idea to ask for feedback. 

If you’re going to self-publish your biography, you’ll have to polish it to professional standards. After leaving your work to rest for a while, look at it with fresh eyes and self-edit your manuscript eliminating passive voice, filler words, and redundant adverbs. 

Illustration of an editor reviewing a manuscript

Then, have a professional editor give you a general assessment. They’ll look at the structure and shape of your manuscript and tell you which parts need to be expanded on or cut. As someone who edited and commissioned several biographies, Tom Bromley points out that a professional “will look at the sources used and assess whether they back up the points made, or if more are needed. They would also look for context, and whether or not more background information is needed for the reader to understand the story fully. And they might check your facts, too.”  

In addition to structural editing, you may want to have someone copy-edit and proofread your work.

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Importantly, make sure to include a bibliography with a list of all the interviews, documents, and sources used in the writing process. You’ll have to compile it according to a manual of style, but you can easily create one by using tools like EasyBib . Once the text is nicely polished and typeset in your writing software , you can prepare for the publication process.  

In conclusion, by mixing storytelling elements with diligent research, you’ll be able to breathe life into a powerful biography that immerses readers in another individual’s life experience. Whether that’ll spark inspiration or controversy, remember you could have an important role in shaping their legacy 一 and that’s something not to take lightly. 

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Brian K. Goodman

Phd in american studies, harvard university.

Brian K. Goodman

What is Biography?

Semester: , offered: .

I was a teaching fellow for this history seminar led by Jill Lepore. Here is the course description: "Biographers write histories of lives. Their storytelling is often novelistic but their standards of evidence are those of the historian. They confront distinctive questions: What lives are worth writing? What is the relationship between the individual and society? What rules govern the relationship between biographers and their subjects? How has the art of biography changed over the centuries, and what forces have driven those changes? In this section, we’ll read both notable biographies and the critical literature on biography as a genre that is often seen to be at odds with the conventions of other kinds of historical writing." 

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So you’d like to know how to write a biography. We can help with that! Learning how to write a biography doesn't have to be intimidating. In fact, it can be a lot of fun!

In this guide, we show you how to write a biography from the initial book idea all the way through to publishing your book , and we throw in a free template to help you on your way. 

Ready to learn how to start a biography? Let’s jump right in. 

Get Our 6″ x 9″ Pre-Formatted Book Template for Word or Mac

We will send you a Book Template for US Trade (standard paperback size).

How to Write a Biography in 11 Simple Steps

Here are the steps you need to take to learn how to write a biography:

1. Read other biographies 

Austin Kleon, Author of Steal Like an Artist , says “the writer tries to master words. All of these pursuits involve the study of those who have come before and the effort to build upon their work in some way.”

In other words, if you want to learn how to write a biography, you need to read the best biographies written by other excellent authors!

In this case, it would behoove you to read several biographies – whether historical or celebrity biographies is up to you and your sub-genre. 

A good author to start with? Walter Isaacson . He’s written highly acclaimed biographies on everyone from Abraham Lincoln and Steve Jobs to Leonardo Da Vinci and Elon Musk. 

Once you've read some well-crafted biographies, you'll have a better idea of how to start a biography of your own.

2. Identify your subject

In order to learn how to start a biography, you need to choose who you’d like to write about – if you don’t already have someone in mind.  

The most important factor will be, of course, your interest in the person you’re planning to write about. You’ll spend months (or even years) deep-diving into this person’s history, so you want to choose someone who you’re unlikely to tire of. 

