Is it Okay to Write Characters Based on Real People?

And Can Writers Get Into Legal Trouble?

Authors need to populate their books with characters. This is obvious. But how does a writer create the characters who will take readers on a journey? Do they simply fabricate a person, dream the character up in their mind?

Writers are creative people after all, so creating a character the same way the plot is created sounds logical. Without interviewing authors and asking them, we can safely say that it’s not the same.

Authors live surrounded by people, and every one of those individuals leave an impression on the writer. The bank teller with the cute smile. The teenage kid who flips his hair back about every 15 seconds. The gardener who brings his Pitbull with him to work every week and shares half his sandwich with the dog.

The world of unique humans interacting with each other and with authors unconsciously end up in books. Even writers who will swear that none of their characters are based or resemble anyone they know, are not telling the truth.

Not that they are purposely lying, but it’s impossible to create a character and not bring observations from real life to the creative process of character building. Of course, it could be a bit of a Frankenstein character. The character might have a trait belonging to one person, the looks of another, the intelligence of a third, and so one. But every author is influenced by the people she meets.

But do fiction authors base some characters on real people intentionally, basically lift the person out of their real world and place them in their book? I believe the might, but that’s a bad idea. And it might even get the author into some trouble legally. If the person can identify himself and decides to sue, the author could be liable for defamation. Attorney Lloyd J. Jassen, explained this well on his website.

This doesn’t mean that writers can’t be inspired by people they meet. But using that inspiration to create a character with the real person’s characteristics or personality is different from basing the character entirely on a real person.

Writers should change the person enough that it does not resemble the real person. If the person was a man, the character can be a woman. Change ethnicity, age, occupations, etc. change as much as possible so that the character is not a carbon copy of the real individual.

Also, by making those changes, the character takes on a life of his or her own, and this allows the character to grow and not be boxed in by the writer’s image of the actual person.

By the way, some people like being in a book. I once wrote about a character who loved art and bought a painting by an artist, Simon Silva who I liked. A couple of years later, I met the artist at an event, and I told him that I’d written a scene with a character buying his art. He was flattered, and said, “Wow, I’m in a romance book?” Of course, he wasn’t a character in the book. He might have felt differently if I had written him as a character and added dialogue. Authors should be careful about adding public figures or celebrities to their novels, especially when giving the celebrities negative traits or even “real” negative qualities like saying the person is addicted to a drug. This could again get the author in trouble.

But yes, sometimes people we know will ask us to name a character after them, and if both the person and the author do not mind then that’s okay. One of my author friends named a character after me. It was kind of cool.

The opposite is also true. People might see themselves in an author’s novel when the author never thought of that person when writing her story. We, all of us, share similar traits. We can pick up many books and read characters that seem like us. That doesn’t mean that the author wrote about us.

Ultimately, characters should be complex and multidimensional just like real people, and authors need to think about what makes that character tick. What events in the story’s backstory shaped that character? The character may have superficial similarities to people the author knows, but if the author is a good writer then she will want to build the character who is unique. The fun part about writing is making characters come to life with their own faults and issues.

So being inspired by actual people is normal and okay, but writers should claim that character once he or she enter the pages of their novel and become their own person.

Have a story to tell? Want to learn how to record personal experiences before they’re lost or write a novel? Let started by downloading for free Julia Amante’s “Free Your Story” framework.

Women’s Fiction author of That Was Then, Say You’ll Be Mine, and Evenings at the Argentine Club. Speaker and and teacher.

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