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September 6, 2012

Are Your Characters Based on Real People?

"Careful, or you'll end up in my novel" mug

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?

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Ruchita
Ruchita

Hi Jami, thabks for another great, thought-provoking post. I agree with you in that I could never base my characters on real people. It would be too weird acting out the situation I put them in. But at some level people do inspire us and creep into our stories in unexpected ways. I once wrote a character’s reaction to a tragedy in his life and found tears on my cheeks because I couldn’t help thinking of how it felt to lose my father. So somewhere our own visceral reactions to people and incidents do figure in what we write.
Thanks again for the fresh angle!

Melinda Collins

I usually go with the “Inspired by” route when I’m doing character sketches. For me, the main character – usually the heroine – comes to me first, then I end up having to find a picture of someone to represent her (and that’s usually an actor or someone along those lines). Once I have the picture, I go through the character sketch, which is loosely based on the questions in The Plot Whisperer. I definitely make a point to not mix the person in the picture and the character I’m creating – as in no thinking about their flaws or strengths whatsoever.

Though I will admit that I have secretly imagined someone I dislike as the antagonist, but only for a particular scene so I can get out some of that stress. But I’d never say who it was or anything like that in an interview. I like my life as stress-free as possible. 🙂

Great post, Jami! 😀

Tami

I never base on real people, either. It’s too easy to offend someone, and having a blanket “nope, never!” makes refusing a friend’s half-joking “Write me into your book!” a looooooot easier.

That being said, I may artistically borrow character traits from other fictional characters. =]

Gilliad Stern
Gilliad Stern

There have been a few times that I will base one of my characters on someone I know. I just normally don’t tell that person that they are the main focus for my character. I mix in some other aspects so it isn’t blaringly obvious who the character is based on, but normally I don’t get asked.

Fictional character are also a good source for traits.

Gene Lempp

I’m not sure any character is truly original, but perhaps that is just my way of thinking. I’ve never intentionally based a character on anyone but “elements” of every character I’ve ever made are “inspired by” people I know or have bumped into. Those elements get mashed together and a character emerges.

Great post, Jami 🙂

Carradee

Are my characters fictionalizations of real people? Absolutely not.

My characters are “completely original” (which is good, considering most are some form of not right in the head), but they might have details pulled from or inspired by people I know or myself. And this despite the fact that I write fantasy.

For example, Evonalé’s hair comes from a friend of mine, her sensitive skin from me, and her morbid streak probably stems from my mother.

It’s actually more common for me to put a trait/name/etc. in a story and then meet someone who illustrates that. Which was sorta weird when I was an office administrator and wrote characters with uncommon names, only to have someone with that name walk in to put in an application later that week. (It happened more than once.)

Kerry Gans

When my best friend and I were teenagers first exploring writing in any serious depth, our heroines were always and obviously based on some facet of ourselves. As I got older, and grew into writing more, I rarely base any characters on real people, especially myself. But I do think that bits and pieces of real people do get scattered into our characters. Maybe not in a way that we can point to, but when we reach for a realistic reaction or gesture or character flaw or trait, we likely draw on the vast store of subconcious knowledge we have about the people who have touched our lives–even if it’s a stranger in a store.

So, I don’t conciously base characters on people (I write MG/YA, mostly with a fantasy or paranormal edge), but I think details of people I know seep in–including from myself!

Amanda

The only time I’ve ever ended up with a character based on a real person was the trilogy I completed last year…and that person was me. It was completely unintentional, but the MC (according to a few beta readers who know me extremely well) had more than a few character traits in common with me. Um, oops?

Buffy Armstrong

Does naming your characters after your cats count? I have a Silas and Agatha and I’ve mentioned the Beast of Lakewood more than once… Joking aside, I try not to take too much from real life. I have a weasely ex-boyfriend that I’d like to have horrble things happen to in a book, but I try to control myself.

However, just the other day, I overheard a conversation with two cashiers at my grocery store and one was bragging about her nephew and the other was talking about this other guy of the same name in prison for murdering someone. Gave me a great idea for a character, two characters actually.