When learning how to write a biography, here are few factors to consider: 

  • How impactful has your potential subject’s life been? In other words, will people care to learn more about this person? 
  • How readily available is information about your potential subject? Biographies require extensive research, so it’s critical to choose someone who has enough information out there to dig into! Consider whether your subject has done interviews, written journals, has family or a partner willing to speak with you, and more. 
  • Are there already books written about your potential subject? Just because there’s an existing biography about the person you’re interested in doesn’t (necessarily) mean you can’t write another one. But if there are two or three biographies, you may want to reconsider. If you do choose to write about someone who has already been well-documented, be mindful about approaching the topic with a new angle or perspective. For instance, there are several biographies about George Washington, but author Alexis Coe wrote one about how Washington isn’t “quite the man we remember.” This brilliant iteration has over 12,000 ratings on Goodreads .
  • Is there a market demand for a book about your potential subject? If you’re learning how to write a biography, you need to be mindful of whether folks will want to read it. Do some research to determine if readers will be receptive to a book about the person you’re interested in. 

Related: Is a Biography a Primary Source?

3. Get permission to write about your subject

We’ll start by stating the obvious. It’s a good idea to get permission to write about your subject, even if you’re not legally required to. For one thing, it’s just good manners. Plus, you’re much more likely to get unfettered access to the information and sources you need to write your book. 

But do you have to get permission? It depends.

In some cases, if your subject is considered a “public figure,” permission may not be required. The definition of a public figure varies depending on your jurisdiction, so you should always consult a lawyer before writing a biography. 

If you do decide to proceed without permission, be mindful of how your book will be received and any legal issues that may arise. That's why we always recommend asking permission from your subject when learning how to write a biography.

Related : Difference Between A Memoir and Biography

4. Create an outline

The next step of learning how to write a biography is to outline your story. It’s critical to outline your biography before you begin writing it. Among other things, it helps ensure you cover every topic you’d like to and get the book in the correct chronological order. It also helps you identify themes that emerge as you organize your ideas. 

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Need help creating your outline? Learn how to do it (and take advantage of free templates!) in our guide to outlining a book . 

5. Select a working title (using a title generator) 

Now is the fun part of learning how to write a biography! It’s time to create a working title for your book. A working title is just what it sounds like: it’s a title that works – for now. 

Of course, it’s helpful to have something to call the book as you’re working on it. And it encourages you to think about the message you’d like your book to convey. When your biography is complete, you can always do a little more research on how to write book titles for your specific sub-genre and update your working title accordingly.

Or, you can decide you still love your initial title and publish your book with that one! 

We’ve made it easy for you to develop a working title – or multiple – using our book title generator . 

Don't like it?

6. Write a rough draft 

Okay, now it’s time to start writing your rough draft. Don’t be intimidated; just focus on getting something down on the page. As experts on all things writing and self-publishing, we’ve got a rough draft writing guide to help you get through this phase of writing a biography.

Remember to be as balanced and objective as possible when learning how to write a biography.

Make good use of your primary and secondary sources, and double-check all of your facts. You’ve got this!  

7. Self-edit

There are several different types of editing that we recommend each manuscript undergo. But before you give your rough draft to anyone else to review, you should edit it yourself. 

The first step to self-editing?

Take a break! It’s essential to give your mind some time to recuperate before you go over your work. And never self-edit as you go!

After you’ve completed your break, here are a few things to consider as you edit: 

  • Grammar. This one is self-explanatory and usually the easiest. You can use an AI editor to make a first pass and quickly catch obvious spelling errors. Depending on prompts and your experience with the tool, you can also use AI to catch some grammar and syntax issues as well.
  • Content and structure . This is the time to make sure the bones of your piece are good. Make sure your content flows logically (and in chronological order), no important pieces of information are missing, and there isn’t redundant or unhelpful information. 
  • Clarity and consistency. Keep an eye out for any confusing copy and ensure your tone is uniform throughout the book.
  • Try reading your draft aloud. You’d be surprised at how many errors, shifts in tone, or other things you’d like to change that you don’t notice while reading in your head. Go ahead and do a read-through of your draft out loud. 

8. Work with an editor

Once you’ve created the best draft you can, it’s time to hire an editor. As we mentioned, there are multiple types of book editing, so you’ll need to choose the one(s) that are best for you and your project when learning how to write a biography. 

