Basing Your Characters off Real People

I have heard writers discuss this before and thought to make it a topic today.  A lot of times, when trying to build believable characters, it is easiest to take some traits from people you really know.  It doesn’t mean you use the whole person, but perhaps some of their habits or attributes which would be good for your story line.  Maybe you are writing about a specific job and borrow aspects of someone you know working in the same field to flesh out your character.  In another case, your MC might be brave and you look at a person who acts that same way to see how they would behave under difficult circumstances.  There are many examples of this.  I have even heard of authors using a person they dislike and modeling a character after them that is made miserable or killed off in the story.  It is fiction, after all, and mostly harmless so long as you change the names, places, etc so it isn’t too obvious.

So the question for authors is- Have you ever based a character off someone you know and if so, in what way? You don’t have to go into too much detail if it would get you in trouble, but I’m curious how common this practice is.  If none of your characters are based on real people, feel free to say so as well.

~ by Suzie on August 19, 2011.

25 Responses to “Basing Your Characters off Real People”

  1. Hi, Suzie: Another great post, as always. I have to say that I almost never base characters on real people. For me, writing is like an internal unfolding movie scene and those characters are always visible in my head while I’m developing a story…but the images come out of what seem completely off-the-cuff descriptions. As for personalities, I also never find myself modeling character traits after people.

    I suspect I’m unusual in this regard, and I think the reason is that I write a story from an internal viewpoint. In other words, I’m never Tim Greaton when I write. I am, instead, a viewpoint character who doesn’t have any of Tim Greaton’s reference points. While I’m inside a character, their movie reel is unspooling before my mind’s eye. I’m seeing what they see, meeting who they meet.

    So where do the characters come from then?

    Stephen King would tell you he digs them out of the soil like fossils of a past life. I know a lot of people prefer to credit their muse. For me it’s more the combined creative juice of a life fully lived. Sure, my characters might well be based on the people I’ve met…but only after their traits have been internalized and mingled with hundreds if not thousands of others.

    Or so I think 🙂 .

    • You certainly have unique characters Tim. It amazes me how well you develop them and make them come to life!

    • Based on what you said about internalizing…now I know where you last short story (on here) came from. It is really great that you have that ability…you sir have a gift.

      When I read, I try to get a mental picture of the characters and eventually I get that movie reel going. Of course it depends on the book and the time I can spend reading it in one setting.

      • I think that’s a great point, Lynn. My dad was only educated to about fifth grade. He could never read for enjoyment because he could never get past the words to see “the movie.” People who read a lot often picture the story as they read. Because I read literally hundreds-plus books before I was in my mid-teens, I’ve always envisioned books clearly much like you and many others do. It’s especially odd when someone asks me if I liked the book or movie better, and I can’t remember which was which. The experience is so similar that occasionally someone has to remind me of an actor or a particular scene so that I can separate the two and answer 🙂

        • It seems the few movies that I’ve actually read the book for first then seen the movie…the movie was so out of touch with the book, that I have had no real problem telling the difference. I will say that the original “Andromeda Strain” movie did follow the book pretty well.

          I doubt that I’ve read as many books as you and some of the others have because I’m not that fast at reading. I do love to read though. The friend I live with…she and her daughter…are rarely without a book in their hands.

  2. Hi Susan,

    A good number of our main characters are composites of real people that my co-author knows. He changed them up some what of course. One of them has read our book 4 times (that I know of). He loves the book and basically says that my co-author knows him too well. Of course our story is fictionalized and therefore the main characters haven’t actually done all the stuff in the book.

    Some of the minor characters are based on regular every day people that you meet. I think it is good for an author to be good at people watching. It may help with carrying the story line along. We used a minor character to help break up what might be a long winded dialogue. Unfortunately, one or two of our characters liked to be long-winded…given their position they couldn’t be interrupted. I’ll bet many of you know people like that in real life. (smile)

  3. I have only ever once done this, and that was because the short story was based on true events. I changed everyone’s names but kept the first initial, except for the antagonist; his name I kept. I couldn’t evoke the same emotional response while writing from a made-up name. I was a little terrified to share it, but I submitted it to a contest and won. Then I prayed that one of the antagonists in the story would never find a copy of the college newspaper it was printed in. 😛

    As for my 100% fiction, I don’t really base characters on real people. I may borrow names or physical attributes, or fun details about their life just to make a character more interesting, but the final product has no resemblance to the person I drew from. I don’t know if you can still call that basing them on real people.

    It always bugs me that writers portrayed on TV are shown as basing their characters 100% on real people and giving them different names that rhyme with the names of the real people. Hello, we’re not that boring.

    • I would have been nervous about someone from that story seeing it too Angela. That is great you won the contest though. You have real talent in writing.

      lol @ the real people on tv shows! You are right, we aren’t that boring.

