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.
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.
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.
Ranker collected a comprehensive list of famous biographers.