For instance, you can work with a developmental editor who helps with big-picture stuff. Think book structure, organization, and overall storytelling. Or you might work with a line editor who focuses on grammar, spelling, punctuation, and the like. 

There are also specialized copy editors, content editors, fact-checkers, and more.

It’s in your best interest to do a substantial amount of research before choosing an editor since they’ll have a large impact on your book. Many editors are open to doing a paid trial so you can see their work before you sign them on for the entire book. 

9. Hire a book cover designer

Once you’ve worked with your editor(s) to finalize your book, it’s time to get your book ready to go out into the world. So the nest step in learning how to write a biography is to hire a book cover designer to create a cover that grabs readers’ attention (pssst: did you know that all SelfPublishing authors get done-for-you professional book design? Ask us about it !).

10. Get an ISBN 

The next step in learning how to write a biography is getting an ISBN number for your book – or an International Standard Book Number. It’s a unique way to identify your book and is critical for ordering, inventory tracking, and more. 

Bear in mind that each rendition of your book – regardless of when you publish them – will need their own ISBN numbers. So if you initially publish as a softcover and hardcover book and then decide to publish an ebook with the same exact content, you'll need 3 total ISBN numbers.

To get an ISBN, head to ISBN.org and follow the steps they provide.  Or reference our guide right here for step-by-step instructions (complete with photos) on how to get an ISBN number for self-published books.

11. Create a launch plan 

Now is the most exciting part of learning how to write a biography. It’s time to get your book out into the world! You’ll need to map out your plan, schedule events , finalize your pricing strategy, and more. 

And you can't just launch your book in a single day. When you go through all the work of learning how to write a biography, you want your book to succeed – and that requires a strategic marketing plan. Luckily, we have an entire guide to launching a book to help you figure it out. 

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Learning how to write a biography can be challenging, but when you have a clear plan and guidance, the process is much easier. We've helped thousands of aspiring authors just like you write and self-publish their own books. We know what works – and how to become a successfully published author faster.

Take the first step today and down the book template below!

And, if you need additional help with learning how to write a biography, remember that we’re standing by to assist you. Just schedule a book consultation and one of our team members will help answer any of your questions about the writing or self-publishing process.

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What is a Biography?

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A biography is a record of a person’s life. Written in third person, biographies generally span a subject’s lifetime, from birth to death, and include major events in his or her public and private life. Biographies may delve into a person’s psychology and explore their emotional, intellectual, and spiritual lives.

Biography

The biography is one of the oldest forms of literature. Since ancient times, writers have recorded the lives of great leaders and warriors. Some early biographies were viewed as a form of historical record, others took on fantastical elements and grew into cultural epics. Notable ancient biographies include Plato’s Apology , which records a portion of the life of Socrates, and the Gospels of the Christian bible, which present four biographies of Jesus Christ. As the centuries progressed, the biography as a style of literary importance waxed and waned. In 1791, James Boswell reshaped the image of the biography with his Life of Samuel Johnson , a two-volume tome that recounted his own interactions with Johnson in exhaustive detail. As the influence of Romanticism and later psychoanalysis intersected with the world of literature, biographies continued to become more detailed in their explorations of the subject’s emotional and psychological experiences.

Although biographies and autobiographies are categorized as nonfiction, they are not necessarily devoid of bias. Biographers may portray their subjects in various lights depending on their relationship to and opinion regarding the subject. Shakespeare’s historical plays, for example, purport to be historical accounts of British kings (Richards, and Henrys), but the portrayal of each king is clearly influenced by Shakespeare’s own opinion, literary artistry, and awareness of his audience.

Today biographies make up a stable portion of yearly publications. Some take the form of plays, such as The Miracle Worker depicting the life of Helen Keller; others have been successfully adapted into films, like the 2014 film adaptation of Louis Zamperini’s biography Unbroken . Whether they are read or watched, biographies continue to fascinate and inform their modern audience.

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Literature in the biography genre.

