Writing Biographies for Historical Figures vs. Contemporary Subjects

Biography writing is an in-depth look into a person’s life. It is about assembling the various bits of someone’s life into a logical and captivating story. Whether the person lived centuries ago or breathes the same air we do today alters the game dramatically. If you’re writing a biography, whether about a historical figure or a contemporary subject, understanding the differences between the approaches will help.

The Basics of Biography Writing

Understanding Biography

A biography is more than simply a collection of facts; it’s a carefully produced story about a person’s life, displaying their personality and the nuances that affected their actions and decisions. Biographies are intended to be educational as well as fascinating and insightful, providing readers with more than simply knowledge—they provide understanding.


Why write a biography? For historians and writers, biographies serve to record and interpret the lives of people who have had an impact on the world, providing future generations with detailed insights into personalities and events that shaped society. They can also serve to inspire, teach, or even provide cautionary tales.

Research: The Backbone of Every Biography

Research is the cornerstone of biography writing. The depth and breadth of research can vary significantly depending on whether the subject is a historical figure or a contemporary one.

  • For Historical Figures: Research involves diving into archives, studying old letters, diaries, and any existing biographical works, and piecing together information from various historical texts.
  • For Contemporary Subjects: Writers often have the advantage of direct communication. Interviews with the subject and people close to them, along with access to personal and public records, make it possible to gather detailed, firsthand insights.

The Challenges of Writing About Historical Figures

Writing about historical figures requires a detective’s mindset. You are often working with incomplete puzzles and must rely heavily on context to provide a truthful representation.

Limited Sources

One of the most significant issues is the availability and trustworthiness of sources. Older sources could be biased, fragmentary, or lost over time. To avoid misrepresentation, interpret these texts with a careful balance of historical knowledge and critical thinking.

Contextualizing Their World

Understanding the moment in which the person lived is critical. Historical figures’ actions and decisions are influenced by a variety of factors, including social standards, economic conditions, political settings, and personal relationships. Writers must immerse themselves in history to accurately depict these circumstances.

Dealing with Biases

Historical records are frequently influenced by the biases of the people who wrote them. Writers must traverse various viewpoints and attempt to uncover the reality hiding beneath subjective accounts. This often entails reading between the lines and verifying information from multiple sources.

The Dynamics of Writing About Contemporary Subjects

Writing about someone from the contemporary world comes with a different set of challenges and advantages. Here’s what sets it apart.

Accessibility of Information

Unlike historical figures, information about contemporary subjects is usually more accessible and abundant. Social media, blogs, interviews, and public records offer a wealth of data. However, this can also lead to information overload, where the challenge is to determine what is relevant and what is not.

Living Sources

Having access to living sources, including the subjects themselves, allows for a dynamic exploration of thoughts and motivations. Yet, it also introduces the challenge of subjective truths where personal biases can skew the narrative.

Privacy and Ethical Considerations

Biographers of contemporary subjects must navigate the delicate balance of revealing personal information while respecting privacy and ethical boundaries. Legal considerations, such as defamation and rights to privacy, play a significant role in how the story is told.

Part 4: Techniques and Styles in Biography Writing

Whether writing about a historical or contemporary figure, certain techniques, and narrative styles can help make a biography engaging.

Narrative Style

Choosing the right narrative style can make a big difference. A chronological approach works well for comprehensive life stories, while thematic structuring can be effective for highlighting specific aspects of a person’s life or career.

The Art of Storytelling

Good biographies read like a novel. They involve the reader emotionally, presenting the subject’s life as a journey with struggles, triumphs, and transformations. Incorporating storytelling elements such as tension, climax, and resolution can captivate readers and provide a deeper understanding of the subject.

Voice and Point of View

The biographer’s voice and the chosen point of view significantly influence how the story is perceived. Writing in the third person offers a sense of objectivity and authority, while a first-person account (if drawing heavily on the subject’s own words, such as in an autobiography or memoir-style biography) can create intimacy and immediacy.

