Thursday, March 13, 2014

Basing Characters on Real People: Where Should You Draw The Line?

It's Karlie again, and here's your question for consideration.

A lot of writers (me included) tend to base their story people on folks they actually know. While some - or most - of your relatives might be thrilled to discover they've been immortalized, the truth is they might see something they don't like. And despite your best efforts to assure them that you used only some of their habits and mannerisms, when the character does the name of your plot, they might be offended. Like picking their nose. Or drinking too much beer. Or telling too many corny jokes. Or blowing up the world.

And that can make for a lo-ong Thanksgiving dinner. Know what I mean?

All joking aside, it's way too easy to succumb to the urge to write your best friend into your manuscript.  But do you really want to do that? Think about the'll have to use some flaws, whether they're his/hers or not. And that's really easy to take the wrong way.
Personally, I've used some real-life people in my stories - but they're always disguised, and I never tell the person that I based So-and-So on them. Chances are they won't notice anyway - and even if they do, I've diluted the character enough to barely be recognizable.

So what about you? Where do you draw the line? Do you inform the person of their place in your story world?

Lisa: I'm usually too worried to base a character off of someone in real life, but I have "borrowed" names and life events. For example, my mother's friend died of cancer when I started my first book, so I started toying with the idea of using his name, Phaethon. I knew this was a mythological character, and when I researched the character, I couldn't believe how well this would fit. And the basic life event that happens to Phaethon, dying too young in a crash, is borrowed from my own high school boyfriend. This story basically started from a what if moment concerning my own life. So you could say I based this on my own life event...? Maybe I need therapy. :)

Oh, I think I just had an epiphany. I've almost given up on the idea of getting this first book, White Star, published. The circumstances surrounding my first story are too personal for me to be objective. I can't kill some of my scenes because the story is too close. So maybe it's not a good idea to write a story that's so close to your heart.

CaitlinThis is obnoxiously sweet, I know, but I’ve based most of my leading love interests off of my husband. He knows this (and likes it for the most part :) ). However, “base” is a strong word. I have friends and family who read my work and they’ve never, to my knowledge, recognized that these love interests are similar to my husband. Also, I see each character as being pretty separate from the other characters. How can this be when they’re all “based” on the same person?

What I’m actually doing is taking a few aspects of my husband, expanding/exaggerating/flexing those aspects, and adding additional aspects that aren’t related to him at all. Voila! I have a character that is new but still feels like someone I know.

Even the aspects that I directly use aren’t directly applied. For example, I noticed the dichotomy between my husband’s “professional” side, which often has to deal with serious criminal issues, and his “fun” side, which can be rather silly. Some days, the more serious the case he has to handle, the more he has to make jokes and be funny later, while he’s unwinding with me. I applied that exact attribute to a leading character in my book. However, the character doesn’t have the same profession as my husband. He just has a profession (cop) that would deal with similar issues and also often requires a stern demeanor. Again, nobody noticed that the way he vacillates between somber professional and goofy boyfriend was based on my husband.

I do “base” other characters on other people I know, but, as mentioned above, I play with them to the point that they are just a glimmer of their original muse once I’m done with them. Still, having a real-life person as inspiration is helpful.

What are your thoughts on the matter? We'd love to hear your opinions/experiences!


  1. I have never based a character on a real person I know well. I'm pretty sure I'd just be asking for trouble. ;)

    Sometimes, I use famous people as models for how characters look (I can't be the only one, right?). Also, the physical description of one of my characters is based on a cashier at a gas station I went to once. I saw her and knew a character had to look like that.

    Beyond that, I pick individual elements of people I know and use those, but I don't think normally anyone would notice. Plus, almost every character I write - even the antagonists - are all somehow myself in some exagerrated, completely, totally twisted form. So if my characters are based on anyone, then it's me.

    Oh, and I do use names of people I know, but I ask them first if it's okay. :)

  2. Hi, Laura, thanks so much for commenting. :)

    I know what you mean about basing characters on celebrities' looks! And you're not the only one. I've used Kate Winslet and Brendan Fraser before.

    I'm glad you stopped by! I hope you'll continue to hang out here. :)

  3. I use Istock photos for images of my characters, thought I have used famous people too :)

    I definitely agree with you Laura that in some ways all of my characters are also sort of "based" on me. :)

  4. My sister said that she saw a little of me in my first book's main character, but I didn't see it. :) I didn't do it intentionally. I never thought about it that way, Laura, but I guess we do put a little of ourselves in our characters.