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  • Rachel Paige

Steal, Don't Model

Last week, I talked about learning the motivations behind your characters actions so you can know them better. I introduced this as "writing who you know." I mentioned that I did not mean you should base your characters on real people. Let's dive into that.

First, is it a bad idea to base a character on a real person?

Generally, yes. But there are a few times when it might be appropriate, like the character you're turning that person into only appears a few times. Or the person you're basing the character on is someone you don't know well.

But what's the problem with basing characters on real people? Doesn't it cut out a lot of work getting to know the character? Won't it make them more unique and lifelike? Won't it ensure that the character feels real?

No to all of the above.

Basing a character on a real person isn't freeing and it won't make your life easier. It's limiting and will make your writing harder.

Problem 1: Portrayal

If this is a person you care about, you don't want them to be offended by anything you make their character say or do. So you'll naturally want to make that character appear in a good light. Plus, if you make it obvious enough that the character is based on a real person and the portrayal of them is so bad it could impact their life, you could end up in legal trouble.

Problem 2: A real character in a fictional world

Thinking you'll know the character just because you know the real person isn't true. You can't truly know how a real person will behave unless they're in the situation. So placing a real person in a fictitious situation is entirely speculation. You don't know how that person will respond any more than you'd know how a fictional character would. Plus, the response you pick may not be one the real person likes. See above.

Problem 3: When they won't do what you tell them

Using a real person as the basis of a character means you're limited to what that real person would do. If you know the real person is terrified of planes, it wouldn't make sense for the character to get on one. Like I talked about last week, there's a reason for that fear. In a real person, you can't change that. In a fictional character you can. You can't just erase the fear and have them hop on the plane, you'll have to change their background and the reason for the fear. But you can change it.

You can tweak the psychology of a fictional character all you want as long as they still make sense. When you're basing the character on a real person, you'll be more hesitant to. Meaning you're mostly stuck with who that real person is.

So if you can't base characters on real people, does everything about your characters have to be made up?

No, and this is the fun part. While I think using an entire person as a model is a bad idea, you can "steal" parts of their personality, appearance, and background.

For example, all the main characters I work with have a little bit of me in them, and yours will probably have a little bit of you in them. Olivia has a similar thought pattern as me. Juliet shares my love of birds. James also likes to draw. Sam talks to himself when he's stressed. Evie can't stand needles. Megan is afraid of grasshoppers. None of the characters are me, or based on me, but they have pieces of me in them.

I stole some phrases Megan says from my younger sister. I stole my dad's love of ice cream for Juliet, Sam, and Olivia's dad. I stole my mom's organization for their mom. Olivia once kept a snake in her dresser drawer for a week; I stole that idea from a real person (but they had a tub of minnows, not a snake).

I steal quirks. I steal mannerisms. I steal hairstyles, outfits, jewelry, shoes, and other accessories. I steal favorite foods, music, movies, and animals. I steal fears. I steal weird little things that have happened in the past, like the minnows. I steal personality traits. I steal smiles and eyes and laughs (sometimes the exact pitch of a laugh).

I take all those pieces I steal and make them into a well-rounded character. Because coming up with all the little details for a person is exhausting. And if someone real has an interesting quirk or hobby, steal it! I talked about that idea here, too.

What have you stolen from real people for your characters? Have you ever based a character on a real person? If so, how did that work out?