Chances are good you’ve got a friend, or a colleague, or a boss that you think would make a great protagonist for a story. Maybe not a protagonist, but a great auxiliary character for sure. But you’re a little afraid to add them. How ethical is it to include real people in our fiction?
Maybe it’s best if you ask their permission first. But even then, they may not like the way you portray them. It’s a great way to stumble into a lawsuit. Anne Lamott, in her craft book Bird by Bird, suggests using the character anyway, and exaggerating an embarrassing physical trait to the point that no one would ever claim any part of the character. For example, in your novel, you can give the character in question and unusually large nose, or body odor so offensive he can’t keep a girl, much less a cat or dog. Halitosis is always a great choice.
But I’d like to make another suggestion. Generally, it is not an entire person that we want to include as characters in our novels. More typically, we are enamored with an aspect of our friend (or colleague, or boss). Maybe it’s the shape of her eyes, the particular slant of her smile, the incongruent pairing of sweet perfume and a mohawk. Maybe its his particularly dry sense of humor, his eternal optimism, or his intimidating intellect. Doubtless, these are the qualities that most people would immediately recognize if they took shape in a story penned by you.
Lamott also wisely suggests that you change this characteristic. If your friend’s unfailing (and often stupidly naïve) optimism inspires you, imagine instead if she were just as devoted to depression and pessimism. Instead of the sweet smell of perfume and a shockingly incongruous haircut, giver her a gorgeous head of hair and a particularly poor choice of fragrance (maybe this is where the body odor comes in).
By twisting and exaggerating a characteristic of a personal acquaintance, you can put together the foundation of an intriguing character AND avoid potential lawsuits. Really, it’s a win win.