Real-Life Characters

  • By: Jessica Faust | Date: Mar 14 2011

I am writing my first YA novel and most of the characters in it are based on someone I knew in real life. What, if any, problems would this pose for me if the novel ever became published? Many of the people written in to the story gave me their blessing (over email or Facebook) before I began, but nothing “in stone”. I have changed all names and many obvious identifying characteristics, but if one of these people read my novel, which hopefully they will some day, there will be no question who the characters were based on.

I think it does pose problems for a number of reasons. You’ve gotten vague permission from people to use them in your novel, but let me tell you, people have a very different idea of what that means once they read the novel. Certainly things could be fine and no one could complain, but let’s face it, that’s not going to happen. One person is going to complain. At worst, that person could sue you for defamation of character if she feels she’s easily identifiable in your book and feels your portrayal is unflattering. At best, you could lose a lot of friends. Remember, we all have a bit of a warped view of who we are, and someone else’s vision of who we are can be a little shocking. For example, I was recently asked if I was “too nice” to be a really great agent. When I told my husband this he howled in laughter that anyone would ever think I’m “too nice.” I’m still trying to figure out how I should feel about this ;).

From a creative standpoint I wonder if writing this way is holding you back. There’s no doubt writers get a lot of their characters from the people around them, but from what I understand most take bits and pieces to create new people rather than simply inserting people they know in the book. In other words, one character is an amalgamation of the characteristics of many people, not just friends and family, but people they observe in public. Not only do I think this is safer, but I think it allows you the creative freedom to really let your characters be who they want to be or need to be rather than fit them into a mold.

Personally I worry less about the possibility that people will sue down the road and more about the fact that you aren’t really letting your creativity take the book to new places. That by limiting yourself to writing about the people you know, you’re not pushing the book to new heights.

I’m curious, though, what other writers think about this.


41 responses to “Real-Life Characters”

  1. Avatar Philangelus says:

    In my experience, basing a character fully on an actual person results in the death of the book.

    I do as you say, finding bits and pieces of people I love in all the characters I write, but so disassembled that most likely those people themselves wouldn't identify those pieces; sometimes I don't realize until later that someone might have been modeling for my subconscious.

    But in general, I like to keep my real people real and my created people created.

  2. Avatar Kimber An says:

    Hey, in my experience, the stage this author is at is the edge between Writing for a Hobby and Writing to Achieve Publication. It seems to me to be a very natural part of the maturing process for authors. I remember it as a scary place to be. She needs to decide what she really wants. If she wants to achieve publication, then she needs to let go of those characters and *embrace those of her own creation.* She can do it! She's right on the edge! The first step is to *let go* of those characters. The second step is to *trust your own imagination.* After that, you'll probably just take off and there'll be no stopping you!

  3. Avatar Moth says:

    I would also worry this might be a symptom of another pitfall of the novice writer– that is, writing a thinly disguised memoir instead of an actual novel.

  4. Avatar Fawn Neun says:

    A couple of the characters in the latest novel are loosely based on people I know, but throughout the actual writing process, it's impossible to have them completely true to life, and probably unnecessary and even worse, uninteresting.

    Are you sure that's how your friend would act under pressure? Can you be positive they would think that way, or that those are they're actual heartfelt values?

    I sometimes put bits and bobs of people I know inside my characters, but unless I was going to write a biography, I'd hesistate to build a character completely around someone I knew and I would definitely not tell them about it.

  5. Avatar wry wryter says:

    Using friends and family as characters is a lazy way to write unless what you are writing is a memoir. Using identifiers close to you is never as much fun as taking from those you know their appearance, quirks, and habits and adding ‘stuff’ to enhance them. You may think you are honoring your friends but you are not honoring you ability to expand.

    Your story may require a character to be a bad-ass but if that easily identifiable friend, who sits next to you in church, would NEVER shop lift, cheat on her husband, shake her baby, or use crack, then you will stifle your story.

    My first novel was filled with my memories and my friends. To me it’s a great book…to be stored in the bottom of my file cabinet. Now that it’s out of my system my writing world is a kick.

    Made-up is more fun.

  6. Avatar Ellery Adams says:

    I would recommend caution. Unless you paint all of these people as interesting, attractive, kind-hearted human beings, they will not necessarily approve of your depiction.