  4. Although Angela probably has an idea of where this topic came from since we have been discussing it on the side, most of you don’t know. The story I’m currently writing has a female veteran as the main character. Not many authors have that kind of MC, but it has been my goal to break that mold, particularly in the Urban Fantasy genre where I have never seen them used. The thing is, she will have to be tough and face supernatural creatures as part of the story line. I have developed her personality by basing it on several people, including myself. Her behavior reflects the strong military women I know and how I think they would react under similar circumstances (a bit of suspension of disbelief is still needed but I have to work with what I’ve got). The situations are all fictional and wouldn’t happen in real life, except for some of my character’s military background. The main thing is she will have to fight vampires, werewolves, witches, etc, which is definitely not something anyone would face in the real world. Yet it is fun to explore what a strong, battle hardened woman would do if she had to overcome such obstacles. I want to explore that and give my ode to women who have served by having a character that represents their strengths. It should be known that my MC is still very much her own person, she just has certain traits that are borrowed from myself and others.

    • I agree with Tim. Making your characters believable is the key. I really love the books where I am so in tune with characters that I get emotionally involved with them. I cry when they hurt or laugh when they laugh. A little crazy maybe but I think it is great.

    • I agree with Tim. It will be the reality of the characters that will make the supernatural feel real to the readers. Great story concept, best of luck with it.

      I also envision my stories as if I were watching them play out in a television or movie series, going so far as to picture the actor/actress I would have portray the role and see if I could picture them saying this or that. Later though, once the characters take shape, I find that original person I envisioned no longer exists. They become a character all their own. It’s funny, I have used a person I disliked as a secondary character, and yes, he didn’t make it!

      • Thanks Debbie. I hope it will be interesting enough for people to want to read!

        As for your last comment, kuddos for admiting it. That is awesome 🙂

  5. Suzie, it’s my believe that no matter how outlandish your setting or circumstances that a believable character taking believable actions will sell it. As long as you believe your composite character does or could exist, I’m sure that we readers will be equally convinced 🙂

  6. For my book Blue Car Racer, I based much of it on my own experiences of growing up in a rural area of Indiana. Shooting apart old beer bottles with BB guns down by the river was something I actually did with one of my friends.

    Eric was based in part off of my best friend at the time who helped me through a lot of hard times during and after my mom passed away. During that time, I was also bullied quite a bit, though not quite to the extent that my character Colin was. So the parallels to my own life was something I wanted to put in there.

    I didn’t change the teachers’ names in my story either. I figured it was safe since I set the story in a fictional Montana town anyway =p

    As for Colin himself, the physical descriptions of how he looks were based off a real kid I met while I was working in the checkout line at my job. He had this big hat with flaps that was too big for his head, glasses, and brown hair and eyes. He had to tilt his head up to see. He was really scrawny, and the way he looked stood out to me, so I knew I wanted to write a story about a kid like him.

    That night, I came home and wrote the prologue for Blue Car Racer, and it all took off from there =)

    • That’s so cool that you were able to combine things but even cooler that you saw the person and were able to get a whole book out of it.

    • Life experiences can certainly add realism to a story. You certainly did that with your book Peter. I was impressed with how well you coveyed the feelings of being bullied. A reader could really empathize with Colin in the story. My mother died when I was young as well, but I handled it a bit differently because my father and brother fell apart so badly that I had to be the strong one for them. Every kid deals with tragedy in a different way and you really got into the psychology of that.

  7. I have to admit that many of my characters are based on real people and real events too. Of course I wouldn’t want to say who those people were, but they certainly made an impression on me and I hope they do the same for my readers. There is nothing so real as real people! I sometimes use composites of the people I have known and combine the good and bad traits to create the sort of characters I need for my stories. My subject, Africa during the sixties where I lived and worked for many years, provided me with many friends and acquaintanses from whom to choose.

    • It is interesting how different countries and different time periods can affect a story line. I was a child in the 1960s so I only know from my only little world…which basically was watching ‘Family Affair’ and going to school. A few vague memories of going to some other people’s houses, one of whom was what we now call a ‘Native American’. It wasn’t until I was grown up and taking History classes that I understood what turmoil our country was in. I have no clue what other countries were like.

    • Thanks for your input Ken. I’m sure having lived in and met people from that area of the world made a big difference in capturing the nuances of how your characters may behave and think!

  8. I have a character called Aisha who is a control freak and thinks she’s in charge of just about everything. She’s based on a composite of several people I’ve worked with in real life. If anyone has ever worked in business, you might recognise the stereotype. There’s always one person, for some reason usually a woman, who isn’t the boss and has no real decision-making authority, but seems to think she’s in charge of it all. Job titles vary from Personnel Manager, CEO’s PA to Office Administrator. She always hovers at the front of every meeting, waiting for people to settle, with a knowing look as if she’s somehow orchestrating the proceedings, and is overly possessive of the CEO/Department Head or whoever really is in charge. She seems to have a wide and varied job description which centres around health and safety and telling others what to do whilst not really doing anything very significant herself, but holds onto her job largely by sucking up to the CEO at every opportunity and making him copious cups of coffee.

    Every organisation I have every worked in always seems to have an “Aisha” in one form or another.

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