The Differences between Memoir, Autobiography, and Biography - article

Creative Nonfiction: Memoir vs. Autobiography vs. Biography

Writing any type of nonfiction story can be a daunting task. As the author, you have the responsibility to tell a true story and share the facts as accurately as you can—while also making the experience enjoyable for the reader.

There are three primary formats to tell a creative nonfiction story: memoir, autobiography, and biography. Each has its own distinct characteristics, so it’s important to understand the differences between them to ensure you’re writing within the correct scope.

Memoir

A memoir is a collection of personal memories related to specific moments or experiences in the author’s life. Told from the perspective of the author, memoirs are written in first person point of view.

The defining characteristic that sets memoirs apart from autobiographies and biographies is its scope. While the other genres focus on the entire timeline of a person’s life, memoirs structure themselves on one aspect, such as addiction, parenting, adolescence, disease, faith, etc.

They may tell stories from various moments in the author’s life, but they should read like a cohesive story—not just a re-telling of facts.

“You don’t want a voice that simply relates facts to the reader. You want a voice that shows the reader what’s going on and puts him or her in the room with the people you’re writing about.” – Kevan Lyon in Writing a Memoir

Unlike autobiographies and biographies, memoirs focus more on the author’s relationship to and feelings about his or her own memories. Memoirs tend to read more like a fiction novel than a factual account, and should include things like dialogue, setting, character descriptions, and more.

Authors looking to write a memoir can glean insight from both fiction and nonfiction genres. Although memoirs tell a true story, they focus on telling an engaging narrative, just like a novel. This gives memoir authors a little more flexibility to improve upon the story slightly for narrative effect.

However, you should represent dialogue and scenarios as accurately as you can, especially if you’re worried about libel and defamation lawsuits.

Examples of popular memoirs include Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert and The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls.

Key traits of a memoir:

- Written in 1st person POV from the perspective of the author
- Less formal compared to autobiographies and biographies
- Narrow in scope or timeline
- Focused more on feelings and memories than facts
- More flexibility to change the story for effect

 

Autobiography

Like a memoir, an autobiography is the author’s retelling of his or her life and told in first person point of view, making the author the main character of the story.

Autobiographies are also 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.

Unlike memoirs, autobiographies focus more on facts than emotions. Because of this, a collaborator often joins the project to help the author tell the most factual, objective story possible.

While a memoir is limited in scope, an autobiography details the author’s entire life up to the present. An autobiography often begins when the author is young and includes detailed chronology, events, places, reactions, movements and other relevant happenings throughout the author’s life.

“In many people’s memoir, they do start when they’re younger, but it isn’t an, ‘I got a dog, then we got a fish, and then I learned to tie my shoes’…it isn’t that kind of detail.” – Linda Joy Meyers in Memoir vs. Autobiography

The chronology of an autobiography is organized but not necessarily in date order. For instance, the author may start from current time and employ flashbacks or he/she may organize events thematically.

Autobiographers use many sources of information to develop the story such as letters, photographs, and other personal memorabilia. However, like a memoir, the author’s personal memory is the primary resource. Any other sources simply enrich the story and relay accurate and engaging experiences.

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 relate more personally to the author’s experience. 

Examples of popular autobiographies include The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.

Key traits of an autobiography:

- Written in 1st person POV from the perspective of the author, occasionally with the help of a collaborator
- More formal and objective than memoirs, but more subjective than biographies
- Broad in scope or timeline, often covering the author’s entire life up to the present
- Focused more on facts than emotions
- Requires more extensive fact-checking and research than memoirs, but less than biographies

 

Biography

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

Since the author is telling the account of someone else, biographies are always in third person point of view and carry a more formal and objective tone than both memoirs and autobiographies.

Like an autobiography, biographies cover the entire scope of the subject’s life, so it should include details about his or her birthplace, educational background, work history, relationships, death and more.

Good biographers will research and study a person’s life to collect facts and present the most historically accurate, multi-faceted picture of an individual’s experiences as possible. A biography should include intricate details—so in-depth research is necessary to ensure accuracy.

“If you’re dealing principally with historical figures who are long dead, there are very few legal problems…if you’re dealing with a more sensitive issue…then the lawyers will be crawling all over the story.” – David Margolick in Legal Issues with Biographies

However, biographies are still considered creative nonfiction, so the author has the ability to analyze and interpret events in the subject’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.

Authors often organize events in chronological order, but can sometimes organize by themes or specific accomplishments or topics, depending on their book’s key idea.

Examples of popular biographies include Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot.

Key traits of a biography:

- Written about another person, often a celebrity or public figure, and told in 3rd person point of view
- More formal and objective than both memoirs and autobiographies
- Broad in scope or timeline, often covering the subject’s entire life up to the present
- Focused solely on facts
- Requires meticulous research and fact-checking to ensure accuracy

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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.