    Not only that, but you might find yourself holding back as a writer because you "know" your characters as real life people. The best characters have elements of those people, but are at least %85 fictional. That means that you are free to develop them as you see fit and are not held in check by realism (matching them to the people you know) or hoping not to offend the people they're supposed to reflect.

    Borrow some quirks and physical traits perhaps, but let your characters spring forth from the story and everyone will be happier in the end.

  7. Avatar S.P. Bowers says:

    I agree that you never know how people see themselves. Something you may think sounds positive isn't necessarily so to the one listening.

    An example: not long ago I was told by a friend that I was secret cool. Meaning I was a really neat person but not many people could see it. She thought she was giving me a compliment, but I didn't know whether to be happy I was "cool" or sad that most people couldn't recognize said coolness.

    It's all in the perception and perception is so individual you can't predict it.

  8. Avatar Christine says:

    I think there are human quirks and qualities that help writers make the characters more realistic. But I agree that to base a character completely on a real person limits the creative process. To me it would be similar to copying someone else's work.

    I love to watch people in a social setting. The mall is a great place to find ideas while watching people. But I don't write the character around a person I observe.

    Just my own personal preference. Thanks for sharing your ideas.

  9. I would seriously think about doing this. Not only for legal reasons but it's so much more fun to invent someone totally new and grow with them as a characters.

  10. Avatar Jane Steen says:

    My characters are formed from bits of myself (we are kidding ourselves if we think this doesn't happen) and sometimes bits of family members, but mostly they come from a "what if?" process of thinking. Their physical appearance is sometimes loosely based on people I know or knew, where I thought those people had interesting faces.

    I have laid aside one novel because one of the two MCs is a nasty amalgam of something I do not like about myself, and a too-close-to-the-bone portrait of someone I knew and disliked years ago. My critique group disliked the character and so do I. She's going to have to go!

  11. Are you sure the people would recognize themselves? James Herriott wrote famous "loosely" autobiographical stories about his life as a vet. His neighbours knew characters in his stories were based on them . . . but the funny part is, from what I've heard, that almost everyone believed they were someone else in his book! People don't see themselves the same way others do.

    I sometimes think it's the rough basics that people identify with most. I wrote a YA where the heroine has two best friends: one female, one gay male. Despite having nothing else in common but those basics, my own female and gay male best friends assumed they were based on them, and so did a couple other readers! Bizarre.

  12. Avatar Angie Fox says:

    I've never had to deal with that issue since I don't personally know any demon slayers or shapeshifting griffins, but I do know that sometimes your characters have to do things that many people would not label as "nice."

    Truly interesting protagonists are conflicted and will make risky choices. Don't get me wrong. They have to be well-motivated, but they are going to have to step outside the norm in order for you to have a compelling, interesting read.

    I'd have to think that in order to do that with someone real, you'd be setting yourself up for all kinds of, "but I'd never do that" scenarios. Make believe is much more freeing.

  13. Avatar Monica says:

    The bits and pieces method is best. We can only create characters based on everything we have experienced up to that point in our lives. Naturally there is the dash of invention, the what if factor which breathes life into fictional people and places.

    I would be cautious when taking characters directly from life because characters have flaws and your friends do too but they don't want to read about them.

    You may want to use some personality types you remember from your teen years but change them until they stop being your old friends and become a character with a personality of his/her own. Then as some others have already said, you won't be able to stop the story from flowing.

  14. Avatar Rondi Olson says:

    Mark Twain said "Truth is stranger than fiction but it is because fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities."

    I remember sitting at a conference where a memoir-masquerading-as-novel was being critiqued. When told something didn't make sense the writer kept saying "But that's what really happened."

    Even if we do base our novels on real life we'll never have a tight plot or believable characters unless we're willing to change things.

  15. As writers, we write what we know, stealing bits and chunks of real life to form our characters and story-lines. But be careful, people can be pithy when it comes right down to it, and things can become personal quite rapidly.

    Case in point, and mind you that I don't typically use such traceable detail, but I once used a very, shall we say, colorful cousin of mine in a short story. Said story was published, said cousin read it and now doesn't speak with me because, well, I took creative liberties, most of which she didn't care for.

