Characteristics of Good Biographies

By — Pearson Allyn Bacon Prentice Hall
Updated on Jul 20, 2010

According to research cited by Carter (2003), biography reading declines between fourth and tenth grades with the exception of books for the yearly required biography book report. However, sports and entertainment magazines that feature biographies are eagerly read by teenagers. Perhaps, then, these statistics are more a comment on the quality and subjects of many of the biographies written for adolescents than on the interest of young adults in biographies. Just as with all young adult literature, it is important to look for the best biographies. Thus, we want to explore the characteristics that distinguish excellent biographies from the adequate, mediocre, or unacceptable. Unfortunately, not all biographies that are marketed for adolescents have those characteristics. After examining juvenile biographies in general, Lechner (1997) found inaccuracies occurring as the result of carelessness and oversimplification, inadequate or incomplete data, unreliable primary sources, and social mores and taboos. Based on her own experiences, Carter (2003) suggests dismissing those biographies that feature a

larger-than-life, near-perfect individual to be honored and emulated; a lack of historical context within which to place the subject; an endless tally of accomplishments that show little relationship to either character or reader; and an organizing structure that revolves around birth and death dates rather than an implied theme concerning the subject’s life. (p. 165)

What, then, are the characteristics of excellent biographies? Obviously, good biographies should be authentic and honest and should provide an objective treatment of the subject. But there is much more. First, young adults deserve accurate biographies in which controversial information and personal fallacies are neither omitted nor glossed over. In a good biography, the individual’s character is revealed to the reader through the details and events of his or her life and as a complex individual with his or her own share of human strengths as well as weaknesses. Readers can understand and, at least sometimes, relate to the person’s feelings of frustration and happiness. A good biography should depict the life of an individual in ways that allow the reader to question, evaluate, and analyze the narrative to identify the pattern or meaning in the person’s life.

Next, a good biography should stay away from didacticism. Sermon should not “substitute for story” and fictionalization should not “enhance factual material” (Carter, 2003, p. 168). Included should be the feelings, beliefs, actions, and daily decisions made by the individual (Townsend & Hanson, 2001). However, to keep a biography from becoming a chronology of events or a collection of dates without any unifying theme, there needs to be a definite narrative thread. Grounded in the historical context of the time period in which an individual lived, a biography must tell the story of that person’s life in a way that captures and holds the reader’s interest (Carter, 2003).

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