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.
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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.
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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.
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