Tamara LeBlanc
Tamara LeBlanc

Hi Jami!
Hmm, good questions.
I happen to LOVE the show Supernatural, huge fan, HUGE! Me and my daughter can’t get enough (my husband even digs the Winchesters) and since I know every episode up ,down, sideways and backwards. And Since I feel like I know the Winchester brothers personally (umm, yeah, I know it’s just a show and Jensen Ackles and Jared Padelecki are only actors;) I tend to use tiny bits and pieces of Dean and Sam’s personalities in my stories. I can’t help it. Those two characters are so heroic (and hot) it’s only natural thered be glimpses of them in my romance novels.
And in answer to your question, I ensure that my characters don’t read like cardboard cut outs by keeping them real. Real people have faults, they make mistakes and often fail. The writers of Supernatural make sure that the Winchester brothers are flawed, so to tell you the truth, I’ve actually learned a lot about writing from just watching TV.
🙂
Have a great weekend!!
Tamara

Julie Glover

I have noticed after writing a character that some aspect of him/her reminds me of a real person I’ve known, but no one is completely based on someone I’ve known. It just happens that I pick up on traits, mannerisms, habits, etc. of people around me and may unwittingly incorporate that into the novel. But it really is that line in movies and books like “any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”

Fiona Ingram

I find I use real people about 75% of the time. If I get stuck (no real victim available) I think about my story as a film, and picture the actor I’d like to play the part. A few images from the Internet can inspire one enormously. Actors play a wide variety of characters so it’s not hard to pick out one or two that fit the story.

Jessica Schley

I think the stereotype exists because a lot of people don’t understand how writers create fiction, especially if the work isn’t fantasy or paranormal or sci-fi. I encounter a lot of folks who can’t fathom the idea that a world that is just like our world could still be entirely made up when it comes to people and places. So they’re looking for the protagonist to “be” the author, and other characters to be people in the author’s life.

To answer the question, any of my characters are definitely “inspired by,” if they have any relation to real people in my life at all. Mostly they’re just the people who live in my head and ran away with me.

Now the thing I *do* rip from real life? Interiors of houses. I am terrible at describing space, so my characters always live in houses I’ve spent time in over the years so that I can consistently put their bedrooms in the same place, the kitchen and the living room in the same place, etc.

Susan Sipal

I’m more of a plot-driven writer than character, though it can vary by story. So I’ve found over the years that letting real people inspire me helps me draw my characters more realistically. For me, I think the “inspire” rather than the “based on” is much more true, because they are always a mix of people I know combined with the demands of the story. I doubt anyone would ever recognize themselves in my story (though my mother tried to in a mother that was totally NOT based on her), but they could recognize characteristics.

Steven M. Moore

Hi Jami,
Interesting post and comments. Here’s my take: If you’re not a people watcher, it’s hard to write more than 2d-characters or stereotypes. It’s also hard to write about characters’ body language. That said, you should never base your character on one single person.
It’s said that Crichton in one of his last books did so by developing an unflattering portrait of someone. Well, he’s Crichton and he’s dead, so he can’t be sued for libel and/or slander. My advice here is to use a strongly annealed alloy of several people if you must base your character on real people.
A fun twist on this is to use a character’s name that is close to or similar to another author’s character. In The Midas Bomb, I named a bloviating Wall Street mathematical analyst John Galt and killed him off. Some will recognize the name. It’s a private little joke that Alan Greenspan would not have liked, but he’s dead too.
All the best,
Steve

Melissa
Melissa

When I wrote my first full length book, I used a difficult situation from a friend of mine’s life. I told her what I was doing, she read the first chapter and was pissed because she believed it was her life I had written on the page. She read 10 pages out of 260 and refused to read more. Learned that lesson the hard way. But the book wasn’t about her, I used a situation she was in as the starting catalyst to the story.

William

When I saw your post I was reminded of something that I read on the [old, crappy] official J.K. Rowling website. I can’t find the site now (I think it’s been re-vamped). At any rate, I remembered enough of the quotes to find it on another fan site. I thought you might find it as funny as I did:
She says: “I have only once set out to depict somebody I have met and, unlikely though it might seem, the result was Gilderoy Lockhart. I assure you that the person on whom Gilderoy was modelled was even more objectionable than his fictional counterpart. He used to tell whopping great fibs about his past life, all of them designed to demonstrate what a wonderful, brave and brilliant person he was. Perhaps he didn’t really believe he was all that great and wanted to compensate, but I’m afraid I never dug that deep. You might think it was mean of me to depict him as Gilderoy, but you can rest assured he will never, ever guess. He’s probably out there now telling everybody that he inspired the character of Albus Dumbledore. Or that he wrote the books and lets me take the credit out of kindness.”

