What is a Biography? Definition, Elements, and More

Nicole Ahlering
May 27, 2024 | 7 mins

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Have you found yourself browsing the biography section of your favorite library or bookstore and wondered what is a biography book

Don’t worry, we’ve got you covered! Plenty of people wonder “What is a biography vs autobiography?” or “What is a biography vs memoir?” And today we are here to set the record straight.

In this brief guide to what a biography is, we’ll explore the definition of a biography, along with its purpose, how you might write one yourself, and more. Let’s get started.

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What is a biography of a person? 

What is a biography? A biography is what we call the written account of someone’s life. It is written by someone other than whom the book is about. For example, an author named Walter Isaacson has written biographies on Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, and Einstein

A biography is what focuses on the significant events that occurred in a person’s life, along with their achievements, challenges they’ve overcome, background, relationships, and more. 

They’re an excellent way to get a comprehensive understanding of someone you admire. 

So now you understand what a biography is, but what is the point of a biographical story?

What is the point of a biography? 

Biographies have a few purposes. They can serve as historical records about a notable figure, inspire and educate readers, and give us more insight into how the folks we’re interested in lived their lives. 

And, if you are studying a notable figure, like Einstein, a biography is what you will use as a research resource!

Does a biography cover someone’s entire life? 

Biographies typically encompass most of a person’s life. Obviously, if the subject of the book is still alive, their entire life cannot be written about. 

If the person lived a long and eventful life with many achievements, the author may cover only an especially noteworthy period of the subject’s life. 

Even so, the point of a biography is to learn about your subject beyond just what they achieved, so there will likely still be contextual information about the subject’s childhood, formative experiences, and more. 

Is a biography always nonfiction? 

Surprisingly, a biography is not always nonfiction. There is a genre called biographical fiction in which the author uses real-life people and events to inspire their fictional narrative

This genre is fun because the author can postulate about what their subject may have been thinking, feeling, and more in a way they may not be able to with a nonfiction biography. 

Just keep in mind that biographical fiction blends facts with made-up information, so it can’t be used as a primary research source. That said, it’s a fun supplement to learning about a figure you’re interested in, and can help generate curiosity and insights about their lives. 

If you’d like to read a biographical fiction book, check out books like: 

Biography vs autobiography

What is a biography vs autobiography? Well, a biography is written about another person. An autobiography is when the writer writes about their own life. So Becoming by Michelle Obama would be an autobiography, not a biography. It’s only a biography if another author decides to write about Michelle Obama.

Biography vs memoir

What is a biography vs memoir? This distinction is a bit harder to define. A memoir is usually written around a theme or a specific time period in someone’s life, and the author is writing about their own memories. Whereas a biography is in chronological order and follows (more or less) the whole lifetime of a person, but it is a person other than the author.

So if someone is telling stories about their travels through South America, that isn’t covering their life story, and it is written about themself, so it would be a memoir instead of a biography.

Now that you know what a biography is, and the importance of biographies, let’s discuss why someone would want to write one.

Why would someone write a biography? 

An author may want to write a biography about someone because they’re inspired by them and want to educate the public about them. Or, they want to create a historical resource for scholars to study. 

An author may even have a commercial motivation for writing a biography, like a lucrative celebrity profile or a biography that has the potential to be adapted into a film or television series. 

Is it possible to write a biography about yourself? 

If you write a book about yourself, it’s called an autobiography or a memoir—not a biography. So, when you start writing your book, make sure you don’t get caught in the autobiography vs biography or biography vs memoir maze.

If you’d like a book written about you that you’re not the author of, you can hire a writer to create one for you. You may choose to do this if you feel your writing skills are not up to par or you don’t have time to write your own biography.

Hiring a writer to write your biography can also make sense if you’d like to make sure the book is as objective and professional as it can be. Of course, this means you have to surrender control of the narrative! 

Some folks may also feel that a biography has more credence than an autobiography or memoir since the book’s subject doesn’t get to decide what is said about them. So hiring a writer for your biography can be a good way to credibly get your story out there. 

Can you write a biography about anyone you’d like? 

When it comes to writing about other people’s lives, it’s wise to proceed with an abundance of caution. After all, you don’t want to be sued for defamation or find yourself in other legal hot water. 

We highly suggest you look into the legal ramifications of writing about your chosen subject before you begin writing about them, but here are a couple of general things to know: 

  • Typically, you don’t need permission to write about someone who is a public figure. However, the definition of a public figure can vary depending on your jurisdiction and more, so you’ll need to do your research.
  • Even if you discover that you can write about your subject without permission, it’s still advisable to contact the subject and/or their family. Not only is it good manners, but it may afford you some insider information about your subject. 
  • If your subject or the family of your subject tells you they don’t want a biography about them, you may still legally be able to proceed—consult a lawyer—but you might face backlash when the book is published, limited access to information about your subject, and perhaps a pressing sense of guilt. Not worth it, if you ask us! 

Examples of biographies

What’s a biography that is really good? Here are a few of the best biographies you should add to your list: 

We’ve also reviewed the best business biographies of highly successful entrepreneurs. These books offer invaluable lessons and inspiration for aspiring business leaders and authors.

Final thoughts 

Now if anyone asks you “What’s a biography?” You should be able to tell them (and give them some great examples).

Reading a biography is a great way to get inspired, learn from other people’s experiences, and more. And writing a biography can be an excellent educational experience in its own right! If you’d like to publish a biography but don’t know where to start, we’re here to help. Simply schedule a book consultation to get started. 

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