• Are Your Fictional Characters Based on Real People?

    Posted Posted by David Duhr in Strategies     Comments 18 comments

    TL;DR version: I’m writing a novel with characters based on real people I hadn’t seen in decades. Then I saw them. It was weird. So this week I’m wondering: Do you base your fictional characters on real people? What are the benefits, what are the pitfalls? What tactics do you use to observe the people around you, and how do you translate those observations to the page? Let us know in the comments below.


    I’m writing a novel about a group of former co-workers of mine from the late-’90s. These are people I haven’t seen in nearly two decades. At least three of them have died.

    But when I write, I can close my eyes and envision their manners of speech, their physical attributes. I ask myself, “What would [name of the real person] do or say in this situation?” Sometimes the answer to that is appropriate for the fictional scene, sometimes it’s not. But even when it’s not, that train of thought usually leads me to the right station.

    It seems to help me move forward, basing my characters on real people and then slightly altering the details.

    For the moment, I’m even using their real names.

    Your turn: Do you base your fictional characters on real people? What have you found to be the benefits, and what are the pitfalls?


    Meeting Your Characters

    Last weekend I had cause to see some of these former co-workers again. I had conversations with two of my main characters, in fact. It was… odd. I’ve been working for so long on their fictional doubles that it’s almost as if the real people had ceased to exist.

    But before long, the real people regained control of the narrative, so to speak.

    One of them has among the most distinctive laughs I’ve ever heard. I’d tried to replicate that laugh in words, but after hearing it again, I knew I had to work harder to do it justice. (And I’ve already found a way.)

    Not only that, but at one point, while talking to the second guy, I had a flash of the room we ate lunch in, and forgotten details washed over me.

    I don’t know if I’ll use them, but at least I now have access to them.

    Your turn: If you base your fictional characters on real people, do you spend time with those people? Again, what are the benefits, what are the pitfalls? If you can’t/don’t spend time with them, do you wish you could? Or would that only muddy your waters?


    Watch & Learn

    Those quick conversations reminded me that I am writing about real people. And while I do have, and take, plenty of so-called artistic license, I’d do well to be as true to those real people as possible.

    (Not as a rule! But for the sake of this particular story.)

    Now, not every writer bases his or her characters on people drawn from his or her life. I know a lot of you who would balk at the very idea.

    But in one way or another, every character you create, and every word they speak and action they take, comes from your life in some way.

    This doesn’t mean you can always (or even often) draw a direct line from fictional character to real person. But it does mean we should try to keep this in mind whenever we interact with other humans.

    I’m not saying to treat every conversation as if it were research for a future fictional character. What I’m saying is, keep your eyes and ears open as often as you possibly can.

    Your turn: Do you consider yourself a successful observer of people and places? Are you always on the clock, or do you sometimes turn off your writer brain and just exist?


    Be Curious & Take Note

    Because you never know where inspiration will come from.

    We’re told as writers to be observant. I don’t know about you, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve forgotten to do that. I float through life without really taking internal notes on human behavior. As if I feel I’ve learned everything I need to learn.

    Seeing these former co-workers reminded me of a time when I was still actively curious about people. When I was an eighteen-year-old kid painting pipe in a factory and eating lunch daily with an intimidating group of grimy middle-aged blue-collared men, never did I imagine that twenty years later I would write a book about them.

    Never did I imagine I would write a book about anything.

    But I studied them: their mannerisms and speech patterns, the way they laughed, the way they smoked and coughed and smoked some more, their various dyads, what they wore and how they wore it. The way they walked slooooowly to the bathroom and sloooooooooowly back, and the way they almost sprinted to the lunchroom when the whistle blew and then when it blew again walked sloooooooooooooooooowly back.

    And then I became a writer, and forgot to take note of such things.


    WriteByNight co-founder David Duhr is copy editor and fiction editor at the Texas Observer and writes about books for the Dallas Morning News, Electric Literature, Publishing Perspectives, and others.

