Monday, February 20, 2012

Who are your characters?

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Most writers at one time or other get asked "is your protagonist you?" - in the belief, maybe, that all of us secretly yearn to place ourselves in our work (hey, as a character, you get to have all the fun!). When I completed Consequences of Sin and handed it to my husband to read, his immediate reaction was "I know Ursula is you, but who is Lord Wrotham, because he sure as hell isn't me!" I of course vigororously denied that Ursula was in any sense, me, but, in many ways, she was a direct projection of who I would have liked to have been had I lived in Edwardian times.

It was only when my sister, Bridget, got upset that I had named the housemaid after her (completely unwittingly, I might add), that I realized how much family and friends were trying to see if they recognized anyone in my books. No one seemed to believe that I hadn't based any of my characters on anyone I actually knew in real life (well, that's my story and I'm sticking to it).

This question has got me thinking about other writers and whether they incorporate themselves or other people they know into their novels. I'm sure all of us has subconsciously done this to some extent - but how many of us have deliberately chosen to model a character on someone we know?

While I often use real historical figures to inform my writing, I have never deliberately based a character of anyone in particular. To me that seems to be crossing the line into non-fiction (and opening up a potential can of worms if any descendants get upset!)

What about you? Have you ever deliberately incorporated someone you know as a character (victim, hero or perpetrator!)?
Did you try and disguise them to ensure the person didn't realize the character was based on them?

If you have used a real person, did that person recognize themselves when they read it? If so, how did they react (...any lawsuits pending...?!)


  1. It has never occurred to me to base my characters on people I know. I guess mainly because my stories are so far removed from myself or anyone I know.

    I do, in a general sense, think about people and the way they react to situations, and use that to ground me as a write.

    And I live vicariously through the characters, who live exciting lives, unlike my fairly boring existence.

    BUT, I absolutely can see how anyone would try to find themselves in my stories. I would likely read a friend or relative's story myself wondering if somehow, somewhere, I was disguised within it's pages. After all, we all have a degree of "it's all about me" whether we admit it or not.

  2. I am writing a fantasy set in the past in which the protagonist is (was) a real person. Everyone else is fictional. I would avoid using a real-life person as an antagonist, however long ago they lived, with the exception, perhaps, of well documented historical "baddies". Even then, I'd be wary of inventing villainous deeds that never took place.

  3. I don't base a character on any one person, though they may be a product of many people. If I were to place myself into a story, it would probably be as one of the lesser character. It would certainly not be as the protagonist.

  4. BK, I think you're right and I'm sure I would be looking for me in a friend's story too! My sister was very cross with me as she honestly thought I'd made her the Irish housemaid!

    Wendy - I'm intrigued that you have used a real life protagonist but are wary of using one as an antagonist - is it the threat that people might challenge such a view of them?

    Timothy - I suspect many of my characters incorporate some features of real people I know. I do think though if I was to overtly put myself in a book I would be the main character (such is my ego!). The two people I would like to write about are my parents. One day I might do this but it would definitely be as a tribute to their lives and characters (not an expose!)

  5. Ah, Clare, what's that old writer's addage: Watch yourself, or I'll put you in my next book.

    I get this question from my readers all the time.

    "Are you Evie Longellow?"

    Truth is, I'm flattered that a reader would think this as I love to live vicariously through my characters, but no, my characters are not me.

    I suppose on some psychological level my characters are a compilation of the best and the worst of people I've met, in real life and in fiction.

  6. There is no relationship between my fictional characters and any person living or dead. None whatsoever. Absolutely, positively nadda. Zip. So if you come across your name or address or phone number or any embarrassing and revealing secrets about your life or occupation or salary in any of my books, it's purely coincidence. A fluke. Beyond belief. There's no need to contact a lawyer or talk about defamation of character or anything like that. I would suggest everyone go back in your homes and just get those thoughts of legal action or pain and suffering out of your mind. There's nothing to see here.

  7. I'm putting Joe Moore in my next book.

  8. I always put people I know in my stories. Always. I am lousy at making names up, and doubly lousy at creating characters. I've never had a word of complaint. I have had people ask me when I'm going to name a character after them.

    Clare, your sister needs to roll with it! She's been immortalized!

  9. The MC in my current WIP is a middle-aged slacktivist attorney. She's funny, laid-back, and style-challenged (she thinks the wheels of justice would turn more smoothly if cargo shorts were added to the court dress code). Most male attorneys underestimate her until they get one of her briefs served on them (research, research, research). Clients like her because an occasional f-bomb drops into the interview. She makes a mean margarita.

    Nah,she doesn't resemble anyone I know. ::whistles:: *innocent*

    Pretty much everybody in anything I have ever written is someone I've seen before and remembered.


  10. I work in social services now and I would never ever in a million years violate confidentiality (take that Big Brother). However, there is a sibling name cluster that I have saved on a sticky note, just in case:

    Ace, Roxie, and Layla

    You can't make that up. Terri

  11. Um . . . yes. . . .

    Well, I like to use family member names, just to use family member names, not to peg anybody as the character I'm developing.

    For example: my brother has 6 children. In Mythological Sam-The Call, Sam recruits lab rats to help him infiltrate a building. I named the rats after my brother's children. No pun intented . . . just that the rats were were really charming and needed names.

    My next two Harlequin proposals were inspired by family members who just happened to be dealing with monumental issues. Life . . .and the people in it, sure helps in creating fiction.

    I think half the fun of meeting/knowing people is using them when you can/if you can. It's our right as authors, me thinks. I just think it's good policy to deny everything!! LOL!

  12. Mine tend to be composites, although I confess to evoking a past boyfriend or two! One of them recognized himself, and complained that I'd made him sound "sleazy." Oops.

  13. Sounds like some people (cough) definitely find art imitates life. I think using real people can be fun...unless they realize and think they sound sleazy:) oops indeed Kathryn, though you could have made it worst by having him killed! Nothing like friends or family realizing you've made them the murder victim to make for awkward conversation!

  14. I sometimes name characters after people I've known at some point in my life. Friends, foes, teachers I had... Names I like.

    People will see themselves in the good guys and gals, but never the nuts or less-than-perfect others you based on them. never fails.

    Once I auctioned off (to raise money for a charity) a major character, in that the winner of the auction got a major character in my book tagged with their name. I raised $5,000 and named two characters for people who each wrote checks for $2500.00.

  15. I use friends from time to time, usually tongue-in-cheek. So far everyone who has recognized himself has gotten a kick out of it.

  16. @ Kathryn Lilley: "One of them recognized himself, and complained that I'd made him sound "sleazy." Oops."


  17. JRM, auctioning off character names is a great way to raise money and people love having that kind of input. I like using names I hear that sound perfect for characters - though I wish I had Dickens' knack of hilariously appropriate naming but sadly I don't. Dana, one day I will overtly include some friends as I know they will definitely get a kick out of it (until I bump them off!)

  18. I spent time in the military then worked for the NSA. I write military fiction...Fiction....FICtion....FICTION...

    No names and no dates. To protect the innoc...uh ... those who might kill me.