I’ll tell you a little secret. Come closer so I can whisper it in your ear. I write about friends, relatives and my pets and immortalize them in my books. There, I said it. At first I did it because it was my little joke with my family. When I had a minor character, I would make them someone I knew and they came alive in my mind. Often I gave them speaking parts or sometimes they were the voices of annoying relatives on the answering machine of my characters.
The fun part is that for my relatives, I never tell them I’m doing it. They often find out as their reading my latest. I love hearing their reactions.
Any pet mentioned in my books is one of mine or a pet of my family. Since it’s fiction, I can make them well-behaved.
In my first YA, I let my mind wander to find the voice of my main character Brenna Nash. I have twin sisters who inherited the odd toes of my dad’s side of the family. (My mom is quick to point out that all her family has lovely feet, so this trait must’ve come from dad.) Their middle toes jut out and look a bit obscene. My niece inherited her mother’s toes and since I had my young niece in mind—and made her a minor character in my debut YA book IN THE ARMS OF STONE ANGELS—I HAD to write about her “secret” toes.
Here’s the passage:
I sleep with the dead.
I don’t remember the first time I did it and I try not to think about why. It’s just something I do. And my fascination with the dead has become part of me, like the way my middle toes jut out. They make my feet look like they’re shooting the finger twenty-four seven. My ‘screw you’ toes are my best feature, but that doesn’t mean I brag about them. Those babies are kept under wraps—just for my entertainment—the same way I now keep my habit of sleeping in cemeteries a secret from anyone. Not even my mother knows I sneak out at night sometimes to curl up with the headstones … and the stillness. Some things are best left unsaid.
In the arms of stone angels, I’m not afraid.
In one of my Sweet Justice series books (which shall remain nameless since I don’t want to be a spoiler), I wrote two characters and gave them fictitious names, but they were my crazy parents. All their strange idiosyncrasies—my dad’s hoarder tendencies and my mother’s love of ginger snap cookies—became a part of the story line and made me laugh til I cried. When I read the passages to my brother, I didn’t tell him who the characters were supposed to be, but he knew and roared with laughter. Now my parents very proudly tell people, “We’re spies in this book.” Well, thanks mom and dad, for telegraphing a twist in the book. But writing them into my novel was a decision I will never regret.
It’s one thing to “see” and “hear” a fictional character vividly in your head so that they feel alive to you, but it’s quite another sensation to already have that character in your mind from years of knowing them. A word of caution: you can get carried away and let the character take over more of the scene than you intended, simply because you want them to play a bigger part. But written judiciously, you can have fun with it and make a more layered character in a short amount of time because you already know them.
1.) Have you ever used a real person as a character in your books? Who was it? Tell us about how you did it and if they found out, what was their reaction?
2.) Has doing this ever backfired on you?
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When one of my best friends died a few years ago, I felt free to use some of her more unusual characteristics in a character.
However, when I did so, the character gradually changed as I developed her. Now, she bears no resemblance at all to my friend.
So much for the dangers of using real people as templates. I think we may be too afraid of doing so.
Absolutely, Sheryl. If you write a longer “fictional” part for your real life person, they gradually stray from the familiar into what works best for the story or how your fertile mind will embellish them. But I would wager your book is still a touching tribute to your friend because she was your foundation.
Many of my characters have bits and pieces of people I know. Even the animals in my books started out as tributes to my deceased pets. And I’ve even used my dogs as the basis for human roles. I picture how they’d act if they were human, what they’d say and how. Two have become major characters. The only time it became a problem was when one had to die. When I wrote the chapters leading up to the death and the actual encounter I was sobbing uncontrollably. It bothered me for days. Whether my sorrow enhanced the chapters, I don’t know. I’m too close it to say for sure, but I hope so.
Oh my, Sue. I’ve never tried making one of my pets a character. What a hoot that would be! I’ll have to try that…and never kill them off. Thanks for sharing. You’ve made my day.
And I’m sure the real emotion you wrote into those chapters showed in the reading. If you can make yourself cry (or laugh aloud) over a scene as you’re writing it, that translates to readers.