    WriteByNight is a writers’ service dedicated to helping you achieve your creative potential and literary goals. We work with writers of all experience levels working in all genres, nationwide and worldwide. If you have a 2016 writing project that you’d like a little help with, take a look at our book coaching, private instruction and writer’s block counseling services. Join our mailing list and get a FREE writer’s diagnostic, “Common problems and SOLUTIONS for the struggling writer.”

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    18 Comments to “Are Your Fictional Characters Based on Real People?”

    • I base my characters on pictures I find at the Google gallery. Usually, I have the idea of the character in mind before I start this process–you know, shape of face, color of hair, skin tone. While reading this post though, I did start wondering what would happen if I made my characters more like people who have been in my life.

      • What an interesting tactic, Glynis. I’ll have to try that! What sorts of words/terms do you type in when you search the Google galleries?

    • Of course I use real people as the basis for some of my characters. Notice I said basis. It may be a look, a few mannerism, a way of acting, etc. My current WIP is actually taken from a newspaper article from the 1990s and based on part of the story, but I went from there and added and subtracted and made it essentially unrecognizable other than two traits for the heroine and several for the actual events (moved to a different location)..

      I have several characters in books who evolved from real people. Without looking at the mannerisms from real life, how can you make a character real in a book? Things like that pushing back the hair, the rubbing a finger at the side of the nose, speech patterns with the use of specific works or phrases, etc. I’is what makes for a 3-D character. You just make sure the character isn’t exactly like the person you took the mannerisms from. Have fun making them into a caricature of who they are like the mimics who take a movement or speech pattern and exaggerate it to mimic a famous person. If the people were memorable in real life, why not make them so in a book? Works for me.

      • Hi Barbara. Thanks for the input. I think that even when we don’t know that we’re modeling a character on someone (or someones), we’re still doing so. So you’re definitely right. These things–the mannerisms and other traits–come from *somewhere*. Some of us (you, me) just draw from real people more consciously.

        I was in an extreme situation once. I accepted a story from a writer who based her main character on a friend of hers. She then told her friend that this story was being published and that she (the friend) was the direct basis for the character.

        Well, the friend hired a lawyer and threatened to sue the writer and me (through the magazine) if we published the story.

        It was unique. We consulted our own lawyers and decided not to run the story. I don’t think she ever tried to publish it elsewhere.

    • Yes, I model characters after acquaintances and relatives. The elf in one of my stories has the same qualities of caring, ingeniousness, industriousness and loyalty as my Father. The gypsy grandmother in another story mimics my wonderful Aunt. My life has been peopled with colorful cgaracters that bring my stories to life.

      • Welcome, Mary! And thank you for the input. Drawing from family just feels so natural, doesn’t it? For many of us, family members are the people we observe the most when we’re young and most impressionable. Have you ever told your father, your aunt, or anyone else that you’ve modeled characters on them? If so, what was the response?

    • I’m not good at observing and remembering people, which makes it hard to give dimension to my characters by using mannerisms drawn from real people.

      I occasionally use an actual person as a starting point. For example, I wrote a story called “Tall, Beautiful, Chinese.” I did have a co-worker, whom I knew from occasional meetings, who was tall, beautiful, and Chinese. That was the extent of it. I didn’t know her well.

      I do try to give characters something to make them less generic. The tall, beautiful, Chinese character has a hint of a Chinese color to her speech, because she grew up in Chinatown. The male protagonist knows the difference between Chinese and Formosan food, because he’s a foodie. In reality, my co-worker did not have a Chinese accent, and she might have grown up on a farm in Kansas for all I know. I made that up. On the other hand, I do know the difference between Chinese and Formosan food.

      In some cases, the male protagonist will be an idealized version of myself: more capable, more kind, more generous. I don’t lend him much of anything else. He’s not taller, more handsome, younger, or a better dancer than I unless it makes a difference to the story.

      Most of my characters aren’t given physical descriptions (again, unless it plays into the plot). I have this weird theory that it’s easier for readers to work with a character if they can form their own idea of what he or she looks like. Perhaps that’s because I often write in the first person, and I want the reader to put him- or herself in the narrator’s head, seeing through the narrator’s eyes and hearing with the narrator’s ears (or vice versa). If you’re partial to red hair, why not let you imagine that the love interest has red hair? Why make it black?

