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.



  1. For a truly charming story of what happened to one writer who put a person she knew into her novel, read Georgette Heyer’s Sylvester. It’s not really a how-to book.

  2. Barbara Hambly tells about using two people she knew in a story.

    Obviously, she didn’t use their real names (since it was a fantasy novel).

    What she did was give Character One, the appearance of Real Person A but the personality of Real Person B.

    Then Character Two had the appearance of Real Person B but the personality of Real Person A.

    Now one of the Real Persons recognized that one character had the appearance of the other Real Person but didn’t realized that the character had her personality.

    Oh, the two Real Persons were not friends of each other so the Real Person snickered at her enemy being one of Barbara Hambly’s characters but (as I said) didn’t realize that the character had her personality. 👿

    Oh when Barbara Hambly was asked about the “these characters are fictional and not based on real people” line, she responded that “I’m a writer, we lie for a living”. 😈

      1. Isn’t that a major joy in story-telling? Just like in D&D characters– I’m not a six foot tall elf thief treasure acquisition expert who turns into a nine-foot-tall male living statue, either, but that character DEFINITELY had an unusually high level of me in her.

        1. It’s not a Mary Sue if you take one aspect of your personality and extrapolate it to its logical conclusion. Or have a “thank God I’m not that person anymore!” reaction to your character. (I’m thinking teenagers here. I don’t dislike my teenaged self but I am daily thankful I am no longer in that stage of life.)

        2. Gnomes. I’m partial to gnomes. The AD&D kind, not the Disney ones of the Gnomemobile, not the fellows normally seen in the middle of a patch of flower garden, nor those similarly shaped larcenous littles of Larry’s MHI world. And Lord Help Me, not the gnomes of Krynn.

  3. The first example would be Fair Use because of the obvious satire/parody of it, not to mention the Public Person carveout.
    (Which, granted, won’t necessarily keep you from having to pay lawyers to protect yourself. But your case would be ironclad.)

    😉 The main problem with using her, is that fiction has to make sense. There’s only so much self-destructive stupidity readers will put up with before walling the book.

    1. Right. Which is why you have to come up with a really, really good backstory. And keep in mind, US Fair Use and German law are very different in certain areas. Under German law, it might be illegal to use a person for anything without their consent if they are recognizable.

      1. I fully believe most things I’d write with connection to present day Europe would be considered illegal there.

        And I also fully believe that official “Banned in Germany” status would be an excellent marketing tool.

        1. No joke. With indie publishing on the Internet, any country that tries to ban a story probably doubles the number of people in that country seeking to read it.

    2. Yep. We did that, and the, um, discussions my writer and I had about that were epic*. But it was a learning–our-job comic, and free, and we made changes, but…

      Let’s just say I’ll miss drawing some of the characters (not BunnyBoy. BunnyBoy was always a pain in the neck) but the ethical constraints make me glad it’s winding up.

      (* How in the bloody blue blazes, does AutoCorrect get “epic” and try to turn it into “werewolf”?)

      1. It’s not looking at “epic”, it’s looking at “were epic”… and it’s never heard of a story growing fangs and fur every month….

  4. Been thinking about using a friend of mine in a story. Haven’t talked to him in years now it seems. Trouble is that his knowledge, background skills, and other things are perfect for what I need. Even his looks are just right. *sigh* Maybe if I change his name to something entirely different….Or…Think I got an idea on how to do this now.

    1. If the person is a perfect match for the character, even after trimming, perhaps it’s time to go buy them a drink and ask them if they have a problem with it.

      1. I tried getting in touch with him and chances are I won’t be able to even attempt to see him for a few more months. Just filing serial numbers and going with a general idea now.

