Today I wanted to discuss a widely controversial topic in the writing world — basing fictional characters off of people you know. While at first glance writers (and even readers!) may think that it shouldn’t be that big of a deal, there are definitely some cons to this method of characterization that writers should be aware about…
First and foremost, why do writers like to base characters off of real people? For beginning writers, it can just seem easiest. Characters are freaking hard to create, and the idea of creating one from scratch can be so overwhelming that it would just be simpler to craft one based off a close friend or family member. This is something I would do in my younger days — parents in stories would be based off my parents or other grown-ups I knew, and then all of my main characters would be based off myself, my closest friends, and my sisters. When I wrote fanfiction for The Hardy Boys specifically (yes, these were some interesting times. Moving on.), all the stories I wrote had me and my cousin/best friend Krissa as the two leading ladies. It was simpler. And when you’re excited to share your work with people as a young novelist, why not flail over the fact that one of your characters is based off your friend and they should be grateful?? *winks*
Another reason people base characters off of real people is because they love someone enough that they want to include them. This is still true for friends, but it’s mostly reserved for the people you’re bonded and closest to — a spouse, a child, a sister or brother, a grandparent, etc.
On the stark contrast, some writers hate someone enough to make the villain in their book after that person. Can I get a yikes?
And that, my friends, is often where the problem lies. One can easily argue that basing a character in your story off someone you love is perfectly fine. In a way, it is — but more on that in a moment. The main problem is when you dislike someone or even hate someone and you decide to make them the villain or the insufferable side character that nobody likes.
Not only is that disrespectful to the person you’re writing about, but there’s a decently high chance that if that person were to read your book, they’d be able to figure out the character was based off of them. Most writers, when creating villains in their books based off of people that have wronged them, aren’t subtle about it, and then it’s pretty awkward when you’re confronted about it or when someone you know asks you if said character is basically the person you don’t like.
In the field of writing, whether you’re looking to go Indie or Traditional or just post serials on your blog, if you can’t conduct yourself with professionalism, patience, and respect for yourself and others, you’re going to fall hard. You might feel vindictive and triumphant at first, but wait until that person finds out. Wait until your character and your writing comes into question. That’s the last thing you want to do, because then your reputation is going to get dragged through the mud. And once it’s dragged, you’re going to spend YEARS having to build it back up and earn people’s trust again.
Do you really want to do that to yourself and your business?
On another note, what about the loving characters you base off of people you like? While there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, there is the widely renowned issue of your characters appearing two-dimensional. They don’t seem real. I have a story for you about this.
In Smoke and Mirrors, my debut novel, one of the point-of-view characters is Christina. She’s my optimist, my ray of sunshine, the maternal figure throughout the book. Even though she’s gone through hell and back and she’s ridden with a terrible illness, she always has a smile and a kind word for everyone.
Christina was based off of a dear friend I had in middle school and early high school.
What I found out, though, after sharing an early draft of Smoke and Mirrors with beta readers, is that she did not appear like a real person. She had wonderful, sweet qualities that were based off of this friend I had, but that was it. There was nothing else to her. And even all of her sweet, redeeming qualities didn’t draw people to her — in fact, I had a lot that said she was their least favorite character and either she needed to have a complete overhaul or she needed to be cut from the story.
Yeah, that wasn’t a happy day.
But what it made me realize is that if you’re not careful, you can make your characters feel stale by basing them off of someone you know, even if it’s someone you cherish. You’re trying so hard to portray the good qualities about the person you love that you put them on a pedestal and make them untouchable; unrelatable. You don’t want to give this character any negative qualities. Maybe you even told that person that you were basing a character off of them in your novel, and now you feel the pressure to make them seem perfect because that friend or family member will be reading your book someday.
So while basing a character off of someone you love isn’t inherently wrong, it does have its cons that you should be aware of if you’re a writer.
That leads me to this… I don’t want it to come across as if I’m discouraging you from writing characters based on people you know. For beginning writers, something like this can be instrumental to realizing how characters work. I know that it was instrumental in my early writing life, personally. But I do want you to be aware of the dangers or cons that can come from writing characters based off of real people.
As a writer, you cannot take any of this lightly.
So what would I recommend?
People shape us. People we love, people we dislike, people we meet for just a moment, people we’ve known our whole lives. And situations of all kinds shape us. While I personally think the mantra of “Write what you know” isn’t always the best piece of writing advice to follow, there’s a reason it has merit, and there’s a reason we pour so much of ourselves and our scenarios into our stories.
I’m not an exception.
But what I’ve learned, especially from the Christina mix-up with Smoke and Mirrors and with recognizing the issues writing characters based off real people can cause, is that you can still include aspects of people, places, themes you’re struggling with, and scenarios of your life into your writing.
Continuing with Christina, how did I fix her? I stopped trying so hard to base her off my friend and instead gave her qualities of getting envious and jealous easily. She kept the sweet personality of my friend that I adored, but I could no longer say she was based off of her. Christina became her own person.
The love interests in my books all have traits taken from my wonderful husband, but they are their own people with their own personality, goals, hobbies, etc. They’re not my husband.
The friendships that form and break in all of my books are based off of friendships that I have or have had, but they aren’t the same. I’m just pulling from my experiences to inspire the friendships that I write about.
In my Robin Hood trilogy that I’m writing, Marion struggles with perfectionism, wanting to please her father constantly, even if it means sacrificing who she is, and that causes her anxiety. Robin wants to be seen as perfect and heroic and amazing, and when he falls short, he becomes his own worst critic. I’ve struggled with each of these things in my life, but these characters are not me, nor am I them.
In the Quelmirian Duology, when Prince Nex has a mental breakdown because of the pressure put on his shoulders to be perfect in every way, that scene was based from a scenario I had to watch a friend endure; just altered to fit my story and so it wouldn’t be the same exact scenario.
In Je Te Veux, all of the places Sara and Tom explore in Paris are places that Hubby and I visited on our honeymoon.
All of the themes explored in my book, right or wrong based on the characters’ points of view, are often themes I’m exploring in my own life or themes others close to me are exploring for themselves.
Here’s the tea.
You do you. If you decide that you can write characters based on people you know without having any repercussions come back to bite you in the nose, then you do that. But never, ever take writing characters based off real people lightly.
My personal recommendation is to pull from the character traits from the people around you and the scenarios you or others have endured or the themes you or others are exploring. In this way, you’re “writing what you know” about certain aspects of people, places, situations, and themes…without the potentiality of hurting anyone.