Character Development

In biographies, the subject is the protagonist. Developing this character in a dynamic, multifaceted way is crucial. This involves showing growth, internal conflicts, and changes over time, much like a fictional character, but grounded in thorough research and real-life facts.

Ethical Considerations in Biography Writing

Biography writing isn’t just an academic exercise; it carries ethical responsibilities, particularly regarding truthfulness, respect, and privacy.

Truthfulness and Accuracy

A biographer must always strive for accuracy. This involves meticulous research and careful verification of facts. Speculations should be identified to avoid presenting them as truth, which can mislead readers and tarnish reputations.

Respecting the Subject

Even when delving into the more controversial or flawed aspects of a person’s life, it’s important to maintain respect. This means handling sensitive topics with care and avoiding sensationalism. For historical figures, this respects their legacy, while for contemporary subjects, it also respects their legal rights and personal dignity.

Balancing Transparency and Privacy

Especially when dealing with contemporary subjects, biographers must navigate the fine line between transparency and privacy. This involves making ethical decisions about what personal details to include and what to leave out, always considering the potential impact on the subject and their family.

The Impact of Modern Technologies on Biography Writing

Technology has transformed how biographies are researched, written, and read. Access to digital archives, social media, and online databases has made information gathering faster and more comprehensive.

Digital Research Tools

Online libraries, archives, and specialized databases have made it easier to access historical documents and records from around the world, often from the comfort of one’s home. This accessibility can help paint a fuller, more accurate picture of a historical figure.

Contemporary Documentation

For contemporary subjects, technology offers a plethora of real-time documentation of their lives, including videos, audio recordings, and digital communications. These resources can provide biographers with a vivid sense of the person’s day-to-day life and personality.

The Role of Social Media

Social media platforms are a double-edged sword. While they provide immediate and first-hand accounts of thoughts and events, they also present curated personas that may not always reflect the subject’s true self. Deciphering the real person behind the public persona requires critical analysis and careful interpretation.

The future of biography writing is likely to be influenced by continuing technological advancements and changing cultural attitudes toward privacy and information sharing.

Increasingly Collaborative

With the rise of digital communication, biographies may become more collaborative, involving direct interactions between biographers, subjects, and even audiences. This could lead to more dynamic and multifaceted biographical narratives.

Enhanced Interactivity

Emerging technologies like augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) could transform biographies into interactive experiences, allowing readers to “step into” the subjects’ worlds. This could make biographies more immersive and engaging.

Ethical Challenges

As the boundaries between public and private lives become increasingly blurred, ethical challenges in biography writing will intensify. Navigating these will require careful consideration and perhaps new guidelines to balance transparency, accuracy, and privacy.

Final Words

Writing biographies, whether of historical figures or contemporary subjects, requires a deep understanding of numerous factors—from research methods to narrative techniques and ethical considerations. Each type of biography brings its challenges and rewards. The key is to approach each project with diligence, respect, and a commitment to portraying the complexity of human life.


What is the most difficult part of writing a biography?

The most difficult part can vary depending on the subject. For historical figures, obtaining accurate, unbiased information can be challenging. For contemporary subjects, navigating privacy issues and ethical considerations can be particularly complex.

How long does it take to write a biography?

The time it takes to write a biography can vary widely depending on the depth of research required and the length of the manuscript. It can take anywhere from several months to several years.

Can anyone write a biography?

Yes, anyone with a strong interest in exploring another person’s life and the patience for extensive research can attempt to write a biography. However, good biographical writing also requires skills in narrative building and ethical judgment.

How do biographers ensure their work is unbiased?

Biographers can strive for objectivity by using multiple sources, identifying their own biases at the outset, and presenting information in a balanced manner, including differing viewpoints when available.

Are biographies always written with the subject’s permission?

Not always. While contemporary biographies often involve the subject’s cooperation, this is not strictly necessary, especially for public figures. Historical biographies, by nature, do not involve direct permission, but must still respect ethical standards and historical accuracy.

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