How to Write a Biography Analysis

Shannon lausch, 29 sep 2017.

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A biography analysis differs from an ordinary biography in one key way: instead of focusing on telling a person’s life story, your purpose is to critically examine that person’s life. The analysis can focus on a single aspect such as personality or career or can encompass a person’s entire life. According to Professor Sara Warner, the successful biography analysis has “short segments of narration” and “long sections of analysis.” The analysis itself, Warner advises, should consist of recognizing relationships among different parts of a person’s life, and showing how those parts relate to your overall thesis.

Explore this article

  • Research your subject
  • Pick your focus
  • Craft a thesis
  • Write your introduction
  • Write the body of your paper
  • Proofread the final paper

1 Research your subject

Research your subject. Encyclopedias can help you with an overview, but they lack the details you need for a good paper. When choosing articles and books, be sure to check the author’s credentials. You should also gather primary sources: any diary entries, letters, articles, or even books written by your subject. Newspaper articles written about that person can also provide insight on how the public viewed your figure.

2 Pick your focus

Pick your focus. Choose a certain aspect of this person’s life to focus on (unless of course you’re covering their entire life). Examples of focuses could include analyzing what influence a president’s personality had on his foreign policy or what effect an author’s childhood had on her writing style.

3 Craft a thesis

Craft a thesis. You should make a claim based on this focus. A compelling thesis informs readers why they should care about this topic.

4 Write your introduction

Write your introduction. Some effective ways to open your paper include a relevant anecdote or quote that illustrates your thesis. Just remember to include the thesis itself, which is the most important part of an introduction.

5 Write the body of your paper

Write the body of your paper. Separate each of your reasons supporting your thesis into paragraphs. Support each reason with evidence, which can include expert opinion and writings from the subject himself, and discuss how it supports your thesis.

Conclude by summarizing your main points supporting your thesis. Remind your readers of the importance of your topic. You should also point out whether your biography analysis sheds any new light on this person and what makes it different from other research.

7 Proofread the final paper

Proofread the final paper. Since a biography analysis should have many sources, you should pay special attention to whether you cited everything correctly.

About the Author

Shannon Lausch is a freelance writer and editor. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science (with minors in French and journalism) from North Central College. Besides writing for Demand Studios, she enjoys contributing to Associated Content and Helium. Her favorite topics to write on include education, politics and fiction.

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Definition of Biography

A biography is the non- fiction , written history or account of a person’s life. Biographies are intended to give an objective portrayal of a person, written in the third person. Biographers collect information from the subject (if he/she is available), acquaintances of the subject, or in researching other sources such as reference material, experts, records, diaries, interviews, etc. Most biographers intend to present the life story of a person and establish the context of their story for the reader, whether in terms of history and/or the present day. In turn, the reader can be reasonably assured that the information presented about the biographical subject is as true and authentic as possible.

Biographies can be written about a person at any time, no matter if they are living or dead. However, there are limitations to biography as a literary device. Even if the subject is involved in the biographical process, the biographer is restricted in terms of access to the subject’s thoughts or feelings.

Biographical works typically include details of significant events that shape the life of the subject as well as information about their childhood, education, career, and relationships. Occasionally, a biography is made into another form of art such as a film or dramatic production. The musical production of “Hamilton” is an excellent example of a biographical work that has been turned into one of the most popular musical productions in Broadway history.

Common Examples of Biographical Subjects

Most people assume that the subject of a biography must be a person who is famous in some way. However, that’s not always the case. In general, biographical subjects tend to be interesting people who have pioneered something in their field of expertise or done something extraordinary for humanity. In addition, biographical subjects can be people who have experienced something unusual or heartbreaking, committed terrible acts, or who are especially gifted and/or talented.

As a literary device, biography is important because it allows readers to learn about someone’s story and history. This can be enlightening, inspiring, and meaningful in creating connections. Here are some common examples of biographical subjects:

  • political leaders
  • entrepreneurs
  • historical figures
  • serial killers
  • notorious people
  • political activists
  • adventurers/explorers
  • religious leaders
  • military leaders
  • cultural figures

Famous Examples of Biographical Works

The readership for biography tends to be those who enjoy learning about a certain person’s life or overall field related to the person. In addition, some readers enjoy the literary form of biography independent of the subject. Some biographical works become well-known due to either the person’s story or the way the work is written, gaining a readership of people who may not otherwise choose to read biography or are unfamiliar with its form.

Here are some famous examples of biographical works that are familiar to many readers outside of biography fans:

  • Alexander Hamilton (Ron Chernow)
  • Prairie Fires: The American Dreams of Laura Ingalls Wilder (Caroline Fraser)
  • Steve Jobs (Walter Isaacson)
  • Churchill: A Life (Martin Gilbert)
  • The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary (Simon Winchester)
  • A Beautiful Mind (Sylvia Nasar)
  • The Black Rose (Tananarive Due)
  • John Adams (David McCullough)
  • Into the Wild ( Jon Krakauer )
  • John Brown (W.E.B. Du Bois)
  • Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo (Hayden Herrera)
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Rebecca Skloot)
  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Doris Kearns Goodwin)
  • Shirley Jackson : A Rather Haunted Life ( Ruth Franklin)
  • the stranger in the Woods: The Extraordinary Story of the Last True Hermit (Michael Finkel)

Difference Between Biography, Autobiography, and Memoir

Biography, autobiography , and memoir are the three main forms used to tell the story of a person’s life. Though there are similarities between these forms, they have distinct differences in terms of the writing, style , and purpose.

A biography is an informational narrative and account of the life history of an individual person, written by someone who is not the subject of the biography. An autobiography is the story of an individual’s life, written by that individual. In general, an autobiography is presented chronologically with a focus on key events in the person’s life. Since the writer is the subject of an autobiography, it’s written in the first person and considered more subjective than objective, like a biography. In addition, autobiographies are often written late in the person’s life to present their life experiences, challenges, achievements, viewpoints, etc., across time.

Memoir refers to a written collection of a person’s significant memories, written by that person. Memoir doesn’t generally include biographical information or chronological events unless it’s relevant to the story being presented. The purpose of memoir is reflection and an intention to share a meaningful story as a means of creating an emotional connection with the reader. Memoirs are often presented in a narrative style that is both entertaining and thought-provoking.

Examples of Biography in Literature

An important subset of biography is literary biography. A literary biography applies biographical study and form to the lives of artists and writers. This poses some complications for writers of literary biographies in that they must balance the representation of the biographical subject, the artist or writer, as well as aspects of the subject’s literary works. This balance can be difficult to achieve in terms of judicious interpretation of biographical elements within an author’s literary work and consideration of the separate spheres of the artist and their art.

Literary biographies of artists and writers are among some of the most interesting biographical works. These biographies can also be very influential for readers, not only in terms of understanding the artist or writer’s personal story but the context of their work or literature as well. Here are some examples of well-known literary biographies:

Example 1:  Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay  (Nancy Milford)

One of the first things Vincent explained to Norma was that there was a certain freedom of language in the Village that mustn’t shock her. It wasn’t vulgar. ‘So we sat darning socks on Waverly Place and practiced the use of profanity as we stitched. Needle in, . Needle out, piss. Needle in, . Needle out, c. Until we were easy with the words.’

This passage reflects the way in which Milford is able to characterize St. Vincent Millay as a person interacting with her sister. Even avid readers of a writer’s work are often unaware of the artist’s private and personal natures, separate from their literature and art. Milford reflects the balance required on the part of a literary biographer of telling the writer’s life story without undermining or interfering with the meaning and understanding of the literature produced by the writer. Though biographical information can provide some influence and context for a writer’s literary subjects, style, and choices , there is a distinction between the fictional world created by a writer and the writer’s “real” world. However, a literary biographer can illuminate the writer’s story so that the reader of both the biography and the biographical subject’s literature finds greater meaning and significance.

Example 2:  The Invisible Woman: The Story of Nelly Ternan and Charles Dickens  (Claire Tomalin)

The season of domestic goodwill and festivity must have posed a problem to all good Victorian family men with more than one family to take care of, particularly when there were two lots of children to receive the demonstrations of paternal love.

Tomalin’s literary biography of Charles Dickens reveals the writer’s extramarital relationship with a woman named Nelly Ternan. Tomalin presents the complications that resulted for Dickens from this relationship in terms of his personal and family life as well as his professional writing and literary work. Revealing information such as an extramarital relationship can influence the way a reader may feel about the subject as a person, and in the case of literary biography it can influence the way readers feel about the subject’s literature as well. Artists and writers who are beloved , such as Charles Dickens, are often idealized by their devoted readers and society itself. However, as Tomalin’s biography of Dickens indicates, artists and writers are complicated and as subject to human failings as anyone else.

Example 3:  Virginia Woolf  (Hermione Lee)

‘A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living’: so too with the biography of that self. And just as lives don’t stay still, so life-writing can’t be fixed and finalised. Our ideas are shifting about what can be said, our knowledge of human character is changing. The biographer has to pioneer, going ‘ahead of the rest of us, like the miner’s canary, testing the atmosphere , detecting falsity, unreality, and the presence of obsolete conventions’. So, ‘There are some stories which have to be retold by each generation’. She is talking about the story of Shelley, but she could be talking about her own life-story.

In this passage, Lee is able to demonstrate what her biographical subject, Virginia Woolf, felt about biography and a person telling their own or another person’s story. Literary biographies of well-known writers can be especially difficult to navigate in that both the author and biographical subject are writers, but completely separate and different people. As referenced in this passage by Lee, Woolf was aware of the subtleties and fluidity present in a person’s life which can be difficult to judiciously and effectively relay to a reader on the part of a biographer. In addition, Woolf offers insight into the fact that biographers must make choices in terms of what information is presented to the reader and the context in which it is offered, making them a “miner’s canary” as to how history will view and remember the biographical subject.

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Literacy Ideas

How to Write a Biography

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Biographies are big business. Whether in book form or Hollywood biopics, the lives of the famous and sometimes not-so-famous fascinate us.

While it’s true that most biographies are about people who are in the public eye, sometimes the subject is less well-known. Primarily, though, famous or not, the person who is written about has led an incredible life.

In this article, we will explain biography writing in detail for teachers and students so they can create their own.

While your students will most likely have a basic understanding of a biography, it’s worth taking a little time before they put pen to paper to tease out a crystal-clear definition of one.

Visual Writing

What Is a Biography?

how to write a biography | how to start an autobiography | How to Write a Biography |

A biography is an account of someone’s life written by someone else . While there is a genre known as a fictional biography, for the most part, biographies are, by definition, nonfiction.

Generally speaking, biographies provide an account of the subject’s life from the earliest days of childhood to the present day or, if the subject is deceased, their death.

The job of a biography is more than just to outline the bare facts of a person’s life.

Rather than just listing the basic details of their upbringing, hobbies, education, work, relationships, and death, a well-written biography should also paint a picture of the subject’s personality and experience of life.

how to write a biography | Biography Autobiography 2022 | How to Write a Biography |

Full Biographies

Teaching unit.

Teach your students everything they need to know about writing an AUTOBIOGRAPHY and a BIOGRAPHY.

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Features of a Biography

Before students begin writing a biography, they’ll need to have a firm grasp of the main features of a Biography. An excellent way to determine how well they understand these essential elements is to ask them to compile a checklist like the one-blow

Their checklists should contain the items below at a minimum. Be sure to help them fill in any gaps before moving on to the writing process.

The purpose of a biography is to provide an account of someone’s life.

Biography structure.

ORIENTATION (BEGINNING) Open your biography with a strong hook to grab the reader’s attention

SEQUENCING: In most cases, biographies are written in chronological order unless you are a very competent writer consciously trying to break from this trend.

COVER: childhood, upbringing, education, influences, accomplishments, relationships, etc. – everything that helps the reader to understand the person.

CONCLUSION: Wrap your biography up with some details about what the subject is doing now if they are still alive. If they have passed away, make mention of what impact they have made and what their legacy is or will be.


LANGUAGE Use descriptive and figurative language that will paint images inside your audience’s minds as they read. Use time connectives to link events.

PERSPECTIVE Biographies are written from the third person’s perspective.

DETAILS: Give specific details about people, places, events, times, dates, etc. Reflect on how events shaped the subject. You might want to include some relevant photographs with captions. A timeline may also be of use depending upon your subject and what you are trying to convey to your audience.

TENSE Written in the past tense (though ending may shift to the present/future tense)


Like any form of writing, you will find it simple if you have a plan and follow it through. These steps will ensure you cover the essential bases of writing a biography essay.

Firstly, select a subject that inspires you. Someone whose life story resonates with you and whose contribution to society intrigues you. The next step is to conduct thorough research. Engage in extensive reading, explore various sources, watch documentaries, and glean all available information to provide a comprehensive account of the person’s life.

Creating an outline is essential to organize your thoughts and information. The outline should include the person’s early life, education, career, achievements, and any other significant events or contributions. It serves as a map for the writing process, ensuring that all vital information is included.

Your biography should have an engaging introduction that captivates the reader’s attention and provides background information on the person you’re writing about. It should include a thesis statement summarising the biography’s main points.

Writing a biography in chronological order is crucial . You should begin with the person’s early life and move through their career and achievements. This approach clarifies how the person’s life unfolded and how they accomplished their goals.

A biography should be written in a narrative style , capturing the essence of the person’s life through vivid descriptions, anecdotes, and quotes. Avoid dry, factual writing and focus on creating a compelling narrative that engages the reader.

Adding personal insights and opinions can enhance the biography’s overall impact, providing a unique perspective on the person’s achievements, legacy, and impact on society.

Editing and proofreading are vital elements of the writing process. Thoroughly reviewing your biography ensures that the writing is clear, concise, and error-free. You can even request feedback from someone else to ensure that it is engaging and well-written.

Finally, including a bibliography at the end of your biography is essential. It gives credit to the sources that were used during research, such as books, articles, interviews, and websites.

Tips for Writing a Brilliant Biography

Biography writing tip #1: choose your subject wisely.

There are several points for students to reflect on when deciding on a subject for their biography. Let’s take a look at the most essential points to consider when deciding on the subject for a biography:

Interest: To produce a biography will require sustained writing from the student. That’s why students must choose their subject well. After all, a biography is an account of someone’s entire life to date. Students must ensure they choose a subject that will sustain their interest throughout the research, writing, and editing processes.

Merit: Closely related to the previous point, students must consider whether the subject merits the reader’s interest. Aside from pure labors of love, writing should be undertaken with the reader in mind. While producing a biography demands sustained writing from the author, it also demands sustained reading from the reader.

Therefore, students should ask themselves if their chosen subject has had a life worthy of the reader’s interest and the time they’d need to invest in reading their biography.

