Writers in the Storm

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November 29, 2023

Telling a Life: Tips for Composing a Compelling Biography

by Louise Privette

The picture shows a library that is partially submerged in water. There is a waterfall in the background.

People read biographies to learn more about people they admire or better understand the motivations of those they despise. A great biographer offers a glimpse into the lives of noteworthy individuals. Readers share the individual’s journey, experience their triumphs and failures, and gain insights into their own lives.

I recently wrote a friend’s biography. The task took longer than the return on my five-year certificate of deposit, and I faced some unique challenges while crafting his life story. Here are some lessons learned and tips for writing a captivating biography.

Choose a Subject Worth Knowing

Make sure their story passes the “so what?” test. Although many people lead honorable lives and are loved by those close to them, they may not have a story that the wider world will want to read. Whether writing about a historical figure, a famous person, or your next-door neighbor, make sure this person has a story worth telling.

Sylvia Nasar offers a relevant quote in A Beautiful Mind, the biography of mathematician and inventor John Nash. Nobel Prize winner Nash said:

“Find a truly original idea. It is the only way I will ever distinguish myself. It is the only way I will ever matter.” 

Find the Hook that will Resonate with Readers

What is it about your subject that will draw readers in and make them want to learn more about this person? Is your subject a:

  • cancer survivor?
  • modern-day hero like Captain Sullenberger of Hudson River fame?
  • villain like Adolf Hitler?
  • member of a marginalized group?

After researching the key events in baseball legend Jackie Robinson’s life, author Doreen Rappaport found her hook. She realized that courage and defiance defined the man who opened the gates for athletes of all races. Due to Robinson’s contributions to the sport and society, Major League Baseball retired his number. Ms. Rappaport hit a home run with the title of her book: 42 Is Not Just a Number: The Odyssey of Jackie Robinson. 

Set the Scene

Ground your reader in time and place. What historical events were happening at the time of this person’s life—Woodstock, Desert Storm, the Civil Rights Movement? Capture the mood, music, and culture of your subject’s era.

Jack Weatherford immersed himself in the region and culture to write Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World.

“It took an anthropologist—who spent years learning Mongolian, living on the steppes for a part of each year, and listening for the truth of Genghis Khan’s life—to flesh out a biography of a man whose life may actually have been bigger than his myth.” https://www.audible.com/blog/article-best-historical-biographies

Do Your Research

Ask for diaries, personal letters, and photographs. Gain permission to interview family members and people who know the person well to gather anecdotes and gain different perspectives. After interviewing my subject’s girlfriend, she provided dialogue and vivid descriptions of the settings. She also offered insights that made him more vulnerable and relatable.

If your subject is long deceased, review historical records, newspaper articles, speeches, and other books about this person. Genealogy sites like ancestry.com may lead you to surviving family members or descendants.

Walter Isaacson is one of the most famous biographers of our time. His works include Benjamin Franklin: An American Life, Elon Musk, and Einstein: His Life and Universe. Isaacson conducted more than forty interviews with Apple co-founder Steve Jobs and conversed with over 100 friends, family members, and business rivals to complete the biography of this entrepreneur.

I wrote the biography of Tristan Peigné, a biracial man. Through my research, I discovered that interracial marriage only became legal in the United States following the Supreme Court decision of 1967, the year of Tristan’s birth.

Create a Timeline

Subjects rarely recount the events of their lives in chronological order. After listening to the most compelling stories of my subject’s life, I organized the chapters into a coherent narrative arc. Like any great story, there should be a well-defined beginning, middle, and end. Although structure is essential, I began my subject’s biography in medias res, in the middle of the action, to focus on a critical moment in his life and capture the reader’s attention. Then, flashbacks clarified the situation, foreshadowed future events, and enhanced the story.

Jeanette Walls, the author of Glass Castles, also began her life story in medias res with one of the most memorable opening lines:

"I was sitting in a taxi, wondering if I had overdressed for the evening, when I looked out the window and saw Mom rooting through a dumpster."

Take us on an Emotional Rollercoaster

Most writers know the adage, Show, don’t just tell. Use descriptive language to help the reader feel the ups, downs, twists, and turns of this person’s life. Engage the reader’s five senses to evoke sensory experiences and immerse us in the story.

“Like my father, I’ve always been a daydreamer, and sometimes I’d imagine that on the way home, a terrorist might jump out and shoot me on those steps. I wondered what I would do. Maybe I’d take off my shoes and hit him, but then I’d think if I did that, there would be no difference between me and a terrorist. It would be better to plead, “OK, shoot me, but first listen to me. What you are doing is wrong. I’m not against you personally; I just want every girl to go to school.”

 ~ Malala Yousafzai, I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban (Prologue, pp. 6-7).

Help Your Subject to Become Vulnerable

Most of us don’t want others to know our deep, dark secrets; however, people unwilling to share their flaws, failures, and challenges will not be relatable to their readers. I’m fortunate to have a doctorate in counseling psychology, and I used this knowledge to guide my interviews. However, biographers don’t need a background in Freud to employ active listening skills. By gently probing, listening without judgment, paraphrasing, and clarifying, I gave my subject the space, respect, and safety to tell his story. Using my iPhone, I recorded my subject’s life story over four years while traveling in a car, dining together, or meeting at his studio.

Identify Overarching Themes

Themes describe the lesson or message that the author wants to convey. The overarching theme is central to the individual’s character. For example, many people associate Abraham Lincoln with honesty, Mother Teresa with compassion, and Walt Disney with imagination.