    They story was well received otherwise, but not worth it–not at all.


  16. Avatar Rebecca Kiel says:

    I agree that this could be limiting. Few people I know would make really intriguing characters. Exaggerated qualities or emphasized quirks get our attention as readers. I wrote a novel about the consummate plain Jane. When it came down to it, she was just too plain. Her life was too close to the everyday-ness we all experience. I turned my manuscript upside down, shook it as hard as I could and a better idea fell out. She's far from plain now. After alot of revising, she's going to be far more interesting than anyone in my daily life. I think there are many women that will identify with her. That's a good thing. I'd suggest thinking of your characters as their own entities rather than looking toward people you know personally.

  17. Avatar Candice says:

    I don't think inherently there is any thing to worry about nor do I think it's necessarily a "lazy way to write." Most people use events from their own life to create a narrative. The problem that comes up is that writers often feel that they have to include "everything" because it's true, even though it doesn't add to the narrative arc of the story. The novel ends up muddled. With all novels, make sure that you have a premise and that your characters experience some kind of dynamic change. You are currently in the creative process. Just write it. If it's actually good enough to be published, have your friends read it then. If they feel they are recognizable despite the name change, have them sign a release at that point. Don't kill the creative process if you think you have a good story idea.

  18. Avatar Shane says:

    I agree with the notion… I never use "real" people in my stories. I may use parts of real people, but in general I build my characters from bits and bytes of everything. If you use "real" people, your characters are not going to come to life they way they should.

  19. Although I love my friends, most of the people I know — including most especially myself — are WAY too boring to be characters in a novel. At least in one that anyone would buy.

  20. Avatar Holly Bodger says:

    Betsey Lerner covers this topic in her book, The Forest for the Trees. I can't possibly say it as well as she does but she basically says that some people are always going to assume that you are your main character and your evil villain is your Aunt Suzie and some of those people (esp Aunt Suzie) might be pretty upset when they see what you've done with the character they see as themselves.

    I don't personally think there is anything wrong with using reality to create fiction. How else can we write what we know? But I also wouldn't do anything so obvious that it would hurt someone or compel them to sue. None of us get paid well-enough to throw money away on lawsuits. Okay, maybe JK Rowling, but none of the rest of us!

  21. Avatar AmyJo says:

    I agree, using real people in a novel is very limiting, with or without their consent. Nanobits and micropieces of people we know and the one moment in time from viewing strangers at a distance are much more fitting and useful.
    I love to very, very loosely mix and match vague ideas of personality traits, mannerisms, and quirks of real people with whatever else my mind can think of to create characters. None of my characters bring anyone I know to mind. Besides, our normal, everyday lives, our normal, everyday selves, just don't stand up to the imagined possibilites of writing and basing characters on real people would, I think, tend to limit how far we'd let our imagination roam.

  22. Avatar Snarky Mommy says:

    I have to disagree with your statement, Moth, "I would also worry this might be a symptom of another pitfall of the novice writer– that is, writing a thinly disguised memoir instead of an actual novel."

    That's not necessarily a symptom of a novice writer — there are plenty of authors out there who have taken a thinly disguised memoir and turned it into gold. Does "The Devil Wears Prada" ring a bell?

    With that said, I think we all use pieces of ourselves and people we know when we're creating characters. If they work, I don't see a problem with it, especially if you are changing names and characteristics. Although, a former maid of the author of "The Help" is suing for defamation of character, so who knows.

  23. Avatar Jen Kirchner says:

    I agree with Kimber An. I had done this, in a sense, with my first novel. (Actually, I took well known, James Bond-esque names – like Moneypenny, for example) and used them to name characters and pets. Funnily enough, I revisited this novel recently and started reworking it. Once I started changing the names, the characters became mine. The story became mine — more than it ever was before. The characters were no longer limited by preconceived notations of what the borrowed name or personality dictated.

    Overall, I agree with other posters who said this person needs to decide what their goals are. I would also guess they are relatively new in their writing journey. That said, my advice is to write that story anyway — borrow personalities and names if desired. If anything, it's a good practice book. Everyone here has one of those. 🙂

  24. Avatar Sarah Thomas says:

    If you asked Kathryn Stockett, author of the hugely successful book, "The Help," I'm betting she would say this is a terrbile idea. She's being sued by her brother's maid whose name and life story are eerily similar to a priminent character in the book. Stockett says she didn't base the character on her brother's maid, but she's got an ugly lawsuit on her hands just the same. Not only will I avoid intentionally basing a character on someone, I plan to spend plenty of time making sure no one I know can even imagine I was writing about them.