  • The Miracle Worker by William Gibson
  • Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell
  • The Boy on the Wooden Box by Leon Leyson
  • Apology by Plato
  • The Life of Charlotte Bronte by Elizabeth Gaskell
  • Churchill: A Life by Martin Gilbert
  • Naked at the Feast: A Biography of Josephine Baker by Lynn Haney
  • John Adams by David McCullough
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • Cyrus the Great by Xenophon
  • Hurricane: The Life of Rubin Carter, Fighter by James S. Hirsch
  • Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

Want to learn more? Check out our educational article on Literary Genres !

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Book Genres

Biography Genre Definition – Complete List of Book Genres

by Mark Malatesta | Jun 26, 2018 | Book Genres Nonfiction

Home » Book Genres Nonfiction » Biography Genre Definition – Complete List of Book Genres

Biography Genre Definition –  What’s the best definition for the biography genre? A biography is an account of a person’s life written by someone else. Biographies are true stories about real people. They are set within a real historical framework with the unique social and political conditions that existed during the subject’s life. Biographies can be about people who are alive or dead. Most often they’re about someone who was significant (popular (or unpopular) politicians and/or celebrities).

Scroll below now to see 25 biography nonfiction genre examples, or click here to see all nonfiction genres .

Biography Genre Definition – Examples

Review this list of popular examples to help you get a better understanding of the biography nonfiction genre.

1. 1776 by David McCullough

2. Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

3. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by Eric Metaxas

4. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie

5. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

6. Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson

7. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera

8. Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

9. John Adams by David McCullough

10. Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder

11. Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert K. Massie

12. No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt by Doris Kearns Goodwin

13. Peter the Great: His Life and World by Robert K. Massie

14. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

15. Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin

16. The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester

17. The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris

18. The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard

19. The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

20. The Wives of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser

21. Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham

22. Truman by David McCullough

23. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand

24. Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West by Stephen E. Ambrose

25. Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang

Biography Genre Definition – Related Book Genres

* Autobiography Definition

* Celebrity Nonfiction Book Genre

* Entertainment Book Genre

* Memoir Definition

* Narrative Nonfiction Genre

* General Nonfiction Book Genre

Click here now to see all nonfiction genres .

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Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama's mother, dies at 86

Barack and Michelle Obama announced Robinson's death in a statement.

Marian Robinson, former First Lady Michelle Obama's mother, died on Friday at the age of 86, according to the family.

Robinson was a fixture in the Obama White House and resided there during his tenure to help watch over the first couple's daughters, Sasha and Malia.

Michelle Obama said in a post on X that her mother "was the same steady backstop for our entire family."

PHOTO: President Barack Obama and first lady Michelle Obama, along with daughters Malia (left) and Sasha, sing during the finale of TNT's "Christmas in Washington" on Dec. 15, 2013, in Washington, DC.

"Her wisdom came off as almost innate, as something she was born with, but in reality it was hard-earned, fashioned by her deep understanding that the world's roughest edges could always be sanded down with a little grace," the family said in a statement.

MORE: Michelle Obama on post-White House life, seeing her daughters 'adulting' and her new book

Born and raised in the South Side of Chicago, Marian Lois Shields would go on to study teaching before getting a job as a secretary. She married Fraiser Robinson in 1960 and the couple had two children, a son Craig in 1962 and a daughter Michelle in 1964.

Michelle Obama and Robinson talked about their strong bond growing up during an interview on "Good Morning America" with Robin Roberts in 2022.

PHOTO: In this Sept. 6, 2012, file photo, First lady Michelle Obama applauds with her mother Marian Robinson during the final day of the Democratic National Convention, in Charlotte, North Carolina.

"Way back, you would have a little kitchen table...folks would come over...and you had with your children. PB and J, wasn't it, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches?"

"That one's her. The rest of us didn't have PB and J, she just refused to eat anything else for breakfast," Robinson joked.

"Okay, alright, don't tell them all my secrets," Michelle Obama responded.

The family said that Robinson was very encouraging to her daughter when she "married a guy crazy enough to go into politics."

