When creating the story of a person’s life, two common formats that are used are the memoir and the biography. Although the memoir has been particularly popular in the last two decades, it is actually the biography that has traditionally been the most popular format.
To understand what each format entails, they must be defined.
A memoir is a specific story about an author that is written by that person. Memoirs tend to be written in a conversational tone, yet offer a factual account of a specific experience, or memory, that they had in some point in time. Memoirs can be one long story, a collection of short stories, or even a collection of thoughts that have a central story arc. Many memoirs involve the story of how the author overcame some sort of difficulty in their life: a mental illness, an addiction, or perhaps a difficult childhood.
A biography is a nonfiction story about a person’s life that is written by someone else. This is where the terms “autobiography” and “biography” tend to get confused. An autobiography is the story of a person’s life, but is written by that person. The biography is the same story, but it is written by someone other than the actual person the story is about. Biographies can be authorized or unauthorized in nature, but still must have a story arc that is woven throughout each page.
What Is the Primary Difference Between These Two Formats?
The primary difference in the memoir vs biography debate is the actual construction of the story. When writing a memoir, the author is simply writing down their memories about a specific incident. There may be certain falsehoods or exaggerations included in this story and some writers may even manipulate the memory to make themselves or the story become better. Events may be moved around, several people might become just one person, or certain event outcomes might be changed to benefit the story arc of the memoir.
The biography is a story that must be meticulously researched. Instead of writing from memories, the writer of a biography is writing a story based on known facts that have been documented by others or the person the story is about. This might include reading a person’s diaries, other biographies that have been written about the individual, newspaper clippings, and other documentation that can help to tell the tale of a life.
This means a biography is a full historical record, offered to readers based on the research completed by the author. A memoir is a collection of memories and stories written by the author from their own life, often without any research.
There are some additional differences between these two formats that are also worth noting.
- Biographies tend to be a chronological look at a person’s life. A memoir takes snippets of a life and turns them into an engaging story for a reader. A biography tends to take a reader from a person’s birth to their death – or at least to what they are doing right now if they are still alive.
- Memoirs tend to be written in the first-person. The narrative of a memoir tends to be written from a first-person perspective. For example: “I took the towel off of the towel rack and dried off from my surfing attempt.” A biography tends to be written from a third-person perspective. For example: “Howard took the towel off of the towel rack and dried himself off from his surfing attempt.”
- Memoirs tend to offer specific lessons. A biography tends to be more about the lessons a person has learned in their life and how those lessons applied to them. A memoir offers the same lessons, but offers an inspirational tone so that others can apply what has been learned in their own lives as well.
- Biographies are unable to offer personal thoughts. The only way the actual thoughts of a person can be included in a biography is if they were written down in a journal or a diary. For memoirs, the author can include the exact thoughts, or at least a close approximation, of what they were thinking at the time the events of the story are beginning to unfold.
Both memoirs and biographies are important literary structures that help to tell the stories of life that we all experience every day. One takes a look at a whole life, while the other is like picking up a scrapbook of that life. Each can tell an important story, but it must tell it in its own way, and that’s why knowing the memoir vs biography difference is so important.