Jordan, I’ve not only written friends and acquaintances into my novels, on one memorable occasion I used a real name. Then, just a few months later, I was asked to be the honored speaker at our high school’s big reunion, and guess who I ran into? He actually hadn’t read the book, but his wife had, and loved his character. But I’ll change the names in the future–not to protect them, but to protect me. Thanks for sharing.
Ha! Sounds like a premise for a book. High school reunion revenge. Good stuff.
I used some names of family for characters in my debut novel, like Frederic in honour of my uncle who never had a chance to read my book, and Euphemia was a great-great-great aunt and I just thought her name was very cool. The last name of my fictional family is a popular name in my real family.
After reading this post, I’m now tempted to take that a little further, just for fun!
Love this names, Julie. Suitable for ANY book. I had a bit part for a mother in my debut book NO ONE HEARD HER SCREAM and used Hortense, my grandmother’s name. When my sister-in-law read the passage, she cried and had to call to tell me how much it surprised and touched her.
Dang spell check
If I may, I found the first time I consciously used one person as a template, the character came more alive and maybe even easier to write (and have evolve into her own “self”) than previous attempts to model from whole-cloth or assemble from several real-life folks.
Stiil I’m careful not to be so specific as RO hurt feelings (or over-inflate egos).
I’ll hafta try the pets-as-people idea, especially since a number of them had people names (as opposed to Rover or Fido…)
That pets as people thing would ve an amazing character study.l exercise. Thanks, G.
You have spill Czech…
I have Otto Phil~
“RO” should’ve been “to”
Love this post. A few years ago I populated an entire novel with family and friends. I found out it was a great way to see who REALLY reads my books… or not. Because they’ll always comment when they see their name in there, and they usually laugh when I’ve had a little fun with their character. My step-son, who has never read any of my 8 published books (because I’m not sure he’s ever read a book, period), has no idea his character was a billionaire with a thing for strippers.
Billionaire stripper aficionado. Gotta love it. If anyone misses a family reunion, all they need to do is read your books. Thanks, Larry.
I use a real friend — Valerie Cannata — in my Dead-End Job mysteries. She plays a glamorous investigative reporter. Valerie enjoys her alter ego and so do I.
I use components from different people but not any one person in particular. It’s definitely easier if you can model a character on someone you know.
Very true. Thanks Nancy.
I used my Dad’s family in a story about bigfoot. I believe that my Dad had an encounter with one. If you take away the tribal belief about what happened, you are left with a typical bigfoot encounter. This story told to me by my Dad is a reason a don’t believe the fools who don’t believe the creature is real.
I also used my great-great-great Grandmother in another novel. She survived the Sand Creek Massacre and was in the camp of Chief Black Kettle when, after he had erected an American flag in the camp believing that it would protect his little band, the people were attacked by George A. Custer’s 7th Cavalry in the early morning of November 27, 1868.
Please pardon me if I don’t mourn him OR the 7th Cavalry.
But that’s the power of my using real people in my stories. It provokes my own emotion and storytelling.
Love this, Jim. And Sasquatch too. Love it.
I needed a dog side-kick and put in my Misty girl. It made it easier to write the character and easier for my protagonist to relate to her.
As far as people. Nope, I’ve never consciously used someone I am related to or know. I do grab pictures of characters for place holders – sometimes it is the picture “look” that reminds or informs me of the character, but other times I’ll have “characters” who have personalities or characteristics that my character has – so that I can think about and layer those in. Usually I’ll start with someone kind of in mind – but as you go, within not too long, they become their own live person in my head. (Yes, the voices in my head do talk – and dag-gone-it some of them have fierce attitude too! 😀 )
I did get to be in a book. I wrote a spot up for a Medusa and won the opportunity to be in a book by name – it was short. I did get a speaking line and it was something I would actually say and do! Very fun!
In a contest, I offered to make the winner be a character in an upcoming book (their option to use their real name). I asked them to provide a list of a dozen odd things about themselves, things only good friends or family would know about them. I got such amazing & quirky details that I ended up making two people main characters in a series. Loads of fun. Thanks, Penny.