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Entirely Coincidental?

Not long ago, I was reading a novel when I encountered someone I knew. Not on the train, or at the next table, or passing by the park bench where I sometimes attempt to read while my children are playing.  In the novel.

 There, despite a change of name and a few identifying features, was a person I knew quite well, rendered in mostly accurate but less than flattering detail. I had been tipped off by a mutual friend that this was the case, but it was eerie—and faintly thrilling—to find so familiar a figure pinned (if not unforgivingly than at least uncomfortably) to the page.   Here, the standard fiction disclaimer that “any resemblance to persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental” was patently untrue, and I expect that the book’s guest star was none too pleased with his portrayal. Since I don’t know the author well enough to ask her, I thought I’d pose the question here: To what degree do you incorporate recognizable versions of real people in your own fiction, and have you run into some difficult situations as a result? Where and how do you draw the lines between fair game and off-limits?

20 Responses to Entirely Coincidental?

  1. emily says:

    I name the bad guys after past boyfriends who acted like jerks.

  2. Kim Smith says:

    Seriously? That line is a cliff off. I walked away from my monthly essayist column with a regionally significant magazine as “I was so successful they wanted me to start using real people and real places” in my works. “Use them is right!” I did my best to negotiate/reason with them; but all they saw were dollar signs. So, off I walked. There is no way I would float anywhere near this. Violation! Spiritual, emotional, financial, ethical, and yeah that too: Violation!

    • Kim Smith says:

      Of I forgot to add: There are no such things as coincidences. I hate to stone cast on one of my own but shame on them. VIOLATION. (and… off the rants!) Weak writer! Boo!!!

  3. Megan B. says:

    I have never based fictional characters on real people, and don’t quite see the appeal. Unless you are fictionalizing real events… but then I think it takes more than just a name change to hide the person’s identity.

  4. Jenny says:

    I haven’t based anything off of a real, living-or-dead person – but I’ve heard the anecdotal story of J.K. Rowling basing only one character on a real person. That character was Gilderoy Lockheart. She said she wasn’t worried about the person seeing himself in the narcissitic character…because he probably thought he was the inspiration for Dumbledore.

  5. Joelle says:

    I have never based a character on a real person, but I do steal my husband’s and father’s funniest lines. And I give friends’ names to minor characters, just for fun. They like it. In my new book, I guess I may have crossed the line a tiny bit…one foot over, but I think it’s fine. I LIVED in the theatre in high school, as does my main character. There is a half a page scene where two of the drama kids are having a faux sword fight in the same room as she is having a conversation. I gave them the names of two guys who were in drama with me. There’s no description of them, and it’s really half a page or less, but I am quite certain when they read it, they will be excited and thrilled (I have reconnected with them on FB). Honestly, the boys in the book could be two of a dozen guys I knew in drama in high school, but I thought it was fun, for my amusement and theirs, to use their first names.

  6. I’ve never based a character exclusively on a single individual, but sometimes create amalgams out of a variety of people I’ve known, combining one person’s tattoo with another person’s anecdote about X with another person’s job, etc. I’ll generally let people know if there’s any chance that they might see some part of themselves in someone I’ve created. It’s usually intended as a compliment.

  7. Simone says:

    @Dave I do the same – My characters are often hybrids of different people I know. I’ve never had anyone recognize anything!

  8. Lorelei says:

    I’ve never done that. I would be distracted by the feeling that I was invading their privacy. Which, indeed, I would be.

  9. Gill Avila says:

    Kinky Friedman uses himself as the protagonist of his novels. What is that called? Narcissism or Walter Mitty-ism?

  10. Ryan Field says:

    I’ve never done it. To me it’s like breaking the fourth wall.

  11. Kerri says:

    I’ll openly admit to basing my characters on people I know. I think lots of writers do it, especially in their first books while they’re still working their autobiographies out of their systems.

    But I don’t want to be a vampire, so I’ve tried to be as fair and compassionate as possible when creating a character based on a real person. And if it would just be too invasive or hurtful, I don’t go there. My brother has made it clear that he doesn’t want me writing about him, so I created a sister character in my book instead, which actually opened up a whole interesting new avenue for the novel.

    The thing is, I do feel entitled to use my life as raw material, but I also want to treat the people in my life respectfully – even if they’ve hurt me. It’s a fine line and I won’t know if I’ve walked it until my book gets published!

  12. My characters have composite characteristics of people I know or read about. For example, in my 2nd novel, the psychopathic female character is based on one person (male) I had a frightening experience with and another I heard about in some detail. Between them, they became “Allison”. I too give minor characters names of people I like but always make sure the character’s personality/age/career/etc is quite different.

  13. I don’t base my characters off real people, and until this post I felt like I was in the minority in that! If anything, sometimes they start off as a composite of existing fictional characters, but then the influences bend and twist to produce someone different (or so I hope). It just feels less imaginative to me to write a character knowing it’s really my friend X, and I’d have to twist it so much it would only become “loosely inspired” for me to feel like I’m doing a good job in creating characters.

    Question: if you hadn’t been tipped off before, do you think your recognition of the character’s real identity would have been so strong and immediate?

  14. Julia Pierce says:

    I think a lot of authors base their characters on the real people in their lives. Frankly, I’m really surprised that there are responses that area so vehemently against this. Granted, I don’t copy every detail of a person into a story, but I do take bits and pieces and kind of put them back together to suit my needs. I think that everything we write starts out as an idea based on something we see, hear, etc. in the world around us, even if we aren’t entirely conscious of it. These can be obvious physical characteristics, or, as is often the case with me, tiny threads that you pull out and expand upon. Often my character’s physical features will be entirely fictitious, but something in their character will be real. If we didn’t base our characters on real people, no one would want to read about them, they wouldn’t have the ring of reality and truth that makes us want to connect with a character.
    Nothing in this world is really new. We writer’s just give it a different spin and breathe new life into it.
    Now that’s not to say I am going to be obvious about it ;)

  15. Jon Zelazny says:

    I’ve had extensive Hollywood experience depicting actual people in dramatic, fact-based fiction, going back to the HBO biopic TYSON. The first question is whether the real person is a public figure. If so, standard legal practice is to only portray them as they’ve previously been described in other published or produced works. If, for instance, your character is a government spokesman who’s been widely, publicly derided as an arrogant jerk, then it’s perfectly acceptable to portray him– or a thinly-veiled version of him– that way in a movie or a novel. (If the real person is offended enough to initiate legal action, one would simply present the court with all those earlier portrayals the person never objected to.)

    I think “crossing the line” in this area would be to suggest something about the person that has NEVER been publicly said before, i.e., that the slimy government spokesman is also a bank robber. In that case, the real person could claim that the novelist’s intention was personal slander or defamation.

    Also, is it really a “standard” of fiction that characters are not based on actual people? Did the author make some kind of false claim to you when she submitted her work?

  16. ChemicalLove says:

    great stuff but you missed a couple (minor) spellin mistakes near the end lol and my comment from earlier hasn’t shown but hey…..

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