Information: Is there enough information available on the subject to fuel the writing of an entire biography? While it might be a tempting idea to write about a great-great-grandfather’s experience in the war. There would be enough interest there to sustain the author’s and the reader’s interest, but do you have enough access to information about their early childhood to do the subject justice in the form of a biography?

Biography Writing Tip #2: R esearch ! Research! Research!

While the chances are good that the student already knows quite a bit about the subject they’ve chosen. Chances are 100% that they’ll still need to undertake considerable research to write their biography.

As with many types of writing , research is an essential part of the planning process that shouldn’t be overlooked. If students wish to give as complete an account of their subject’s life as possible, they’ll need to put in the time at the research stage.

An effective way to approach the research process is to:

1. Compile a chronological timeline of the central facts, dates, and events of the subject’s life

2. Compile detailed descriptions of the following personal traits:

  •      Physical looks
  •      Character traits
  •      Values and beliefs

3. Compile some research questions based on different topics to provide a focus for the research:

  • Childhood : Where and when were they born? Who were their parents? Who were the other family members? What education did they receive?
  • Obstacles: What challenges did they have to overcome? How did these challenges shape them as individuals?
  • Legacy: What impact did this person have on the world and/or the people around them?
  • Dialogue & Quotes: Dialogue and quotations by and about the subject are a great way to bring color and life to a biography. Students should keep an eagle eye out for the gems that hide amid their sources.

As the student gets deeper into their research, new questions will arise that can further fuel the research process and help to shape the direction the biography will ultimately go in.

Likewise, during the research, themes will often begin to suggest themselves. Exploring these themes is essential to bring depth to biography, but we’ll discuss this later in this article.

Research Skills:

Researching for biography writing is an excellent way for students to hone their research skills in general. Developing good research skills is essential for future academic success. Students will have opportunities to learn how to:

  • Gather relevant information
  • Evaluate different information sources
  • Select suitable information
  • Organize information into a text.

Students will have access to print and online information sources, and, in some cases, they may also have access to people who knew or know the subject (e.g. biography of a family member).

These days, much of the research will likely take place online. It’s crucial, therefore, to provide your students with guidance on how to use the internet safely and evaluate online sources for reliability. This is the era of ‘ fake news ’ and misinformation after all!


how to write a biography | research skills 1 | How to Write a Biography |


⭐How to correctly ask questions to search engines on all devices.

⭐ How to filter and refine your results to find exactly what you want every time.

⭐ Essential Research and critical thinking skills for students.

⭐ Plagiarism, Citing and acknowledging other people’s work.

⭐ How to query, synthesize and record your findings logically.

BIOGRAPHY WRITING Tip #3: Find Your Themes In Biography Writing

Though predominantly a nonfiction genre, the story still plays a significant role in good biography writing. The skills of characterization and plot structuring are transferable here. And, just like in fiction, exploring themes in a biographical work helps connect the personal to the universal. Of course, these shouldn’t be forced; this will make the work seem contrived, and the reader may lose faith in the truthfulness of the account. A biographer needs to gain and maintain the trust of the reader.

Fortunately, themes shouldn’t need to be forced. A life well-lived is full of meaning, and the themes the student writer is looking for will emerge effortlessly from the actions and events of the subject’s life. It’s just a case of learning how to spot them.

One way to identify the themes in a life is to look for recurring events or situations in a person’s life. These should be apparent from the research completed previously. The students should seek to identify these patterns that emerge in the subject’s life. For example, perhaps they’ve had to overcome various obstacles throughout different periods of their life. In that case, the theme of overcoming adversity is present and has been identified.

Usually, a biography has several themes running throughout, so be sure your students work to identify more than one theme in their subject’s life.

BIOGRAPHY WRITING Tip: #4 Put Something of Yourself into the Writing

While the defining feature of a biography is that it gives an account of a person’s life, students must understand that this is not all a biography does. Relating the facts and details of a subject’s life is not enough. The student biographer should not be afraid to share their thoughts and feelings with the reader throughout their account of their subject’s life.

The student can weave some of their personality into the fabric of the text by providing commentary and opinion as they relate the events of the person’s life and the wider social context at the time. Unlike the detached and objective approach we’d expect to find in a history textbook, in a biography, student-writers should communicate their enthusiasm for their subject in their writing.

This makes for a more intimate experience for the reader, as they get a sense of getting to know the author and the subject they are writing about.

Biography Examples For Students

  • Year 5 Example
  • Year 7 Example
  • Year 9 Example

“The Rock ‘n’ Roll King: Elvis Presley”

Elvis Aaron Presley, born on January 8, 1935, was an amazing singer and actor known as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Even though he’s been dead for nearly 50 years, I can’t help but be fascinated by his incredible life!

Elvis grew up in Tupelo, Mississippi, in a tiny house with his parents and twin brother. His family didn’t have much money, but they shared a love for music. Little did they know Elvis would become a music legend!

When he was only 11 years old, Elvis got his first guitar. He taught himself to play and loved singing gospel songs. As he got older, he started combining different music styles like country, blues, and gospel to create a whole new sound – that’s Rock ‘n’ Roll!

In 1954, at the age of 19, Elvis recorded his first song, “That’s All Right.” People couldn’t believe how unique and exciting his music was. His famous hip-swinging dance moves also made him a sensation!

Elvis didn’t just rock the music scene; he also starred in movies like “Love Me Tender” and “Jailhouse Rock.” But fame came with challenges. Despite facing ups and downs, Elvis kept spreading happiness through his music.

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Tragically, Elvis passed away in 1977, but his music and charisma live on. Even today, people worldwide still enjoy his songs like “Hound Dog” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” Elvis Presley’s legacy as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll will live forever.

Long Live the King: I wish I’d seen him.

Elvis Presley, the Rock ‘n’ Roll legend born on January 8, 1935, is a captivating figure that even a modern-day teen like me can’t help but admire. As I delve into his life, I wish I could have experienced the magic of his live performances.

Growing up in Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis faced challenges but found solace in music. At 11, he got his first guitar, a symbol of his journey into the world of sound. His fusion of gospel, country, and blues into Rock ‘n’ Roll became a cultural phenomenon.

The thought of being in the audience during his early performances, especially when he recorded “That’s All Right” at 19, sends shivers down my spine. Imagining the crowd’s uproar and feeling the revolutionary energy of that moment is a dream I wish I could have lived.

Elvis wasn’t just a musical prodigy; he was a dynamic performer. His dance moves, the embodiment of rebellion, and his roles in films like “Love Me Tender” and “Jailhouse Rock” made him a true icon.

After watching him on YouTube, I can’t help but feel a little sad that I’ll never witness the King’s live performances. The idea of swaying to “Hound Dog” or being enchanted by “Can’t Help Falling in Love” in person is a missed opportunity. Elvis may have left us in 1977, but he was the king of rock n’ roll. Long live the King!

Elvis Presley: A Teen’s Take on the Rock ‘n’ Roll Icon”

Elvis Presley, born January 8, 1935, was a revolutionary force in the music world, earning his title as the “King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” Exploring his life, even as a 16-year-old today, I’m captivated by the impact he made.

Hailing from Tupelo, Mississippi, Elvis grew up in humble beginnings, surrounded by the love of his parents and twin brother. It’s inspiring to think that, despite financial challenges, this young man would redefine the music scene.

At 11, Elvis got his first guitar, sparking a self-taught journey into music. His early gospel influences evolved into a unique fusion of country, blues, and gospel, creating the electrifying genre of Rock ‘n’ Roll. In 1954, at only 19, he recorded “That’s All Right,” marking the birth of a musical legend.

Elvis wasn’t just a musical innovator; he was a cultural phenomenon. His rebellious dance moves and magnetic stage presence challenged the norms. He transitioned seamlessly into acting, starring in iconic films like “Love Me Tender” and “Jailhouse Rock.”

how to write a biography | Elvis Presley promoting Jailhouse Rock | How to Write a Biography |

However, fame came at a cost, and Elvis faced personal struggles. Despite the challenges, his music continued to resonate. Even now, classics like “Hound Dog” and “Can’t Help Falling in Love” transcend generations.

Elvis Presley’s impact on music and culture is undeniable. He was known for his unique voice, charismatic persona, and electrifying performances. He sold over one billion records worldwide, making him one of the best-selling solo artists in history. He received numerous awards throughout his career, including three Grammy Awards and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

Elvis’s influence can still be seen in today’s music. Many contemporary artists, such as Bruno Mars, Lady Gaga, and Justin Timberlake, have cited Elvis as an inspiration. His music continues to be featured in movies, TV shows, and commercials.

Elvis left us in 1977, but his legacy lives on. I appreciate his breaking barriers and fearlessly embracing his artistic vision. Elvis Presley’s impact on music and culture is timeless, a testament to the enduring power of his artistry. His music has inspired generations and will continue to do so for many years to come.

how to write a biography | LITERACY IDEAS FRONT PAGE 1 | How to Write a Biography |

Teaching Resources

Use our resources and tools to improve your student’s writing skills through proven teaching strategies.


We have compiled a sequence of biography-related lessons or teaching ideas that you can follow as you please. They are straightforward enough for most students to follow without further instruction.


This session aims to give students a broader understanding of what makes a good biography.

Once your students have compiled a comprehensive checklist of the main features of a biography, allow them to use it to assess some biographies from your school library or on the internet using the feature checklist.

When students have assessed a selection of biographies, take some time as a class to discuss them. You can base the discussion around the following prompts:

  • Which biographies covered all the criteria from their checklist?
  • Which biographies didn’t?
  • Which biography was the most readable in terms of structure?
  • Which biography do you think was the least well-structured? How would you improve this?

Looking at how other writers have interpreted the form will help students internalize the necessary criteria before attempting to produce a biography. Once students have a clear understanding of the main features of the biography, they’re ready to begin work on writing a biography.

When the time does come to put pen to paper, be sure they’re armed with the following top tips to help ensure they’re as well prepared as possible.


This session aims to guide students through the process of selecting the perfect biography subject.

Instruct students to draw up a shortlist of three potential subjects for the biography they’ll write.

Using the three criteria mentioned in the writing guide (Interest, Merit, and Information), students award each potential subject a mark out of 5 for each of the criteria. In this manner, students can select the most suitable subject for their biography.


This session aims to get students into the researching phase, then prioritise and organise events chronologically.

Students begin by making a timeline of their subject’s life, starting with their birth and ending with their death or the present day. If the student has yet to make a final decision on the subject of their biography, a family member will often serve well for this exercise as a practice exercise.

Students should research and gather the key events of the person’s life, covering each period of their life from when they were a baby, through childhood and adolescence, right up to adulthood and old age. They should then organize these onto a timeline. Students can include photographs with captions if they have them.

They can present these to the class when they have finished their timelines.


Instruct students to look over their timeline, notes, and other research. Challenge them to identify three patterns that repeat throughout the subject’s life and sort all the related events and incidents into specific categories.

Students should then label each category with a single word. This is the thematic concept or the broad general underlying idea. After that, students should write a sentence or two expressing what the subject’s life ‘says’ about that concept.

This is known as the thematic statement . With the thematic concepts and thematic statements identified, the student now has some substantial ideas to explore that will help bring more profound meaning and wider resonance to their biography.


Instruct students to write a short objective account of an event in their own life. They can write about anyone from their past. It needn’t be more than a couple of paragraphs, but the writing should be strictly factual, focusing only on the objective details of what happened.

Once they have completed this, it’s time to rewrite the paragraph, but they should include some opinion and personal commentary this time.

The student here aims to inject some color and personality into their writing, to transform a detached, factual account into a warm, engaging story.


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  • Understand the purpose of both forms of biography.
  • Explore the language and perspective of both.
  • Prompts and Challenges to engage students in writing a biography.
  • Dedicated lessons for both forms of biography.
  • Biographical Projects can expand students’ understanding of reading and writing a biography.

Biography Graphic Organizer

FREE Biography Writing Graphic Organizer

Use this valuable tool in the research and writing phases to keep your students on track and engaged.


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To Conclude

By this stage, your students should have an excellent technical overview of a biography’s essential elements.

They should be able to choose their subject in light of how interesting and worthy they are, as well as give consideration to the availability of information out there. They should be able to research effectively and identify emerging themes in their research notes. And finally, they should be able to bring some of their personality and uniqueness into their retelling of the life of another.

Remember that writing a biography is not only a great way to develop a student’s writing skills; it can be used in almost all curriculum areas. For example, to find out more about a historical figure in History, to investigate scientific contributions to Science, or to celebrate a hero from everyday life.

Biography is an excellent genre for students to develop their writing skills and to find inspiration in the lives of others in the world around them.


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Understanding Biographical Criticism: A Comprehensive Guide

What is biographical criticism, history and development of biographical criticism, how to apply biographical criticism, strengths and weaknesses of biographical criticism, notable examples of biographical criticism, why biographical criticism matters, frequently asked questions about biographical criticism, resources and further reading.

Have you ever wondered how the life of an author can shape their stories? If so, then you're already halfway into the fascinating world of biographical criticism. In this guide, we'll explore the exciting subject of biographical criticism, peeling back the layers to understand its history, development, and its role in literary analysis. Whether you're an avid reader, a literature student, or just someone curious about the inner workings of literature, this guide will serve as a handy resource for you. So, let's jump right in and start our journey into the world of biographical criticism!

Biographical criticism is a form of literary criticism where the life, beliefs, and experiences of the author are used to better understand and interpret their work. It's a way of seeing literature through a different lens—one that's got the author's fingerprints all over it.

Now, you might wonder, why do we care so much about the author's life? Couldn't we just enjoy the story for what it is? Well, here's the thing. Authors don't write in a vacuum. Their lives, their experiences, their beliefs—they all seep into their stories, often in ways that we don't even realize. And that's where the definition of biographical criticism comes in.

The definition of biographical criticism emphasizes the importance of understanding an author's life in interpreting their work. It's like having a secret decoder ring that lets you delve deeper into the story and unearth hidden meanings. Consider the following points:

  • Authors often draw from their own life experiences when writing.
  • Their personal beliefs and values can shape the themes and messages in their work.
  • Understanding the author's background can help you appreciate the context and setting of the story.
  • It can provide insights into the author's motivations and intentions, adding a new layer of depth to your reading experience.

By now, you can see that the definition of biographical criticism is more than just a literary term. It's a tool, a way of thinking, that allows you to explore literature on a deeper and more personal level. But remember—it's just one of many lenses you can use to view and interpret literature. It's not the only way, but it's certainly an interesting one!

Now that we've covered the definition of biographical criticism, let's take a trip back in time to see how this approach has evolved over the years. It's a bit like detective work, piecing together clues to form a bigger picture.

