One of the stereotypical author interview questions is “Are any of your characters based on real people?” And I’m always struck when an author answers “Yes.”
Usually, they’ll even share that so-and-so was based on such-and-such person. Sometimes they’ve based a character on a friend or family member. Sometimes they’ve based a character on an enemy. And sometimes they’ve based a character on a stranger, someone they watched at the grocery store or a celebrity.
We’ve all heard the saying (or own the mug), “Careful, or you’ll end up in my novel,” but I wonder how common that occurrence is. The few times an author answers with “yes” stand out to me, which could imply the reality is more uncommon than the stereotype.
The Potential Problems with Basing Our Characters on Real People
If an author admits they based a character on a family member or friend, I worry the character will be too nice, too perfect. After all, the author probably doesn’t want to offend anyone they care about by delving into their flaws. And how much growth could the character go through in that case?
Writing about an enemy seems more common (just don’t proclaim the name of person who inspired your villain, as I saw one author do), and this approach has the benefit of catharsis. However, good catharsis can make for bad fiction, with a bad guy as superficial as a mustache-twirling cartoon.
Maybe “Inspired by” is Safer than “Based on”
Letting ourselves be inspired by a stranger might be the safest way to go. We can be inspired by the smallest thing: the way a couple glares at each other over a restaurant table, the sigh from an old woman in line behind us at the post office, the accent of the barista at our local coffee shop.
In these cases, the inspiration is so minor that we avoid several problems. We don’t have to tiptoe around a character’s flaws. We don’t offend anyone when we put those character flaws on display. And most importantly, we don’t take shortcuts when going through the character development process, as can happen when we assume we already know all there is to know about a character.
Or Maybe We Do Neither…
Sometimes I use pictures of people to help me visualize characters, but keeping hair color or facial expressions in mind is different from copying personalities. As far as using character traits, I’ve written only one character that was inspired in even the loosest way by a real person. And by the time my muse was done, all commonality between the character and the real person was gone.
Instead, I usually meet my characters through my muse, and I learn about them piece-by-piece, the same way we do with anyone else. Other times, a voice will just start telling me their story. My characters aren’t inspired, much less based on, anyone real.
Does Genre Affect Our Character Inspiration Process?
But I wonder if I’m unusual in that regard. Maybe the fact I write paranormal stories means my characters are too “out there” to be inspired by real people. (I don’t know about anyone else, but I certainly don’t know a dragon shifter in real life. *smile*) Or maybe I subconsciously want to keep a sharp line between my fiction and my real life. (I don’t need people thinking my characters are based on me!)
My characters constantly surprise me by taking over the story and reacting in ways I’d never expect, in ways I’d never explore if I were basing them off someone real. I don’t want to limit myself or my characters, and I don’t want to start off with even too many preconceived ideas about my characters. But maybe that’s just me and an outgrowth of writing in the paranormal genre.
Let’s find out. *smile*
Does the stereotype exist for a reason? Do you (or the authors you read) base characters on real people? Are your characters “inspired by” real people? Or are they completely original to your muse? What genre you write (let’s see if that has anything to do with it)? If you base your characters on real people, how do you ensure your characters are three dimensional and have a story arc?Pin It