• 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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    Glynis Jolly

    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.

    David Duhr

    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?

    Barbara Mealer

    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… Read more »

    David Duhr

    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… Read more »

    Mary Jeffredo

    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.

    David Duhr

    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?

    Jerry Schwartz

    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,… Read more »

    David Duhr

    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… Read more »

    Jerry Schwartz

    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.… Read more »


    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… Read more »

    David Duhr

    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,… Read more »


    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”.

    Jivan Parnell

    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… Read more »

    David Duhr

    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?

    Jivan Parnell

    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!

    Pete Greulich

    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.… Read more »

    David Duhr

    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… Read more »

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