Writing a biography

Without storytellers, history would be lost.

History belongs to the pop historian. Most of what the average person knows about history comes from the best told stories, not necessarily the most factual stories.

Ed in the driver’s seat

A biography is a specialized form of storytelling based upon the example of one person’s life. There are four basic types of biographies: historical fiction, academic, fictional academic, and the prophetic biography.

The first type of biography follows the fictional “based on a true story” format.

The fictional style is most often used in contemporary biographies (accounts of celebrities, athletes and politicians who are still alive). These “true stories” often “inspire” tales for film or television. Usually, the stories are loosely based on a few known facts about the individual and then developed for greatest entertainment value. There is little concern for literal accuracy or integrity regarding the individual’s life lessons.

Fictional biographies today often strive to make a social or political statement. Political biographies and autobiographies have become popular ways to capitalize on one’s personal fame while also promoting an ideology. In the United States, this is the most common form of biography. These stories have few facts thrown into an entertaining tale to accomplish a preset purpose regardless of authenticity.

Examples of fictional biographies in books, include:

The “Hot Celebrity Biography” series, with books on people like Johnny Depp, Shaun White, Hilary Duff, Michael Phelps, etc.

“Yes We Can: A Biography of President Barack Obama” by Garen Eileen Thomas

“The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln” by C.A. Tripp

I also include one-sided, personal memoirs in this “for entertainment only” category, like:

“Decision Points” by George W. Bush

“Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance” by Barack Obama

Examples of fictional biographies in film and television, include almost anything that starts with “based on a true story,” including:

Oliver Stone movies like “Born on the Fourth of July” (1989), “JFK” (1991), “Nixon” (1995), “W.” (2008), etc.

“Goodfellas” (1990) directed by Martin Scorsese

“Into the Wild” (2007) directed by Sean Penn

“Super Size Me” (2004) directed by Morgan Spurlock

“Justin Bieber Never Say Never” (2011) directed by Jon M. Chu

The second type is the academic biography.

Academic biographies rely heavily upon the documented facts and accomplishments of a person’s life. Any theme or life lesson learned from the lives of these individuals often gets lost in the details. Sometimes academic biographies will group the facts around related accomplishments. For example, the life of an artist might be considered in groups related to a specific form of art like a chapter on sculpture, another on commissioned portraiture, one on oil paintings, yet another on collaborative works, and so on. The lives of accomplished leaders in business, politics, social leadership or athletics are usually grouped chronologically in an academic biography. For example, the stories begin with childhood and family support, followed by education and first love, pursuit of the goal, reaching the goal, raising a family, fall from grace or retirement and finally death.

The academic biography is seldom entertaining, most often grammatically correct though lacking engaging descriptions, and packed full of notations including extensive references. These biographies have a limited audience and are rarely used outside of a classroom.

Examples of academic biographies in books, include:

“Stalking the Academic Communist: Intellectual Freedom and the Firing of Alex Novikoff” by David R. Holmes

“John Wyclif: Myth and Reality” by G.R. Evans

Examples of academic biographies in film and television are usually considered documentaries. A couple examples include:

“Mother Teresa” (1986) documentary by Ann & Jeanette Petrie

“Bobby Fisher Against the World” (2011) HBO documentary by Liz Garbus

The third category of biographies is the fictionalized academic biography.

The fictionalized academic biography tries to combine the best elements of the fictional biography (entertainment with a strong theme and story line) and the academic biography (factual accuracy). The facts of a person’s life are used in an entertaining manner while striving to relate an honest impression of the individual’s personality. By combining the author’s or director’s unique insights into life along with the facts and lessons of the individual, the result is a balanced view of how someone may have lived.

When successful, the fictionalized academic biography can change the public’s impression of the individual’s life.

Examples of fictionalized academic biographies in books, include:

 “American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880-1964” by William Manchester

“East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart” by Susan Butler

(Two of my favorites in this category are out-of-print autobiographies.)

“I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow… ‘Cause I Get Better Looking Every Day” by Joe Willie Namath and Richard Schaap (1970)

“My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Coretta Scott King (1969, first version)

Examples of fictionalized academic biographies in film and television, include:

“Patton” (1970) directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, written by Francis Ford Coppola

“Milk” (2008) directed by Gus Van Sant

Finally, the fourth type is the prophetic biography.

The prophetic biography begins with the academic approach of considering all the known facts. Once the details have been catalogued, a spiritual goal or ideal theme – often “liberation of the masses” – is developed. Facts that support the ideal thesis are then chosen and developed to achieve the greatest entertainment. When successful, these accounts are revered as valuable resources for personal development. In some instances they may even become religious scriptures. Like a good scripture, the prophetic biography contains significant meaning for the material, mental and spiritual well-being of humankind.

A prophetic biography differs from the fictionalized academic biography because from the outset of its conception there is a goal to communicate practical life lessons.  The fan of a prophetic biography will return to it, again and again, throughout their lifetime in order to find consolation, meaning and guidance.

Examples of prophetic biographies in books, include:

“The Story of My Experiments with Truth” Autobiography by Mohandas Karamchand (Mahatma) Gandhi

“Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda

 “Matthew, Mark, Luke and John” the Christian Gospels of the New Testament

Examples of prophetic biographies in film and television, include:

“Ram Dass, Fierce Grace” (2001) a film by Mickey Lemle

“Gandhi” (1982) directed by Richard Attenborough

Good biographers, like good historians, tell entertaining fact-based stories to help individuals. If a story also helps a society to find common ideals and positive goals, then it exceeds expectations. Illustrating how we are similar and suggesting ways that we may progress through telling the story of an individual is a noble pursuit for any biographer.

May fictionalized academic biographies and prophetic biographies become more popular and help create a legacy worth remembering. While history belongs to the historian, the reader chooses which story to believe.


Ancient History

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