That One Guy (or Girl)

mohawk girlChances 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.

10 Comments on That One Guy (or Girl)

  1. looking back in my stories, I never once made a story that included a person in real life unless the character is me in real life but a couple of changes. Though I do think using characters in real life are good to use sometimes if there is a specific thing you like about them that you want to include. I do try to avoid my characters seem realistic and not make it sound interesting in some sort away. It’s all about keeping the reader hooked and want to know more about my character. That is what I say. Great post!

  2. Heh. I like to include real people, or at least aspects of them, in my stories. Naturally, I make enough changes for them to be unrecognizable.
    What if the nice guy who sits behind you in your Science class was actually a self-centered little rich girl? What if that cranky Algebra teacher you can’t stand was a calm and skilled elven warrior? Would that one colleague whom you think of as an extra sibling played the villain? What would these people be like, and how can they fit as themselves without being too obviously based off actual acquaintances? That’s where the fun part comes in.
    In fact, sometimes it’s even fun to take fictional characters from other works and insert them in your story.
    What kind of character would Harry Potter be if he joined the X-Men? Would Darth Vader still be as cool if he lived in Gotham City?
    Take some people that would be interesting to write about, tweak them a bit, and see what happens!

  3. I usually include real people in my stories. I won’t make them exactly the same in the story as in real life, but the idea of that person still lies within that character. That’s what I try to do anyways. It doesn’t always turn out great, but that’s what editing and first drafts are for. This post tells me that I should be more careful with how I portray my characters that do happen to be based on a real person because a lawsuit is something I would like to avoid and I wouldn’t want my work to offend anyone.

  4. I don’t include real people in my story for one particular reason, if i want to show the person that is in my story what i have written about them so far they may get offended. Even though you change most of the person and basically make them into a different character, they may still be offended by the characteres actions. I just avoid putting in real people it is much less of trouble having to deal with what their reactions might be.

  5. I remember I once had a friend that was always preppie . It was almost like she had no other emotion. She had inspired me to create a character like her, but instead of an always happy personality I gave her one of those, “the world is agents me,” types of attitudes. That slight twist made my story a little more interesting. I think it is amazing how someone or something could important ideas and moves your story or your inspiration to the next level of “perfection.”

  6. Aubrie Vasquez | October 9, 2011 at 6:15 pm | Reply

    Great advice Gansky :] I never know if I have way too many characters, and often I feel like I do and generally they are all significant to me, not that they would be to the reader. But, it’s those simple characteristics that make them them and portray a certain feeling of the main character, or evoke a certain reaction. I’m really glad you posted this, because now I know that having many characters isn’t a problem as long as you make them real and believable. They are definitely going to need a little tweek.

  7. Yea. I hate the whole “you cant add a real person exactly how they are in your story” because sadly, i dont have much of an imagination anymore and whenever i write i have the tendency to use the people i know but ive actually never done it to the point of me writing a big huge story about them either because then, I end up using my imagination again. But, i do think changing something about them could work and that its something i’d try

  8. I’ve never done this but it might help to make my characters more realistic. they just always seem so one dimensional to me.

  9. Amber (Squirrel) Hynes | October 13, 2011 at 9:12 pm | Reply

    looking back on my current novel, i used quite a few of my friends because of their great personalities, but ive also changed to where its not obviously them. for instance, their looks, names, sense of style, and ages, but its also them. i guess thats ok, but honestly im not completely sure. i also try to throw myself in there as the main character most of the time, but its kind of hard to change myself…

  10. Jonathan Calzada | October 16, 2011 at 7:22 pm | Reply

    I’m actually writing a story with four of my friends in it, I asked them and they were more than happy, I think it’s better to include people you know because you’re not creating a character, putting him into it and have him go with the flow, you’re actually putting a mix of characters with set personalities and characteristics, and throw em in a storyline to make them be able to have their own choices and actions

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