Real Life Characters

Nancy J. Cohen

She looked like a witch straight out of the Harry Potter series. Wild curly blond hair. All black outfit including a jacket with unusual cuffs and an odd pendant necklace. Black boots. I did a double take when I saw her. Had a Harry Potter store opened in the Mall at Millenia where I was shopping? Or had she come from work at Universal Studios, still in her costume?


This strange apparition strolled through the mall to the apparent indifference of anyone except myself. And this reaction brought home the claim I’d made in Warrior Prince, my first Drift Lords adventure that takes place in Orlando. People are so used to seeing themed characters in this city that they don’t think twice about someone striding around in costume. Thus when my space-faring warriors show up in their uniforms and bearing arms in this story, no one reacts to their unusual attire.


I am still curious about this person I saw in the mall. Was this the way she normally dressed? Did she believe herself to be a witch like in the Potter saga? Or was she an employee who needed to stop off at the mall before going home to change? That mass of blond hair could easily be a wig. The only thing missing was a magic wand. Or is this my imagination taking flight?


It’s not the first time I’ve been inspired by a random character. This happened to me once before on a cruise. I noticed a beautifully dressed older woman with a head of white hair and designer duds. I turned her into a countess in my cruise ship mystery, Killer Knots. It’s just so exciting to see someone who can inspire one’s creativity. Our writer’s voice whispers in our ear: “What if…?” What if this costumed character is an evil superhero from another universe? Or a nutty theme park employee who believes herself to be her fictional character? Or…the possibilities dazzle me.

When have you been inspired by a real life character you’ve encountered?

30 thoughts on “Real Life Characters

  1. Happens all the time with me. I can’t help it. I see some person who looks slightly off kilter and I start generating backstory, motives, and what ifs. Sometimes I’ll jot these down, but mostly I think it just seeps into my writing reservoir and bubbles up down the line if I need it.

    • “Costume,” you say. Poor LA takes the brunt of it. Just let me say that it’s everywhere now. Airheads walking around in a fog. And I’m not talking about Denver, either. Check out that fashion dude in the New York Times. The guy who rides his bicycle all over town taking pictures of people in “trendy” outfits. It all looks normal to him.

      Probably if I showed up in NYC dressed in short, a T-shirt, hiking boots and a cap…and walking a rather huge, brown Labrador, they’d think I was weird.

      Basil, jump on this. Anchorage is the next “destination” city, dude. And y’all are in for it up there.

  2. I wish I had your creativity and imagination, Nancy! I guess that’s why I’m an editor and nonfiction writer, rather than a fiction writer. Keep on imagining and writing! 🙂

  3. Oh my goodness yes – I have a file of tidbits waiting their appearance in a story. Often secondary characters walk straight out of life into my books. Random events also toggles on the “what-if” mode. The world around us is rich with opportunity!

  4. Between living in Alaska in general and my day job at the VA I observe all kinds of characters. At work I met a guy a few months ago who came in to make a claim for combat related issues. They had to deny him, as he had no DoD records the clerk could locate. Upon further interview it came clearer. Turns out soldiers who’d served in Caesar Augustus’ Legions from BC 1-AD 6 don’t qualify for VA Benefits. Who Knew.

    On the other hand I have a French neighbor who is surprisingly fit for a man in his mid-60s. He willingly talks about his past up to about 1968, but then nothing more until 1990 when he bought the house by mine. The conversation just skirts those decades by default and picks up at the other side. Its as if the ensuing 22 years never happened or….things happened he’d rather not discuss. Cold war spy? Legionnaire? Gangster? Hrm…

    Alaska being the ‘end of the road’ place it is, I see other people all the time that become bits and pieces of my characters. We have more millionaries per capita than any other state, but you’d have a hard time pointing most out as a lot of them eat moose they hunted themselves, wear Carhartts and home-made leather and fur and drive old pickup trucks.

  5. Oh Jeez, Caesar Augustus? That’s a good one. Interesting gap in your neighbor’s history. I can see him as a stimulus for all sorts of plots. And I’m sure you see all sorts of characters in Alaska, even if just the visitors.

  6. The woman’s look seems more personal style than media influence. Otherwise, the necklace would have been a pentagram, and the skirt/shorts? would have been longer.

    Some of my best friends do cosplay, dress for sf conventions, or belong to a media cosplay like STAR TREK or STAR WARS. When they go out in public, they like to “freak out the mundanes.”

    As one says, “Halloween is for amateurs.”

    So, no, I’m not bothered by costumes/characters intruding into real life.

    I have been known to use body language, etc., for my characters, but I never “cast” a real person in my stories. Much to the frustration of some of my friends who WANT to be characters in my books.

  7. I’m writing a short story right now where the main character is named and designed after a character from a YouTube channel. I don’t know why, but his appearance inspired me to write a story about him.

    Mind you, I’m writing him into a story with witches, living porcelain dolls, and silver metal bats, but hey, who’s counting?

  8. One of my closest friends was the inspiration for the main character in my WIP, although I was afraid to use her while she was still alive.

    A strange thing happened on the way to the forum…while developing the character using a real person as the base, she grew into a completely different character. No one, even those closest to my friend, would ever realize that she started out just like “Mary.”

    Puts a lie, I think, to the adage that you shouldn’t pattern your characters after real-life people.

  9. I live in Las Vegas, so I see a variety of characters. Go to the Strip at any time of day, and you can see Elvis or many others. I was there once when a convention of Elvis lookalikes walked down the Strip after their show. It was interesting!

    • My third Drift Lords story, Warrior Lord, starts out in Vegas. Lord Magnor walks into a casino where his cape and sword blend right in with the resort’s theme.

  10. I live in the “country” south of Atlanta, and two recent things have (added), “real-life characters” to my neck of the woods:
    First, a Renaissance Festival, bringing fair maids and fat friars and such to the feed-n-seed and the dunk-n-dine, sometimes in mufti, other times in not-from here attire (and tatts and pierciings…)
    Second, a European-style electronic music festival, with its gen-whatevers cruising the Big Buy Grocery and gas stations to support their twenty-first century Woodstock.
    I’m looking for a story (or maybe this IS the story), to capture the “what-if” and make it the “what-next” in the interaction between these various folks here in “old Campbell County”.

    • Combining those clashing cultures could make for a fun and unique story. What if a medieval type met one of those music fans? Considering the genre, you could produce multiple stories, all different, for a romance, murder mystery, scifi, etc.

    • Based on your post here, I’ve just staeted contemplating a semi-comic mystery series wherein the “locals” deal with one then the other ~ I don’t think they could handle both at the same time~ (I know the combined traffic alone would drive me to moonshine)~ so thanks… I think~

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