Creating Characters Based on People You Know

By Kathryn Schleich

I’ve attended seminars where authors have discussed creating characters that are based not only on real people, but those that they’ve had a personal rapport with. It might be casual, someone an author is close friends with, or a business associate. There are pros and cons to developing a character in your book that is based on a real person, especially when their real name is used.

On the pro side, people are generally flattered that a writer has named a character after them with their actual traits or physical characteristics. At the aforementioned seminar, an author related using the real name of a colleague. While the individual was initially pleased, after reading the book, he mentioned being disappointed at how small his role played in the story. This assertion caught the author by surprise, as the person complained about it publicly. What the author learned from the experience was to ask a person’s permission to be featured as a character, and to be clear about the scope of their role. That is great advice, especially since this seemingly positive situation turned into a negative.

As a general rule, I do ask friends if it’s alright for me to write a character based in part on them. I haven’t had anyone who wasn’t thrilled. Full disclosure though: The friends I create characters after are apt to be on the right side of the law and are people I enjoy. On the other hand, I have named characters or used a similar name for people who I’ve had a negative experience with at various points in my life. In the real world, these people were not flat-out killers. However, they were often vindictive, unscrupulous or cruel. The reader may not realize it, but as the author, I know the punishment these characters suffer is often deserved, and serves as a personal catharsis.

After writing “Missing Pieces,” I learned another valuable lesson. In the book, a character who was loosely based on a real person (the name and physical attributes were much different) was the victim of a crime. As the book was going to press, I discovered the person this character was based on was quite the opposite—he was engaged in risky activities that were quite possibly criminal. Too late to change the character in the book, it was a gut punch. I was frustrated I’d misread this person so completely.

There are pros and cons to writing characters based on people you know. As with the author whose colleague was upset like an actor who doesn’t get enough screen time, people’s reactions may surprise you. Explain your idea and ask permission before you’re invested in their fictional creation. By taking a few extra steps, everyone will be a lot happier.

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