Autobiographies: Are There Any Rules?

So far, we’ve talked about fiction works and their rules–but writing comes in many forms, including those works that tell us a little bit–or rather, alot–about yourself.

But what rules are there to follow for autobiographies? Some sources would say that the autobiography (like fiction / non-fiction stories) needs a protagonist and a conflict (or antagonist). Others would say that it should have a central theme and at least be an interesting story. This is all true, but the main thing I want you to remember (again) is that an autobiography is supposed to tell us about you. However, I wouldn’t recommend getting so caught-up in telling us about yourself that you forget to describe details of your setting.

How do certain foods taste on your tongue? What are the smells of your surrounding an environment? What sounds do you hear throughout your story? Remember the five senses–sight, sound, smell, taste, feeling–and your audience will remember your story 🙂








In addition to some of these rules I’ve already mentioned, there is another method to use in determining how to make your autobiography successful–learning how others succeeded in the same field.

LifeHack cites 15 autobiographies that are worth our time to read. While I won’t list-off all the good qualities they mention, it is worth stating a few (and you can see the rest in their article).

Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, for instance, is compelling because it tells us about the livelihood and culture of the 18th century–a century that is new to the modern generation whose only experience is with today’s technological advances. (And when your own autobiography of today is read by an audience of the future, they’ll be curious to see how life was before the age of human robots, flying saucers, or holographic trees.)



Nelson Mandela’s autobiography allows us to walk with him from the days of his childhood to the time he is an adult. It’s one thing to start us off with the story of your older age–but the adventure of learning how you grew from the time you were a kid is a whole adventure in itself.

However, I’m not saying that you have to wait until you’ve lived to be an elder to start writing an autobiography. If anything, the best time to start is now. Your current word choice and speech will likely be different from the way you’ll talk in the future–and an autobiography that shows that is surely authentic and worthy of praise. Show us how you blossomed.



And while you’re at it, give us some insight into your own philosophy on life–just like Ghandi did. How do you see, perceive, or view the world around you? What are your opinions about your own life and the lives of others?


Historically, the autobiographers I’ve cited thus far are male because many women were raised in environments (back in the older centuries) where writing was not taught to them. Nowadays, there are some women autobiographers out there. Malala tells us how she stood-up for the right to education–even though she was one girl against such a big world.

Then there is the autobiography of Sue Kleboid (mother to Dylan Kleboid–one of the young men responsible for the Columbine tragedy in 1999). Think about it–who wouldn’t want to read the story of a mother whose son did such a horrible thing? We wonder what her thoughts were and how she’s coped with the heartbreaking news all these years.

But this isn’t saying that your autobiography has to measure-up to the works of others. While you may think your story isn’t exciting or interesting enough, your audience could beg to differ. Truth be told, my own autobiography could be the kind of story told many times before.

But what makes your story different is how you handled certain situations (think of it as that “character development” rule we writers follow when making our stories). Anyone could have lived in the days of the Civil War–but the way each person responded to those days is what we want to hear about. You’re the only one who’s lived your life–not me, nor anyone else–and only you can tell us the story.




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