How to Start a Good Biography
The most boring -- and typical -- way novice authors start biographies is by stating, "So-and-so was born on such-and-such date in such-and-such town." Beginning a biography in a way that captivates an audience and makes them want to read more requires creativity and imagination. You don't have to start at the beginning of the individual's life. Rather, review your research and select the most fascinating element about the person: something that will keep readers turning the pages until they reach the very end of your biography.
Describe an event in the subject's childhood. Perhaps his family struggled to make ends meet and he worked every day after school. Maybe he endured a tragedy, such as the death of a sibling or parent. Write a vivid account of an event that occurred in the subject's youth and shaped who he became as an adult. If you are writing about Herman Melville, for example, you could write that his father was a successful businessman until he attempted to venture into the fur trade. This failure left the family with financial troubles, which worsened when young Melville's father died.
Write about the subject's parents and discuss their childhoods, youth and upbringing. Parents often shape a child's perspectives, morals and ambitions, as well as the type of person the child ultimately becomes. Explore how the subject's parents influenced the subject in terms of interests, personality and character. With Melville, the sudden drop income after his father's death left his family financially bereft, and Melville had to work at a job he could find -- working in a hat store, a bank, teaching and sailing. The necessity to have to work when that was never an expectation can affect people in different ways. Some people find it difficult to change; Melville, however, rose to the occasion. Melville’s mother had been born into a wealthy, old Dutch family; write about how she was forced to accommodate to the reversal of fortunes.
Describe a pivotal or suspenseful event in the subject's adult life. Maybe the subject was the valedictorian of his graduating class, was arrested for theft or murder, found the love of his life or witnessed the death of a friend. You don't have to give away the entire story in the first few paragraphs, but offer the reader enough so that he will want to read more. In writing about Melville, as a young child he became very ill with scarlet fever, which is often a side effect of an untreated step infection. He recovered, but suffered visual loss. Write about how he coped with the illness and the aftereffects and about how his parents must have been worried about his health.
Write about when the person first realized she was famous or influential. When people gain notoriety it can affect them deeply, often positively but sometimes negatively. If you're writing about a well-known actress, discuss the moment when fans first asked for her autograph or when the paparazzi first followed her. Write about how she felt during those first moments of fame. For Melville, success as a writer came quickly, but he was not satisfied and wanted a broader swath of life. He wrote travel stories, which the public devoured; when he wrote Moby Dick, however, his reading public was not accustomed to a novel full of symbolism and struggle and his popularity began to wane. Moby Dick is not a novel that could have been written by a man who'd had an easy life, as it is replete with struggle against nature, struggle with fellow mankind and struggle within oneself.
Discuss a recent event or something that occurred in the person's later years. As people age, their perceptions and outlooks on life change. Offer personal reflections from the subject to introduce the person's story from his current point of view. You could discuss the tragedy that his contemporaries did not appreciate Melville's literary genius and that it took until the 20th century for literary circles to appreciate his gift.
Start with a story from someone who knows the subject of the biography well, such as a friend, family member, business colleague or spouse. Include an anecdote that gives an insider's look into the person and reveals the individual's character, temper, goals, ambition or faith. If you are writing about a person who lived in a previous century, ask your parents what they know about this person’s life.
Angela Brown has been a book editor since 1997. She has written for various websites, as well as National Public Radio, Pacifica Radio and more than 20 fiction anthologies. Brown earned a Bachelor of Arts in theater and English from the University of Wisconsin.