Believe it or not, biographical criticism has been around for centuries. In fact, it was quite popular during the Renaissance period, when scholars often studied authors' lives to understand their work. They believed that an author's experiences and beliefs were reflected in their writing, a concept that's still central to biographical criticism today.

However, in the 20th century, things started to change. A group of critics known as the New Critics argued that an author's life should not influence the interpretation of their work. They believed in focusing solely on the text itself, a method known as 'close reading'. This led to the decline of biographical criticism for a while.

But as the saying goes, old habits die hard. In the late 20th century, biographical criticism made a comeback. Scholars began to recognize the value in examining an author's life to gain insights into their work. Today, it's considered a valuable tool in literary analysis, providing a unique perspective that can enhance our understanding of literature.

So, as you can see, the practice of biographical criticism has had its ups and downs over the years. But through it all, the core idea remains the same: the life of an author can offer valuable insights into their work. And that's the beauty of this approach—it allows us to see literature not just as stories, but as reflections of real human experiences.

So, you're wondering how to apply biographical criticism to a piece of literature? It's as easy as pie—if you know where to start, that is. Here's a simple step-by-step guide to help you get the ball rolling.

Step 1: Research the Author's Life

The first step in biographical criticism is to dig into the author's life. Find out where they were born, what their childhood was like, what they studied, their career, relationships, beliefs, and any significant events that occurred during their lifetime. It's a bit like being a detective, isn't it?

Step 2: Read the Work Carefully

Next, read the literary work you're analyzing with care. Pay attention to the themes, characters, and plot. While reading, keep the author's life in mind and see if you can spot any connections. Can you see any reflections of the author's life in the story?

Step 3: Draw Connections

Now comes the fun part—drawing connections between the author's life and their work. For example, maybe the author wrote a lot about poverty and you discovered they grew up in a poor neighborhood. Or perhaps the main character shares similar experiences with the author. These links are the key to biographical criticism.

Step 4: Write Your Analysis

Lastly, it's time to write your analysis. Discuss the connections you've found and explain how they enhance the understanding of the work. Remember, the goal of biographical criticism is to provide a deeper insight into the literary work by viewing it through the lens of the author's life.

And there you have it! You've now learned not just the definition of biographical criticism, but also how to apply it. So, the next time you read a book, why not give it a try? You might be surprised by what you discover.

Just like a superhero, biographical criticism has its strengths and weaknesses. Let's take a closer look at what they are.

Strengths of Biographical Criticism

First, let's talk about the strengths. One major advantage of biographical criticism is that it can add depth and richness to a literary work. By understanding the author's life, you can gain a deeper insight into their mindset, beliefs, and experiences. This can help you understand the themes, characters, and plot on a much deeper level.

Another strength is it makes literature more relatable and real. By linking the author's life to their work, it makes the story feel more personal and human. This can make the reading experience more meaningful and engaging.

Weaknesses of Biographical Criticism

Now, let's shift our focus to the weaknesses. While biographical criticism can be enlightening, it's not without its flaws. One significant drawback is that it can lead to assumptions and misinterpretations. Just because an author has certain experiences, it doesn't mean they're always reflected in their work. Making such assumptions can lead to faulty interpretations.

Another weakness is that it can overshadow the literary work itself. Sometimes, focusing too much on the author's life can divert attention from the literary work's inherent qualities. After all, isn't the story itself the reason we picked up the book in the first place?

So, there you have it—the strengths and weaknesses of biographical criticism. As with any approach, it's important to use it wisely and remember that it's just one way to interpret a literary work.

Let's take a step into the world of literature with some noteworthy examples of biographical criticism. These examples will bring to life the definition of biographical criticism and show you how it works in practice.

First up, let's talk about 'To Kill a Mockingbird' by Harper Lee. This classic novel is often examined through a biographical criticism lens. Lee's childhood experiences in Alabama, especially her observations of racial injustice, played a significant role in shaping the story and characters. By understanding Lee's background, readers can gain a richer understanding of the novel's themes.

Another fascinating example is 'The Bell Jar' by Sylvia Plath. This novel is a semi-autobiographical exploration of Plath's struggles with mental health. By knowing Plath's personal history, we can appreciate the authenticity and depth of the protagonist's experiences.

Finally, let's look at 'The Catcher in the Rye' by J.D. Salinger. Salinger's experiences in World War II and his struggles with fame and privacy heavily influenced the novel's themes and the character of Holden Caulfield. A biographical criticism approach can illuminate these influences and offer a deeper understanding of the novel.

These examples show how biographical criticism can reveal new layers of meaning in a literary work. By considering the author's experiences, you can uncover insights that might otherwise remain hidden.

Now that we've explored the definition of biographical criticism and seen it in action, you might be wondering, why does it matter? Well, imagine reading a book without thinking about the author at all. It's like watching a movie without knowing who directed it or listening to a song without knowing who the artist is. Sure, you can enjoy it, but there's a whole other layer of understanding that you're missing out on.

Biographical criticism matters because it allows us to see that extra layer. It's like getting a special pair of glasses that let us see the invisible threads connecting the author's life to their work. It's a reminder that literature isn't created in a vacuum—it's the product of a real person's experiences, thoughts, and emotions.

For instance, knowing that Emily Dickinson spent most of her life in seclusion allows us to better understand the themes of isolation and mortality in her poetry. Similarly, understanding F. Scott Fitzgerald's experiences of the Roaring Twenties helps us appreciate the critique of excess and materialism in 'The Great Gatsby'.

By embracing biographical criticism, we can deepen our understanding of literature and forge a more meaningful connection with the works we read. So the next time you pick up a book, spare a thought for the author's life—you never know what secrets it might reveal about the story you're about to read.

Now that we've gone through the definition of biographical criticism, let's answer some common questions you might have.

Do I always need to know an author's life to enjoy their work?

Absolutely not! While biographical criticism can give us a deeper understanding, it's not a requirement for enjoying a piece of literature. Sometimes, you might just want to lose yourself in a good story—that's perfectly fine too!

Isn't it an invasion of the author's privacy?

A valid concern! However, biographical criticism doesn't mean prying into an author's personal life. It's about understanding the broad strokes of their experiences and how they might have influenced their work. We're not detectives, just curious readers!

Can I use biographical criticism for any piece of literature?

While it's more commonly used for novels, poems, and plays, you can apply biographical criticism to any form of writing. Even a cookbook can reveal interesting things about its author!

What if I get it wrong?

Remember, biographical criticism isn't an exact science. It's more of an informed guess. Even experts disagree on interpretations sometimes. The important thing is to keep an open mind and enjoy the process of discovery.

There you have it, a quick rundown of some common questions about biographical criticism. It's a fascinating approach that can truly change the way you read!

If our exploration into the world of biographical criticism has sparked your interest, there are many resources available for further reading. Getting a firm grasp on the definition of biographical criticism is just the beginning!

Here are a few books that delve deeper into this fascinating method of literary analysis:

"Biography: A Very Short Introduction" by Hermione Lee

This book provides a concise yet informative look at biography as a literary genre. It can be a great starting point for understanding the connection between an author's life and their work.

"Literary Biography: An Introduction" by Michael Benton

Benton's book is an in-depth study of literary biography. It's a slightly heavier read, but well worth it for the keenly interested.

"The Art of Literary Biography" edited by John Batchelor

This collection of essays by various authors explores the challenges and rewards of literary biography. It's an insightful read for those ready to dive deeper.

Reading these books can enhance your understanding and appreciation of biographical criticism. Remember, the journey to knowledge is always more fulfilling when you enjoy the ride. So, grab a cup of your favorite beverage, find a cozy corner, and let the world of biographical criticism unfold before your eyes.

Happy reading!

If you found our comprehensive guide on understanding biographical criticism helpful, we highly recommend checking out the workshop ' Researching your Craft & Sharpening your Skills ' by Celina Rodriguez. This workshop will equip you with the necessary tools and techniques to further your understanding of literary criticism and help you excel in your craft. Don't miss this opportunity to deepen your knowledge and sharpen your skills!

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7 Different Ways to Write a Great Biography

Ever considered writing a biography? Individual decisions and circumstances shape life stories, but so do biographers. By adapting set patterns, writers determine public opinion of their subject’s lives. Draw inspiration for a future project from this roundup of common approaches.

Journalists and media outlets love biographies, particularly when relatives or academics dispute the most controversial claims.

Some of the favorite topics are instantly familiar: Napoleon’s downfall, Churchill’s leadership, Diana’s letters and her lovers, Sylvia Plath’s relationship with Ted Hughes, the genius of Steve Jobs, and Alan Turing’s sexuality. Each worthy of separate, in-depth discussion. Each a delicate balance between sensationalism and historical interest.

Of course, the trademark combination of gossip and mythmaking has given biography a bad reputation. For some, it seems too much like rummaging through the paper bin, looking for someone’s bank statements or the shreds of a discarded missive.

Or else it seems like a dubious exercise in trying to draw life lessons from someone else’s fame and success, which might have been coincidental or undeserved.

Laying the Groundwork

Researching a biography involves a lot of borrowing and persuading. Anecdotes, interviews, letters and public records are the standard ingredients of every book biography, film biopic, or feature ‘based on a true story’. Getting hold of information may be difficult.

Relatives of the deceased may block access to the diary, friends of the family may demand cash for answering your questions, and obtaining permission to reproduce images will give you grey hairs. You may be overwhelmed by the quantity of books to plough through, or frustrated by the lack of data at your disposal.

“Composing the life requires speculation and interpretation. At times, you’ll marvel at what your subject achieved. Sometimes you’ll be disappointed by their actions, maybe even shocked.”

Composing the life requires speculation and interpretation. At times, you’ll marvel at what your subject achieved. Sometimes you’ll be disappointed by their actions, maybe even shocked. If you’re writing about a dictator or a criminal, you may struggle to strike a balance between humanizing and demonizing them.

If you’re lucky, you’ll stumble across something no-one else has found before and hope it makes waves. If you’re underhand, you’ll make an unverifiable claim and wait for the public outrage.

But let’s assume that you’ve been principled. You’ve found a worthy subject, done the laborious work of searching through the archives and ringing through the phone book, read the relevant literature and thought about the ethical dilemmas. Now it’s time to write, but where should you begin? How do you bring order to the chaos of a life?

1. Cradle to Grave

If in doubt, the ‘cradle to grave’ approach is your fallback option. Put your notes in order, get the chronology sorted, and start work. One by one, tick off the following from your list: birth, family background, childhood influences, schooling and education, early career, professional successes and setbacks, twilight years, death. Choose a first sentence a bit like this:

“Napoleon Buonaparte was born at Ajaccio in the island of Corsica, on the fifteenth day of August, 1769. He was the son of Charles Buonaparte, an advocate in the royal court of assize, and of Letitia Ramolini, a Corsican lady of great beauty, and of a good family, descended from that of Colalto at Naples.” William Hazlitt, The Life of Napoleon Buonaparte , 1828

As the conventional approach in Western book biographies for hundreds of years, this may sound like the easy option. Yet a chronological biography has its pitfalls. Expect gaps in the story, mysteries you’ll never solve, and conflicting accounts.

Establishing causality is another dilemma and not only because it’s tricky to prove links between particular experiences and later events. Strands of the story developing in parallel, encounters that only obtain significance many years later, and the after-effects of major turning points all pose a challenge to the apparent simplicity of this approach – also see our biographical piece on Emmeline Pankhurst for an example of the pitfalls and opportunities of a ‘cradle to grave’ story.

2. The Deathbed Departure

Like Agatha Christie, many biographers hold off checking the birth certificate by beginning at the end. Opening with a deathbed scene or the public announcement of the death is a ubiquitous variation on the ‘cradle-to-grave’ structure.

Eva Peron on Deathbed Photograph

Think of the exaggerated public mourning in a Buenos Aires cinema at the beginning of the film adaptation of Evita , followed immediately by sepia-coloured evocations of Eva’s provincial childhood.

By contrasting a dramatic demise with humble beginnings, you can immediately establish both suspense and a narrative arc.

3. Trace Your Steps

If your research process deserves a book of its own, or if your subject was hard to track down, you may want to put the biographical mechanics on display. Documenting the process of biographical research also allows you to write someone else’s story in the first-person. By revealing your techniques and the problems you faced, you can mitigate for the inevitable causal leaps or puzzling gaps.

Literary historians like to cite A. J. A. Symons’s The Quest for Corvo (1934), but it’s a technique found in other genres, such as documentary theatre. For example, Ivna Žic’s play Blei (2017) sees a young woman enlist her friends to reconstruct her grandfather’s experience of the disputed Bleiburg repatriations of 1945, including video interviews, excerpts from books, and taped phone calls.

4. Make It Up

Plenty of would-be historical biographies contain made-up stories impossible to verify, such as the wholly speculative story of Shakespeare’s encounter with Elizabeth I at Kenilworth, enthusiastically mythologized by nineteenth-century biographers.

“A short time previous to this, when our poet was in his twelfth year, and in the summer of 1575, an event occurred which must have made a great impression on his mind; the visit of Queen Elizabeth to the magnificent Earl of Leicester, at Kenilworth Castle.” Nathan Drake, Shakespeare and His Times , 1838

Given biography’s tendency to improvise with anecdotes and dodgy causal connections, critics say it’s a kind of fiction masquerading as history.

You can make a virtue of a necessity by augmenting the historical sources, as in Edmund Morris’s Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan (1999). Or else turn the practice of biography on its head by writing it as historical fiction, as in Hilary Mantel’s bestselling Wolf Hall (2009). Familiar representatives of the genre include the films Amadeus (1984) and Shakespeare in Love (1998), both inspired by long-standing myths associated with the lives of Mozart and Shakespeare.

If you aim to popularize a life or just to convey the atmosphere of the times, then so-called ‘biofiction’ allows you to indulge your imagination and free the life story from the strictures of the historical record.

5. Change the Received Wisdom

Myths and legends proliferating? Promise a glimpse behind the scenes and unmask your subject with a revisionist biography. Celebrities’ public personas – historical or contemporary – can easily deceive. By deconstructing appearances and identifying discourses, you can add academic sobriety to fiercely contested terrain, as in Sarah Churchwell’s The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe (2004).

You can also throw caution to the winds with a thorough debunking. This is the kind of biography that likes to offend. You can do damage to the subject’s reputation (and possibly your own) by focusing on character flaws or allegations of a moral nature. You’ll need persuasive evidence and a biographee long since deceased – that or a good lawyer.

