When Writing Gets Personal


28 Calls for Submissions in April 2019 - Paying markets

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Some time ago, we discussed authors and their friends appearing in their own books, in a thread called You In Your Book.

It's still going on, for quite by chance, I've recently read three novels in a row which feature personal appearances. James Lee Burke's excellent Dave Robicheaux series has long seen the Louisiana detective raising an adopted daughter called Alafair. In the books she's an El Salvadorean refugee he rescued from a crashed plane. She grows up to become a lawyer and screenwriter. In reality, his own daughter Alafair is a lawyer and crime novelist. I don't know how tightly he's based his book character's mannerisms on his own daughter, but there was an unsettling moment towards the end of the latest story, The New Iberia Blues, in which Alafair is kidnapped and threatened with death by a nutter. It really looked like she was dead at one point, which felt ominous—surely, he's not going to kill his own daughter, thinks I—but no, she survived. Imagine the atmosphere, if he'd bumped her off.

Sadder, was the way that crime novelist James Oswald handled the real-life death of his parents in a car crash when he was 40, by having his protagonist in his Inspector McLean series lose his parents in a plane crash when he was four. Write what you know, certainly: writing as therapy, maybe.

Touchingly, Amanda Coplin based the titular character of her debut novel The Orchardist on her own grandfather, who tended orchards in Washington state, where the story is set. It's all the more realistic for being drawn from her own memories. She acknowledges his influence when giving thanks in the end matter.

In my Cornish Detective series, I've based two recurring characters on friends, with their permission. One is a retired social worker, the other a photographer and maker. I don't steal details from their lives, striving more to capture their attitude to the world.

Have any of you used friends, family members, acquaintances or work colleagues as the basis for fictional characters?

Did you do so in an admiring way?

Or, for revenge!

Did you tell them?

Surely every character we write is going to have some elements of people we've known in them. We can't help it; the characters we imagine are made up of our experiences of other people. In my current WIP, I have two sisters with a "complicated" relationship. In one sense, they could be any two sisters, because sisters always have a "complicated" relationship. But in another, very concrete sense, they are my sisters because I grew up watching how they interacted. I've never consciously taken someone from my life and repurposed them for a character. Possibly nobody in my life is interesting enough for that. :)

I have been known to use the names of colleagues and acquaintances for characters in my stories, but I've always been careful that this is where the likeness stops: should my story ever be read, I don't want my life-models to wonder if this character is somehow the way I see them.
I include quite a few friends and family in my work, not physically, but their mannerisms. I think it adds more realism, particularly how they react to out of the ordinary situations. I don't tell anyone though. Oddly enough, a good friend read an early historical of mine and " recognised" herself as one of the principle characters: a vivacious attractive and assertive character with flowing red hair, who charmed her way through life. She was really pleased, despite the character being involved in a murder. I didn't have the heart to tell her that it wasn't her I had used for the character.
I'm currently deeply engaged in editing a novel I wrote a very long time ago that I've entered in a competition. It's almost entirely based on real people and real events that happened to me. If, by some miracle, it ever does get published, I'm hoping the obnoxiousness of the characters and the vile things they did/do will prevent anyone from trying to sue me. :D
I have done this, but without giving it conscious thought. One person recognised themselves in a character and was delighted. It was only when they said..if that person is me, well, I'm deeply honoured...that I realized that yes, actually, it was them. Of course it was. No question! :) But I write characters from the inside out. They are based on my experiences of people, and there isn't necessarily a real life prototype, consciously or unconsciously. The character is a distillation.
I think your subconscious will always slip little personal details about real people into your stories. However I'd recommend not consciously basing your characters on real people as it may be difficult to become detached from them.

Sometimes the plot may demand that a character die or have something bad happen to them and if you see them as a friend this might be more difficult.

Conversely if you've crafted a villain in the frame of a personal enemy (say an ex) it might be difficult to allow them to redeem themselves.
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28 Calls for Submissions in April 2019 - Paying markets