Characterizing Real People
We have to use real people as the basis for our characters. Except we writers are frequently enjoined never, ever to use real people as the basis for our characters, lest we be scolded, disowned, sued, or punched in the nose by someone who takes offense at recognizing themselves. So what’s a poor writer to do? Imagine, wonder, look behind at motivations, and file off any identifying marks and numbers like mad.Let’s say, I want to create a character who is the elected leader of a planetary government, named Angel Marky. For reasons to be slowly disclosed over the course of the book, the leader opens up the planet to members of an alien culture and species—perhaps their planet was in trouble, or something similar. That influx of aliens causes problems for the natives. As more and more aliens arrive, Pres. Marky refuses to see the costs, and keeps insisting that people be nice to the poor aliens, to the point of pushing through legislation blocking criticism of the poor, suffering newcomers and their cultural quirks. Meanwhile our Hero, a fearless and dedicated [job here] starts looking behind the scenes and discovers…
Those of you who are saying, “um, isn’t Angela Merkel going to send a lawyer over about now, or perhaps the head of the EU” can see where this might go. And to be honest, I have considered how I would use die Kanzlerin as a character, probably a villain. I see too much in her background to leave her as the model for a well-meaning-but-terminally-naive sort. However, blatantly copying her would be a big problem. So I’d probably not have a female human unless I could shade things a little and blur her with other women. And the leader’s title would not be Chancellor. I’d also have to come up with a different back-story, one to explain the creation of the character but not recognizably DDR (East German). Different physical characteristics as well, which wouldn’t be a problem if the character is not human. Perhaps that’s part of the solution – have the character be the first non-human elected to lead a majority human planet?
There are several degrees and ways to use a real person as a fictional character. The easiest is get their permission to cast them in a set role, usually dying a noble (or otherwise) death. This is called red-shirting. But if you don’t want to do that, or the individual in question has been dead for, oh, three hundred years, you have other options.
To use my own work, Elizabeth von Sarmas is a gender-flipped historical character. I picked that character because 1) he had a really fascinating life, 2) most Americans don’t know much about him or his time and place, 3) historians have no good grasp of his personal life, since he left no personal records/diaries and 4) there are books about him and his time. So first I did research. Then I gender flipped him to female, with all the complications that implies for a pre-modern woman. And trying to explain how a pre-modern woman would become a warrior and general? Desperation explains a lot, and there are historical precedents, although you have to go back farther, to the early medieval or to non-Western cultures. What I kept – general life outline, technology level, major battles, major geography features. I did the same in Blackbird, minus the gender flip. If you catch the title, you’ll catch who I borrowed. Think of a raven…
Kate Paulk took it a step closer to the real character with Impaler. She uses a real person, in a real place and time, but with a massive fantasy twist. That alone is enough to break the character loose from his historical counterpart. Add in the unfamiliar-to-most setting (the Balkans in the medieval period) and a lot of readers will be more than happy to toss history out the window. By the end of the first book, we’re deep into alt-history anyway, so exact copying is no longer a concern.
What do you do if you really, really want to use Aunt Mathilda in your book, and she’s still around, and your relatives and friends disapprove of being used in fiction? 1) Figure out what it is about Aunty M that you so want to write into a book. Is it her having eighteen cats all named Floyd? Is it the way she can charm anyone into telling her anything? Is it her remarkable physiognomy, with a nose that made Jimmy Durante stare in awe and wonder? Sort out exactly what fascinates you enough to write her into a book.
2) Crop out that part and discard the rest. Seriously. Write down those characteristics and how you imagine the character using them.
3) Create a composite person based around those characteristics, as well as a little of this, a little of that. Blur the edges as needed.
4) Go forth and write.
4a) You might run the draft past someone who knows Aunty M to get their reaction. If they don’t catch her in the story, you’re probably pretty well set. If they gasp and say “How could you do that to such a wonderful old biddy!?!” you need to go back and blur and blend some more.
I did just that with what became a chapter in a Cat novel. My test-readers said, “No, you didn’t get the Flat State faculty, you got all graduate faculty everywhere!” and proceeded to add horror stories of their own. I was good to go.