What is a Biographer?

Cassie L. Damewood

A biographer is a writer who chronicles the life or certain segments of the life of another person. The subject of the biography may be dead or alive and is normally famous—or infamous—for his or her career, accomplishments, personal triumphs or inventions. Certain biographies may focus on a no-so-famous person but illustrate a particular political or social atmosphere through telling the story of the person’s life.

Biographers are writers who chronicle the lives of famous or otherwise significant people.
Biographers are writers who chronicle the lives of famous or otherwise significant people.

The biographer may write a paragraph or up to a series of books on one person. Very brief biographies typically accompany a subject's work and generally include the his or her most basic statistics, such as place and year of birth. Book jackets and art or photography collections frequently contain these short biographies.

Boswell's biography of Samuel Johnson is one of the most well-known biographies in literature.
Boswell's biography of Samuel Johnson is one of the most well-known biographies in literature.

For more involved accounts, the writer normally delves into personal details of the subject’s life. Popular book-length biographies are often constructed like novels. These lengthy works generally have evolving plots along with a variety of interesting characters that interact with the subject of the biography.

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When a person is famous for a particular act or period of life, the writer may focus on that instead of chronicling the subject’s entire life. This is particularly true in biographies of military or political figures. If the person’s life has interesting aspects from the cradle to the grave, a biographer typically embraces these curiosities to add to the book’s appeal.

If a biographer writes about a person who is still living, she has the advantage of confirming facts with them prior to submitting her work for publication. Her interpretation of events may still influence the tone of the work, but it is generally considered important that no facts are distorted for sensationalism or titillation. The subject of a biography may dispute its content subsequent to publication, even if the work was reviewed by him or her beforehand.

When the subject of the work is deceased and notorious for negative reasons, it is fairly common for the biographer’s account of the person’s life to be disputed by surviving friends and family. This usually occurs when the subject is portrayed in questionable or sensitive situations. A reputable biographer normally has her multiple sources repeatedly verified to avoid disputes or lawsuits.

A biographer typically finds success in writing about people or subjects for which she has passion. This fervor could be admiration or disdain, neither of which is normally acceptable as part of the biography’s content. Fans of biographies are generally drawn to stories that are as factual as possible. Readers often reject works that present as character assassinations or fawning narratives.

There are normally no educational requirements to become a biographer. A solid background as a professional writer or journalist is generally preferred. Experience in research is often considered an asset. Literary agents representing biographers frequently require proof of the validity of a writer’s sources before marketing a book to publishers.

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Discussion Comments


In my lifetime, even though I have read several biographies about famous people, sometimes I can't help but wonder how much is the truth, and how much of it is the stretched truth. Does anyone else agree with me?

This is especially the case, if the person is dead, and it's harder to get the clear facts about him/her. And sometimes, even then, the truth still might be stretched a bit, if not a great deal.

Using one example, is anyone familiar with the book known as A Child Called It? To make a long story short, it's basically the account of a boy who was physically, emotionally, and mentally abused by his mother.

While there's no doubt in my mind that he did endure some horrific forms of abuse, the truth in the book seems overly gruesome and unbelievable, almost to the point where it's not realistic. He endures several inhumane forms of torture that really make you wonder how a little boy survived in the first place.

I won't go into detail, but I will say this - Sometimes if someone is writing an autobiography of their life, I feel like they might stretch the truth a bit, in order to elicit sympathy from viewers. After all, only they know the real truth, and the whole truth. I'm not trying to sound cynical, but does anyone else feel the same way, or is it just me?

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