“Always live your life with your biography in mind.”
-Marisha Pessl, Special Topics in Calamity Physics
Recent posts in our continuing genre series have focused on fiction – magical realism, sci-fi, horror and historical fiction. This month, we’ll look at three related non-fiction genres – biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs. While all three of these genres tell a person’s life story, there are differences that make each unique.
A biography is a detailed, non-fiction narrative of a person’s life, written by somebody else. To be considered a biography, the story must be as true as possible and based on factual evidence; fictionalized accounts of a person’s life fall into the realm of historical fiction. Biographies can be academic works based on scholarly research or they can be popular non-fiction books about celebrities, politicians, or historical figures.
An autobiography is a non-fiction narrative of a person’s life, written by that person. In other words, the author is writing about his or her own life, sometimes with the assistance of a collaborator or ghostwriter. Whereas a biography writer generally relies on a wide variety of documents and viewpoints to get information about a person’s life, autobiographies may be based mostly on the writer's memory.
Both a biography and an autobiography will typically tell the story of a person’s whole life, from birth to death (or to the present day for an autobiography). A memoir, on the other hand, usually covers a specific period of time (e.g., high school years), a particular story arc (e.g., the road into and out of drug addiction), or specific important moments and/or turning points in the author’s life – a narrower, more intimate focus on memories, feelings, and emotions.
Like an autobiography, a memoir is an author writing about his or her own life, however memoirs tend to employ a somewhat less formal writing style and allow the writer a little more creative license. While biographies and autobiographies are as factual and accurate as possible, memoirs come from the writer's memory and may contain a few falsehoods. The writer may manipulate his/her own past to better the story – they may move events around, merge several people into one, or change the scene of an event to create a better emotional climax. These are considered acceptable in a memoir, as long as the majority of the story isn't fabricated. Although autobiographies and memoirs are technically different, the lines between them can get very blurry, so the two are often grouped together.
Why not come in and dig into somebody’s past?