Write Who You Know (?)

By Clare Langley-Hawthorne

I’ve often been asked whether I have any characters in my novels based on real-life people It used to seem strange to me that many would-be writers seemed so concerned about real people suing them over characters in their novels. This is probably because I’ve never overtly based a character on anyone I actually know. Until now…

To be honest I’m still pretty nonchalant about the whole issue. It’s not like I’m incorporating anybody famous or likely to sue for defamation. From what I’ve heard from many writers, even when they did write a character based on someone they knew, that person didn’t recognize it was them anyway! All too often people who know you either erroneously assume they are one of your characters or fail to see the glaring resemblances to those who you do include:)

In my latest WIP I do have a character drawn from a person I actually know  (someone who basically would have made a good Nazi…) but I am creating a fictional composite nonetheless. Although there are some core (evil) traits which have caught my eye, I am conscious that I am writing a novel not a memoir and so the real life person really provides only a jumping off point for my character to develop. (Nonetheless I am looking forward to this character coming to a ‘sticky end’ in the book – call it a kind of karmic catharsis that cannot be achieved in real life!).

I think when including characters based on actual people, writers should probably be aware/think of the following:

  • Be mindful that you may run afoul of defamation laws if what you have done is so obvious that most readers would recognize the person and think less of them in real life (there are of course a myriad of laws/cases and exceptions and a discussion of the complexities of the law is beyond what this post requires:). Usually the person would have to be pretty well known and have a reputation that could be compromised by what you write (and I’m guessing that most people’s Aunt Maud or Cousin Loopy wouldn’t fit this bill).
  • Consider the consequences of including any characterization that is instantly recognizable as someone you know (be it friend, family member, colleague) carefully. You need to understand you could cause offence and/or alienate people as a result.
  • Understand too that many people close to you will assume (correctly or incorrectly) that they must be a character in your book and will scour the pages trying to identify who they might be. You should plan on how to respond  because 99.9% of the time they will be totally wrong. 
  • Other than that, recognize that everyone creates characters based on their own experiences, memories and the people they have known. It is therefore inevitable that some aspects of people’s lives or characters will pop up and inhabit a writer’s imaginary world.  

So have you ever consciously included a character in one of your books based on someone you know? Were they ever the victim or perpetrator? Did anyone ever recognize themselves as a character in your book and if so, were they right? 

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27 thoughts on “Write Who You Know (?)

  1. It’s absolutely no secret to anyone that my protagonist is my husband. I needed everyone to love my protagonist and the only way I know how to do that, at this point, is paint the picture of my husband from my pov. He’s perfect because he’s completely flawed which makes him tragically tortured. He is tickled pink that he actually gets a really idea of what it’s like to see him through my eyes. 🙂

  2. I once wrote a story with a bunch of people who annoyed me as the characters. We weren’t really friends–just acquaintances–and I took what I saw of their personalities and blew it up into caracature. Nobody ever caught on because my renditions were my interpretations of people from the outside. Since I don’t know their hearts and thus couldn’t write that, they never realized who I based the characters on.

    It’s fun to take a real person and write an exaggerated caracature. The fashion-sensitive girl becomes a pop culture slave. The guy who keeps body spray in his car becomes a total metrosexual. And on it goes. Because exaggeration is fun to read.

  3. When I need names for minor characters, I’ve been known to pick a few of my crazy relatives and maybe give them speaking parts. I once had my funny uncle be a detective looking for hookers or my aunt became a crabby nurse. My parents were undercover spies in one book. Those scenes still make me cry with laughter, only because I know what I did and who they are.

    In a recent YA book, I made my dear friend and old boss a dastardly villain. Sweetest most wonderful guy and best boss I ever had, but I used his name (last name only) as a henchman, nasty dude.

    I’ve also been known to give my rescue dogs cameo appearances. Since it’s fiction, I can make them obedient and able to fetch frisbees.

    Recently, I had a contest where the prize was getting their name used as a character. I’ve learned to get a signed waiver, similar to a model release, and did that. But the winner sent me a dozen or so quirks or unique things about them that I incorporated into the character. Those idiosyncrasies were so much fun to include and made the character more memorable and fun to write. I had a blast doing it.

