No bones about it, writing a biography is quite the undertaking. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
You’re dealing with someone’s life and legacy here.
It doesn’t matter if that life never produced a flying machine, charted previously unmapped space or created some musical masterpiece. Nor should it factor in whether that legacy impacted millions of people or just one.
You’re still dealing with someone’s life and legacy. And that’s a big deal.
As such, you’re going to want to put in the time to get to know said person.
If you can, get their input. Regardless, research.
As with any other non-fiction story, there’s no way you’re going to be able to get everything correct, even if you do talk directly to the person you’re writing about. Memories fail. Perspectives aren’t always accurate. And you only have so much time to work with.
But keep in mind how you’re dealing with a real person: someone who deserves your respect, at least as far as telling the most accurate account you can. So put in the time, do the research and get as many perspectives about him or her as possible – before you start to write.
That qualifier about respect going so far as “telling the most accurate account you can” is an important one to reiterate. After all, not every biography is about a decent person who positively affected the world.
They can just as easily be about Stalin, Chairman Mao or some other socialist dictator as about someone like Mother Theresa. As such, “accurate” doesn’t have to be nice. It just has to be honest.
This means that a biography of Stalin would readily and thoroughly detail how he was responsible for “mass repressions, ethnic cleansing, hundreds of thousands of executions, and famines which caused the deaths of millions,” as Wikipedia admits – though not until after touting him as “one of the 20th century’s most significant figures… a champion of socialism and the working class… [and] a victorious wartime leader.”
For the record, an honest biography would acknowledge his victories, address his commitment to the cause, and admit exactly how smart he was.
But it would focus much more on the negative side of the equation since his legacy is filled with downright and unrepentant evil. “Mass repressions, ethnic cleansing, hundreds of thousands of executions, and famines which caused the deaths of millions” kinda means more than being “a victorious wartime leader.”
And as for being "a champion" of the working class, guess which category most people who died under Stalin’s socialist policies fell into.
Clearly then, Wikipedia writers for the Stalin entry have no business writing a biography. For that matter, they barely even have any business writing for Wikipedia.
The same is true about the Wikipedia writers for Chairman Mao, who was responsible for cruelly cutting short up to 70 million lives. Hardly someone to be admiring, Wikipedia.
In either case, they’re both dead. So someone writing a biography of them can't shoot them an email asking for a sit-down interview.
But biographers can read their writings. They can interview the descendants of those who suffered through such socialist dictatorships. And they can consult actual historical sources.
In other words, not Wikipedia, which apparently has a blood-thirsty bias.
Writing a biography worth reading means reviewing scores and scores of first-hand, second-hand and third-hand accounts. We’re talking serious research here to respect someone’s life and legacy as accurately as possible.
Not to mention the legal side of things, as we’ll discuss in this week’s Writing Rule.