  25. Avatar S.P. Bowers says:

    Jane Steen
    I agree, all of my characters start with a bit of myself which is then mixed with bits of things I see in others and things that are completely made up.

  26. No one likes to think they are, whiny,demanding, annoying, cheap or full out obnoxious. yet characters need some neqative qualities to be vivid and three dimensional.

    I try not to use names of people I know while writing, just in case I start picturing that person instead of the character. It can cause the responses to be off with the character and if the friend recognizes him/ herself being portrayed in a less than stellar light it could really hit the fan.

    Rule of thumb for me, recycling a set of circumstances, yeah, recycling people, not so much.

  27. Avatar ryan field says:

    I base a lot of my fiction on personal experiences and I've never been afraid to admit that openly. Although I change characters around so no one ever recognizes anyone in real life, it's important to keep it real, too. In other words, you write what you know but you don't want to actually single anyone out on purpose. Discretion is important.

  28. Avatar AE says:

    Nail on the head there, Jessica. My characters have carbon copy traits of some people I've met. However, it's not quite so cut and dry. Some of it is fiction, some based on truth, and lots of mixing together.

    Also, she may just be pulling from those people because she's not quite sure how to really form a character and put them together. "Interviewing" the characters could help. They might not be as much like the people she knows after all…

  29. Avatar Anonymous says:

    I agree with Candice. I think there are bits of truth in even the most fantastic fiction. I write urban fantasy/paranormal. I don't really know anyone who can cast spells that work, or time travel but my characters do resemble people I know. I think what Candice said about letting people read it and having them sign a release before it's sold is a good idea. But I'd also point out that there are four elements of defamation of character that must be met for it to be a real problem. They would have to be easily recognizable, but they would also have to prove the unflattering things were untrue, that people believed the untrue things were true, and then prove damages.

  30. Avatar Elizabeth says:

    I let my friends read one of my first books, and they all got mad because they were each convinced one not-so-nice character was modeled after them. She was actually modeled after a character from Sunset Beach, an short-lived 90's soap that I adored way back when.

    It's bad enough to run into that when it's not true, but to tell them first and then have to deal with it? Yeesh.

  31. I usually just lurk, but today I'll weigh in. There isn't a writer alive that doesn't steal a little of this and little of that from someone they know/knew, but that should be it. I take traits, mannerisms, even physical attributes, but I never write a living person as a charachter.

    I have to agree with Jessica here, your imagination should be key – centre stage – steal a few traits, write them down as 'points of interest' leaving large gaps in between them on a sheet of paper and then fill in the blanks from your imagination, or, if your a pantser like me, those few little details will be all you need and your character will unfold as you type/write like a blooming flower.

    Never, ever build a character completely in someone's image (especially someone you know well).

  32. Avatar Lucy says:

    I think I'll comment from another perspective, just because nobody's brought it up so far:

    I write historical and sometimes more contemporary fiction, where actual stories and public figures play a part. Now. In the HF genre this has plenty of established precedent, but I think it needs to be handled carefully as well. Some writers choose to play fast and loose with the known facts, claiming that all's fair in fiction–and usually, the subjects are so long dead that a lawsuit isn't possible. Others, like myself, feel a strong responsibility to the people whose lives/stories we use. To me, that means treating the character or subject with respect, and sticking faithfully to the historical record.

    Now, if the public figure is still alive, it gets a little trickier. If you choose to use these people, you want to be extremely careful about what constitutes defamation. (They're probably safe enough as bit-part characters, but I wouldn't make any of them the main character. For instance, if you wrote about a fictional Secret Service agent protecting President Obama, you'd obviously include the President in at least a scene or two.)

    The law is a little looser on public figures than where others are concerned: still, you should know who and what constitutes one and where you must draw the line as a writer.

  33. Avatar Melissa says:

    My impression too is that the writer is very young or inexperienced. Creating a character that's like someone IRL right down to the letter was always a big, cardinal N-O in my fiction writing courses at university.