      When writing in the third person, I’m usually making the characters up out of whole cloth. Some of my stuff is on the raw side, and often the characters are not anybody I’d want to have a cup of coffee with. If the main characters are a sexually abused young woman and her predator of a father, I’m not writing a roman a clef.

      I will occasionally use a brief exchange or situation as inspiration. This might be a as small as a funny remark or several paragraphs worth of drama. I do not base entire stories on remembered events. I know some people can and do, very well, but I know a lot more who can’t and do. The latter tend to write what I would call reveries. I’ll leave that to Proust.

      • Hi Jerry. I like your take on character description. I’m not good at it, and I used to torture myself about it. I’d practice and practice, but I could never seem to get it right. Eventually I just threw in the towel and stopped trying. And you know what? I much prefer it that way. Because you’re right; as a reader, I’m perfectly content not having a character’s features jammed down my throat. I prefer to form my own image.

        I would love to hear more about this idealized version of yourself who appears in stories. And whether you’ve ever tried to write a fictional version of yourself whose attributes are not exaggerated, and what the results were.

        You asked me about notebooks. When you overhear (or are part of) an exchange or situation that you make note of for potential use in fiction, do you write it down, or are you able to remember/retain it?

        • When a protagonist is an idealized version of myself it, is generally someone more patient, charitable, and so forth. When I was a child, I used to imagine that I was Superman. This is a more adult version of the same thing. My idealized self has all of the powers (traits) that I wish I had or had in greater abundance. Often I draw on personal experiences, but in my story I handle them the way I wish I had in real life. Sometimes I don’t have to polish them up, which in retrospect makes me feel better about myself.

          For example, in one story my character helps a suicidal friend through a crisis, I drew on my own experience, and in doing so I realized that I did, in fact, successfully help a suicidal friend through a crisis. I didn’t have to change a thing. That was quite nice.

          On the other hand, I might use a time when I said just the wrong thing and hurt someone. My idealized self might not do that, or might find a way to repair that damage that eluded me in real life. In situations where I might throw a hissy fit, my character is gentle and understanding.

          I draw on my flaws as well, and sometimes exaggerate those. I’ve never called an ex-girlfriend a whore in the middle of a hotel bar, because I don’t have the gumption to do that, but I wrote a character who did. He was a really nice guy who was so torn up about it that it almost destroyed him. I’ve got plenty of actual cold sweat memories, but I’m not such a nice guy that they shake me to the core. I know I can be mean and nasty, so saying something hurtful doesn’t throw me into an existential crisis the way it did him.

          I don’t create an angelic, saintly characters; I haven’t written a story for which that would be appropriate, if such a thing exists. With my meager abilities (as I said, I’m not Proust), if my narration is first person then the protagonist has to be part of the drama: in the world and of it.

          I’ve never written a protagonist who is an unaltered version of myself. I can’t imagine doing that. It’s not that I’m not self-aware; therapists always tell me that I am. It’s that I can’t fictionalize myself. If I imagine a version of myself who is different in some way, I can build on that difference to create a story. If I try to work with myself as I am, I don’t know how to break out of my reality. I can ask myself what would happen if I were a financial wizard, and from that create a story about a financial wizard who is like me. If I asked myself what would happen if I were just as I am, I’d have a story about me sitting at my computer typing an overlong response to a blog post. I need that bit of displacement to set me off on speculative voyage. Without it, I’d wind up with what we in the programming trade call infinite recursion.

          [As an aside, you can read an example of infinite recursion in Ray Bradbury’s “The Fruit at the Bottom of the Bowl.”]

          I hope that helps.

          Regarding notebooks, I have to say I’ve never been a good note taker unless I were taking minutes of a meeting or something like that. I’ve always relied on my memory. As you can imagine, that’s been my downfall on more than one occasion. I’ve only started writing fiction in the last few years, so I never thought to keep notes for that purpose.

