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.