Know the Four Types of Biographies

Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

Without storytellers, history would be lost. Most historical “truth” belongs to the pop historian. The average person knows about the past from the best told stories, not necessarily the most factual stories. Many different elements ranging from current cultural touch points to promotion by a popular celebrity can propel a story into the mass consciousness.

A biography is a specialized form of history. It is an account of events based upon the example of one person’s life. There are four basic types of biographies: historical fiction, academic, fictional academic, and the prophetic biography.

Historical Fiction Biography

A fictionalized biography is a creative account inspired by the events of a person’s life.

The fictional style is most often used in contemporary biographies such as the accounts of celebrities, athletes and politicians who are still alive. These “true stories” often inspire tales for film or television. Usually, the stories are loosely based on a few well-known facts about the individual and then developed for greatest entertainment value. There is little concern for literal accuracy or factual integrity regarding the individual’s life lessons.

Fictional biographies today often strive to make a social or political statement. Political biographies and autobiographies have become popular ways to capitalize on one’s personal fame while also promoting an ideology. In the United States, this is the most common form of biography. These stories include a few facts thrown into an entertaining tale with a goal to create a specific impression regardless of authenticity. The strength of this format is enjoyment with simple conclusions.

Examples of fictional biographies in books, include:

The “Hot Celebrity Biography” series, with books on people like Johnny Depp, Shaun White, Hilary Duff, Michael Phelps, etc.

“Yes We Can: A Biography of President Barack Obama” by Garen Eileen Thomas

“The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln” by C.A. Tripp

I also include one-sided, political memoirs in this “for entertainment only” category because the author (often working with an uncredited writer) desires to influence the reader more than to give an accurate account of their life’s events. These “fake” autobiographies include accounts like:

“Decision Points” by George W. Bush

“Hard Choices” by Hillary Rodham Clinton

“A Time for Truth: Reigniting the Promise of America” by Ted Cruz

Examples of fictional biographies in film and television, include almost anything that starts with “based on a true story,” including:

“Goodfellas” (1990) directed by Martin Scorsese

“Into the Wild” (2007) directed by Sean Penn

“Super Size Me” (2004) directed by Morgan Spurlock

“Justin Bieber Never Say Never” (2011) directed by Jon M. Chu

“The Revenant” (2015) directed by Alejandro G. Inarritu

“Making a Murderer” the 2015 Netflix series inspired by the life and crimes of Steven Avery.

Academic Biography

The second type of historical story based on an individual life is the academic biography.

Academic biographies rely heavily upon the documented facts and noted accomplishments of a person’s life. Any lessons learned by these individuals often get lost in a consideration of the minute details of the person’s life. Academic historians will group related facts around a person’s accomplishments. For example, the life of a visual artist could be told according to their perceived impact on a specific form of art like sculpture, portraiture, or landscape painting. The lives of leaders in business, politics, and social change are usually grouped chronologically in an academic biography. For example, the stories begin with childhood and family influences, followed by education and first love, pursuit of their life goal, reaching the goal, raising a family, fall from grace or retirement and finally death.

The academic biography is seldom an easy read. It’s packed full of notations indicating extensive references. These biographies have a limited audience and are rarely used outside of a classroom.

Examples of academic biographies in books, include:

“Stalking the Academic Communist: Intellectual Freedom and the Firing of Alex Novikoff” by David R. Holmes

“John Wyclif: Myth and Reality” by G.R. Evans

Examples of academic biographies in film and television are usually considered documentaries. A couple examples include:

“Mother Teresa” (1986) documentary by Ann & Jeanette Petrie

“Bobby Fisher Against the World” (2011) HBO documentary by Liz Garbus

Fictionalized Academic Biographies

The third category of biographies is the fictionalized academic biography. The fictionalized academic biography tries to combine the best elements of the fictional biography (entertainment with a strong theme and story line) and the academic biography (factual accuracy). The documented events of a person’s life are used in an entertaining manner while striving to relate an honest impression of the individual. By combining the author’s or director’s unique insights into life along with the facts and lessons of the individual, the result is a balanced view of how someone may have lived.

When successful, the fictionalized academic biography can change the public’s impression of the individual’s life. Examples of fictionalized academic biographies in books, include:

“American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur 1880–1964” by William Manchester

“East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart” by Susan Butler

Two of my favorites in this category are out-of-print autobiographies.

“I Can’t Wait Until Tomorrow… ’Cause I Get Better Looking Every Day” by Joe Willie Namath and Richard Schaap (1970)

“My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr.” by Coretta Scott King (1969, first edition)

Examples of fictionalized academic biographies in film and television, include:

“Patton” (1970) directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, written by Francis Ford Coppola

“Milk” (2008) directed by Gus Van Sant

Prophetic Biography

Finally, the fourth type of retelling the story of a person’s life is the prophetic biography.

The prophetic biography begins with the academic approach of considering all the known facts. Once the details have been catalogued, a spiritual goal or ideal theme — often “liberation of the masses” — is developed. Facts that support the ideal thesis are then chosen and developed to achieve the greatest entertainment value. When successful, these accounts are revered as valuable resources for personal development. If the prophetic biography contains guidance for the material, mental and spiritual well-being of humankind, it may even become elevated to a religious scripture.

A prophetic biography differs from fictional “entertainment” biographies because it seeks to inspire an idealistic change in the reader rather than just providing base entertainment. The prophetic biography differs from the fictionalized academic biography because from the outset of its conception there is a goal to communicate practical life lessons for the overall improvement of the reader.

The fan of a prophetic biography will return to it, again and again, throughout their lifetime in order to find consolation, meaning and guidance.

Examples of prophetic biographies in books, include:

“The Story of My Experiments with Truth” Autobiography by Mohandas K. (Mahatma) Gandhi

“Autobiography of a Yogi” by Paramahansa Yogananda

“Matthew, Mark, Luke and John” the Christian Gospels of the New Testament

Examples of prophetic biographies in film and television, include:

“Ram Dass, Fierce Grace” (2001) a film by Mickey Lemle

“Gandhi” (1982) directed by Richard Attenborough

Good biographers, like good historians, tell entertaining fact-based stories to help individuals and to affirm cohesive themes in society. If a story helps a community to find common ideals and positive goals, then it exceeds expectations. Illustrating how neighbors are similar and suggesting ways that humanity may progress through telling the story of an individual life is a noble pursuit for any biographer.

Type of Biographical Accounts Matter

Whenever reading a biography or an autobiography, consider which type of story has been conveyed. Is it historical fiction? Is it academic? Perhaps it is a fictional academic account? Does it rise to the allegory expressed in the prophetic biography?

In an era of “fake news” and when experts in every field lie or misrepresent the facts on regular basis, knowing about the quality of the information you enjoyed in a book account of a person’s life is essential. A well-notated, academic biography will likely provide the reader with the most documented facts from the subject’s life. However, a prophetic biography has the potential to improve one’s life and inspire a new direction for society.

I prefer fictionalized academic biographies and prophetic biographies because I like to learn lessons from another life while also being inspired to improve my own. Historical fiction accounts of a life may be entertaining but they rarely improve the quality of one’s own thoughts or knowledge of the past. I also read, but rarely enjoy, academic biographies. Depending upon the number of documented facts available for the academic account, the telling of the story can feel more like points on a timeline than a challenging and fulfilling life. I like to be aware of the limitations of the information provided in each form. I have learned that just because a book is categorized as a biography that doesn’t ensure that I will be given an accurate portrayal of the individual’s life.

Ed Sharrow is an author, a philosopher, a meditation instructor, and founder of the United by Love community.

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