“No man knew better than Johnson in how many nameless and numberless actions behaviour consists: actions which can scarcely be reduced to rule, and which come under no description. Of these he retained so many very strange ones, that I suppose no one who saw his odd manner of gesticulating, much blamed or wondered at the good lady’s solicitude.” Hester Lynch Piozzi [Hester Thrale], Anecdotes of the Late Samuel Johnson , 1786

6. The Life of the Mind

Select a scientist or a philosopher for your project and chances are you’ll be writing an ‘intellectual biography’.

Following the development of ideas across a life, biographies of great minds can play an important role in public understandings of science. You’ll also be looking at how institutions or cultural and historical contexts influenced your subject, how networks champion or resist particular ideas, and how even the best ones are greeted with scepticism.

Challenges include making the material comprehensible for a non-specialist and turning the genesis of complex thoughts into a compelling narrative. Feel free to do something inventive – Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter Ruth Padel wrote a biography of her forebear in poems.

“In the brown-black gloam of closing-time he meets his future colleague, a published entomologist. ‘I had no idea! So many thousand different beetles within ten miles of home!” Ruth Padel, Darwin: A Life in Poems , 2009

7. A Single Chapter

Very often, society values a given life for a single episode within it. In ‘History as a Poetess’ (1943), Stefan Zweig calls these history’s ‘heroic, poetic moments’.

Reducing a life course to a representative year or two may depart from the genre’s established conventions. But as James Shapiro has demonstrated in two books on Shakespeare, it gives you the chance to focus on what was most important in a life – or at least to make that case.

Collective biographies can do the same for groups. As in Lara Feigel’s The Love Charm of Bombs: Restless Lives in the Second World War (2013), seeing how people’s lives interweave and diverge enables a more personal and unexpected take on familiar historical events.

Biography in Theory Book Cover

[Title Image by  Ehud Neuhaus  via  Unsplash]

Edward Saunders

Edward Saunders was Deputy Director of the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for the History and Theory of Biography, Vienna until August 2017. His research interests are in biography and life writing, as well as urban history and cultural memory. Learn more about him on his website.

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Literary Devices

Literary devices, terms, and elements, definition of biography.

A biography is a description of a real person’s life, including factual details as well as stories from the person’s life. Biographies usually include information about the subject’s personality and motivations, and other kinds of intimate details excluded in a general overview or profile of a person’s life. The vast majority of biography examples are written about people who are or were famous, such as politicians, actors, athletes, and so on. However, some biographies can be written about people who lived incredible lives, but were not necessarily well-known. A biography can be labelled “authorized” if the person being written about, or his or her family members, have given permission for a certain author to write the biography.

The word biography comes from the Greek words bios , meaning “life” and – graphia , meaning “writing.”

Difference Between Biography and Autobiography

A biography is a description of a life that is not the author’s own, while an autobiography is the description of a writer’s own life. There can be some gray area, however, in the definition of biography when a ghostwriter is employed. A ghostwriter is an author who helps in the creation of a book, either collaborating with someone else or doing all of the writing him- or herself. Some famous people ask for the help of a ghostwriter to create their own autobiographies if they are not particularly gifted at writing but want the story to sound like it’s coming from their own mouths. In the case of a ghostwritten autobiography, the writer is not actually writing about his or her own life, but has enough input from the subject to create a work that is very close to the person’s experience.

Common Examples of Biography

The genre of biography is so popular that there is even a cable network originally devoted to telling the stories of famous people’s lives (fittingly called The Biography Channel). The stories proved to be such good television that other networks caught on, such as VH1 producing biographies under the series name “Behind the Music.” Some examples of written biographies have become famous in their own right, such as the following books:

  • Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (made even more famous by the musical “Hamilton,” created by Lin-Manuel Miranda)
  • Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
  • Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
  • Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
  • The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
  • Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder
  • Three Cups of Tea: One Man’s Mission to Promote Peace … One School at a Time by Greg Mortenson

Significance of Biography in Literature

The genre of biography developed out of other forms of historical nonfiction, choosing to focus on one specific person’s experience rather than all important players. There are examples of biography all the way back to 44 B.C. when Roman biographer Cornelius Nepos wrote Excellentium Imperatorum Vitae (“Lives of those capable of commanding”). The Greek historian Plutarch was also famous for his biographies, creating a series of biographies of famous Greeks and Romans in his book Parallel Lives . After the printing press was created, one of the first “bestsellers” was the 1550 famous biography Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari. Biography then got very popular in the 18th century with James Boswell’s 1791 publication of The Life of Samuel Johnson . Biography continues to be one of the best selling genres in literature, and has led to a number of literary prizes specifically for this form.

Examples of Biography in Literature

And I can imagine Farmer saying he doesn’t care if no one else is willing to follow their example. He’s still going to make these hikes, he’d insist, because if you say that seven hours is too long to walk for two families of patients, you’re saying that their lives matter less than some others’, and the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that’s wrong with the world.

( Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, A Man Who Would Cure the World by Tracy Kidder)

Tracy Kidder’s wonderful example of biography, Mountains Beyond Mountains , brought the work of Dr. Paul Farmer to a wider audience. Dr. Farmer cofounded the organization Partners in Health (PIH) in 1987 to provide free treatment to patients in Haiti; the organization later created similar projects in countries such as Russia, Peru, and Rwanda. Dr. Farmer was not necessarily a famous man before Tracy Kidder’s biography was published, though he was well-regarded in his own field. The biography describes Farmer’s work as well as some of his personal life.

On July 2, McCandless finished reading Tolstoy’s “Family Happiness”, having marked several passages that moved him: “He was right in saying that the only certain happiness in life is to live for others…” Then, on July 3, he shouldered his backpack and began the twenty-mile hike to the improved road. Two days later, halfway there, he arrived in heavy rain at the beaver ponds that blocked access to the west bank of the Teklanika River. In April they’d been frozen over and hadn’t presented an obstacle. Now he must have been alarmed to find a three-acre lake covering the trail.

( Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer)

Jon Krakauer is a writer and outdoorsman famous for many nonfiction books, including his own experience in a mountaineering disaster on Mount Everest in 1996. His book Into the Wild is a nonfiction biography of a young boy, Christopher McCandless who chose to donate all of his money and go into the wilderness in the American West. McCandless starved to death in Denali National Park in 1992. The biography delved into the facts surrounding McCandless’s death, as well as incorporating some of Krakauer’s own experience.

A commanding woman versed in politics, diplomacy, and governance; fluent in nine languages; silver-tongued and charismatic, Cleopatra nonetheless seems the joint creation of Roman propagandists and Hollywood directors.

( Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff)

Stacy Schiff wrote a new biography of Cleopatra in 2010 in order to divide fact from fiction, and go back to the amazing and intriguing personality of the woman herself. The biography was very well received for being both scrupulously referenced as well as highly literary and imaginative.

Confident that he was clever, resourceful, and bold enough to escape any predicament, [Louie] was almost incapable of discouragement. When history carried him into war, this resilient optimism would define him.

( Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand)

Laura Hillenbrand’s bestselling biography Unbroken covers the life of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, who lived through almost unbelievable circumstances, including running in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, being shot down as a bomber in WWII, surviving in a raft in the ocean for 47 days, and then surviving Japanese prisoner of war camps. Zamperini’s life story is one of those narratives that is “stranger than fiction” and Hillenbrand brings the drama brilliantly to the reader.

I remember sitting in his backyard in his garden, one day, and he started talking about God. He [Jobs] said, “ Sometimes I believe in God, sometimes I don’t. I think it’s 50/50, maybe. But ever since I’ve had cancer, I’ve been thinking about it more, and I find myself believing a bit more, maybe it’s because I want to believe in an afterlife, that when you die, it doesn’t just all disappear. The wisdom you’ve accumulated, somehow it lives on.”

( Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson)

Steve Jobs is one of the most famous cultural icons of modern-day America and, indeed, around the world, and thus his biography was eagerly awaited. The author, Walter Isaacson, was able to interview Jobs extensively during the writing process. Thus, the above excerpt is possible where the writer is a character in the story himself, asking Jobs about his views on life and philosophy of the world.

Test Your Knowledge of Biography

1. Which of the following statements is the best biography definition? A. A retelling of one small moment from another person’s life. B. A novel which details one specific character’s full life. C. A description of a real person’s entire life, written by someone else. [spoiler title=”Answer to Question #1″] Answer: C is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

2. Which of the following scenarios qualifies as a biography? A. A famous person contracts a ghostwriter to create an autobiography. B. A famous author writes the true and incredible life story of a little known person. C. A writer creates a book detailing the most important moments in her own life. [spoiler title=”Answer to Question #2″] Answer: B is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

3. Which of the following statements is true? A. Biographies are one of the best selling genres in contemporary literature. B. Biographies are always written about famous people. C. Biographies were first written in the 18th century. [spoiler title=”Answer to Question #3″] Answer: A is the correct answer.[/spoiler]

biography analysis examples

How to Write an Interesting Biography

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A biography is a written account of the series of events that make up a person's life. Some of those events are going to be pretty boring, so you'll need to try to make your account as interesting as possible!

Every student will write a biography at some point, but the level of detail and sophistication will differ. A fourth grade biography will be much different from a middle school-level biography or a high school or college-level biography.

However, each biography will include the basic details. The first information you should gather in your research will include biographical details and facts. You must use a trustworthy resource to ensure that your information is accurate.

Using research note cards , collect the following data, carefully recording the source for each piece of information:

Including Basic Details

  • Date and place of birth and death
  • Family information
  • Lifetime accomplishments
  • Major events of life
  • Effects/impact on society, historical significance

While this information is necessary to your project, these dry facts, on their own, don't really make a very good biography. Once you've found these basics, you'll want to dig a little deeper.

You choose a certain person because you think he or she is interesting, so you certainly don't want to burden your paper with an inventory of boring facts. Your goal is to impress your reader!

Start off with great first sentence . It's a good idea to begin with a really interesting statement, a little-known fact, or really intriguing event.

You should avoid starting out with a standard but boring line like:

"Meriwether Lewis was born in Virginia in 1774."

Instead, try starting with something like this:

"Late one afternoon in October, 1809, Meriwether Lewis arrived at a small log cabin nestled deep in the Tennessee Mountains. By sunrise on the following day, he was dead, having suffered gunshot wounds to the head and chest.

You'll have to make sure your beginning is motivating, but it should also be relevant. The next sentence or two should lead into your thesis statement , or main message of your biography.

"It was a tragic end to a life that had so deeply affected the course of history in the United States. Meriwether Lewis, a driven and often tormented soul, led an expedition of discovery that expanded a young nation's economic potential, increased its scientific understanding, and enhanced its worldwide reputation."

Now that you've created an impressive beginning , you'll want to continue the flow. Find more intriguing details about the man and his work, and weave them into the composition.

Examples of Interesting Details:

  • Some people believed that Lewis and Clark would encounter elephants in the western wilderness, having misunderstood the wooly mammoth bones discovered in the United States.
  • The expedition resulted in the discovery and description of 122 new animal species and subspecies.
  • Lewis was a hypochondriac.
  • His death is still an unsolved mystery, although it was ruled a suicide.

You can find interesting facts by consulting diverse sources.

Fill the body of your biography with material that gives insight into your subject's personality. For instance, in a biography about Meriwether Lewis, you would ask what traits or events motivated him to embark on such a monumental exercise.

Questions to Consider in Your Biography:

  • Was there something in your subject's childhood that shaped his/her personality?
  • Was there a personality trait that drove him/her to succeed or impeded his progress?
  • What adjectives would you use to describe him/her?
  • What were some turning points in this life?
  • What was his/her impact on history?

Be sure to use transitional phrases and words to link your paragraphs and make your composition paragraphs flow . It is normal for good writers to re-arrange their sentences to create a better paper.

The final paragraph will summarize your main points and re-assert your main claim about your subject. It should point out your main points, re-name the person you're writing about, but it should not repeat specific examples.

As always, proofread your paper and check for errors. Create a bibliography and title page according to your teacher's instructions. Consult a style guide for proper documentation.

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  • The Introductory Paragraph: Start Your Paper Off Right
  • How to Write a Solid Thesis Statement
  • How to Help Your 4th Grader Write a Biography
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  • How to Write a Narrative Essay or Speech

Biographic Narrative Interpretive Method

  • First Online: 02 January 2023

Cite this chapter

biography analysis examples

  • Benjamin Kutsyuruba 4 &
  • Bernadette Mendes 4  

Part of the book series: Springer Texts in Education ((SPTE))

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This chapter describes the biographic narrative interpretive method (BNIM). As a qualitative research method, BNIM explores the stories or narratives from interviewees’ lives. BNIM is grounded in three interrelated concepts: the person’s whole life history or life story ( biography ), how the person tells it ( narrative ), and understanding that narratives are subject to social interpretation ( interpretivism ). In this chapter, we outline the brief history, concepts, and use of BNIM, provide an outline of its process, strengths and limitations, and application, and offer further readings, resources, and suggestions for student engagement activities.

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Breckner, R., Kelekin-Fishman, D., & Miethe, I. (Eds.). (2000). Biographies and the division of Europe: Experience, action and change on the ‘Eastern’ side. Leske and Budrich.

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Cardenal, E. (2016). Biography and story in sociological analysis: The contribution of the BNIM (biographic-narrative interpretive method) school. Revista Española de Investigaciones Sociológicas, 155 , 55–72.

Chamberlayne, P., Bornat, J., & Wengraf, T. (2000). The turn to biographical methods in social science: Comparative issues and examples . Routledge.

Chamberlayne, P., & King, A. (2000). Cultures of care: Biographies of careers in Britain and the two Germanies. The Policy Press.

Corbally, M., & O’Neill, C. (2014). An introduction to the biographical narrative interpretive method. Nurse Researcher, 21 (5), 34–39. Https://

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Gunaratnam, Y., & Oliviere, D. (2009). Narrative and stories in health care: Illness, dying, and bereavement . Oxford University Press.

Gubrium, J. F., & Holstein, J. A. (2009). Analyzing narrative reality . SAGE.

O’Neill, C. S. (2011) Ethical decision making in the care of older people: An ethnographic approach to describing and analysing patient treatment decisions in Irish hospitals , Unpublished Ph.D. thesis. University College Dublin.

Peta, C., Wengraf, T., & McKenzie, J. (2019). Facilitating the voice of disabled women: The biographic narrative interpretive method (BNIM) in action. Contemporary Social Science, 14 (3–4), 515–527. Https://

Roseneil, S. (2012). Using biographical narrative and life story methods to research women’s movements: FEMCIT. Women’s Studies International Forum , 35 (3), 129–131.

Rosenthal, G. (1993). Reconstruction of life stories: Principles of selection in generating stories for biographical narrative interviews. In R. Jeosselson & A. Lieblich (Eds.), Narrative study of lives (Vol. 1, pp. 59–91). SAGE.

