Filing Off the Serial Numbers: Part Two: Real Life

I have writer friends who have characters based on or inspired by real people. I had a good laugh when I finally met some of these folks in person, after previously meeting their fictional incarnation, and much to my surprise, none of them were really aliens from outer space… Other writers strictly avoid direct imports from real life.

As with my previous post regarding characters and stories inspired by fan fiction, I’m not a legal expert and can’t comment on the limitations of the statement “Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is strictly coincidental.” Translation: naming fictional murder victims after the grade school bullies might not be the wisest course of action.

Importing a character from real life might seem to have some benefits-it’s a ready-made personality, and when you’re writing, you need only ask yourself “what would my friend do?” to have an answer. It can be a fun tribute to people you know to give them a fictional incarnation. But bringing a real-world personality into a fictional story carries some pitfalls as well.

History. Events can profoundly influence the course of a person’s life: upbringing, schooling, jobs, illnesses, relationships. This rule is even more important for fictional characters: would Bruce Wayne have become Batman if his parents hadn’t been murdered? What would Mal Reynolds have been like if the Browncoats had won? How would the group dynamics have changed if Xander, not Buffy, were the Vampire Slayer? Experiences that happened to the characters before the story even starts have shaped who those characters are when the story begins.

With a newly created fictional character, a writer can “work backwards” to construct a logical history that will explain the character’s motivations, goals, and behaviours in their story. With a real person, the history that formed their real-life personality might not work with the role their character plays in your story, particularly if there’s an issue with…

Setting. Your brilliant Physics PhD best friend might not have gotten a chance to become a scientist if she’d been born in the Wild West, which is where your story happens to be set… Once again, the writer will need to tinker with the person’s life experiences to make the character “fit.” Then, if the character’s present doesn’t logically reflect that past, the character comes across as contrived, wooden, or just plain not making sense. And the past isn’t the only problem…

Character development. The best characters grow and change over the course of a story. The story gives them new experiences which shape their goals, beliefs, motivations, and outlook. Nobody can survive a genocide unscathed; nobody can become a movie star or president or superhero and remain the same person they were when they worked at Burger Queen. But as fictional experiences shape your character, they either grow away from their real-life counterpart or else leave readers wondering why the character is mysteriously unaffected by the events they’ve survived.

There are writers who have successfully blended characters based on real people into their fictional universes. Personally, I’ve find it more effective to draw inspiration from real people-a trait, an outlook, a belief, a past event and their response-than to import exact copies. This approach has allowed me to put my observations of real life into my fiction, creating characters that feel authentic and act in realistic ways, without slavishly adapting real-life personalities into fictional settings where they don’t quite fit, or cooking up convoluted backstories to justify why my Wild West housewife thinks and acts like a Physics PhD. And since the characters aren’t copies of real people, I don’t feel badly if they develop in different ways then the real-life person who inspired them, particularly if some of those ways aren’t entirely flattering.

If you’re thinking of basing a character off someone you know from real life, think carefully. How will this person’s history have to change to help the character fit into the fictional setting and fictional role? Perhaps it’s best to keep real life people as cameo characters in your story, or use select traits or personalities from real people as a jumping-off point to build a character who is wholly their own person.

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