          When I draw on my own experiences, my recollections don’t have to be complete or accurate, since I’m not writing a memoir. Other things, such as chance remarks that I’ve overheard, just stick in my head. I think that’s pretty easy to understand. If they weren’t memorable in some way, I wouldn’t be inclined to use them in a story.

          There are millions of people who stir their coffee with one of those little sticks. If I were a better observer, and if I kept notes, I might jot down how someone left-handed does it a little differently. I don’t have that kind of thing in my repertoire, and it would really help me limn my characters. I have to do everything from scratch. That’s hard work, and I shirk it.

          On the other hand, if I saw someone stir his coffee with a pen, I’d remember that.

          Here’s another example. I once heard or read “I’ll rip your arms off and beat you to death with them.” I love colorful language, and it stuck with me. When I needed a character who could menace my protagonist, I used that line. More than that, I built a character who could say it and make it believable.

          So I rummage through my mental attic for something useful, or I trip over something and decide to build a place for it. My vocabulary is necessarily limited to what got saved there: literally, the memorable stuff. If I took notes, I’d have more to work with.

          Curiously, when others critique my stories they often fasten on the true bits as implausible. Truth is stranger than fiction, don’t you know.

    • I’m glad you posted this for discussion. Yes, I have written stories based on real people and real interactions and I have felt conflicted when doing so. When writing about something real, I have of course amplified the dramatic elements of the event and the story I end up with is not the exact truth, but even so, I worry about whether I am ripping off other people in the process. I have NEVER written about people in my family which seems OFF LIMITS to— oh wait… yes I have! Scratch that. I’ve been working on a story forever (keep putting it down and picking it back up) which has a character based on a man I saw at a political caucus. He was rounding up votes for his candidate in a manner which bordered on voter intimidation. He was very interesting to watch. The way he was dressed was also interesting and if I told you his real name, you’d understand why the character has the same first name in the story. (Too bad I can’t use the last name too.) But I have other characters and stories where everything from start to finish is made up or some of the characters are a composite of a cultural type. People I know talk about writers as thieves. One person did so while sobbing. Another told me about his writer friend’s reputation — never say anything around this person because it will show up in one of his stories. But that all makes sense, doesn’t it? You can’t create in a vacuum.

      • Hi Teresa. Thank you for the response. You’re spot on — you can’t write people unless you know people. We can work from certain types, like you mention, but for many of us I think it comes off as more authentic when we use people we know. It’s not necessarily inevitable. But it’s close.

        I never considered family off limits, but I can’t imagine ever telling a family member that x character is modeled after him or her. But it’s human nature to try to make those connections anyway. I mean, if I have a mother character in a story, my mother will assume it’s drawn from her.

        And then there are more extreme cases, like the one I mentioned above to Barbara. The strange thing is, the character modeled after the writer’s friend was a positive character: she was kind, she was involved in charity work. But the friend (the writer sent the story to her!) found the character — i.e., her — to be racist. Which she wasn’t! It was so weird.

        That’s one reason that it’s best to keep such info to ourselves.

        • Hi David,

          I think that is very sound advice. Sometimes it’s easy to blurt something out in a moment of enthusiasm when you think the receiving party will be just as thrilled. But really, when it comes to sharing, or someone else asking, the answer should always be “no”.

    • I often go to cafes and sit in the corner with pen and notebook. If a person catches my eye I will make notes on their physical description, even including the clothes they wear. Then I write a page or two and put the person into a story about what I think is their life, or what they are doing here, who are they talking to and why. It’s great fun to watch couples, and see the dynamic between them. Some of these writing I use in my work, others I don’t. I am left with a lot of material for different characters, which is quite useful. Sometimes, on an unconscious level, I will write a character then realise “oh, he/she sounds/acts like…” someone I know or have met in real life. Our mind is filled with so many impressions of people and situations, that I’m sure they creep into our writing whether we want them to or not.

      • Hey Jivan. This is exactly the kind of thing I wish I did more of. Seeing a stranger, taking note of how she or he behaves, and wondering what his or her life is like. And then using that wondering in a creative way, coming up with my own answers. I used to do that. And now I live in a city with eight million strangers. If I can’t exercise my curiosity in *that* setting, where can I?

