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Be Careful, or You’ll End Up in My Novel

Flickr Creative Commons: Theo Crazzolara

So here’s my dirty little secret about writing fiction: Most of my characters begin with a real person. And before friends and acquaintances start thumbing through my novels, wondering if they should be outraged, let me emphasize that the key word here is “begin.” And let me also suggest that you may want to give it a try if you haven’t already.

Plenty of authors “steal” from real life—Harper Lee based To Kill a Mockingbird’s Dill Harris on Truman Capote; Harry Potter’s Severus Snape was a fictional portrait of John Nettleship, one of J.K. Rowling’s teachers; and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’s Glinda the Good Witch was based on L. Frank Baum’s mother-in-law. (Truly! She was a suffragist and abolitionist who also fought for Native American rights.)

Real people—meaning people I know personally and people I’ve never met but know of, such as actors or authors or politicians—are a wonderful entry point into character. It’s like having an outline of a person you can color in and embellish, something much more manageable than trying to draw a person from scratch. It does not mean I think of someone I know, change the name and hair color, then work to provide a scrupulous portrait of that person in words. As every author knows, characters take on a life of their own, and say and do things we never expected or meant for them to say and do, and in the process becoming utterly and only themselves.

In my second novel I knew that one of the main characters would be a woman aged 75-plus, someone earthy and strong, with common sense and a good sense of humor. I found inspiration in the author Betty MacDonald, who grew up in the Pacific Northwest in the 1920s and 30s. My character, also named Betty, had a quick wit, no tendency for self-pity, and was physically strong, traits I stole from Betty MacDonald. She was also passionate, married to a serial philanderer, suffered multiple miscarriages, fell in love with a neighbor with whom she carried on an adulterous affair for decades, and a devoted mother—all things I made up. I made up her appearance and her childhood and her siblings and her relationships with her siblings. She’s still one of the richest characters I’ve ever written.

Four ways to use real people to find your characters:

  1. Look for the flaws. I help students with their college essays, and one thing I tell them over and over is: You don’t have to be perfect to get in to college. Think about the admissions officer reading your essay. You think that person has never made a mistake, done something they regret, screwed up, or felt miserable? Exactly. When you have a real person in mind for your character, you should also have some of their flaws in mind. Use those. Will your character share those flaws? Or will your character have flaws that are diametrically opposed to the flaws of your real-life inspiration? How will those flaws serve the plot? How will those flaws change that character? Think it through.
  2. Ignore what doesn’t matter. Say you’re having lunch with a friend or even an acquaintance you don’t know well. Do you want to talk at length about what they’re wearing or every cathedral they visited on their trip to Spain or hear all about the dynamics of their relationship with Aunt Sally, whom you’ve never met? Right. It’s boring. Your characters can be many things, but boring is not one of them. Don’t spend paragraphs describing their appearance, or what they bought their brother for Christmas unless it’s relevant to your plot or to helping us understand something important about that character.
  3. Gut them. I don’t mean Game of Thrones style gutting; I mean imagine if that real person you know were faced with terrible adversity or a life-and-death situation—how would they react? Would that make for a good story? What if they acted or reacted in a way that made for an even better story? As your character encounters hardships in your story, you’ll see the character —your fictional character—emerge from the real-life inspiration based on the choices they make in those tough situations.
  4. Let them go. The most important part of the process is to remember that you are creating someone new and fictional, not eulogizing someone real. When (and I mean “when” not “if”) your character starts to think and talk and act in ways that their real-life counterpart might never do, let them. It means it’s working.

Do you base any of your characters on real people? Why or why not? What’s your process like?

About Kathleen McCleary [1]

Kathleen McCleary is the author of three novels—House and Home, A Simple Thing, and Leaving Haven—and has worked as a bookseller, bartender, and barista (all great jobs for gathering material for fiction). A Simple Thing (HarperCollins 2012) was nominated for the Library of Virginia Literary Awards. She was a journalist for many years before turning to fiction, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, and USA Weekend, as well as HGTV.com, where she was a regular columnist. She taught writing as an adjunct professor at American University in Washington, D.C., and teaches creative writing to kids ages 8-18 as an instructor with Writopia Labs, a non-profit. She also offers college essay coaching (http://thenobleapp.com), because she believes that life is stressful enough and telling stories of any kind should be exciting and fun. When she's not writing or coaching writing, she looks for any excuse to get out into the woods or mountains or onto a lake. She lives in northern Virginia with her husband and two daughters and Jinx the cat.