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Term Definition

In general, a biography is written about a person who is in some way famous or noteworthy for his/her achievements in some sphere of culture. Often, the biography casts light not only on the story of the individual person's life but also the story of the entire cultural and historical milieu within which s/he lived. However, the focus of a biography can also remain much more personal or psychological as well, especially in the case of artists. 

Introduction to 'biography'

What exactly is a biography? Biographies are detailed descriptions of a person’s life and accomplishments as a genre. It is not simply a statement of basic facts- their school and work experiences, relationships, etc.- but also includes the feelings and experiences of the subject. Biographies typically contain intricate details of the subject’s personal life and sometimes include an analysis of the person’s personality and attributes. 

Biographies can come in various forms. While many are more traditionally done in print- books, newspapers, journals, etc.- many are also done in film. For the most part, biographies are considered non-fiction; however, sometimes elements of fiction are added, especially in film. 

Biography types and rules of usage

Some biographies will be marketed as authorized biographies, meaning that they were written with both the permission and collaboration of the subject. Often times, authorized biographies are written or added to in part by the subject or their families.

The research method typically used to collect information about and analyze the subject’s life is called the Biographical Research method. This process can include gathering information by unstructured interviews and personal documents. Information used in biographies can come from personal diaries, letters, and belongings, oral history, other biographies, and autobiographies, which is a biography that is written by the subject themselves. The Biographical Research method aims to produce, not only an account of their lives and accomplishments, but to understand the logic or emotions that inspired the subject to do the things they did throughout their life. This also helps to understand how the cultural phenomena of the time may have influenced the subject’s actions or motivations.

Cultural influences

Modern biographies are greatly influenced by sociology and psychology. When approached from a sociological writing standpoint, biographies aim to show how the subject’s actions and motivations were inspired by the environment around them rather than the person’s own individuality.

Psychoanalysis also had a large effect on the way biographies are written. It inspired a deeper, more comprehensive understanding of the subject and their state of mind during important events and times in their life. In addition, biographies that are written from a psychological stance tend to focus more on the childhood and adolescence of the subject in order to determine why they may have made the decisions that they did later in life. This caused a shift in the tone of biographies from admiration to understanding; it was more important to analyze why someone made the choices that they did than to make sure they look good.

In the early 1970s, women’s biographies also underwent a huge change. Previously, women’s biographies always included instances of the woman in question remaining kind and demure despite hardship and turning anger into acceptance. Now, women’s biographies acknowledge their subjects’ rage, pain, desire for control, and other things that were previously not thought of as lady-like or acceptable for women.

In recent years, more and more biographies have taken on a different form; multimedia. Biographical films are increasingly popular and range from major motion pictures to made for TV movies on Lifetime, A&E, and The History Channel. On the big screen, we have recently seen American Sniper, which examines the life of Chris Kyle, the deadliest marksman in United States military history. The biography broke numerous box office records and is the highest-grossing war film in North America (read a movie review essay on American Sniper - the movie).

Biographies can take on many forms and tell rich, captivating stories. While some focus on sociological or psychological aspects that inspire the subject to do the things they did, others focus mainly on the facts of the life and times of the subject. For centuries, biographies have been a prominent part of literature and a unique look at history and historical figures. While they certainly adapt and change as time goes on, they will surely continue to be prevalent, popular, and imperative to cultures all over the world.

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