Should you write characters based on people you know?

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Real life as inspiration

I’ve begun writing a novel sparked by events surrounding a real-life family funeral. Not mine, but my  partner’s. In writing the opening scene, I asked him a series of questions about his family, which he happily answered. Then he went quiet before blurting out, ‘Hang on. That’s my family you’re talking about.’

Yet I can’t help myself. The funeral story is so profound – so guttural – that it gets to the core of family at its best and most bewildering. Good fiction is real life condensed and heightened.

Writers are magpies

The truth is that in fiction, every character written and every plot point created is based on people we know and have observed, and the things that have happened to them or others. It is also about us and our own experiences. Tim Winton once said that every character in his stories is based on himself. With our unique perceptions and beliefs, writers are our fictional worlds’ filters and interpreters.

As writers, it’s out job to pick the eyes out of our own and other people’s experiences, pay careful attention to the news, listen like a hawk to conversations both direct and overheard, and pool these things, adding further drama with our imagination along a thematic line. Then hey presto, we hopefully have a novel people will want to read, with characters and a story line readers can relate to and be moved or horrified by.

Writing about family members

That said, the number one rule is do not write about your family. Yet these are the stories that perhaps get us most riled, that we can relate to best and that go deepest of all.

Is this exploitation?

Yes it is. But what else do writers do if not exploit? Characters need to behave in realistic and believable ways or they risk being a shallow cliche. They must be authentic with genuine human quirk, faults and loveable traits.

Hiding your characters’ origins

What I plan to do is to change my characters – merging them, exaggerating them, or reimagining them depending on what my plot requires and how my characters guide me. As for the story, I plan to combine fact with fiction, disguising actual events and adding drama.

I will be that literary magpie writers so often refer to. I’m not writing memoir. Rather I’m creating something new while being informed by everything I know.

A price to pay?

I understand there may be a price to pay for what I’m doing.

Is it worth it? You’ll need to ask yourself before going down this track. Truman Capote famously stopped writing after he published a scathing book based on the rich and famous people he hung around with only, to his surprise, to be shunned by them.

Yet writers must. Perhaps I won’t publish my current novel, but right now it needs to get out. The characters are almost dragging me along by the hair, which means it’s something I have to do. Until I’ve completed it, nothing else will come.

An aside: On not being written about

In closing, I recall a 1960s American movie about an author who moved to a town to write about suburbia and its occupants. Townsfolk were outraged by their characterisation in his novel. Yet the greatest insult by far was not to have been written about at all.

2 thoughts on “Should you write characters based on people you know?

  1. My mom recently asked me if she was in my book, and I said no, but I added that I’m sure we’re all in there somewhere. I’ll leave it to them to decide which parts of each characters are theirs. Then maybe I can’t be blamed. 😁

    Like

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