"At every step, as our families went down paths none of us could have predicted, she remained our refuge from the storm, keeping our feet on solid ground. On Election Night in 2008, when the news broke that Barack would soon shoulder the weight of the world, she was there, holding his hand," the family said.

PHOTO: Marian Robinson, mother of First Lady Michelle Obama, arrives with granddaughters Sasha and Malia Obama for the 57th Presidential Inauguration, on Jan. 21, 2013.

When the Obamas moved into the White House, Robinson agreed to move in after "a healthy nudge," to help raise the first couple's girls.

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"'Just show me how to work the washing machine and I’m good,' she’d say," the family said.

MORE: Michelle Obama shares special Mother's Day message honoring Marian Robinson

The family noted that Robinson tended to prefer to stay upstairs and not hobnob with the guests that frequented the White House, with one exception: Pope Francis.

PHOTO: Pope Francis walks alongside President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama upon arrival at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, on Sept. 22, 2015.

"Over those eight years, she made great friends with the ushers and butlers, the folks who make the White House a home. She’d often sneak outside the gates to buy greeting cards at CVS, and sometimes another customer might recognize her. 'You look like Michelle’s mother,' they’d say. She’d smile and reply, 'Oh, I get that a lot,'" the family said.

Robinson returned to Chicago after Obama's second term ended and remained active in the family's life.

Three weeks ago Michelle Obama posted a photo of her and her mother on her Instagram page celebrating Mother's Day.

The cause of her death was not immediately revealed.

Robinson was survived by her children, her son and daughter-in-law and six grandchildren.

"In our sadness, we are lifted up by the extraordinary gift of her life. And we will spend the rest of ours trying to live up to her example," the family said in a statement.

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COMMENTS

  1. Biography Definition & Meaning

    biography: [noun] a usually written history of a person's life.

  2. Biography

    Biography. A biography, or simply bio, is a detailed description of a person's life. It involves more than just basic facts like education, work, relationships, and death; it portrays a person's experience of these life events. Unlike a profile or curriculum vitae ( résumé ), a biography presents a subject's life story, highlighting various ...

  3. What Is a Biography?

    Here's how we define biography, a look at its origins, and some popular types. "Biography" Definition. A biography is simply the story of a real person's life. It could be about a person who is still alive, someone who lived centuries ago, someone who is globally famous, an unsung hero forgotten by history, or even a unique group of people.

  4. Biography

    autobiography. hagiography. memoir. Costa Book Awards. character writer. biography, form of literature, commonly considered nonfictional, the subject of which is the life of an individual. One of the oldest forms of literary expression, it seeks to re-create in words the life of a human being—as understood from the historical or personal ...

  5. Biography

    Definition of Biography. A biography is the non- fiction, written history or account of a person's life. Biographies are intended to give an objective portrayal of a person, written in the third person. Biographers collect information from the subject (if he/she is available), acquaintances of the subject, or in researching other sources such ...

  6. Biography in Literature: Definition & Examples

    A biography (BYE-og-ruh-fee) is a written account of one person's life authored by another person. A biography includes all pertinent details from the subject's life, typically arranged in a chronological order. The word biography stems from the Latin biographia, which succinctly explains the word's definition: bios = "life" + graphia = "write."

  7. What is a Biography? Definition, Elements, and More

    A biography is what we call the written account of someone's life. It is written by someone other than whom the book is about. For example, an author named Walter Isaacson has written biographies on Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, and Einstein . A biography is what focuses on the significant events that occurred in a person's life, along ...

  8. BIOGRAPHY

    BIOGRAPHY meaning: 1. the life story of a person written by someone else: 2. the life story of a person written by…. Learn more.

  9. What Is a Biography?

    Another kind of biography is the autobiography. "Auto" means self, so an autobiography is a biography written by oneself! One kind of autobiography is a memoir. Memoirs are usually about one part of a person's life—not their entire life, like an autobiography.

