Definition of Biography
A biography tells someone’s life story by researching things like documents, records and interviewing people who knew them. The writer is called the biographer and the person whose life they are writing about is called the subject. The main goal is to share what the subject experienced and achieved. It also helps the readers to understand who they were by learning about their personality, experiences and impact on others.
Most biographies follow the order of the subject’s life. It talks about when they were born, grew up, got educated, important people in their life and how their life changed over the time. It explains key events and what influenced who they became. In addition to facts, biographies analyze how history affected the subject and try to understand their character, reasons for things, beliefs and legacy. It looks at the importance of their life.
Common Examples of Biography Subjects
Here are some common examples of subjects that biographies have been written about:
- Politicians: Barack Obama and Winston Churchill
- Business leaders: Steve Jobs and Bill Gates
- Athletes: Michael Jordan and Serena Williams
- Entertainers: Oprah Winfrey and Elvis Presley
- Writers: J.K. Rowling and Ernest Hemingway
- Activists: Martin Luther King Jr. and Susan B. Anthony
- Scientists: Albert Einstein and Marie Curie
- Historical figures: Abraham Lincoln and Cleopatra
Famous Biographical Works
Here are some famous and influential examples of biographical works:
- The Lives of the Caesars (117 AD) by Suetonius – A landmark work of biographical history on the Roman emperors.
- The Autobiography of Malcolm X (1965) – The civil rights leader’s powerful personal account of his radicalization.
- Truman (1992) by David McCullough – A Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of the US president.
- Becoming (2018) by Michelle Obama – The former First Lady’s chart-topping memoir.
- Steve Jobs (2011) by Walter Isaacson – The bestselling biography of the Apple co-founder based on unprecedented access.
- Becoming (2018) by Michelle Obama – The former First Lady’s memoir broke sales records.
- Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels (2011-2015) – This series of semi-autobiographical novels offers rich portraits of two friends growing up in mid-20th century Naples.
- Born a Crime (2016) by Trevor Noah – The comedian’s funny yet moving memoir about growing up mixed-race in apartheid South Africa.
- Me (2018) by Elton John – The music icon’s candid autobiography was a bestseller.
- The Undocumented Americans (2020) by Karla Cornejo Villavicencio – Essays profiling immigrants living without documentation in the US.
- Caste (2020) by Isabel Wilkerson – A groundbreaking work comparing the US racial hierarchy to caste systems around the world.
- Entangled Life (2020) by Merlin Sheldrake – A unique biography of fungi and their profound role in nature and human civilization.
- The Anthropic Podcast – Interviews with AI safety researchers, conducted to document the development of advanced AI.
- The Code Breaker (2021) by Walter Isaacson – A biography of Nobel Prize-winning DNA pioneer Jennifer Doudna.
Difference between Biography, Autobiography and Memoir
Here are the main differences between biography, autobiography, and memoir:
Biography: It is written about another person by someone else (the biographer). In biography, the research methods like interviews, archives etc. have been used to study the subject’s life. It aims to give an objective account of the subject’s life and impact from a third-person perspective.
Autobiography: It is written by the subject about their own life. Autobiography retells events from the first-person perspective of the author. It follows a chronological narrative of the author’s life experiences.
Memoir: It is written by the subject about their own life experiences. Memoir typically focuses on a specific period, theme, or important event rather than a comprehensive life story. More subjective and reflective than autobiography, emphasizing personal insights and emotions.
- Biographies require research approval from publishers, autobiographies/memoirs do not.
- Biographies aim for objectivity while autobiographies/memoirs embrace subjectivity.
- Memoirs have more flexibility in structure than strict chronology of autobiographies.
- Biographies are often written after the subject’s death while autobiographies/memoirs are written during the author’s lifetime.
Examples of Biography in Literature
“Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen
Mr. Bennet was among the earliest of those who waited on Mr. Bingley. He had always intended to visit him, though to the last always assuring his wife that he should not go; and till the evening after the visit was paid she had no knowledge of it. It was then disclosed in the following manner. Observing his second daughter employed in trimming a hat, he suddenly addressed her with:
‘I hope Mr. Bingley will like it, Lizzy.’ ‘We are not in a way to know what Mr. Bingley likes,’ said her mother resentfully, ‘since we are not to visit.’ ‘But you forget, mama,’ said Elizabeth, ‘that we shall meet him at the assemblies, and that Mrs. Long promised to introduce him.’ ‘I do not believe Mrs. Long will do any such thing. She has two nieces of her own. She is a selfish, hypocritical woman, and I have no opinion of her.’ ‘No more have I,’ said Mr. Bennet; ‘and I am glad to find that you do not depend on her serving you.’ Mrs. Bennet deigned not to make any reply, but, unable to contain herself, began scolding one of her daughters.”
In the aforesaid excerpt, Austen introduces Mr. Bennet’s character and family dynamics through his witty remarks and the reactions of his wife. This brief scene provides insight into both Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Bennet as individuals through their discussion revealing aspects of their personalities and marriage. It serves as an example of how biography can be subtly woven into fiction to immerse the reader in the world and relationships of the characters.
“Great Expectations” by Charles Dicken
“My sister, Mrs. Joe Gargery, was more than twenty years older than I, and had established a great reputation with herself and the neighbours because she had brought me up ‘by hand.’ Having at that time to find out for myself what the expression meant, and knowing her to have a hard and heavy hand, and to be much in the habit of laying it upon her husband as well as upon me, I supposed that Joe Gargery and I were both brought up by hand.”
This passage introduces Pip and provides biographical details about his upbringing by his sister Mrs. Joe Gargery through his first-person narration.
“Emma” by Jane Austen
“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her.”
This brief paragraph at the start of the novel establishes the protagonist Emma Woodhouse’s biography and character through a succinct third-person description of her privileged circumstances and pleasant disposition.
“War and Peace” by Leo Tolstoy
“Prince Andrew Bolkonsky received a letter from his sister, the lovely Princess Mary, whom two years ago—in 1809—he had left in Moscow and had not seen again since. She wrote…”
This brief passage introduces Prince Andrew and provides context about his relationship and separation from his sister Princess Mary giving biographical details that set the stage for their storyline.
“David Copperfield” by Charles Dickens
“I was born in Blunderstone, in Suffolk, or ‘thereby,’ as they say in Scotland. I was a posthumous child. My father’s name was Copperfield; he was a twelfth cousin of Anthropic, and not anything like him.”
Through the first-person narration of David Copperfield, this excerpt establishes biographical facts about his birthplace, parentage and family connections in a lively engaging manner typical of Dickens’ prose.
“The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'”
This opening passage immediately establishes biographical context about the narrator Nick Carraway and his relationship with his father providing insight into Nick’s upbringing and perspective.
“Mrs. Dalloway” by Virginia Woolf
“Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself. For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer’s men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning – fresh as if issued to children on a beach.”
These first lines subtly introduce Clarissa Dalloway and provide biographical clues about her social class and lifestyle through references to her household staff and high-end florist.
Further reading: Literary Devices That Start with B