Ross, C., & Moore, S. (2013). Utilising biographical narrative interpretive methods: Rich perspectives on union learning journeys and learner motivations. Journal of Education and Work, 29 , 450–469.

Wengraf, T. (2001). Qualitative social interviewing: Biographic narrative and semi-structured methods . SAGE.

Wengraf, T. (2004). The biographic narrative interpretive method (BNIM): Short guide November 2004 . Version 22. Middlesex University and University of East London.

Wengraf, T. (2011). Biographic narrative interpretive method (BNIM). In M. S. Lewis-Beck, A. Bryman & T. F. Liao (Eds.), The SAGE encyclopedia of social science research methods (p. 70). SAGE.

Wengraf, T. (2019). The biographic narrative interpretive method (BNIM): Short guide and detailed manual (Version 87). Middlesex University and University of East London.

Online Resources

Depth Interviews and Life Stories: A Narrative Approach:

The analysis of narratives (1:00:39):

Qualitative analysis of interview data: A step-by-step guide for coding/indexing (6:50):

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Benjamin Kutsyuruba & Bernadette Mendes

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Department of Educational Administration, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK, Canada

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Kutsyuruba, B., Mendes, B. (2023). Biographic Narrative Interpretive Method. In: Okoko, J.M., Tunison, S., Walker, K.D. (eds) Varieties of Qualitative Research Methods. Springer Texts in Education. Springer, Cham.

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The Oxford Handbook of Political Leadership

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The Oxford Handbook of Political Leadership

21 Biographical Analysis

James Walter, FASSA, Emeritus Professor of Politics, School of Social Sciences, Monash University

  • Published: 16 December 2013
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This chapter reviews the historical development of the genre of biography in relation to the social sciences, and discusses the debates about its utility in the study of leadership. Taking key examples, it explores the contrast between the ‘common-sense, humane tradition’ said to be the bedrock of biography, and more theoretically informed approaches (especially leadership typologies, psychobiographies, and the ‘interpretive turn’) in the ways that questions of leadership are addressed. Developments in biographical methodology are a core concern. Biography, it is argued, need not be driven by an ‘individual journey’ but can be oriented to questions germane to political enquiry, especially questions of leader efficacy, achievement, or dysfunction.

1 Introduction

Studying political leadership should encompass many elements: models of governance, opportunity structures within elites, institutional history and requirements, group activity, social expectations, and executive dynamics. Nonetheless, at one level it is inherently about the performance of an individual in a role. Biography was one of the earliest modes of leadership study. However, as the social sciences developed in the twentieth century, emphasizing broad, law-like generalizations, there was increasing scepticism about the fundamental indeterminacy of biography, diverting attention to approaches that gave limited credence to individual influence in politics and society. Yet biography cannot be ignored: it remains a dominant form in published discussion of leaders outside the academy, and it offers insights that must be taken seriously.

2 Historical Context

The forerunner of Western biography, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans ( c.   ad 98–120), can equally be regarded as an early disquisition on leadership. Plutarch’s parallel lives of great Greeks and Romans were intended to illustrate the character of the leaders of empires. A moralist rather than a historian, Plutarch’s analysis was nonetheless much influenced by then current political theory: the Aristotelian ethic of leadership virtue, and Platonic ideals of a successful polity as being shaped by the quality of its ruler, a philosopher-king. Revived early in the sixteenth century, and gaining wider influence through utilization in Shakespeare’s ‘Roman’ plays and a seventeenth-century translation by John Dryden and others, Plutarch’s Lives ( Plutarch 1932 ) suited the individualist historiography of emergent capitalism, seeding modern interpretations of history as shaped by ‘great men’.

The interest in personality is a defining feature of modernity. As industrial, urban, and capitalist development eroded traditional social forms, which defined roles and status and expected patterns of hierarchy and deference, individual decisions and personal life choices gained valency. The narrative of the personal journey was the catalyst for the modern novel as well as for the emerging genres of memoir and biography—including political biography—and individualism was the premiss of liberal democratic politics. A popular means of interpreting the political was via biography; it was Thomas Carlyle who insisted that history was the story of the achievements of ‘great men’ ( Carlyle 1840 ), and biographies of modern statesmen proliferated in the nineteenth century. An interpretation of history entailing continual economic and social development prevailed. The biographies of leaders exemplified such assumptions. These stories sometimes drew on intuitive interpretations of personality, but such insights were idiosyncratic and usually subsidiary to the celebration of greatness: the mode was what Marquand (2009 : 189) calls ‘tombstone’ biography (see also Rhodes 2012 ), more akin to the ‘lives of the saints’ (hagiography) than to the systematic study of political life. These are familiar points, but worth recalling, since their traces persist even in contemporary approaches to the political life I explain later. What is more, they persist alongside quite different approaches to the study of personality, driven by the collapse of the conditions that sustained the ‘great-man’ thesis, and that generated much more complex interpretations of modernity, and of personality.

Three factors influenced contemporary life writing. First, the failure of bourgeois liberalism to deliver individual benefit to all led to oppositional identities and class division, giving rise to the great novels of social/economic dysfunction (such as those of Charles Dickens), to systematic social analysis (like that of Tonnies and Durkheim), and to the swingeing critique of capitalist excess (by Karl Marx): the ‘progressive’ theory of history was undermined. The sons of the Victorian age began to question the verities of their fathers, leading to a more critical vein in biography ( Gosse 1907 ), including a forensic evaluation of Carlyle himself ( Froude 1882 , 1884 ). Second, rapid social change posited individualism itself as insecurely grounded, a reflexive and provisional enterprise, and generated more systematic attempts to understand the ways in which personality was rooted in psychological needs and social relationships: Freud was to be the harbinger of twentieth-century personality studies (and of a new variant, psychobiography—see Freud 1910 ; Freud and Bullitt 1967 ). Third, the First World War signalled not only the end of empire and the start of the age of extremes ( Hobsbawm 1994 ), but demolished the pretensions of ‘great men’ whose foolishness had led to the catastrophes of the age. Lytton Strachey’s influential exposé of ‘Eminent Victorians’ ( Strachey 1989 [1918] ) captured the zeitgeist of that time, abjured failed leadership, and also foreshadowed the ‘modernist “interpretive” turn in biography:’ his work ( Strachey 1989 [1918], 1928, 1933) was much influenced by Freud.

The grounds for a more systematic biography were laid, but social scientists faced a dilemma. Having demolished the assumptions of the Victorian age, and embraced a more ‘scientific’ mode, they established disciplinary credibility by adopting a strong positivist orientation to data, depending, for example, upon social surveys and the statistical analysis of mass behaviour. The favoured methods could be adapted to life writing to a limited extent, for instance, by the collective often statistically grounded analysis of elites known as prosopography (e.g. Namier 1957 [1929]). However, areas that were not easily amenable to testable propositions, such as leadership, were not favoured by the new approach. The incipient theoretical division was between recognizing that complex modern societies demanded high levels of organization and bureaucratic management (promoting the sociological analysis of emergent structures, for example, Weber), on the one hand, and the reflexive achievement of individual identity (promoting individualistic theories of psychology, for example, Freud), on the other—with the latter always subject to suspicion. The dominant approach, then, was to take the empirical and positivist path: sceptical of the psychological turn, focused on institutional development, public administration, and policy studies. Political biography continued to flourish, but was regarded as a not-quite-respectable subsidiary ( Skidelsky 1988 ): much of it was descriptive, under-theorized, limited for purposes of systematic comparison, and useful at best for showing politicians at work or illustrating social history ( Rhodes 2012 ). However, a more rigorous biographical subfield was to emerge, promising a productive means of leadership analysis.

3 Key Debates in Leadership Biography

There were three trends in twentieth-century biography that generated questions for leadership research. The first was a general debate about methodologies appropriate to the genre, not specific to social science applications of biography, but nonetheless having implications for leadership research. The second was a much more focused approach to leadership as such. Both of these were essentially modernist—in the sense that they assumed unified narratives and progressive elaboration of methodology as their objectives—and together, from about the 1980s on, they were challenged by a third trend, a resistance to grand theories that reinstated the interpretive approach, but now in a postmodern sense.

With reference to the first trend, for much of the twentieth century, it was commonplace to identify Freud’s elucidation of the unconscious, and the iconoclasm of Lytton Strachey, as profoundly effecting the questions biographers asked of themselves, and their materials. Freud’s was an argument not only for systematic psychology, but also for interpretation—as behaviour and events were plumbed for motives and meanings beyond their surface manifestations. Strachey’s was an argument for selection and discrimination, for brevity, and—above all—for a point of view: a book without a point of view, he said, ‘resemb[les] nothing so much as a very large heap of sawdust’, and ‘uninterpreted truth [is] like buried gold’ (quoted in Edel 1984 : 183). The ‘new biography’, with its concessions to interpretation, promoted ongoing dialogue about the weight to be accorded to research (or craft) versus art.

Modernist biographers confronted the philosophical problem of ‘other minds:’ ‘that I can have direct knowledge of my own experiences and that I cannot have direct knowledge of anyone else’s’ ( Ayer 1967 : 348). However, psychoanalysis raised questions even about unmediated knowledge of personal experience. Indeterminacy, then, has long been recognized as the characteristic feature of modern biography, and the fact that biographical truth can never finally be settled, that biography is always tendentious, has inflected every other methodological strategy. To acknowledge the problem of ‘other minds’ is to accept that biography works by analogy and inference rather than empiricism alone. Methods of interpretation are as important as factual precision. Allowing interpretation brings in its wake open resort to various bodies of theory as providing tools for interpretation.

Leon Edel, a distinguished biographer, attempted to annunciate the modern Principia Biographia in a series of books and essays between the mid-1950s and the mid-1980s ( Edel 1984 ). He sought to bring together theory and method, and to show how the ‘art’ demanded by interpretation could be reinforced by ‘the science of man’ ( Edel 1981 : 8–11). Psychological awareness solved the problem of getting inside another skin to understand the story (‘life myth’) a subject tells him or herself as the means of coping with the psychological tasks that confront us all. That story illuminates how and why a subject acted as he or she did: theory unlocks the dynamic of the life myth, and the meaning of a life’s work.

A second trend was manifest among social scientists that shared similar concerns to those above, but translated them more specifically to leadership studies. A small group of American political scientists, using case studies essentially biographical in nature, resisted their discipline’s scepticism about the idiographic to develop this more considered approach to leadership. Rather than asking only about how one might make ‘scientific’ sense of the individual life ( pace Edel), they pursued broader questions about how patterns of action by incumbents of leadership roles might illuminate the whole domain of leadership: its possibilities, dangers, significance in the public sphere, and typologies. They fostered a thriving subdiscipline of presidential studies, and pioneering studies of personality and politics. Harold Lasswell, a founding figure in both political psychology and leadership studies, exemplified the trend (see Lasswell 1930 ). He laid the groundwork taken up in ‘the scientific study of leadership’ after the war. Lasswell’s message was that personality was integral to particular skill sets (agitating, administering, theorizing) that are crucial in politics: biographers would later utilize his typologies in works on particular leaders (e.g. Walter 1980 : 177–84). Further impetus came from historical studies of the way that the psychological dispositions of particular leaders meshed with contingent circumstances to allow some leaders to speak for ‘the historical moment’ (e.g. Erikson 1958 ). This entailed recognition not only that leadership success depended on a resonance with followers’ needs, but also that those needs in turn were shaped by a specific temporal and cultural context.

One outcome of these approaches was the turn to psychobiographies of political leaders. Despite the influence of psychoanalysis on some of Strachey’s essays, this was less favoured in England than in the United States. A pioneering—but trenchantly criticized—instance was a study of Woodrow Wilson to which Freud himself allegedly contributed ( Freud and Bullitt 1967 ); a serious analysis of Wilson by Alexander and Juliette George ( George and George 1956 ) was to have more lasting impact. It was argued that theoretically informed research demanded a more rigorous approach to the foundational questions to be addressed by political biography (e.g. Edinger 1964a , b ; Davies 1972 ): what is the catalyst for political ambition? How do personal traits and formative experiences generate the skills and passions that foster political success or seed failure? What variants of the ‘power motive’ flourish in specific historical circumstances?

Another influential direction was the sustained comparative study of presidential leadership, aiming to develop typologies, with regard to identifiable patterns of skills and qualities that enhance or diminish performance in particular aspects of the role, and addressing sociological and historical features of the context in which particular ‘types’ flourish. These were exercises in collective biography, but driven by questions about performance within institutional contexts rather than by questions purely about the individual life histories. Landmark studies include James D. Barber’s The Presidential Character (1972) and James M. Burns’s Leadership (1978).

The rigour advocated by such analysts was to be complicated by a third twist, the ‘deconstructive’ approach of postmodernism from roughly the 1980s onwards. In the humanities and social sciences, this encouraged scepticism about the progressive assumptions of twentieth-century modernism and the demise of ‘grand narratives’. The heuristic models of biographically based leadership typology came under question as some biography became more radical (was there a single life, or many lives—see, e.g., Manso 1985 ) and fictional elements were (controversially) incorporated in political analysis (as in Edmund Morris’s biography of Ronald Reagan (1999)). Theoretical contestation provoked outrage among those who saw any resort to theory as an incursion into the ‘commonsensical, humane and empirical’ domain of biography ( Homberger and Charmley 1988 : pp. ix–xv). In parallel, an even more acute questioning of the structure–agency relationship emerged in the 1980s with ‘new institutionalism’, which ‘tries to avoid unfeasible assumptions that require too much of political actors…The rules, routines, norms, and identities of an “institution”, rather than micro rational individuals or macro social forces, are the basic units of analysis’ ( March and Olsen 2005 : 20). The question, then, for contemporary biography and leadership analysis has been: can it meet the challenge Fred Greenstein once formulated as the test of ‘actor dispensability’ ( Greenstein 1975 : 46–61)?

A preliminary to assessing the state of the art is to consider leading examples, the patterns they illuminate, and what they achieve in relation to analysing leadership (and actor dispensability). The ‘commonsensical, humane and empirical tradition’ remains well represented. One might consider as instances Robert Skidelsky’s biography of John Maynard Keynes (1983 , 1992 , 2000) , Ben Pimlott’s Harold Wilson (1992), John Keane’s Tom Paine (1995), A. W. Martin’s Robert Menzies (1993, 1999 ), or Anthony Seldon’s Blair (2004; see also Seldon with Snowden and Collings 2007 ). A feature of these latter two is that both direct us to consider the importance of individuals who produce influential ideas in shaping the character of an age. All immensely comprehensive, these works all have in common a commitment not only to recovering a life, but to placing it securely in its cultural, historical, and institutional contexts, exercising judicious judgement about the achievements and limitations of their subjects in the process.