  5. Well, I’m using a relative’s face in my current WIP. And I have a friend I’d like to use, but the story I wanted to use him is hibernating in a cocoon. And there is a cute little girl from South America (suitably transmogrified) in another dormant story. And the author’s daydreams and wishful thinking about himself, which ought to be distorted beyond all recognition…

  6. Oh, you can have all sorts of fun with this! Many of the characters in my Luna City books are neighbors of ours — suitably disguised, of course. The fabulously wealthy elderly rancher/practicing veterinarian is based on the character of a past client, with name and location changed, of course. The bunny-boiler predatory female with a penchant for pink footwear was inspired by a woman who briefly made headlines a year or so ago. The bad-tempered (and completely inept) Canadian treasure hunter (bitten on the ass by an enraged llama when last seen) is based on the resident troll at one of the political blogs that I contribute to … I could go on and on. A writer can have a blast with this, as long as the identifying serial numbers are carefully filed away…

    1. It’s the careful filing away that is critical. Elmer Kelton based the “bad guy” in _The Year it Never Rained_ on a person he knew and waited for the explosion. The individual loved the book, because he thought Kelton had used him for the hero. Kelton never said a word.

  7. Randall Garrett’s Too Many Magicians (for those who haven’t read it, it’s a scientific magic mystery story, and lots of fun, both as a fantasy and a mystery) uses many well known characters from other people’s fiction — slightly disguised, and often with multilingual puns involved.

    The Archie Goodwin character goes by the name of “Lord Bontriomphe”.

    The WIkipedia entry lists four fictional characters being referenced. It’s a lot more than that, and some of them aren’t fictional characters from other people’s books, but are real people’s references, or other media references. I periodically figure out another one when rereading it.

    1. There is or has been a fannish annotation list for Too Many Magicians and the others, somewhere. (Searches….) Hmm, it seems to have been removed from the Net. Maybe it’s still up on Usenet? I’m pretty sure Lee Gold had one, for instance.

    2. He did it all the time. Read his short, “The Napoli Express,” featuring an Italian detective named Cesare Sarto…

      1. Garrett was (at least, until the end) pretty much always a fun read, although usually underestimated as a major author. But he did pick pretty impressive works to lose the Hugo to.
        His “Sweet Little Old Lady” (tweaked to Brain Twister when it appeared in paperback) lost to Starship Troopers, and Too Many Magicians lost to The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. And his only short story to get nominated, “Lauralyn”, lost to “Jefty Is Five”.

        And he (in all his pen names, most of which were combinations of his various middle names, or anagrams) filled Astounding/Analog for many years.

        His “Backstage Lensman” was the only time I’d ever seen a successful parody of Doc Smith (who loved it). His “Despoilers of the Golden Empire” was brilliant, and I can’t even begin to explain why without spoilers. He wrote book reviews in verse (including for The Demolished Man where he played with the spelling in the ways the book did).

        And now, with the possible exception of the Lord Darcy stories (and that’s only possible; they didn’t stay in paper print much recently) nobody ever heard of him, or reads his stuff. Much of it was never copyright renewed, so Project Gutenberg picked up a lot of it — and only one work has more than 100 downloads.

  8. There had been a bunch of people coming up with hypothetical matches (some of the people knew Garrett when he was still active) on some of the rec.arts.sf newsgroups in the 2002 period — but I never saw anything that claimed to be complete.

    Lee Gold had one, and Dorothy Heydt had done some further identifications.

  9. Three or four living people know my secret; the rest of the world will observe that the characteristics of the character are shared by a certain type of person in his field and will probably have their own preferred specimen of the sub-type. Even in my copious notes, I’ve been reluctant to use a name, because the character is NOT the role model. Not after all the work I’ve done. They just share a je ne sais quoi that I found irresistible. It helps me write him.

  10. There’s another way to be inspired— husband and I went out for a meal yesterday (no kids! Holy cow!) and a guy with perfect natural style long 80s hair, a really nice jacket and a nice pair of shades walked by– I poked my husband and he glanced over.

    We concluded 1) really nice jacket, and 2) Elf. Could’ve built an entire character off of him, easily, playing the People Watching game.

    There were also three different “out for dinner with Grandma” groups. 😀

    1. I recently saw a high school play (by choice! It’s a good program) where one of the kids had perfect 80s hair (the non-mullet fluffy type.) I wonder if he knew.

  11. I’ve said before (Well, once at least) that I won’t mind if I’m written (no, this is not me begging to be – I *KNOW* there are more interesting folks about. Ox simple beast.) but write me Good, or Evil, or Whatever… just… please, not _boring_.

  12. If I put someone I know in a story and I like them, they will be somewhat recognizable.

    If I don’t, I’ll cover my tracks. 😉

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