Skip to main content

SOME THOUGHTS ON WRITING A GOOD BIOGRAPHY

Over the last couple of months, I have been writing short biographies of some of the greatest apologists in the history of the Christian church. I don’t profess to be the ideal biography writer, however, I thought I might be helpful to outline how I proceed in writing a biography. Perhaps it will help others, and perhaps others will have some advice to add to what I have said below. Here are the main steps that I take when writing a biography.

(1) I begin the biography with a comment, or section (even a chapter if it is book length), about why it is important to read about his life. The reader needs motivation to get into the next chapter. This section may include an interesting story from their life, some quote about the importance of this person, or some experience that the biographer had as they were preparing to write about the person in question.

(2) I then outline the person’s early life, as much as is possible: family, social, and cultural context. If you have access to his own interpretations of his early life, they will add some interesting retrospective thoughts; but it must be remembered that we often interpret the events of our past quite differently than other people who went through those same circumstances with us. Therefore, if it is possible to get information from different sources it will give you a better approach to this section. You can talk about the parents and grandparents of the person, any siblings or friends that they had, and the relationships that they had with these various people. Were there any circumstances from their early life that were formative for their later years?

(3) I usually discuss the person’s education (elementary and secondary school, college, advanced degrees, etc.) separately, pointing out who were the major influences on the person’s thoughts. We want to know who influenced their thoughts about theology, philosophy, science, missions, the church, art, literature, movies, etc. In this section you want to not only note who influenced the person you are talking about, but note, if possible, how they influenced the person in question (i.e. - in what domains of thought, negative or positive influence, by example, by teaching or both, etc.). You also want to bring out, if it is possible, the major positions that person took, and ask why they took them (Atheist? Christian? Some other religion? Arminian? Calvinist? Platonist? Classical theist? Presuppositionalist? Amillenialist? PreTrib? PostTrib? Covenant theology or dispensationalist? nominalist or realist? etc.) Note what influenced them to take those positions. Here is not the place to outline the position itself.

(4) Assuming you are writing a book, and not just a short article, you will then want to divide up the person’s post-education life somehow. You could do this by age (his twenties, thirties, etc.), but, if you want a biography that is both interesting and informative, then it may be better to proceed by "episode". In each section you will be drawing out the major details, pointing out cultural, social, and historical contexts (for example, the relative strength of the Catholic church in the area where he was, world events at the time, this event in relation to the silent revolution, or a world war, etc.); as well as any major work that the person may have accomplished (i.e. – artwork, books written, churches or institutions founded, etc.). This step constitutes the body of your biography. The first sections (1-3) should prepare the reader for the body of the biography, and the reader should frequently be reminded of how the early section prepared the person for these various experiences (thus drawing a number of parallel themes through the entire work). It is hard to give examples for the body of the biography. Assuming the person in question made a number of scientific discoveries, you may want to divide the body up according to the discoveries, and then build the person’s story around those key moments in their life.

(5) The conclusion: here you come back, in a sense, to what makes the person important. You are no longer motivating the reader to continue, but reminding the reader about why it was so important for them to read your book (and why they need to encourage others to read it). So, here you talk about the influence of the person in question, and you tie up all the loose ends (the parallel themes that you have been drawing throughout the work). So, talk about any movements, associations, schools, or organisations that they may have founded. Talk about who he influenced during his life, and how he influenced them (i.e. - by example, teaching, or both; negatively or positively; etc.). Note how his influence continues even after his death, and how.

(6) PostScript: not entirely necessary, but this section could include some practical applications, or a call to action. Perhaps some remaining thoughts that came to mind as you prepared the biography, but which did not make it in, etc.


Some final thoughts concerning the writing of a Biography: (1) Be Selective: not every event or fact is important; (2) Tell a Story: write a story, not an encyclopaedic account of their life; (3) Common Themes: those lines (parallel themes) that you will be drawing throughout the biography need to be decided upon before you start writing!!! (4) Read great biographies and histories, and be inspired by them. So, read, for example, James Boswell's Life of Johnson, or some of the historical works by Pierre Berton (one of, in my humble opinion, the greatest contemporary historians...he understands how to write history so that it comes alive). Also read G. K. Chesterton's biography of Thomas Aquinas "the dumb ox". In reading these books you are less interested in the person or events being written about (though they will certainly be interesting), than the way in which the authors tell the stories!! (5) Learn by imitation. (6) Beware of Amazing events: Remember that even the most amazing events can seem dull and ordinary if not presented properly. The best biographies are stories...true stories...but stories so you need to write it as such. As a biographer you already have your main character (the protagonist), but what is the apex of the story? Who are the main characters? How will you develop them? Who are the main antagonists, and how will you develop their characters, and roles in the story? You are the story teller, and, without deviating from the truth, you need to make sure the story is well told.

Popular posts from this blog

How Kant’s Synthesis of Empiricism and Rationalism resulted in Agnosticism

Immanuel Kant, presented with the extreme empiricism of Hume and the extreme rationalism of Liebniz, which he discovered through the writings Wolff, sought to take a middle road between these two extreme philosophical positions. I would submit that Kant’s synthesis of these two views leads to an agnosticism about what Kant called “the thing-in-itself”, and ultimately to the philosophical positions known as Atheism, determinism, and nihilism.


Kant’s Sources
First of all, Kant was influenced by Hume’s empiricism and Newton’s physics. He saw that the physical sciences, in contrast to rationalistic metaphysics, were actually making advances. They were making discoveries, and building a system of knowledge that accurately described the world of our sense perceptions. Rationalistic metaphysics, on the other hand, was floundering amidst the combating systems that the philosophers were erecting. It did not provide new knowledge, and only led to unacceptable conclusions, such as the Absolute Mon…

A Short outline of Charles Taylor's: The Malaise of Modernity

CHARLES TAYLOR’S THE MALAISE OF MODERNITY[1]
            This is simply an outline of Taylor’s basic argument in this short work written by Charles Taylor. The idea of this outline is to help the reader understand the book by providing a simple outline of the basic argument that Taylor is presenting here. The book, which is essentially the manuscript is the fruit of a series of presentations that Taylor made at the Massey Conferences which are hosted by Massey College and Radio-Canada, is divided into 10 chapters. In the first chapter Taylor essentially proposes three causes (recognizing that there may be more) of the Malaise of Modernity: (1) Individualism or the Loss of Sense, (2) The Primacy of Instrumental Reason or the Loss of Ends, and (3) The effect on society and politics in general of the loss of sense to an inauthentic individualism and the domination of instrumental reason, or, the loss of true freedom. Taylor considers the first Malaise in chapters 2 to 8, the second in c…

LEISURE: THE BASIS OF CULTURE – A BOOK REVIEW

Leisure: The Basis of Culture & the Philosophical Act. Josef Pieper. Translated by Alexander Dru. 1963. Reprint, Ignatius Press, 2009. 143 pp. $12.99. ISBN 978-1-58617-256-5.
            This book is composed of two articles written by the German philosopher Josef Pieper. Though the two articles are intimately connected, they form two distinct works; as such, this book review will begin by giving a brief introduction to the works in question, followed by and exposition of each of the works individually. The two articles that are included in this book, Leisure: the Basis of Culture and The Philosophical Act, were both published in 1947, and, as such, were written during the cultural crisis in Germany that followed the Second World War. Not only did Pieper have the cultural crisis in mind when he wrote these articles, but he was also writing in light of the works of the most well-known German philosopher of the time – Martin Heidegger. As such, any reader who is familiar with Heidegg…