The Differences between Memoir, Autobiography, and Biography - article

Telling a person’s life story can be an exciting but daunting task, whether you’re telling your own story, or someone else’s story. There are three primary formats used to tell a life story – memoir, autobiography, and biography – each with its own, distinct characteristics. As a writer, it’s important to understand the differences in these often confusing, nonfiction genres.

Memoir

“Memoir” is from the French word mémoire, meaning memory or reminiscence. A written memoir is a collection of personal memories related to specific moments or experiences in the author’s life, connected to a person, event, place, or object. The writing is based on the author’s personal knowledge and is an intimate story about private or public happenings. For instance, it may be about the author’s experience of being held captive, overcoming addiction, fighting in a war, or living in a cult. It might be about a recurring event, such as spending every childhood summer at a family cabin. The topic is intentionally focused and will not include aspects of the author’s life beyond the selected scope. Events are included only if they are meaningful and relevant to the story.

"[Memoirs] should be true and based on the author’s best recollection, even if the truth is difficult and uncomfortable."

Memoirs are works of nonfiction. They should be true and based on the author’s best recollection, even if the truth is difficult and uncomfortable. Also, memoirs are narrative nonfiction, meaning they are written in story form and include dialogue. The author may not remember conversations exactly, but should represent dialogue and scenarios as accurately as possible.

Here are some other traits of a memoir:

- The author is the main character and the story is written from the author’s perspective using the first person singular voice (I, not we, one, or you).

- Unlike an autobiography that is written at the end of a life, a memoir can be written at any time because it is based on a specific time or experience.

- Memoirs are often less formal than an autobiography and focus on thoughts and feelings, reactions and reflections, seeking to connect with the emotion of an experience.

- Context, such as background information, is woven into the story but is not the focus of the story.

- Like a novel, it includes setting, character relationships, and dialogue.

Autobiography

An autobiography is a person’s life story, written by that person. The story is usually told in the first person because the writer is the main character of the story.  

While a memoir is limited in scope, an autobiography details the author’s entire life up to the present time and is expected to include public and private information about the author. The story starts when the author is young and includes detailed chronology, events, places, reactions, movements and other relevant happenings throughout the author’s life.   Unlike memoir that focuses on emotional connection, autobiographies focus on facts.  

Autobiographers use many sources of information to develop the story such as letters, photographs, and other personal memorabilia, but personal memory is the primary resource. These sources may  enrich the story and relay accurate and engaging experiences.

"...a good autobiography includes specific details that only the author knows..."

There are specific narrative techniques that appear in successful autobiographies. First, point of view is often detached, meaning the narrator recalls details from his or her past but then reflects on personal growth from the experience.  Second, the chronology is organized but not necessarily in date order. For instance, the author may start from current time and employ flashbacks or he may organize events thematically. Third, a good autobiography includes specific details that only the author knows and provides context by connecting those details to larger issues, themes, or events.  This allows the reader to personally relate to the experience. 

Here are some other traits of an autobiography:

- It is written from the author’s perspective using the first person singular voice (I, not we, one, or you).It is typically written late in life since it encompasses an entire lifetime.

- Like a memoir, it is narrative nonfiction, so the stories are true but also include storytelling elements, such as a protagonist (the author), a central conflict, and a cast of intriguing characters.

- The writer is always the center of his or her own narrative, while a historian who writes a biography is outside of the narrative in order to be objective.

- It is usually more formal than a memoir and more subjective than a biography.

Biography

A biography is the story of events and circumstances of a person’s life, written by someone other than that person. It is usually written about a historical or public figure and can be written with or without the subject’s authorization.

A biographer researches and studies a person’s life to collect facts and create a historically accurate, multi-faceted picture of that  individual’s  experiences. The biography includes intricate details such as birthplace, educational background, work history, relationships, and death. Biographers analyze and interpret events in a person's life, looking for meaning in their actions, uncovering mistakes, solving mysteries, connecting details, and highlighting the significance of the person's accomplishments or life activities. They often write in chronological order, but sometimes organize writings by themes or specific accomplishments or topics.

Biographies are written in the 3rd person and are often more impartial than an autobiography because they are based on research and facts rather than on subjective personal experiences. Biographers use many research sources, including interviews, letters, diaries, photographs, essays, reference books, newspapers, and other historical documents.

At their core, biographies, like autobiographies and memoirs, are meant to be engaging, compelling stories.  The biggest differences between the three genres are the role and perspective of the author, the level of subjectivity, and the scope of information covered in the story.

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  • I am on a learning curve. Thank you!

  • Thank you so much for this article. I was trying to figure out which direction I should take for my next project.

  • Nice explanations.  Never knew the differences until now.

  • Thank you for distinguishing the difference between biography, autobiography and memoir. I realize now that I want to write a memoir  Now the question is how to get started.

  • My name is Phyllis Barker-Pittman

    Thank you very much for this valuable information on the differences between memoir, autobiography, and biography. As a first time published author of a memoir and after reading the differences between the three, I hope my memoir was fairly close to your description of a memoir. I would really appreciate if you would take a few moments  of your time and read some parts of my book, if not all  and , as it is not very long (93 pages). It covers, including before my birth and the first twenty nine years of my life.  I have been told by a number of readers, it kept them interested and wanting to read more. The title of my book is "I'm Glad You Know Me?  A memoir of love, fate and forgiveness.