In Dancing Through Life, the protagonist’s story is one of resilience, perseverance, and passion. Tristan faced the challenges of dyslexia, homelessness, injury, illness, and racism. Use your subject’s themes to provide structure and insight into your character’s motivations.

Exercise Good Judgment

A biographer must balance a need to tell an honest story and protect the privacy and feelings of others. When possible, obtain the necessary permissions to divulge personal information and be mindful of the potential impact of your words. Unless you’re comfortable with a Jersey Boys handshake, consider a contract to outline the terms of your agreement.

Purchase professional liability insurance if you wish to add a layer of protection. Together, my subject and I chose to omit several chapters and various facts that might cause psychological harm to individuals who are still living.

Review, Revise, and Polish

I had no idea how long it would take to complete the biography of my dance instructor. Covid halted the interviews, gave my teacher an unplanned vacation, forced me to pull out my old Jane Fonda exercise tapes, and set the project back for over a year.

Due to my subject’s dyslexia, I had to read each chapter aloud to him. He then provided clarification while I recorded the necessary changes. I revised each chapter at least five times.

Don’t plan on pounding out the biography in six months and scheduling a Caribbean cruise with your royalties. Allow yourself enough time to write your initial draft, edit, revise, and polish your work. I joined several writers’ groups whose members provided invaluable feedback. Once I finished writing the manuscript, I sought the assistance of several beta readers who focused on not only the grammatical errors but also the flow of each chapter.

Final Thoughts

Writing a biography is an opportunity to honor someone’s life and legacy. Hopefully, it will be a labor of love that enables you to present someone’s extraordinary and complex life. Following these tips, you can craft a biography that captivates, informs, and delights your readers.

Have you considered writing a biography? What do you think is the most important aspect of writing a biography? Do you have a favorite biography?

* * * * * *

About Louise

Louise co-authored Dancing Through Life: A Memoir and served as the executive editor of Many Worlds, Many Stories, Inkslingers Anthology Volume 5. She practiced school psychology for over 30 years and taught classes as an adjunct professor at Grand Canyon University. Louise holds a doctorate in counseling psychology from Argosy University.

As the 2015-16 president of the Arizona Association of School Psychologists (AASP), Louise wrote a monthly column for Intervention, the official newsletter of AASP. She is currently working on The School Psychologist’s Survival Guide. Keep up with future projects and events on her website: https://louiseprivette.com.

Louise enjoys ballroom dancing, oil painting, volunteering as a Goodyear arts commissioner, and spending time with family and friends.

Top image from https://pixabay.com/photos/book-store-knowledge-library-books-7643976/

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17 comments on “Telling a Life: Tips for Composing a Compelling Biography”

    1. Thank you for your comment and question, Ellen. Yes, it's important to strive for accuracy as much as possible. During my recorded interviews, I often revisited a chapter to ask for further clarification. I also did my own research to verify facts, such as historical and cultural events. Taking these measures add credibility and interest to the story.

    1. Hello Miffie,

      Yes, you are correct. There are so many parallels between the construction of a biography and a novel. Even though the story is factual, there is room for a great deal of creativity in the telling of the subject's life.

  1. Great advice, Louise. While I doubt I'll ever write a biography, I actually use a lot of these same criteria when developing my fiction characters. It makes them feel more real and hopefully builds a tighter bond with the reader.

  2. The thing authors often hate/fear/misunderstand is how to write their OWN bio - I'll think of your notes here as I try, yet again, to write mine.

    At the same time, I wonder what the intention needs to be: what is the effect I want on a reader who chooses to check out my bio. Do I want to appear a nice person? An expert? A disabled author to be pitied/understood/admired? So many options to consider!

    There's a reason traditional publishers get someone else to write these for authors - and part of it is to give the author something to complain about, but "my publisher insisted," protects the disclosures.

    1. Hello Alicia,

      Thank you for your interesting comments. I hosted a book club meeting this evening to discuss Dancing Through Life. At the end of our discussion, I asked the question: Would you like someone to write your biography? Most members said, "Absolutely not." I think it takes courage and perhaps a bit of egotism to invite others into one's life. Most people only want others to view them in a favorable light, but that's not what makes a biography or memoir fascinating. Rather, it's the subject's flaws, missteps, and challenges that makes the readers want to keep turning the pages.
      Best wishes,

  3. Excellent points, Louise. I first conceived of my narrative nonfiction WIP as a biography; then it morphed through several stages and is now an account of a major part of my subject's career. Buried in that account is still a ton of biographical information. My research materials contain an abundance of material for rollercoaster moments, overarching themes, and vulnerabilities. *All* I have to do is shape and place them to best effect. That's my job, right? They won't arrange themselves.

    Some of my heroes in biography are David McCullough, Robert Caro, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Candice Millard, and Megan Marshall (especially her book about the Peabody sisters, which is not only a great story but a lesson in craft that follows three lives without ever losing track). Few things make me happier than sitting down with a nice chunky biography of an interesting person. It has to be well written, though. If not, out it goes.

    1. Hello Anna,

      Thank you for your insightful comments. You mentioned one of the toughest aspects of writing a biography--shaping and arranging all the information you've gathered to best effect.

      Thanks also for introducing me to some biographers that are unfamiliar to me. I'm interested in reading the one about the Peabody sisters.

      Best wishes,

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