Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Are Your Friends or Family in Your Books?

I have this habit of reading TV recaps even though I don’t watch the shows (is this weird? I don’t even know if it’s weird). Anyway, apparently Gossip Girl had a storyline this week where Dan got a book published, and it got me thinking.

I’ve already seen several blog posts that discussed how unrealistic the whole “book acquisition process” was in that storyline. Which is to be expected—it’s TV. They get CPR wrong every time, too. But what snagged my interest was the fact that apparently Dan had based all his characters in the book on the people in the show—Blair, Serena, Chuck, etc. Naturally, drama resulted from this, because people were pissed about the way they’d been portrayed.

It got me thinking. I actually get asked somewhat frequently if I base my characters on real people. People ask me, “Am I in your book?” Or, "Do you write books about people you know?"

No, you're not. And I don't.

I don't write real people into my books. At least not all of real people.

To make an analogy—if writing a character was like drawing a picture, I might use my best friend’s ears, my mother’s nose, my sister’s hands, my own chin, Mona Lisa’s smile, and hair and eyes straight out of my imagination.

So a character might have my husband's tendency to be on time, my love of unicorns, and my mother's work ethic. My characters are mishmashes of people I know and people I observed in the store or met once or even simply dreamed up. And sometimes they're more influenced by fictional characters than real people (hello, Han Solo)!

I have multiple reasons for this. 

First, putting people you know into your novel seems like a bad idea (at least to me), especially if you have any deeply flawed characters who do bad stuff. 

But besides the potential damage to interpersonal relationships, trying to fit an already fully-formed individual into a book just doesn't make sense to me from a creative standpoint.

Maybe it's just the way I write.

See, 90% of the time I begin with a scene or the plot itself.  Then I ask myself, "What kind of person would get into this situation? What kind of person would act the way they need to act in order for the story to go the way I want it to go?" And there are so many nuances to that question, little quirks and facets to the character’s personality that will explain all these choices. It’s pretty unlikely that I would just plug my best friend into the story and have all her quirks and neuroses line up with the necessities of the plot like that.

Of course, plot and character are just two parts of the same rope. Plot affects character, but character also affects plot. I’ve had stories neatly planned out only to discover that my character wouldn’t do the thing they’re supposed to do in order to make the plot work, because by now that character has become a huge part of the story and the plot is beginning to shape itself around them.

But I digress...

So if I write a story about a girl with a mean sister, or a boorish cousin, or a hateful friend—I’m not writing about my own sister, cousin, or friend. 

 Writers, do you base your characters on people you know? Or do you make a mishmash of traits? Are your characters 100% fictional, even?


  1. Ahhh I love this topic.

    Mine are MOSTLY totally fictional. I do occasionally use something from my friends/family as a "jumping off" point. ie. for one of my characters the first trait I knew of hers was a trait from one of my family members. But then that was the only thing they shared.

    So I'd say my characters are like 90-ish% fictional. Though I do have one (ONE!) based almost entirely off a person I used to know. Nobody I'd be worried about offending though, or that would probably even read the book ever if it were published.

  2. Jordyn: Exactly. I guess my point is I never simply stick friends or family members straight into the story. For some reason a LOT of people assume I do, though. Some even encourage it--they say "just write about your family and change the names." No, thanks :)

  3. I'm like you, maybe a bit from him and a bit from her but never whole people. Also i read recaps of shows that I don't watch all the time - saves me watching them :-)

  4. They might share a trait or two with people I know, but I'd rather avoid an hassle and not base them off an actual person at 100%.

  5. I take some traits from people I know (and fictional characters/celebrities) but never whole personalities, mainly because all my characters are extremely flawed and people would probably get offended. Since I'm writing and illustrating a graphic novel, I was thinking about using likeness' of my friends and family as background characters, just faces in a crowd.

  6. Sarah: Yay, I'm not the only one!

    Joshua: Exactly. It just seems like it would be a hassle even if the person DID fit the story, and they never do.

    Kane: That's an interesting idea, to use their faces in a graphic novel. I actually think I'd like that (as opposed to being offended). But then, it's sort of a different consideration. Like a cameo.

  7. I very much agree: I also think it's not good from a creative standpoint to start with fully formed characters. Part of writing a story is coming up with the backstory, which, as you said, is where your characters become the people who get into the sort of shenanigans you're writing about. That's also where the fun is! :-) Great post!

  8. I do about like you, except that i usually start with a character and a setting and the plot comes from there.
    it's impossible not to draw at least a bit from people you've known. because knowing others shapes who you are and how you react to the world and philosophies and situations, and how you react and judge and feel about things can't help but find its way into your writing, even if you intentionally try to avoid it.
    at least that my opinion! :)

  9. LC Frost: Yes, for me it's a very interactive process to create those characters. I never just have them down right away.

    Vic: Cool, you're like the mirror opposite! And I agree about drawing from the people you know... we definitely don't live in a vacuum. All our observations about people are coming from what we've seen and experienced. Good thoughts.

  10. I haven't ever based my characters on real life people, BUT I did base one of my characters in Elemental on a real life cat (and yes, the character was a kitty).


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