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?