How To Write Characters Based On Real People

By on August 24, 2016
How To Write Characters Based On Real People -

As writers, we have all heard the age-old advice ‘write what you know.’ It has been drummed into our heads so many times it sometimes feels impossible to forget.

Of course, we are not meant to take this too literally. If all we did was 'write what we know' our stories would probably be far less interesting. However, drawing on important events, and emotions or even conversations and observations can all be used to enhance our stories, to create believable worlds and ones that readers are willing to invest in.

So how does the ‘write what you know’ rule apply when it comes to our characters? Many great books have characters in them based on people in real life. Take famous characters such as Ebenezer Scrooge and Alice in Wonderland - both were created because of real people!

Many of us end up conjuring characters in our books which are based on ourselves; this makes sense- after all who else do we know better?

Often however, this is done without intent, yet writing in your unique voice means that some of your unique personality will find its way through (and most likely emerge in your protagonist in some form or another).

However, when it comes to deliberately writing about the people in our lives - be it a dear friend or the boss that we hate, what is the best way to go about it? We want to capture the very essence of these people, but also fit them seamlessly into our stories. Make them believable but also fictionalise them enough that they are not just carbon copies of these real-life beings.

So, how do you know if using a real-life person as the basis for a character is the right thing to do?

Question why you want to create such a character

Are you writing this character because you truly believe it will enhance your story? Or is it because you have a pent up anger towards them that needs a release? It’s all very well creating a character based on someone who has displeased you and then killing them off in a wholly unpleasant manner, but if that’s your only motivation, it may not a good story make!

Question whether you would be happy to ask the person before you begin

If you feel that writing about a family member, for example, is what you want to do, would you discuss it with them first? If not, why not? They may have an exciting history or a particular personality quirk that makes for a fantastic character, but if you think they wouldn’t like it, then are you willing to risk upset and tension and write it anyway against their wishes?

Question whether you really know enough about that person to do them justice

If you are fascinated by an individual historical character or a famous person living and breathing today, you need to make sure you do your research before you write about them. The last thing you want is a backlash when you release your work to the public, and they feel you don't know your facts, or worse still receive a lawsuit for libel or slander from the individual themselves!

Question what writing about a real person will bring to your story

If you are too literal in your use of the people that you know you have a real danger of your story falling flat. The way you feel about the people you write will have a direct impact on the way you portray them.

If you know them too well, you might omit details that the reader needs to fully understand the character, making them seem too unattractive or painting them through rose tinted spectacles will make them hard to relate to for your reader.

Fictional characters that we fall in love with behave differently to the way that people in real-life would. They are exciting and engaging, beautiful and mysterious, evil to the core, dangerous, daring and intoxicating in a way that the majority of us (sorry to break it to you) simply aren’t.

Relying too much on a real person to capture the attention of your readers is a dangerous game indeed.

There is no reason why you shouldn’t use people you know to help you conjure up the characters in your stories, just remember that doing so successfully takes time and effort to get right!

Bethany Cadman -author of 'Doctor Vanilla's Sunflowers'

Bethany Cadman -author of 'Doctor Vanilla's Sunflowers'

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