Bwaahaaahaa. You just know it’s TOO TRUE that that kind of person would NEVER GUESS that they are the idiot, not the hero.
(Hey, wait a minute, when I’m reading, I usually think of myself as the hero, too… Uh oh…)
Anyway, thought you’d enjoy. Have a great weekend!

Madeleine Miles
Madeleine Miles

Hi! *waves*
So I felt a bit guilty when I read this, because I often write my characters based loosely on friends, enemies, or other characters from stories I’ve read. Shamey shame on me. 🙁

But then as I read farther, I realized that that’s not really true at all. I build my characters around qualities I find interesting or admirable in other people. So after my story is told, those characters are really not very much like their inspiration at all, (I hope) but the seed of who they are was taken from someone else.

I also have to fight the tendency to make myself the MC, and this is for two reasons: The first being that I don’t have any magical powers, and I SO wish I did! (Shzam! I can start fires with my mind! Mwahaha!) The second being that I live every day in my own shoes, so when I ask myself, ‘what would she do in this situation?’ obviously the easiest answer is taken from my own experience.

So I have to fight that in order to make unique, diverse characters, particularly the ones who do pretty much what I would never ever think of doing in a million years!

Also, I think it’s fabulous that you also have a story involving dragon shifters! 😀 I hope to read it someday!

Erin Pike

I know –I’m surprised at how many people admit to doing that! I never actually use anyone from real life, although I may use traits and characteristics from different people I’ve run accross. In a way, we can only really draw from our experiences (the people we’ve encountered in life), but I’ve never actually taken a particular person and tried to recreate them in prose. Besides, half the fun of fiction-writing is the creativity! I want my own characters, darnit. 😉

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[…] often addressed. Mary Kole talks about using impartial observers as narrators; Jami Gold wonders if your characters are based on real people; and S.J. Higbee discusses gender in writing—is your narrator a male or […]

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Hannah Marie
Hannah Marie

Hi I just wanted to ask, I’m writing a fictional novel and the protagonist is based on a real woman who is now dead (murdered in 1500’s).

Although I began writing the outline for the story before reading about this woman, she inspired me to change my story a little, some of the events in my story are loosely similar to her story. I changed the spelling of her name and the date and she is the only character in my story that is loosely based on a real living person.

Could this be classed as plagiarism even though my story is totally fictional, set in between the real world and a fictional world? Thanks, -Hannah x

Sheogorath

Personally, I think that basing characters on real people gives an author a ready-made character, and is just too easy. That’s why I prefer to use elements of real people (the way they talk, for example), then add in fictional stuff to round them out. Far less lazy, and good practice for writing full plots.
You said to Hannah: ” Plagiarism is copying the recorded words of someone else (and not giving credit).”
Not quite. Plagiarism is copying the recorded work of others and causing people to believe that you’re the creator, in which not giving credit is only a possible factor. After all, who’s going to seriously believe I wrote ‘Hamlet’s Soliloquy’ if I quote part of it and never mention Shakespeare’s name?

Arletta
Arletta

A good psychiatrist would not only argue that all characters are based on real people, but, analyze you into pieces until they could show you exactly who your characters were based on and how. Maybe you don’t know a shape shifting dragon, or whatever it was you said, but, you might know a two-faced neighbor who destroys people’s lives, so then, figuratively, is a shape-shifting dragon. There are four choices for what is written. 1. It comes from God (The Holy Scriptures). 2. It comes from demons (Aleister Crowley) 3. It’s plagiarized. 4. It’s from the writer, so inspired by their experiences in life. Even if it is 1, 2 or 3 , it is usually still 4, though. You can tell the difference between the writers who acted as instruments in the Holy Scriptures – Luke does not sound like James or Moses, so, who and what they were and observed still colored their writing and that wasn’t even fiction. You can still tell the difference between Aleister Crowley’s writing and the Egyptian Book of the Dead, even though they both are supposed to be inspired by demons concerned with Egyptian myth, because, Aleister Crowley wrote about what he knew, felt and experienced, even as he wrote what he was told to write. I have a character that many people think is based on me. I didn’t intend it to be, and, other people would disagree heavily, but, there it is, all the same. He is not supposed to…  — Read More »

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