Now that we have tackled the autobiography, we already have a good start on writing a biography since the two forms of writing share similar elements.
Again, a biography is the detailing of an individual’s life. The prefix bio- comes to us from the Greek bios meaning “human life.” The suffix -graphy also comes from the Greek -graphia meaning “writing.” So put them together and we are talking about a writing about the human life.
And again, we will be starting at the beginning and working through to the end, as biographies tend to easily fall into a chronological sequence. However, to make the exercise simpler, we will focus on two or three character traits of an individual that we would like to emphasize. This keeps the task narrower in focus, and useful for a shorter work.
- First, you need to think of someone you would like to write about. While just any ole person would work, you’ll find the assignment easier if you choose someone that you find interesting, that led a varied life with defined experiences that made him who he is (or was), and/or who has traits of character that stand out. Sharp contrasts or comparisons are also helpful. Is there someone whose life you know you can learn lessons from? Is there someone you would like to emulate? Is there someone you wish to be the opposite of?
- Now that you have decided who to write about, you’ll need to think of ways you can learn more about his or her life. For those who are no longer living, is there enough literature available to research? Other biographies, newspaper articles, speeches, or the subject’s own writings are great places to start. For someone still living, you can check those same sources, but also consider an interview, especially if the person is close to you. Start researching.
- Make a list of character traits in the individual’s life that stand out to you. Did those traits remain with him from the beginning of his life to the end (or currently)? Or did a change occur in his life that developed the trait?
- Begin listing the facts (many of these will be the same as those we used in the autobiographical writing):
- Where was he born? When?
- What do you know about his family?
- Who played the biggest role in his life in forming those character traits that interest you?
- What were the significant events in his life that formed or demonstrate the character traits you are focusing on?
- How did those traits show up throughout his life?
- What types of things did he accomplish?
- What types of obstacles did he overcome?
- Is there an overall outlook, worldview, motto, or premise that he lives or lived by? In other words, if you could sum up the impetus for the character traits you are interested in, what sentence would you use?
- Create an outline that includes the information above.
- Review famous biographies or biographies that you have already read to get ideas for interesting introductions.
- Since this will be a much shorter piece than a standard full-sized biography, you may also want to look at short biographical pieces, frequently featured in books written for children, to see how the author focuses on one element while weaving the subject’s life into a whole. You’ll find recommendations below.
- As you begin to write, remember to “show — don’t tell.” Make sure you are using interesting language that shows the reader what the individual is thinking, doing, explaining, or demonstrating — incorporating active voice and vivid verbs.
- Include anecdotes if they help give a point depth.
- Include conversation/dialogue if it helps make the writing more interesting.
- When you are done writing, ask yourself whether someone who is familiar with the individual you are writing about would recognize him from the essay if he didn’t know in advance who it was about. Not sure? Give it a shot!
Short biographies to pursue for ideas on writing the introduction, and weaving the story together:
- Stories of Great Americans for Little Americans by Edward Eggleston
- Millet by Percy Moore Turner
- Four Great Americans by James Baldwin
- Heroes Every Child Should Know by Hamilton Wright Mabie
- Great Inventors and Their Inventions by Frank Bachman
Review: Carry a Big Stick & Go-Alongs
This title in the Leaders in Action Series is a wonderful example a biography with a focus on character. If you have this title or one of the others in the series already on hand, it might give you ideas and inspiration.
Cube Creator: Bio Cube
Use the Bio Cube option in this interactive at ReadWriteThink for detailing the facts about your subject including who, when, where, background, personality traits, importance, obstacles, and an important quote. When finished, the cube can be printed and folded.
Bio Cube Planning Sheet
Also at ReadWriteThink, similar to the above but in printable form.
Show-Me Sentences Handout
Handout at ReadWriteThink for practice in writing vividly or showing instead of telling.