At Writer’s Relief, we know life is often stranger than fiction—which is why so many novelists are inspired by real people and their extraordinary lives. In fact, when you’re writing a character, it can be helpful to draw inspiration from an actual person, since the individual’s choices and actions have already produced consequences that you can use to fill out your novel’s theme and plot.
However, before you create a cranky character based on your real-life high school math teacher, there are some important questions you should ask yourself.
What You Should Consider Before Writing A Character Based On A Real Person
What Genre Of Fiction Are You Writing?
Knowing what genre you intend to write helps illuminate the specific pitfalls you’ll navigate and the due diligence necessary before you start your project.
Do you plan to write biographical fiction, sometimes called narrative or creative nonfiction, using your real-life inspiration’s true name and the actual events of his or her life?
Does your novel include your real-life inspiration as one of the main characters? Do you intend to use the actual name of the individual in your novel, or mask his or her true identity?
Will your piece be a completely original work of fiction that takes nothing more than inspiration from a real person, and the events of the plot will be unrelated to any recognizable episode in that person’s life?
Your choice will determine whether you must stick faithfully to cold hard facts, mask the source of your real-life inspiration, or consider something creatively in between.
Might You Be Sued By Your Real-Life Inspiration?
If you don’t intend to mask the identity of your inspiration, such as in a biographical novel, there are some legal issues to consider.
- If your real-life inspiration is long dead, you’re probably safe from being sued for libel, so long as the way you characterize the person doesn’t reflect badly on the deceased’s immediate living survivors.
- If your real-life inspiration is still living, you’ll need to be more cautious. Characterizing a living person in a positive way helps lessen the possibility of legal problems, but may not allow you to be true to the facts. Furthermore, your real-life inspiration may not take kindly to even your efforts and could sue you for defamation anyway. It’s always smart to contact a lawyer to discuss ways to stay out of trouble.
- If you’re writing an original novel about your real-life inspiration and intend to take some narrative license, you may want to consider masking their identity. Change the person’s name, age, gender, profession, marital status, past history, identifying physical characteristics, etc., while maintaining the core aspects of character and personality vital to the story you’re telling.
Do Motives Matter?
One common pitfall in writing about a real person is that your personal feelings about the individual may color your interpretation. This could make it harder for the character to appear well-rounded and fully developed in a story.
Ask yourself why you’re inspired by this person. Are you using this character because you despise him and want to kill him off in a creative way? Are you choosing this individual because he’ll be great for comic relief? Would you be comfortable asking your inspiration for permission? Always consider what might happen if the character is more easily unmasked than you expect. Thanksgiving could be awkward should your Aunt Sally discover you’ve alluded to her being a spinster in your new book.
If you think unmasking may be an issue, reconsider whether the use of this character will enhance your story. Perhaps you could just emulate a personality trait or temperament and transfer it to a completely different, fully imagined character.
Have You Done Due Diligence?
Real-life people are complex creatures; fictional characters tend to be distillations of human nature. It’s difficult to reduce the complexity of a real person on paper, which is why so many real-life characters fall flat in fiction.
Can you do justice to the person you’ve chosen—weaknesses as well as their strengths? Have you done enough research to create a multidimensional portrait of the individual and true-life events you’re determined to portray?
That old chestnut “Write What You Know” applies to all writers, fiction or nonfiction. Some novelists would say that every fictional character they create is based on someone they know, or an amalgam of multiple people. Many authors confess that the best way to build a fabulous character is to start with several strong features culled from your real-life inspiration—and once those characteristics are put in the cauldron of creativity, see how they evolve into someone new.
Question: Who has been a real-life inspiration for a character in one of your stories?