woman holding mirror against her head in the middle of forest

How do real people feature in your fiction?

In the first few years I started openly saying I wanted to write books, one strange reaction stood out: “You should base a character off of me! And then we can split the profit!” I heard it enough times that I stopped being so open about writing fiction and instead pointed to journalism as my dream writing career.

Fully basing a fictional character off someone real always seemed like a dangerous idea to me. Would they recognize themself in the story? Would they hate the role played by “their” character? If they don’t like how I wrote “them,” do I have to worry about being sued?

I figured if someone knew I’d borrowed parts of their personality, they’d feel ownership over this fictional character. And, to an extent, the story I put them in. So I tend not to tell people.

Why use real people at all?

The short answer is because it helps characters come across as real. When you pull from personal experience, there’s more for your readers to relate to.

It doesn’t have to be a whole person, by the way. Sometimes it’s just a conversation you had with them, or maybe you take one small aspect of their identity and make that the dominant personality trait in a character. It could also be a name. I’d like to say every character name I use is intentional and well-researched, but sometimes I just mix and match names I get from skimming my email inbox.

Wish fulfillment as a problem…

In fiction, wish fulfillment is unavoidable. And it’s not always bad. How many stories begin with the ordinary person being called to their journey, thus becoming someone of great significance? It’s a fantasy most of us want to escape to from time to time.

Things can get dicey when you have even vague references to a real person. A villain who bears some resemblance to a former boss can become a literary punching bag for you to fantasize about giving their comeuppance. The romantic interest modeled after the one that got away becomes part of the hero’s happily ever after.

…and as an opportunity

But when the wish does serve the story, it can be an opportunity to inspire your readers. This may be more common in Young Adult fiction, which I often read and write in, but I wouldn’t say it’s exclusive to young readers.

For example, I had a story a story with an antagonist whose personality was largely inspired by an argument I had once over whether or not I should have something I wanted. The other person believed a) I didn’t need it; b) it was, in a way, too good for me; c) that wanting it made me selfish; and d) they knew better than me in all things, so I should trust them on this. And to convey this point, there was a lot of shouting of insults and threats.

This became the trademark behavior of my fictional character. Whenever the main character wanted to have or do something this antagonist didn’t agree with, it turned into a fight. The antagonist ended up becoming something the hero ran from before getting tangled up in the larger plot. All of the antagonist’s actions came from them thinking they were doing the right thing for the hero and always getting involved, regardless of whether the hero asked.

Real people will feature, but not always on purpose

Even if you try your hardest to avoid any accidental resemblance to someone you know, the real people you’ve met will show in your writing one way or another. It can’t be helped. Writers create a lot based on our own experiences, consciously and subconsciously.

So long as you’re giving real traits to your villains and not vilifying real people, and not letting them get in the way of the story, there’s nothing to worry about. No one has to know who inspired what parts of which characters.

How have you featured real people in your fiction?

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