Somewhat more maverick examples are Bernard Crick’s George Orwell (1980) and Robert Caro’s four volume biography of Lyndon Johnson (1982, 1990, 2002, 2012, with another volume projected). Crick goes to great lengths to provide detail, but to avoid the ‘empathetic fallacy’ that he argues besets political biography. He directs us towards relationships rather than inner life, and some questions, he implies, cannot be resolved, so multiple interpretations must be acknowledged as feasible. Caro’s multiple volumes on Johnson over many years challenge Strachey’s insistence that the complete life can never be told: the implication is that if you watch someone long and closely enough all will be revealed. He avoids the empathetic fallacy, becoming increasingly splenetic as his story unfolds, but his fascination (and ours) never flags.

While cautious about overt reference to psychology, all these authors show us the circumstances that produced their subjects, the skill sets they developed, how these applied within the institutions they inhabited, and the extent to which they met the needs of their times. Clearly much has been learned from contemporaneous scholarly studies of social and institutional history, relationships and networks, temporal context, and authorial perspective, and this sets these works apart from their ‘tombstone’ predecessors: these are astute analyses of political actors at work.

These biographies have an evident engagement with politics as work (cf. Davies 1980 : chs 1–4), so they resonate with other recent developments—on the one hand, case studies that start from the question of how leaders work (e.g. Pat Weller’s study of Malcolm Fraser (1989) ); or collective instantiation of the working lives of political elites that borrow from both prosopography and ethnography ( Rhodes and Weller 2001 ; Rhodes, ’t Hart, and Noordegraaf 2007 ). On the other hand, they have had a formative impact on the best of those political journalists who have made a speciality of studying politics from the perspective of addressing questions about leadership rather than pandering to celebrity, often producing finely calibrated studies not only of government but also of individuals: for instance, Hugo Young on Margaret Thatcher (1989) , Andrew Rawnsley on Tony Blair (2000, 2010 ); or Paul Kelly (2009) on a series of Australian prime ministers.

There has been a recurrence of parallel lives, like Plutarch, trying to draw a lesson from comparison, although not now informed by Aristotelian or Platonic ideals. Indeed, a notable example, Allan Bullock’s Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives (1991) instead aimed to explore the links between cultural crisis and the sorts of messianic personalities that can seize on such circumstances for perverse purposes, with catastrophic results. Having exhaustively canvassed the empirical evidence, the nature of those who supported these dictators, and the dynamics of their regimes in cultural context, Bullock reached a conclusion that directly addresses both Greenstein’s question about actor dispensability, and the rationale for biographical analysis of leaders:

I do not believe that circumstances by themselves in some mysterious way produce the man; I am not convinced that, if Hitler and Stalin had failed to seize the opportunity, someone else would have done and the result would have been much the same. ( Bullock 1997 : 81–2)

Collective biography has long been a mode of leadership study, as was noted in those typological analyses of the US presidency by Barber and Burns referred to earlier. A more contemporary instance is Fred Greenstein’s The Presidential Difference (2009). While methodologically similar to those earlier works, Greenstein’s adds an additional dimension—emotional intelligence—to the list of capacities usually explored, and it is this (emotional stability, ability to connect with others—in contrast with perturbation, inability to empathize, or scarcely governable passions) that often makes the difference between success and failure. Another contemporary development has been attention to the intersecting lives of those who work together within a leadership collective. A compelling example is Walter Isaacson’s and Evan Thomas’s The Wise Men , examining six friends whose development of cold war foreign policy decisively influenced America’s role in the world ( Isaacson and Thomas 1986 ). Another stimulating instance is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (2005). Focusing on the ‘political genius’ of Abraham Lincoln. Goodwin deals initially with Lincoln’s path to the presidency and his rivals along the way. Then she concentrates on his skill in drawing some of those rivals into his administration, and how their joint capacities explain the nature of his leadership: Lincoln’s ability to win rivals to his cause and his mastery of the evolving group dynamic were the core of his ‘political genius’. An innovative collective biography of intellectual rather than institutional leadership, brilliant in its interweaving of successive cohorts of thinkers with historical and cultural contingency, is Stephan Collini’s Absent Minds (2006).

Alongside the recent skillful augmentation of the empirical tradition, there has been a flourishing of more overtly theoretical biography, often in dialogue with it. Psychobiography, often drawing on psychoanalysis, provides the best instances. Freud’s own controversial efforts ( Freud 1910 ; Freud and Bullitt 1967 ) and path-breaking examples such as the Georges’ Woodrow Wilson and Colonel House ( George and George 1956 ) have been referred to earlier. They paved the way for others, such as Greenstein’s influential revisionist interpretation of Dwight Eisenhower (1982), Mitzman’s study (1970) of Max Weber, and Erikson’s works on Luther (1958) and Ghandi (1969) . The Georges’ analysis of the meshing of Wilson’s and House’s idiosyncratic personalities alerted us to the complementary relationships frequently at the heart of leadership; Greenstein showed us a president at work behind the scenes, providing an astute analysis of his mastery of group dynamics in policy-making; Mitzman illuminated the links between personal needs, intellectual formation, and the generation of ideas; and Erikson interpreted the intersection of individual psychodynamics and the historical moment to show how particular drives, contingent on personal circumstances, enabled specific leaders to translate their own problems into a message that followers ‘heard’ as appropriate to the time and as responding to their own needs.

The nature of the dialogue between conventional biography and psychobiography is most evident when one compares works on the same subject from both genres. There is conflict. There has, for example, been a cottage industry in biography of one of the most controversial US presidents, Richard Nixon, with ‘conventional’ biographers (e.g. Ambrose 1987 , 1990 , 1991 ) inclined to challenge the interpretations of psychobiographers (e.g. Brodie 1981 ). However, the fame-gaining prediction about how Nixon would respond to crisis in Barber’s Presidential Character (1972)—before Watergate—affirmed the credibility of psychologically informed approaches. On the other hand, there is more measured exchange. Fred Greenstein (1982) , as already mentioned, effected an influential recalibration of Eisenhower’s standing by showing that the bland public man on whom earlier biographers had concentrated was in effect a screen for the much more effective operator behind the scenes, who could determine outcomes because of his skill in group processes. Leo Abse (1996) , although intensely antipathetic to his subject, nonetheless provided an accurate pointer to the extraordinary narcissism that drove Blair, and the likely outcomes for his leadership, before he became prime minister and well before Rawnsley, Seldon, and others came to grips with it. Judith Brett’s study (1992) of Robert Menzies uncovered dimensions that Martin’s fine scholarly biography (1993, 1999) had not penetrated. Brett avoided the constraints of historical institutionalism and the life-course approach with an unusual concentration on discourse and public life. Her contention was that the man lives on through his language: it is there that the career is immediately accessible. She linked Menzies’s public discourse to instances of his private language and analysed the psychological dynamics underpinning the whole (what it meant to the man) and the messages it conveyed (what it meant to an audience). Brett’s approach illustrated one of the emerging features of political psychobiography: the practice of bringing to the fore the subtextual assumptions concealed in conventional biography, by making explicit the theoretical tenets on which judgements are based, and relating these to the questions about leadership that the biographer seeks to address (for another pointed instance, see Walter’s analysis (1980) of Gough Whitlam).

The reflexive and theoretically informed approach has encouraged more questioning, provisional, and exploratory tactics in what might be deemed ‘insider’ biography, such as Don Watson’s revelatory reflections (2002) on life inside the Australian prime minister Paul Keating’s office, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart . Standard biographies of Keating ( Carew 1992 ; Gordon 1993 ) found his transitions from brilliance to despondency, intensity to disengagement, difficult to explain. Watson offered an account of a leader at work, of group dynamics, and of psychological interpretation (reflecting on Keating’s depressive traits), but one in which the narrator is part of the story, actively reflecting on his own perceptions.

The postmodern element in biography has been met with caution by social scientists. The refusal to resolve all questions, however, and the denial of narrative closure in Crick’s Orwell (1980) were indicative of the transition. Feminist biographers have been at the forefront in exploring new techniques, interrogating the construction of identity, and the culturally- and gender-specific situatedness of their subjects (e.g. Lake 2002 ), but the dominance of ‘masculinist’ political leadership (see Sykes 2009 ) has meant that feminist leadership biographies have been few and far between. Biographers of outstanding female politicians have often treated them as successfully exercising the masculinist elements of ‘strong leadership’ (see Little 1988 : 3–116, on Thatcher). Those who ‘led’ in more indirect ways have been more amenable to unconventional approaches. Carolyn Steedman’s (1990) study of the socialist theorist of education Margaret McMillan is an example. Steedman challenged ‘the dead weight of interiority that hangs about the neck of women’s biography’, focused on McMillan as ‘a public woman who lived in a public space’, and explained: ‘I want to make the implied meaning of McMillan’s own life and writing some kind of denial of interiority—which denial may be a pretense or a fiction, but one which might do some political or public good’ ( Steedman 1990 : 250–1). The lesson was that women’s public ‘self-fashioning’ was a means to power (see Riall 2010 : 381), in this case the power to shape policy and opinion.

5 The State of the Art

Despite the continuing critique by proponents of alternative methodologies, such as new institutionalism, and repeated assertions that biography is not a proper mode of analysis ( O’Brien 1998 ), the books discussed above indicate both that field is thriving, and that—with respect to leadership—it has long been oriented to the sorts of questions any serious analysis would need to address. Such limitations as persist derive from social scientists’ own failure of ‘sociological imagination’—that is, an inability to ‘range from the most impersonal and remote transformations to the most intimate features of the human self—and to see the relations between the two’ ( Mills 1959 ).

In relation to leadership, what do books such as those discussed here have to teach us? Perhaps, most importantly, they raise the question prompted by Greenstein: would any actor, placed in like circumstances, behave in the same way and/or produce the same outcomes? The answer, as Bullock argues above, is that, in the case of his subjects, almost certainly not. Others, who have dealt with, say, Stalin, both before ( Tucker 1973 ) and after ( Montefiore 2003 ) Bullock add compelling detail to his assertion. Then we find that such biographical studies provide the empirical base for more broadly based analyses of ‘toxic’ leadership (see Padilla, Hogan, and Kaiser 2007 ). In fact, with close reading of almost any of the books discussed above, it becomes difficult to imagine any other agent achieving just the same outcomes: institutions do not, then, simply provide the scripts for leadership (or, if they do, individual actors have considerable capacities to interpret those scripts on their own terms). Nonetheless, that reading also reveals patterns suggestive of predictable types of behaviour—adding rich detail to the sorts of typological characterizations pioneered in presidential studies, but with increasing nuance as the number and detail of cases is augmented.

The practical implications for leadership analysis can be captured by considering a series of more specific questions prompted by the examples discussed above. What triggers political engagement and the drive to lead ( Lasswell 1930 , and most of the psychobiographies)? How do leaders gain salience within a particular historical moment ( Erikson 1958 , 1969 )? What might explain the intersection between a specific leader’s personal projection and the response of others within the same historical and cultural frame ( Bullock 1991 ; Brett 1992 ; Montefiore 2003 )? What is the conjunction of personal character and historical contingency that produces toxic leadership ( Tucker 1973 ; Bullock 1991 ; Montefiore 2003 )? What explains the connection between leaders and followers ( Brett 1992 )? How are particular skill sets, or elite patterns of work, related to effective leadership ( Weller 1989 ; Rhodes, ’t Hart, and Noordegraaf 2007 ; but also Rawnsley 2000 ; Seldon 2004 )? Where do political ideas come from and how might leaders mobilize them to create a public following ( Mitzman 1970 ; Brett 1992 ; Keane 1995 ; Collini 2006 )? Do leaders fall into particular types ( Barber 1972 ; Greenstein 2009 )? Do parallel lives illuminate universals that transcend cultural contingencies ( Plutarch 1932 ; Bullock 1991 )? How important are relationships compared to the interior life ( Crick 1980   Steedman 1990 )? How can we explore the group dynamics within core executive groups; to what extent should leadership be understood as a collective enterprise ( Greenstein 1982 ; Goodwin 2005 )? Should we reconsider the nature of ‘public life’ in our exploration of leadership ( Steedman 1990 ; and note the manner in which feminist biographies have augmented our sense of what constitutes the political, our understanding of activism, and ‘self-fashioning’ as a means to power, for which see Riall (2010 : 381))?

6 Future Directions

It is clear that conventional biography will survive, both because of its popularity with the ‘common reader’ and because the traditional narrative arc of a life retains an intrinsic appeal in what remains an individualist age. Furthermore, as Caro illustrates, a leader watched for long and closely cannot but reveal a great deal about his or her nature, institutional setting, social context, era, and above all the exercise of power. It is still argued that, ‘even if Great Men and their deeds can no longer take center stage in history as they once did, the lives and reputations of extraordinary people can still express something of the ideas and meanings of a previous age’ ( Riall 2010 : 397). Yet the extraordinary leader does not act alone: there is likely now to be more attention to collective biography and intersecting lives, given the pioneering exercises in analysis of leadership as a group enterprise.

It is also clear, however, that biography has become more experimental, more fragmentary, and more reflexive—none of which is of concern as long as its purpose in leadership studies is to address key questions, attending to ‘the tasks of biography’ ( Davies 1972 ). The imperative of remaining focused not on the individual journey (which can be left to the likes of Tony Blair (2010) ) but rather on key questions has led to an argument for much more truncated political lives: essays that, disciplined by brevity, must bring an argument to the fore and come clean about why a particular life deserves consideration, and what it tells us about leadership ( Walter 2006 ; Backhouse 2007 ). The foregrounding of analytical questions also encourages attention to theory: explicit attention, that is, to shared, contestable modes of interpretation with a defined relation to empirics rather than the inchoate assumptions of ‘common sense’. This is bound to remain an important aspect of contemporary biography. Some have described this as ‘biography with the utility services on the outside…like Richard Rogers Centre Pompidou’ ( McKillop 1998 : 328), but it is a productive means of incorporating dialogue with other leadership analysts about authorial judgement and intention within biography.

Another approach has been to argue that political analysts need to attend more closely to the interpretive insights of ethnography and anthropology, ‘focusing on “situated agency”: that is, on the webs of significance that people spin for themselves, on their inherited beliefs and practices, and on the ways they adapt, develop, and reject their inherited traditions’ ( Rhodes 2012 ). This posits the task of analysis as being to explain how meaning is constructed by leaders and interpreted by followers: politics as meaning making. It of course reminds us that life histories have had quite another use in disciplines like anthropology (see Frank 1995 ), which also reinforces the point that there can be no single model, and that biography will remain interdisciplinary and multifaceted.

