Charles Portis was born in 1933 in El Dorado, Arkansas. He was raised and educated in various towns in southern Arkansas, including Hamburg and Mount Holly.
During the Korean War, Portis enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and reached the rank of sergeant. After receiving his discharge in 1955, he enrolled in the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. He graduated with a degree in journalism in 1958.
Portis began writing in college, for both the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville student newspaper, Arkansas Traveler, and the Northwest Arkansas Times. One of his tasks was to redact the colorful reporting of "lady stringers" in the Ozarks, a task credited as a source for the vivid voice which he created years later for his character Mattie Ross in True Grit. After Portis graduated, he worked for various newspapers as a reporter, including almost two years at the Arkansas Gazette, for which he wrote the "Our Town" column.
Portis moved to New York, where he worked for four years at the New York Herald Tribune. His work led him to return to the South frequently to cover civil rights–related stories during the early 1960s. After serving as the London bureau chief of the New York Herald Tribune, he left journalism in 1964, returned to Arkansas, and began writing fiction full-time.