  10. The Components of an Intriguing Biography

    Richard Nordquist. Updated on May 30, 2019. A biography is a story of a person's life, written by another author. The writer of a biography is called a biographer while the person written about is known as the subject or biographee. Biographies usually take the form of a narrative, proceeding chronologically through the stages of a person's life.

  11. BIOGRAPHY

    BIOGRAPHY definition: 1. the life story of a person written by someone else: 2. the life story of a person written by…. Learn more.

  12. BIOGRAPHY Definition & Meaning

    Biography definition: a written account of another person's life. See examples of BIOGRAPHY used in a sentence.

  13. Biography Examples and Definition

    Definition of Biography. A biography is a description of a real person's life, including factual details as well as stories from the person's life. Biographies usually include information about the subject's personality and motivations, and other kinds of intimate details excluded in a general overview or profile of a person's life.

  14. Biography in literature

    Samuel Johnson's Lives of the Poets (1779-81) was possibly the first thorough-going exercise in biographical criticism.. Biographical criticism is a form of literary criticism which analyzes a writer's biography to show the relationship between the author's life and their works of literature. Biographical criticism is often associated with historical-biographical criticism, a critical method ...

  15. Biography Definition & Meaning

    biography (noun) biography /baɪ ˈ ɑːgrəfi/ noun. plural biographies. Britannica Dictionary definition of BIOGRAPHY. [count] : the story of a real person's life written by someone other than that person. a new biography of Abraham Lincoln. — compare autobiography.

  16. Biography: A Very Short Introduction

    Abstract. Biography: A Very Short Introduction looks at the origins and development of biographical writing. Why do certain people and historical events arouse so much interest? How can biographies be compared with history and works of fiction? Does a biography need to be true? Is it acceptable to omit or conceal things?

  17. How to Write a Biography: A 7-Step Guide [+Template]

    Facebook. These are just some of the story elements you can use to make your biography more compelling. Once you've finished your manuscript, it's a good idea to ask for feedback. 7. Get feedback and polish the text. If you're going to self-publish your biography, you'll have to polish it to professional standards.

  18. What is Biography?

    What is Biography? I was a teaching fellow for this history seminar led by Jill Lepore. Here is the course description: "Biographers write histories of lives. Their storytelling is often novelistic but their standards of evidence are those of the historian. They confront distinctive questions: What lives are worth writing?

  19. How to Write a Biography: 8 Steps for a Captivating Story

    8. Send a copy to your subject. Consider sending a copy of your manuscript to the person whose life you wrote about in your book. The copy may serve as a thank-you gift, but also, if you intend to publish your work, you will need them to approve, as well as fact check, everything you put into the story.

  20. Biography Books

    Biography. A biography (from the Greek words bios meaning "life", and graphos meaning "write") is a non-fictional account of a person's life. Biographies are written by an author who is not the subject/focus of the book. See also: Autobiography. Memoir. A biography (from the Greek words bios meaning "life", and graphos meaning "write") is a non ...

  21. How to Write a Biography in 11 Easy Steps + Book Template

    This guide teaches you how to write a biography in the following steps: Step 1: Read other biographies. Step 2: Identify your subject. Step 3: Get permission to write about your subject. Step 4: Create an outline. Step 5: Select a working title (using a title generator) Step 6: Write a rough draft. Step 7: Self-edit.

  22. Biography Genre Explored

    A biography is a record of a person's life. Written in third person, biographies generally span a subject's lifetime, from birth to death, and include major events in his or her public and private life. Biographies may delve into a person's psychology and explore their emotional, intellectual, and spiritual lives.

  23. Biography Genre Definition

    Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert K. Massie. 5. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard. 6. Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. 7. Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo by Hayden Herrera. 8.

  24. Marian Robinson, Michelle Obama's mother, dies at 86

    Marian Robinson, former First Lady Michelle Obama's mother, died on Friday at the age of 86, according to the family. Robinson was a fixture in the Obama White House and resided there during his ...