Recommended Reading

Edel, L. ( 1981 ). ‘Biography and the Science of Man’, in A. M. Friedson (ed.), New Directions in Biography . Honolulu, HI: University Press of Hawaii, 1–11.

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Abse, L. ( 1996 ). The Man behind the Smile: Tony Blair and the Politics of Perversion . London: Robson Books.

Ambrose, S. ( 1987 ). Nixon: The Education of a Politician, 1913–1962 . New York: Simon and Schuster.

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Tips for Teaching Characterization Using Body Biographies

tips for teaching characterization using body biographies

Tired of the same old approach to character analysis? Try body biographies instead! Students must dig deep into characterization and work together to create a visual representation of a specific character. This post covers everything you need to know before assigning this engaging project.

If you’re looking for a hands-on way to get your students engaged in character analysis, the body biography project is it. As much as I love teaching characterization , I wanted something more than just asking students to list character traits or the traditional essay . I wanted to find a something my students would always remember.

Enter: Body biographies.

With body biographies, you will inspire your students to think critically about characters and encourage them to synthesize their findings in a unique, creative way.

Keep reading to learn all about my favorite teaching tool for character analysis. By the end, you’ll know what a body biography is and how to incorporate this engaging hands-on activity into your classroom.

The Importance of Teaching Characterization

You can’t teach literary analysis without teaching characterization. Not only do characters play a pivotal role in moving a plot forward, but they also provide a lens into the broader ideas presented in the text, encouraging readers to engage with diverse perspectives and experiences. As a result, readers can explore and understand the themes , conflicts, and deeper messages of a narrative more thoroughly. Understanding characterization on a deeper level allows readers to engage with the entire text on a deeper level, encouraging thinking critically, making inferences , and fostering empathy.

Body biographies engage students in a fun, collaborative, and hands-on exploration of characterization, opening the door for them to learn more about themselves, others, and the world around them. (#Goals)

What is a Body Biography?

A body biography is a hands-on project that requires students to analyze and represent characters in a visual format. Rather than having students write yet another analysis essay, body biographies invite students on a creative, yet in-depth exploration of character. (That said, it can also be a wonderful activity to help students brainstorm before writing a more traditional character analysis essay.)

This collaborative project involves coloring a large outline or silhouette of a character’s body and filling it with visual and symbolic representations, textual evidence, and annotations that help unpack different aspects of the character’s identity. Students must dig into a text to determine a character’s personality traits, speech, thoughts, actions, and interactions. They will find supporting textual evidence to back their analysis, enriching their overall comprehension of the literature. Therefore, the project goes beyond your typical character analysis activity by encouraging students to engage with characters on a more complex level by integrating textual analysis with creative artistic expression.

As an added bonus, body biographies are designed as a group project, engaging students in important 21st-century skills like collaboration and communication.

How do Body Biographies Help Students Analyze Characterization?

Body biographies offer students a holistic approach to character analysis by encouraging them to explore various dimensions of a character’s identity, including physical appearance, personality traits, challenges, goals, relationships, and significant events in their lives.

So, yes, body biographies are a fun way to illustrate a character’s literal looks, but they’re so much more than that. The visual element of the body biography encourages students to explore visually symbolic representations of characters as well. Students must look at the text closely, digging into any narrative descriptions, thoughts, actions, and interactions of their chosen character. As a result, students gain a deeper understanding of how different aspects of characterization interact and shape the character’s development and role within the narrative.

Examples from literature

Looking for some examples to help you understand how body biographies can help students explore characterization? I’ve got you. Here are a few body biography analysis ideas from some of my favorite novels to teach:

  • The Giver by Lois Lowry: Students can create body biographies for the protagonist, Jonas, to explore his journey from conformity to individuality. Consider how they may depict his physical appearance, personality traits, emotions, and significant memories or experiences as he learns more about the past, present, and future of the world around him (and his place in it).
  • The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: Students can create body biographies for Jay Gatsby, exploring his mysterious past, ambitious aspirations, and illusions of the American Dream. There are so many fun, creative ways they could represent his extravagant lifestyle and hopeless romanticism, as well as the symbolic nature of the green light across the bay.
  • A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Students can create body biographies for Ebenezer Scrooge, highlighting his transformation from a miserly and cold-hearted businessman to a compassionate and generous individual. There is plenty to pull from his interactions with various characters, including Bob Cratchit, Tiny Tim, and the three Ghosts.

A Step-by-Step Approach to Body Biographies

Here are the basic steps for setting your students up for success with the body biography character analysis project:

  • Group Students for Collaboration: Divide students into small groups of 2-4 students, allowing them to collaborate and share responsibility. 
  • Be Clear with Expectations: As with any creative project, it’s important to provide clear instructions and expectations for your students. Review the directions, objectives, and assessment criteria (including any rubrics) for this project.
  • Show Examples: Show your students examples of completed body biographies to help students grasp what the final project will look like. This will also allow students to visualize and understand the project expectations. You can find plenty of examples online if you’re just getting started!
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The Outsiders Body Biography Project

  • Assign Characters: Depending on the novel, you can decide if you want every group to analyze different characters or the same character. If the latter, be sure to take time at the end for the groups to discuss the similarities and differences between their analysis.
  • Start with Brainstorming: The character analysis project is certainly fun—but may be overwhelming if students try to jump right in. Instead, scaffold the activity by giving students time to gather their thoughts and find strong supporting textual evidence.
  • Schedule Enough In-Class Time: Plan enough in-class time for students to work on this collaborative project. I recommend at least three days, from start to finish. You may decide to add another day for a gallery walk or an engaging discussion.

More tips for making the most of a body biography project:

Here are additional tips for a fun, engaging, and successful body biography character analysis:

  • Select Appropriate Texts: Technically body biographies can work for almost any novel or short story . However, students will be most successful if the text features complex characters with a lot of details to analyze.
  • Scaffold the Activity: Break down the creation of body biographies into manageable steps, providing templates, graphic organizers, and guiding questions to support students’ understanding.
  • Encourage Creativity: Foster creativity and individual expression by allowing students to choose how they represent different aspects of the character visually, whether through symbolic or literal drawings, collages, or mixed media.
  • Incorporate Textual Evidence : Make the most of this activity by requiring students to select key quotes or passages that reveal aspects of the character’s identity and back up their creative interpretations. Students can annotate the body biography with these excerpts or supplement their visual with a page of written explanations.
  • Facilitate Discussion: Body biographies are a perfect springboard for class discussions about characters. Before, during, or after the activity, facilitate classroom discussions where students can share their character interpretations and insights.
  • Connect to Writing: Looking for an extension activity? Integrate body biographies with writing activities such as character analysis essays or creative writing assignments that require students to further reflect on their understanding of the character.
  • Display the Final Products: Whether you opt to do a gallery walk, have students present their projects, or simply hang the posters around the room, give students a chance to showcase their hard work.

What to Include in a Body Biography:

Before your students can create a body biography visual, they have to do some investigating and character analysis first. That means diving into the text and looking for specific examples, descriptions, and instances of direct and indirect characterization.

Here are some of the traditional elements to consider as students plan for their body biography:

  • Physical Appearance: Find descriptions of the character’s appearance, including features such as age, hair color, eye color, height, and clothing style.
  • Personality Traits: Determine adjectives or descriptive phrases that capture the character’s personality traits. These may be mentioned directly or inferred.
  • Actions: Analyze how what the character does reveals their personality, emotions, and motivations. 
  • Inner Thoughts and Emotions: Find quotes or textual evidence that reveal the character’s inner thoughts, feelings, fears, and desires.
  • Motivations and Goals: Explore what drives the character’s actions and decisions, including their long-term goals or aspirations.
  • Relationships: Look for details in their relationships and interactions with other characters in the story.
  • Challenges and Conflicts: Identifying moments of internal conflict, struggles against external forces, or moral dilemmas, and how they respond to them, can say a lot about a character.
  • Significant Events: Add annotations or symbols representing key events or experiences in the character’s life that shape their development or influence their actions.

In the body biography projects I like to use, I incorporate supplementary elements that I require my students to analyze, as they are integral components for practicing characterization. These alternative/additional elements include:

  • Speech: Find a direct quote that showcases a personality trait from a certain character. What a character says and the manner in which they speak can tell readers a lot about that character. For example, it can reveal how educated they are, how they treat others, or what they consider to be important.
  • Dynamic or Static: Dynamic characters are those who undergo significant changes, growth, or development over the course of a story. Static characters remain relatively unchanged throughout the story. Recognizing dynamic or static characters allows students to appreciate the complexity of narrative arcs and the transformative journeys characters undergo.
  • Effect on Others: It’s important to consider what other characters say or think about a character. By analyzing how characters influence and interact with one another, students gain insights into the complexities of relationships, power dynamics, and societal structures depicted in literature. Understanding these effects fosters empathy and critical thinking skills as students consider the ripple effects of characters’ decisions on the plot and other characters.
  • Flat or Round: Flat characters are one-dimensional and lack complexity. Round characters demonstrate a range of traits, emotions, and experiences that make them more realistic and relatable. Students will decipher between flat and round characters and explore why authors incorporate both minor and major characters into a story. This will help them understand how each character individually adds depth to the plot.
  • Passions: By examining characters’ passions, students will gather valuable insight into their motivations, desires, and values. Review what is important to each character and what drives them to make certain choices.

My complete body biography character analysis project includes a brainstorming worksheet to help students analyze various aspects of the character. The worksheet guides students through an in-depth character analysis backed by textual evidence.

How Do I Grade a Body Biography?

Grading any sort of creative assignment can be tricky–especially if it involves group work. It’s important that you don’t grade the body biography as if it were an essay. Instead, consider the needs and requirements of this particular project, including appearance, participation, cooperation, and attention to detail. Of course, you also want to assess students on their analysis of the character, including providing supportive evidence from the novel.

I’ve always preferred using an easy-to-follow rubric for my students’ body biographies. To make life easier for you, I’ve included the exact rubric I’ve used in my character analysis body biography project .

Enjoy This Creative Twist on Character Analysis

Not only will you enjoy shaking up your approach to character analysis with the body biography project, but I guarantee your students will, too. This hands-on project engages students in a dynamic (and, dare I say fun!?) approach to character analysis while promoting creativity and collaboration. As students combine classic textual analysis with creative visual representation, they must rely on critical thinking, interpretation, and innovation. In the end, they will develop a deeper understanding of the novel, its characters, and the overall complexities of human nature.

Ready to transform the way you approach characterization in your classroom? Access my character analysis poster template perfect for any novel or short story!

Psst… I encourage you to pass this project along! The activity requirements and expectations can be adjusted to make this project suitable for students of various ages and disciplines—so feel free to share this engaging hands-on activity with all your teacher friends!

Next up? Consider giving the collaborative author biography poster project a try!

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Home — Essay Samples — Life — Hero — Biography

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Autobiography Essay Examples

A well-written biography essay not only informs but also inspires, providing readers with insights into the subject's character, challenges, and achievements. Below, we'll guide you through creating an engaging biography essay, from prompt samples to brainstorming tips, unique topic ideas, and writing inspiration.

Starting Points: Biography Essay Prompt Samples

Prompt 1: Analyze the early life of [Subject] and how it influenced their major accomplishments.

Prompt 2: Discuss the challenges [Subject] faced and how they overcame them, shaping their legacy.

Prompt 3: Examine the impact of [Subject]'s work on their field and beyond during their lifetime and in the present day.

Brainstorming and Selecting a Captivating Biography Essay Topic

To choose a compelling topic for your biography essay, start by considering subjects who have led interesting lives filled with notable achievements, challenges, and impacts. Look for less-explored angles or untold stories within their lives to bring a fresh perspective to your essay.

Unique Biography Essay Topics to Explore

  • The Unsung Heroes of Science: The Life of [Lesser-Known Scientist]
  • Behind the Pen: The Journey of [Influential Writer]
  • From Shadows to Spotlight: The Story of [Pioneering Artist]
  • Breaking Barriers: [Subject]'s Impact on Social Change
  • Innovators in Silence: [Inventor]'s Contributions and Challenges

Inspirational Writing Samples for Your Biography Essay

"[Subject] was not born into greatness, nor did they stumble upon it by chance. From their early years in [Place of Birth], facing [specific challenges], they carved a path that was uniquely theirs. Their contributions to [Field/Industry] were not just advancements but were revolutionary, challenging the status quo and paving the way for future generations."

Phrases for Inspiration:

  • "Amid adversity, [Subject] found their true calling in..."
  • "Despite facing [obstacle], [Subject]'s resilience led to groundbreaking discoveries in..."
  • "[Subject]'s legacy extends beyond their contributions to [Field], inspiring a new wave of [Professionals/Activists/Artists] to follow in their footsteps."
  • "The turning point in [Subject]'s life came when..."
  • "Dedicated to [Cause/Project], [Subject] demonstrated the power of perseverance and vision."

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biography analysis examples

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How to Write a Biography (Examples & Templates)

A biography is a written account of a person’s life that details their life in chronological order. Another person usually writes this detailed account, and it contains reports of their childhood, career, major life events, relationships, and social impact. It also details their relationships with their family, children, and life accomplishments.

The best way to find out more about a popular figure is through reading their biographies, so you need to make sure you get the correct information. Before writing a biography, you need to do a lot of research and interviews to represent a person’s life accurately.

Types of Biography

A biography is the story of someone’s life as written by another writer. Most biographies of popular figures are written years, or even decades, after their deaths. Authors write biographies of popular figures due to either a lack of information on the subject or personal interest.

A biography aims to share a person’s story or highlight a part of their life.

There are different types of biographies, depending on the story. Some biographies are written true to the story, while some are written as fictional works. Biographies can give you true understanding of a person on an internal as well as external level along with a lot of life lessons.


An autobiography is different from a biography because it is written by the subject of the story, themselves. The author writes in the first-person narrative, and it flows step-by-step like a story of their life. Autobiographies contain personal accounts of the subject’s life, along with their perspectives and opinions on events in their life.

How To Write a Biography

Pick a subject.

Picking a subject is the first step in writing a biography. You can pick an already famous person or a relatively unknown person with a great life story. If you already have a few in mind, you can start by asking yourself some questions such as;

  • What has the subject accomplished that makes them a good subject?
  • Have they had an impact on society?
  • Is the subject a celebrity or a well-known personality?
  • Will the biography appeal to a wide audience?

Get Permission

When you pick a subject, the next thing to do is to get permission from them or their family or rights owners. Although, with some historical figures, there may not be any need for permission. Getting permission from your subject makes it easier for you to get stories to put into your book. You can get the chance to obtain additional personal stories and anecdotes that will make your book more interesting by doing so as well.