        • Hi David, I’m heading to NYC in mid November. Can you recommend some good cafes to people watch? With 8 million people to chose from, there’s be a lot of great material. Either that, or I might just sit in Central Park!

          • Sitting in Central Park is a great idea. But for people-watching, you can sit basically anywhere. Any coffee shop, any restaurant, any bench anywhere… there’s always someone interesting to see.

    • David, excellent discussion taking place above. As you know, I am a new author and write non-fiction, not fiction. Which to me poses a bigger dilemma – if you change anything in the interaction between two people are you changing the “facts?” Is it then fiction inserted into a non-fiction story if you change too much?

      Here is what I have arrived at as a non-fiction writer because I do write about people and “facts”: the “truth” that I try to pull out of any incident/interaction is the feeling and emotion that was felt in the interaction with a person. I am intuitive person and see slight movements, a glance, a nervous touch of the mustache, or a failure to look in the eye when hard truths are being discussed – but would a general reader feel what I feel from that motion? Is the emotion I see in them the facts? A truth? A lie?

      How do you get an engineer or financial guru that “just wants the facts ma’am” to slow down and “feel?” How do you change their perspective with facts? You have to pull out every ounce of descriptive detail you can to get across the emotion “you” felt. If you accomplish that you have written the truth of an interaction – at least for yourself – not just the facts.

      As Teresa above writes I do consider writing about “family” off limits because once you enter the personal realm everyone will know who you are writing about. That book of mine is entitled “Diamonds in the Rough” about raising children as a single father and then step-father and will only be printed for my children’s eyes. But . . . . that doesn’t mean that what I know today wasn’t taught to me by changing diapers, raising five squirts, teenagers and being able to officiate the marriage of my son and daughter-in-law. It would be impossible to separate what I know and feel from 60+ years of interactions with those closest to me – when I want to convey the deepest emotion, I always find myself thinking of an incident with one of my kids.

      Again, it is about the emotion. When have I felt that emotion before? What lead me there? What smell was there? How was I breathing? Where was my mind – to which anyone that has raised five teenagers can say, you are lucky to have a mind when the last one leaves the homestead and nineteen behind. ;)

      Great discussion. A few of my humble thoughts worth exactly what everyone paid for them! Okay back to getting that non-fiction book out the door – full of emotion, real characters and their unique mannerisms.

      And as Jivan writes: I, like him, have my Hemingway Corner at Rudy’s 360 in Austin, Texas watching all the people flow through: workers working – some are having a bad day, some good, some great; kids laughing as they wash their hands in the Texas trough behind me; large families too busy on their phones to talk to each other; old men – with not many years left – with their faces in newspapers instead of in joyous conversation with others; old men with handicapped kids that must worry about what will happen to their kids when they pass; people that waver between tea without sugar, with sugar or mixing half-and-halves to (?) reduce weight; the obese, the skinny, the bright, the laughing, the sober; and yes, some just like me that love their introverted corner watching extroverted humanity in all its glory pass by! How could it be any better than with country music playing about love lost in the background and the smell of brisket in the air.

      Isn’t life wonderful in its non-fiction facts; or am I writing fiction?


      – Pete

      • Hi Pete. Thank you for the thoughtful reply.

        You raise an interesting question, one that’s been, and continues to be, debated. If I’m writing nonfiction and reproducing a conversation from months or years or decades ago, what are the odds that I can do so verbatim? Slim to none, for sure. So where does that leave me? If I can portray the spirit of the conversation, even if not the words, does that make it close enough to qualify as true nonfiction? If you write that one person looked the other in the eye when he or she said a specific thing, even if you can’t remember whether that actually happened, what are the implications?

        Like you said, all you can do is try to nail the feeling and emotion.

        Which you definitely do in your description of sitting at Rudy’s. I never made it out there when we lived in Austin. Nor did I find an equivalent spot to watch people. I was in and out of East Side bars and coffee shops, but (off the record!) it often felt like I was seeing the same person again and again and again…

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