Do you put characters or real people in your story?

Ernest Hemingway once remarked that authors shouldn’t create characters: they should create real people.

Wright_Typewriter2Too true. Though what he actually meant is that the onus is on authors to develop characters who are compelling – who present as real, multi-dimensional, shades-of-grey people. Not cyphers with collections of ‘characteristics’.

But that begs the question – authors inevitably draw inspiration from what they see around them. To what extent, then, should ‘real’ characters be just that – real?

I don’t mean plots where the kid that used to give you atomic wedgies at high school, got you punished for stuff you hadn’t done, and so forth, ends up in your story being slowly lowered feet-first into an industrial meat grinder, while everybody jeers and laughs at him.

What I am actually talking about is the technique where the real people you see around you lend their behaviours and nature to a character you’re developing. All authors do it. Sometimes to excess – there have been occasional lawsuits when someone took exception to their very obvious personal inclusion in a story.

And that is the question – how far should authors ‘reproduce’ the people around them? My thought is that what authors see around them is always grist to the mill: it all teaches authors how people are made, how they behave, and what constitutes the human condition. Writing from experience.

However, simply describing somebody you’ve seen or know, in every detail, isn’t the way to do it. There are a whole lot of reasons why, including the risk of offending the person being character-cloned. But the main one is that it isn’t creative. Authors don’t learn from it – what authors learn from is being able to mull over what these people are like, to understand it, and to then integrate that understanding into something new. This is what ‘writing from experience’ really means.

To me that’s the way ahead for character creation – and a way of making it real.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015


13 thoughts on “Do you put characters or real people in your story?

  1. My current project is about 2 sisters, I checked with mine before starting it to see if she’d be ok with a character somewhat based on her (she has a sketchy past and that type of character is pivotal in the story). I was pleasantly surprised to find she didn’t mind.
    It’s helpful to have real habits snd nuances to draw on when you’re trying to make your characters believable.

  2. For whatever reason, I’ve never had the inclination to reproduce people. It always felt like doing so would produce a character bound by the limitations the “real” person possessed. Too, what’s produced is a character who’s a hollow imitation lacking the internal struggles and backstory we may not know. Recreating someone you disliked is a great way to create a one-dimensional character. As for character trait lists, which I’ve produced, they’re helpful, but only as much as a map is a real world. Maps don’t sound like cascades or smell like a forest. A character’s traits must be more than imposed, they must be ingrained.

    1. I agree – trait lists are a good aide memoire for the writer, but people are more than just lists of characteristics! As you say, it’s like the relationship between a map and the real world. I think this is what Hemingway was getting at.

    1. Integrating real elements into your fictional compilation is definitely the best way to go – it means you have edges of authenticity in the character but also have a fictional character.

  3. I like the idea of giving a character a curious affectation, and then working backwards from there. What would cause that? What were their relationships as a result of that cause? Often from a single quality, I can build a character with a lengthy history and other personal aberrations that make them rather peculiar. This works best with a negative trait. I’ve read stories where characters have too many good qualities. They are boring. I’ve stopped reading in the middle of a book because the main character too good at everything. Characters with weaknesses (hubris) are far more interesting. Those traits land them in hot water sometimes, and it’s fun to get them out of it.

  4. I am shy about using real people as models. However, for a couple of sketches I did have remarkable success by taking one distinguishing trait from several people I knew and assigning that to each character. Then fill in the rest with the sides of myself that feel most harmonious with that and the result was a set of people that felt plausibly like they knew each other and would have some reason to talk to each other, but still sounded at least different enough I didn’t need character tags.

  5. I sometimes have a real person in mind for the physical characteristics like face and voice, but the real challenge is personality. In a crowded story it’s difficult to achieve enough separation to make characters distinct, especially the minor players who are often overlooked.

    However, I have a plan for a novel in which I’ll be paying homage to Kenneth Williams and Eric Morecambe. Comedy monologues are very difficult to write when you’ve never been part of the entertainments division of the armed forces!

  6. I try to stay clear of perfectly recreating one person as a character, for a very simple reason that I don’t know a single person who will be exactly going through the ordeal that I put my characters through. My current main character, Detective Sergeant Evelyn Giles, is an amalgamation of various people who have influenced me in some way or another, but none of it is a straight lift. I feel that, if a writer were to simply pick up a real person and put them on the page they are a) restricting themselves by what they can get their character to do and b) making the story far too close to home to allow proper distance when it comes to the editing process. A bit of person A’s background, mixed in with a sprinkle of Person B’s personality and Person C’s job is fine – but there has to be a bit of Author’s Imagination going in there as well – otherwise you just end up with a hybrid…

  7. I have borrowed names for characters. No one wants to be a bad character, but SandiJo, one of my daughter-in-laws said she’d be delighted to be one. While SandiJo is very sweet, my character tends to lie and manipulate things to her advantage. I know you can’t make a person all bad; I’m still working on her good points. So far all I’ve got is that she’s good at her job.
    Another way that I borrow from real people is traits and characteristics. I met a woman several days ago with a terrific smile. Don’t get me wrong, all smiles are great; but hers seemed to envelope me in warmth and friendship. I want some of my characters to have her smile. Or maybe I see an article of clothing like today with the woman wearing a lightweight purple jacket. It was a gorgeous shade. She herself admitted that she normally wore jackets in browns and blacks, but this shade drew her in. Or it might simply be the way a person sighs and leans on one hip when they’re annoyed or impatient (like me!).
    Years ago, I read a novel that had outstanding characters. Every time I’d look up from reading, I was disappointed they weren’t there in the room. Funny thing is, as much as I loved the book, I don’t remember the title or the author.

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