Do The Research

Research is the most important part of a biography’s process as the entire content of the book is dependent on it. Irrespective of what you know about the subject, you need to carry out as much research as possible to get the story’s facts precisely.

Biography research comes from various sources, depending on the book’s subject. Firsthand reports from family, friends, or personal accounts from the subjects are primary sources. They are usually the most accurate and reliable, and they are crucial for a biography. Secondary sources come from other sources like magazines or documentaries.

Pick a Format

Biographies come in various formats, with each of them having their pros and cons. A typical biography will start at the beginning, usually with the birth and childhood of the subject. Yet, if the biography’s theme involves a different event in their life, the author may want to explore the flashback option or one with concurrent events from different times.

Usually, biographies have a theme or a general life lesson at the center. The author’s role is to tell the subject’s story leading up to the major event.

Which-ever format you choose should place the theme at the center, with the other events detailing the journey.

Create a Timeline Of The Story

Since a biography takes place in chronological order, there needs to be a timeline of the events in the right order. The timeline should contain the key events in the subject’s life, in the order the author plans on revealing them. A great way to declutter the story and keep it interesting is to use flashbacks . This way, the author can introduce past events and explain later events excluding the element of monotony.

Add In Your Thoughts

The good thing about biographies is that you don’t have to stick to the hard facts only. As the author, you can share your opinions and emotions in writing. The author has the freedom to do this by commenting on a significant action by the subject in a manner that describes why they feel the subject may have done what they did.

The author can also include commentary on events depicted in the biography – how it was influenced society or its impact on the lives around them. Recounting these events through a different perspective can make the biography more relatable and interesting to read.


Why is a biography template important.

A biography template has an outline that makes the writing easier for the author. Biography templates usually contain a sample timeline, format, and questions that provide more information about the subject. With a great biography template, you can cut your writing time in half and spend less time coming up with an outline.

How are biographies better in comparison to autobiographies

Since a different person writes biographies, they tend to be more objective and somewhat accurate than autobiographies. An autobiography tells things from the author’s perspective, so their views and perspective cloud it. Thus, a biography will likely tell a more factual story.

These are the important steps you need to take to help you write a great biography. Now, to make things easier for you, we have a free customizable autobiography and biography template that you can use to start your first book. Get the template and start writing today

What are some of the most important elements to keep in consideration while writing a biography?

Any author looking to write a biography must consider the factors below. They aren’t the only important factors, but a biography isn’t complete without them. • Date and place of their birth • Academic background • Professional expertise • Death, if deceased • Facts and anecdotes about the person • Main accomplishments • Detailed accounts of their child and adult life

Biographies tell the untold stories of some incredibly relevant people in the world. But biographies are not always strictly accurate. So, every biographer needs to follow the necessary steps to provide a biography with all the requirements.

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biography analysis examples

How to Teach Character Analysis Using Body Biographies

Are your students disinterested and tired of the traditional ways of learning characterization? Have you been searching for a really fun, student-centered, interactive way to eliminate their boredom? Well, look no further! I present to you a wonderful student-collaboration activity that will get your students involved and excited for a character analysis for any novel, biography study , mythology, current events, or for creative writing and character development.

How to Teach Character Analysis Using Body Biographies. Have you been searching for a really fun, student-centered, interactive way to eliminate their boredom? Here is a wonderful student-collaboration activity that will get your students involved and excited for a character analysis for any novel, biography study, mythology, current events, or for creative writing and character development. For grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. Middle School ELA | High School English #middleschoolteachers #highschoolenglish

About the Body Biography project

This project is an excellent representation of how students can conduct analysis for a notable person or biography your students are studying in class. At the upper elementary, middle school, and high school level, we usually rely on just discussing character traits. We want our students to infer tangible traits and values from accurate details found in the text.

Body Biography Project Bundle, For Any Novel, Short Story, Play, or Film #middleschoolteachers #iteach678 #bodybiographies

This task really engages your students to infer those traits but also allows them to show their knowledge by applying those traits as they create a body biography which includes details from the person’s perspective. The project provides an opportunity for your student to explore together the supporting reasons for the character traits they have chosen for their character’s poster.

How to Teach Character Analysis Using Body Biographies. Have you been searching for a really fun, student-centered, interactive way to eliminate their boredom? Here is a wonderful student-collaboration activity that will get your students involved and excited for a character analysis for any novel, biography study, mythology, current events, or for creative writing and character development. For grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. Middle School ELA | High School English #middleschoolteachers #highschoolenglish

What’s the objective?

  • The student objectives for the Macbeth Body Biography Project are as follows: Review what is supportive evidence
  • Define the literary term “character trait” and explore how to provide details that support their inferences (apply this skill similar to exploring a fictional text).
  • Use the novel, class notes, and web resources to research the character (subject), then cite evidence to find accurate and descriptive word choice.
  • Fill out the Body Biography graphic organizer/poster.

How to Teach Character Analysis Using Body Biographies. Have you been searching for a really fun, student-centered, interactive way to eliminate their boredom? Here is a wonderful student-collaboration activity that will get your students involved and excited for a character analysis for any novel, biography study, mythology, current events, or for creative writing and character development. For grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. Middle School ELA | High School English #middleschoolteachers #highschoolenglish

Group work should promote:

  • Intellectual understanding, abilities, and skills.
  • Communication, cooperative and teamwork skills such as planning. management, leadership and peer support.
  • Personal growth (increased self-esteem and self-confidence).

Remember the 4 C’s for 21st Century Learning

Communication:  They are working together to problem-solve. Students need to be able to communicate their ideas and thoughts to one another in order to complete their body biography. Collaboration:  Students form roles within the group. They learn how to work together towards a common goal, not against each other. They learn how to bounce ideas off one another, and not shut down other students thought. Critical Thinking:  Encourage students to analyze, to organize, to evaluate and to implement strategies they have previously learned in order to complete their project. Creativity:  This allows students to think outside the box to come up with possible assets to embellish their projects. The ideas won’t just jump out at them- they will need to use a little creativity to depict their notable person’s body biography.

How to Teach Character Analysis Using Body Biographies. Have you been searching for a really fun, student-centered, interactive way to eliminate their boredom? Here is a wonderful student-collaboration activity that will get your students involved and excited for a character analysis for any novel, biography study, mythology, current events, or for creative writing and character development. For grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. Middle School ELA | High School English #middleschoolteachers #highschoolenglish

Teaching Tips

  • Moving desks together or allowing students to work at a table works best for this activity.
  • Due to the length of the poster (32 inches), your students will want to have a wider and longer space to work.
  • Scissors for each group.
  • Have markers, crayons, pencils, and tape accessible and ready
  • Displaying the body biography posters are really exciting for the students to see around the classroom – so plan on where you will display them!

How to Teach Character Analysis Using Body Biographies. Have you been searching for a really fun, student-centered, interactive way to eliminate their boredom? Here is a wonderful student-collaboration activity that will get your students involved and excited for a character analysis for any novel, biography study, mythology, current events, or for creative writing and character development. For grades 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. Middle School ELA | High School English #middleschoolteachers #highschoolenglish

Body Biography Project Categories

Direct Quotes: Three direct quotations from the story that sums up the character and add to an understanding of the character. These quotes do not necessarily need to be spoken by the character. Possibly, another character says them in regard to your character.

Virtues: What are your character’s best qualities?

Vices: What are your character’s worst qualities? This can be weaknesses and flaws.

Loves / Cares About: This should represent what this character loves most.

Thoughts about inner-self / Appears to others: Consider both how your character appears to others on the surface and what you know about the character’s inner-self (what the character really thinks about their own self).

Tries to Control: What is an example of how your character tries to seek control.

Symbols: What objects can you associate/relate with your character? Colors can also have a symbolic meaning.

Goals: What does this character want? What actions do they take? These actions often create conflict. How do this character’s goals create the conflict?

Best Accomplishment: What is this character’s best achievement? What is their proudest moment?

Challenge: What is standing in your character’s way? What is holding them back from achieving their goal? Is this someone? Or a character flaw? An event?

Physical Appearance/ Description: What You Notice First. These are defining traits or features of the character. These are aspects that are visually apparent, knowing nothing else about the person. The first thing you see when you look at someone could be their hair, clothes, nose, or figure.

Stayed the Same / Changed: Is this character static or dynamic? Are there any changes that this character has “undergone?” Changes are notable in the text are usually within the character. Could be outlook, insight or understanding. Commonly, changes in commitment, in values, allegiance, stature. Not all the characters are dynamic. Find evidence of both.

Ho w To Grade

Using the rubric, it is simple to grade this group project. Each item on the grading rubric is given a specific amount of points. You can alter the points if you choose.

biography analysis examples

Learning Outcomes for a body biography project

Reading: Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse formats and media, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Writing: Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Speaking & Listening: Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.

Language: Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for the meaning of style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening.

Here is an example of the common core standards that can be covered using a body biography project:

Reading: Literature 11-12.1-6 Reading: Informational Text 11-12.1-3 Writing 11-12.1a-8 Speaking & Listening 11-12.1a-1d Language 11-12.2b-5b

Macbeth Body Biography Project Bundle, Great for Characterization

I am adding more body biographies to my collection. So, if you don’t see one you can use in your classroom, comment here on my post to let me know what your needs are! I am also working on a “blank” version for any novel. As soon as that one is ready I will update this post to include it.

I hope your students find this project to be as engaging and educational as my students have. It truly is a fun project to watch and the end results are awesome. Good luck!


Omg this looks so amazing!!! I would love one for Night, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet and the Crucible. Please let me know if any of these are in the near future?!?

Romeo and Juliet is done. Coming any day. I will have The Crucible for sure! Very soon. I need to gather my inspiration for the artwork. Thank you so much for commenting!

That sounds awesome! Thank you for the suggestion!

I am excited for Romeo and Juliet! Where can we find it?

I really love these. When do you think you will come out with a blank one? I teach a reading course at the high school level and we read various novels throughout the year. This would be a great project to help improve critical thinking.

I do have one that is a “blank” – you can find it in my collection. THANK YOU!

Eager for R &J…..

I would love to see some for The Giver, A Wrinkle in Time, or Freak the Mighty. These really are awesome!

I would also love one for The Giver and A Wrinkle in Time!

This is awesome. How about Equality 7-2521 from Anthem by Ayn Rand?

Wow! These are incredible. I love doing creative, visual projects, but there are never enough hours in the day. Thank you for sharing such an amazing activity. I teach 7th and 8th, and think this would make a wonderful personal intro to present to the class at the beginning of the year. Once students have done this as a group, individuals could use this as an independent reading response. Novels I teach: Freak the Mighty, The Giver, Roll of Thunder, My Dog Skip, Because of Winn Dixie, A Christmas Carol (play), The Diary of Anne Frank (play).

you are amazing! I’d love to speak with you more – and perhaps do a guest blog post for us! Thank you for sharing your reading list!

These are amazing! Have you created a blank one yet? Can you please let me know when you have a blank one available?

yes 🙂 You will see it listed – and I added it to this post. Thank you!

Have you considered doing one for Odysseus?

absolutely! II just need to get the artwork lined up.

Do you have the blank ones created? I’d love to try this with our book “Firegirl” and “Walk Two Moons” for our 6th graders!

I added blank ones to my collection! THANK YOU!

Julius Caesar please!

Wow! You are very talented! These are amazing. I would love to see Greek mythology: gods, goddesses, hero’s, etc. Malala Yousafzai and Amal from Amal Unbound!!

I’d love one for Fahrenheit 451!

Love this idea!! Would love to see one for the characters in Cynthia Lord’s RULES novel and MANIAC MAGEE as character analysis is a huge part of our those two novel studies.

I would love to see Freak the Mighty!

My 7th grade Special Education ELA class is working on Insignificant Events in the Life of a Cactus by Dusti Bowling. One of the characters, Aven, is armless. It would be so incredibly cool to do this project with my kiddos!

How about Wonder? I would love to see one for it. These are incredible!

These are amazing! Would love one for “Of Mice and Men” or a blank one 🙂 Thanks!

I love these! I cannot wait to use the Outsiders version! I would love to see one for The Giver and The Watsons Go To Birmingham, those are the two other novel we read during our school year! 🙂

I see in the previous comments you have added a blank set. Where would I find these? I am a forensic science teacher. I would love to use this during our serial killer section! Or the history of forensic science to learn about the main historical people in the field. Your stuff is amazing!

These are amazing! I would love to see one of these for Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone or The Witch of Blackbird Pond.

How about The Old Man and the Sea!

Would you make custom ones for people if they are studying a particular novel? I’m a primary school teacher who teaches the older grades, these are my novels can you make any up for me? 1. Wonder 2. The Greatest Showman 3. Goldfish Boy 4. Charlie & the Chocolate Factory 5. Harry Potter & the Philosophers (Sorcerors) Stone 6. Wizard of Oz 7. Alice in Wonderland I have many resources for these novels but nothing like what you have created. Please let me know it would be a god send.

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This is absolutely awesome! I can’t wait to use the ones for To Kill A Mockingbird! I would love to see some for The Hate U Give!

I have To Kill A Mockingbird. I don’t have The Hate U Give yet. It’s on my list. Thank you so much for your enthusiasm!

Hi, ‘just purchased “Outsiders”, can you create one for “Wonder”?

hi! I do have it in my collection : ) Thank you for your enthusiasm!

These are incredible! I would love to see A Wrinkle in Time, The Giver, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and The Egypt Game! I’m looking forward to using the blank version until then!

I would love to see some for The Handmaid’s Tale.

I teach middle school gifted students and think this would be great as a culminating project for various topics I teach— currently teaching the Yellow Wallpaper and connecting it to feminism and mental illness….

I love using these! I already have so many but am missing Of Mice and Men… any chance that is in the works *crosses fingers*?

I just purchased the set for Beowulf, and it is great. Would you consider creating a set for Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds or at least one for Will. These would be perfect as a character study set for that novel.

Do you perhaps have the layout for Percy Jackson, The Lightning Thief or Hatchet?

The Canterbury Tales would be AMAZING!

I found your work while searching for Hamlet character analysis ideas. You mention a blank template, but I do not see it. Would love to see Hamlet and the Odyssey.

I bought the one for any novel and for A Christmas Carol. I would love if you would consider doing one for The Joy Luck Club!!

These are fantastic! I would love to have a set for Fences by August Wilson.

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biography analysis examples

I’m so glad you are here! My name is Danielle. I am passionate about helping teachers and homeschool parents promote critical thinking, collaboration, creativity, and communication with their students. 

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