Telling the difference between an autobiography, a biography, and a memoir is easier said than done. They're generally about a person's life (often a famous person or public figure), but they each go about telling the story in different ways. They have different expectations and often cover different facets of the subject's life. But once you know what differentiates these three types of books, you'll be able to tell them apart with ease.
- The difference between autobiographies, biographies, and memoirs
- What defines each type of nonfiction book
- Famous examples of each type
Table of contents
The Difference Between Autobiographies, Biographies, and Memoirs
An autobiography is a book written by the subject him or herself, detailing the important events of their life. Similarly, a memoir is also written by the subject, but focuses more on the emotional aspects of their life story, rather than the events themselves. Lastly, a biography is an account of a person's life written by someone other than the subject, usually relying on many different sources for factual accuracy.
That’s the broad view. Now let's get a little more in depth to make these differences a little clearer.
What is an Autobiography?
Reading an autobiography is reading a first-person account of a person's life. You get to walk a mile in the subject's shoes, seeing the world through their eyes as they share their experiences.
Since most autobiographies detail an interesting life lived, they're often written by the subjects in their later years. However, there are always exceptions to this. Some people have written autobiographies while they were still young because their younger years were interesting or extraordinary. The three most famous examples of autobiographies written by young people include:
- The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
- I Am Malala: The Story of the Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai
- Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave by Frederick Douglass
Since autobiographies are about the author's life as told by them, they can be biased, since everyone sees the world a little differently and human memory isn't always the most accurate thing.
Most autobiographies work chronologically through the subject's life, including stories from their childhood and early years, their career, and any other milestones throughout their life.
Although autobiographies are ostensibly written by the subjects, it's not uncommon for a professional ghostwriter to be involved in the project. A ghostwriter can bring a flow and cohesive narrative to the subject's life story.
Some other famous autobiographies, written later in the subject's life, include:
- Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin
- Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela
- Agatha Christie: An Autobiography by Agatha Christie
An “event” autobiography is less common, but there are some famous examples. Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer is a first-person account of a Mount Everest climb that went terribly wrong, costing the lives of eight people.
What is a Memoir?
Since a memoir is considered a type of autobiography, it's best to cover it now before we dive into biographies. Like an autobiography, a memoir is written by the subject — usually in the first person. It's a personal narrative that focuses more on the feelings, emotions, and memories that are important or impactful to the author.
While key events may be present in the memoir, they're generally there in relation to the emotional journey the author experienced. They focus more on the life lessons learned, regrets, and those things the subject was grateful for over their life.
While both autobiographies and memoirs are nonfiction, you're more likely to get a chronological sequence of life events and professional achievements in an autobiography. In a memoir, you're more likely to get a collection of personal details and life experiences in terms of how they affected the subject emotionally and influenced their personality and decisions.
(Interested in publishing a memoir? Check out our step-by-step article on publishing a memoir!)
Some famous memoirs include:
- The Liars' Club by Mary Karr
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
- A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
Another good example is On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King. It's half memoir and half writing tips from one of the masters of fiction. The memories King shares give you an insight into his upbringing, his family, and his first successes as an author. But it's all in service of talking about writing fiction.
What is a Biography?
A biography is a nonfiction account of a person's life similar to an autobiography, with the major difference that it's not written by the subject. For this reason, biographies can be written any time. In fact, new biographies about famous historical figures are often released when new information comes to light.
Biographers use a number of different sources to piece together the information they need to give the reader a look into the subject's life. They may use interviews with those who were close to the subject (such as a family member or friend) and interviews with the subject him or herself. They'll use photos, news articles, diaries, and many other sources to present a cohesive, and usually chronological, biographical sketch of the person's life.
Sometimes, the author is someone who was close to the subject. Other times, it's a professional writer who didn't know the subject personally. A biography will usually cover childhood, professional experience, personal information, accomplishments, and key events in the person's life.
Some examples of famous biographies include:
- Steve Jobs: The Exclusive Biography by Walter Isaacson
- Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark
- His Excellency: George Washington by Joseph J. Ellis
A good example of a biography written by a relative is Virginia Woolf: A Biography, written by her nephew, Quentin Bell.
Biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs are all different ways to write about a person's life. Memoirs and autobiographies differ in their presentation and focus, but both are written by the subject. A biography is written by someone aside from the subject, who relies on various sources to present a thorough and (usually) chronological book of the subject's life story.
Although memoirs and autobiographies are “straight from the horse's mouth,” so to speak, they do allow room for some unconscious (or conscious) bias. Biographies are generally more objective because of the extensive research required to write about another person's life and accomplishments.
Now you know the difference between these three types of nonfiction books (not to mention some great recommendations for new books to read). Enjoy!