    • Interesting contest premise especially with the waiver. Never thought of including that but probably for the best! I love how you used your parents as undercover spies!

  4. I’ve done it for supporting characters, almost always good guys. The exception are for a couple of friends–and one relative–who specifically asked to be a bad guy. A good time was had by all.

    As for using “real” people in general, I’m more likely to cherry pick a characteristic, never to use the entire person, and the people I use may be real, or fictional. Or actors, who may qualify as both. For example, “this lawyer needs to have some Billy Flynn in him.”

    • I agree Dana – I like to cherry pick characteristics and I know I’ve used many quirks from real life people as a starting point for some of my secondary characters.

  5. I don’t typically worry about real life people showing up in my writing. People are going to make all kinds of assumptions about which characters are a composite of “themselves”. How arrogant. 😀

    Who cares, sue me. My response, “your perception of yourself isn’t the same as my perception of you, so how in the world do you come up with this character must be you?”

    Silly people!

    • One always has to be careful about doggie characters. Kill off as many humans as you like in your novel but be prepared for reader outrage if you kill off a beloved dog!

  6. Very insightful…

    I have a question.

    I have used characters in my wip that currently, hold or have held their positions—such as police officials. And have also used several lyric parts giving credits to the band and writers—such as The Moody Blues.

    What could possibly be the dangers if any, or what are my options?

    • It’s not illegal to use real people as characters or mention their name, but it is legally dangerous, particularly if you don’t portray them in a positive light.

      In most cases, quoting and attributing is safe because it’s fair use, but not in the case of music quotations because those in control of policing this will go after you for even quoting a few words, and they will charge you more than what you’d make on a book just to quote a few lines if you ask.

    • I think you just have to be careful. I’m not an expert on fair use or defamation laws but I’d recommend you might want to pass the MS to someone who does before going public.

  7. I base characters on people all the time, but only in broad strokes –an accent, a gesture, the type of dialogue they’d use. If I knew a sociopath, I’d definitely study him or her for some key behaviors or mannerisms. But I’d be extra careful to disguise the source, perhaps by changing the gender, age, and other characteristics. Just because someone inspires a character, writing about him or her doesn’t defame the person. I think newbie writers worry about that kind of thing too much,

    • I agree on the worrying too much – as this seems to be something that most newbie writers raise with me – and it should hardly be their primary concern (a good story should:)) For my latest WIP I couldn’t pass up the chance to incorporate some characteristics from this particular real person – only chance I’ll probably ever have to meet a real sociopath!

  8. I’ve never really put real life people into my characters in the past, but in my WIP I’m cautiously treading the dangerous ground of basing the primary protagonists on my own family. A fair portion of supporting characters are based on real people as well.

    Not sure how this is all going to turn out, but I have to keep reminding my wife and kids that whatever happens the characters are fictional. While my wife will not likely read the book, my sons will so care must be taken. Don’t want to blow 25 good years with the same woman over a story.

    • You are either very brave or crazy, Basil! I have avoided using any family members except those who are long deceased (I’m too much of a wimp!)

  9. The only time I ever ripped off someone’s life was an editor I once worked for at the newspaper. He was an ass and a sexist pig. He died a horrible death in my book when he crashed a cigarette boat into a bridge piling on the Miami river and burned to a crisp. Bwahaahahahha!

  10. I have a friend who was upset because a rather flamboyant character wasn’t based on her.

    The only “real” person I have ever used as a general basis of a character has died so it’s safe to say that my bad guy in my first novel had a lot in common with him, and I enjoyed killing the jerk. He he.

    • Isn’t it funny how some friends are just convinced you must have based a character on them. They should realize that if you did and that character comes to a ‘sticky end’ maybe, just maybe, it’s not a good thing…

  11. I had a friend that shot, killed his alcoholic abusive father. I worked that act into a story, a supporting character

  12. The line I try not to cross when incorporating real people into my works is the one between “actual” and “likely”. I stay away from the reporting of real events or quotes from people I know, and instead use the psychological and desirous elements that led to the event that drew my interest. Rule of thumb: “actual” is likely to get you sued, while “likely” isn’t actually harmful.

  13. The villain in my first novel — I have been doing non-fiction primarily — is going to be based on a local school board trustee. Read a story about last night’s board meeting and said…there he is…my villain.

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