Are My Characters Based on People in Real Life?

My friend Laura, who is supportive and sassy at the same time, always asks me if she’s going to appear in my novel. “Emily, is this book about me? When are you going to write my life story? Am I the good guy or the bad guy?” She’s being cheeky when she does this, and it usually makes me laugh, but I got asked this question again with my current novel.

One of my critique partners commented on how much she liked a certain character. To her, he jumped off the page. “Is he based on someone you know?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said. “He is a little bit.”

“It shows. You must be close.”

It’s erie that she said that because she’s right, and weirdly enough that made him very easy to write. But, I don’t do that all the time.

Some of my characters are not based on real people at all. They are completely constructed in my imagination. Everything from their look to their personality I built in my head and on the page. Not only is it safer that way, but it’s also enjoyable as a writer. I like these new creations. They are refreshing.

But not all of my characters are completely original. A lot of them borrow things from people I know in real life. Even if we’ve been friends for years or I just met you and interacted with you for six hours, I might “steal” something from you and put it in my draft.

This doesn’t mean that all my friends and family members are going to end up in a book. To some, that’s probably a relief, to others (Laura) it’s a huge bummer. Either way, I can never really tell who ends up as being the basis for a character. And it’s never an exact replica. I twist some things around, I change details, or I just simply borrow something, a look, a trait, a mannerism, and stick it on a character. I do this for lots of reasons. The first is I don’t want to get sued, the second is that I like having friends and don’t want to be alone the rest of my life, and the third reason is writing a real person can be boring and limiting. They already exist. It’s more fun to create someone totally new based on something that already exists. I don’t want to constantly ask myself ‘would so-and-so do this?’ I would rather ask myself ‘how would my  character react?’

What’s strange is that if you’re currently close to me, I can’t seem to write about you (I have this same problem with setting. None of my stories take place in Colorado, for example). I can’t write my parents, my brother, my roommate, my best friend Kathryn, or my last boyfriend. I do name characters and places after people in real life. That’s also fun, mostly for me because it’s basically an inside joke.

Does this include people who’ve scorned me, too?

No. I used to always joke that if I hated you, I’d write you in a novel and then kill you off. If I seriously hated you, I would “Dolores Umbridge you.” In other words, I’d make you a universally despised villain. People would root for bad things to happen to you and you’d eventually be defeated.

I did this for a little while, but then I stopped. I hated doing it. I made a villain based of a girl I disliked in college and it made me dislike writing that character. The antagonist is important to the story and I shouldn’t shy away from it. So I ditched that villain. Basically, I don’t want to give an ounce of thought to that person anymore. That girl is long gone and my life is better for it. I don’t want to give her that satisfaction or that attention.

Anne Lamott wrote in her lovely book “Bird by Bird” that characters should come from your real life, but you should change them around to suit your story and so they won’t come looking for you. She said this specifically about ex-boyfriends:

“If you disguise this person carefully so that he cannot be recognized by the physical or professional facts of his life, you can use him in your work.  And the best advice I can give you is to give him a teenie little penis so he will be less likely to come forth.”

So on that note, I’m off to start my weekend. Do any of you base your characters on people in real life? Do your enemies suffer a gruesome death by pen? Or are you like me and you don’t give them the time of day? You can leave a comment below, tweet me @EmHof, or follow me Goodreads. Until Tuesday, I’m out.

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