    I too think that most people we know are actually far less interesting than we find them. I also think that it takes a lot of objectivity on an author's part to truly create a well-rounded character if they use someone else as a template. It's far easier for me to write about people I don't know too well — those who simply leave an impression — than it is for me to write about those closest to me.

    I'm fine with using quirks, mannerisms and to a degree, an aspect of someone else's life to create a character, as long as it's extremely limited. One of my non-writer acquaintances is now writing a novel as a direct result of the Hocking media hoopla. Her characters are based on herself and people in her real life. It's a memoir with names changed. I've tried to explain why this will not work … aside from the fact that it just doesn't.

  34. Avatar Jane Steen says:

    Charlotte Brontë's novels contained easily recognizable portraits of her friends and neighbors. Nobody sued. But that was then…

  35. Avatar Victoria says:

    Every good character has internal conflict, issues to resolve and important goals. In my experience, you're less likely to find this in your nearest and dearest than you are in fictional characters. But even if your friends have issues and conflict, they're not so likely to want to see all that splashed over the page. Also, your made-up characters are going to be far more interesting than your friends, and much less likely to sue.

    My advice? Scrap the book.Tell everyone you've scrapped the book.

    And then start book two. And don't feel bad. No writing is ever wasted, because every word written improves you as a writer.

    WV; failo. Weirdly appropriate.

  36. Avatar G says:

    I usually take what I observe and who I know (either casually, intimately or in passing) and rework it to the point so that no one could possible recognize themselves.

    Learned the hard way with a self-pubbed that had too many identifiable details in it with a few people.

  37. The eternal question – where do your characters come from. In my case I don't use people I know. I use concepts.

    Let's take the pretty young (mid twenties) lady I saw in a store one night. She was dressed rather meh as my son would put it. Obviously she didn't care what she looked like. Her tits and ass were covered, and she was warm (important in February in Canada) bu other than that, her and her clothes looked like they'd come from a rag pickers bin.

    And since in my Fantasy novel I needed a poverty stricken female, well, the basic her got elected. The final character looked nothing like the girl I saw in the store. She was shiny clean. The character is covered in dirt. She had a prominent spare tire. The character is thin as a rail, has two young children, is fighting a constant and not always successful battle against starvation.

    What I took was the carelessness that the clothes were thrown on, and the way they were layered. That I could use. The rest I added myself.

    Being a writer is fun. Every time I see someone I'm doing an evaluation on their motivations, desires, abilities, drives, etc. Doesn't matter if I'm right or not. What matters is it keeps my mind spinning!


  38. Avatar Cat says:

    If this is your first book and you feel saver using "people" you know, write it the way you planned – and then put the manuscript in the deepest drawer you can find. Don't ever take it out again except for reminiscence moments. Your first objective is to learn how to FINISH writing a manuscript with up to 100K words. Your second objective is to learn how to REVISE it. It's a long and stony road to publication, and you will surely write more than this first novel before you will be publishable.

  39. Avatar Kristan says:

    Since a lot of people have already responded, I'll keep my thoughts brief:

    1. My boyfriend Andy did something similar in college when he published his book NEW HOUSE 5, and while strangers received the book/story really well, there was a huge fallout among our circle of friends. Some of the relationships never fully recovered; some never recovered at all. (And of course, a few came through completely unscathed.)

    2. I agree with Jessica's thought that sticking too closely to real life is possibly/probably a creative stifle.

  40. Avatar Whidget says:

    Unless the people you know have done what the characters in your book have done, you can't really use them AS the character. I mean, you're guessing how that person would react to a totally different set of circumstances. I had a few characters I'd based on people I knew and when they read the book they had NO idea I'd based the character on them. I think adding quirks you've seen in others can bring the book alive, but if you're writing about things that have actually happened, your book is likely to be boring…

  41. Avatar mary-j-59 says:

    This is interesting! Of course, bits and pieces of people we know and/or observe make their way into our characters, but I feel pretty strongly (as both Madeleine L'Engle and a livejournal friend remarked) that the single person any fictional character is based on is – and must be – that character's author. It's much safer to base your villains on yourself than it is to base them on your friends and neighbors, isn't it?