A reader asked me to post on the topic of using friends and relations as inspiration for writing.
First, I will start by saying that if there is a legal aspect to this, I don’t know what it is. There is this disclaimer the publishers put in books that says that any resemblance of characters in the story to real people is coincidental. I don’t know what they do when the resemblance is not coincidental. It’s not like my publisher asked me: is anyone here based on a real person?
I have written many characters based on real people…or on real people’s roleplaying characters. Jacob and Nicky in the Lost Boys books are based on my sons. Miranda’s family in the Prospero Daughter trilogy were based on NPC (Non-Player Characters) John invented. While that is not the same as basing them on a real person, the process of copying the character and adapting it to your story.
Adapting them to the story is the key. I have found that I cannot actually put the real person into the story. I have to make them my own. Or rather, make them their own character that fits the specific background and let them come alive in their own right. If I spend time worrying about whether the real person would do that, I freeze up.
The character can be inspired by so-and-so, but they can’t be so-and-so. They have to be themselves.
How does one adapt the character, you ask? Well, list the qualities that come to mind when you think of the person. Is he somber and interested in trains? Is she brash and sassy? Does he have a bad habit of biting off the backs of pens? Give these qualities to the character. Then, start thinking of the character as a person possessing these qualities instead of as a copy of so-and-so.
Look for the qualities of the original that are the ones needed for the story. Then expand on that. If the real person is somber and interested in trains but also good at math and grumpy in the afternoon. But the later two qualities are not needed for your story, drop the part that is not needed. Maybe add in a quality that the original does not have that will fit, such as dry wit. Then you have a new character who is inspired by your friend or family member, but not them.
The hardest adaptation I have done for my as-of-yet unpublished novel The Creation Campaign. Thomas and Bernard were based on the roleplaying characters of my husband and a friend. Only they were playing themselves. The game has run over 25 years now, so when I sat down to write, I had to sort out the four personalities of: the character version of my husband when he was young, my real husband when he was young, the character version 25 years later, my real husband nowadays. It took me quite a while to decide which qualities, of the many these four different versions displayed, would make it into the book.
When do you not base a character on a real person? When you have reason to suspect that doing so might cause more sorrow in the real world than the character is worth to the story.
People invariably are interested in the characters that are based on them. They want to them to prosper, and they often have strong opinions on what they should do. If you are okay with this, great! If you are planning to have your character do things that the real person might find upsetting or humiliating, you might want to reconsider.
That being said, one way I get around this is to—when I can afford to—use the original person as an advisor. In many cases, I don’t need to make the character do something the original would find unpleasant. So I don’t. I bring them in as a consultant. Ask for their help rewriting dialogue to make their character more like the original. This as worked very well for a number of characters. My husband is especially helpful at suggesting dialogue for characters that were based on him in some way.
So…the key to having characters inspired by real people is:
One, don’t feel tied to what the original would really do, let the character come alive as its own person.
Two, spend a little time thinking about whether this particular use of the character will offend the original person. If so, can you find a way to let the character be inspired by the original without the person realizing that the character is based on them?
And, three, if your story allows for it and the person understand the writing process enough not to be too offended if you don’t use all their ideas, you can ask the original for pointers.