On Writing

Write What You Know: Basing Characters on Real People

This weekend, I had the blessing of getting together with my family to have a birthday party for my sister! It was the first time since Christmas that my nuclear family has been together. I enjoyed being able to have some social interaction with some of the people I love the most, and it got me thinking about a few things.

I wanted to write this week about basing characters off of real people and how I do it. Maybe this is an unpopular opinion, but I’m not super into putting people in my stories because they asked me to or because I’m angry at them and want to “kill” them. I feel like if a person is going to end up in my book, it is because there is a need for some aspect of their personality or manner of interacting to help forward the story. I’ll give you an example of what I mean.

Using People with Purpose

My story takes place in a post apocalyptic world where humans have almost completely died out and basic needs of survival, food, shelter, and protection, are of the utmost importance. The main character, Alondra, is very focused on making sure she her family obtains those basic needs and is extremely reluctant to widen her sphere of influence past her family. But in order to tell Alondra’s story, I needed someone to help encourage Alondra to have the courage to look beyond herself and be a good influence on more people. So, Maylee came into being.  

Maylee is Alondra’s younger sister that is loosely based off of my own sister. They share a lot of the same character traits, they have the same body type, the same hair color, the same favorite color, but most importantly, Maylee came to embody and pass onto Alondra some of the most important interactions I’ve had with my sister. For example, in a very selfish time of my life, my sister was crucial in encouraging me to make a life-changing decision simply by pointing out that I would positively impact a lot of people if I did it. I needed Maylee to encourage Alondra similarly to help start her character growth arc, but I also knew Alondra needed it to come from someone she loved very much if it was going to cause her to change…as I did at that time. 

Search Your Feelings

Basing characters off of people I know has also helped me better evoke emotion and believability in particular interactions.

Maylee and Alondra’s sisterhood is drawn from the relationship and interactions I have and have had with my real life sis. The tease fights, the real fights, pushing each other’s buttons, that sort of stuff. I was also able to pour a lot of the feelings I have for my sister into Alondra: the love I have for her, the willingness to do anything for her, protectiveness, how it felt to confide in one another. Because of that, those scenes really shine and flow naturally. 

Later in the story, Alondra needed someone to provoke (not encourage) her in order for her to make a bunch of small, domino decisions. This character (who I’m going to keep nameless so as to not spoil anything) came into being as a fusion of a bunch of different people I had met over the past few years, and I was able to draw upon the interactions for reference (and in most cases, caricaturize them) in order to give Alondra the next pushes and emotional reactions that she needed for her character arc.

A Life of Their Own

One thing I will mention is while I have used real people for character bases, the character always takes on a life and personality of their own. Even when I was in elementary school writing adventure stories about me and my friends, the longer the story went on, the less and less the people I was writing about were the people I was writing about. It’s fascinating to me to see how the characters start to shape themselves in relation to the story and see them come out different than what I started with.

But that’s what we’re going for, right?

In my mind, basing characters off of people is a tool in the toolbox to help us build believable characters. I would compare it to planting a tree cutting or a sapling. I may have gotten a cutting from one apple tree and planted it, and while it is going to grow into an apple tree, the branches will stretch in a different manner. It’s environment will shape it to become a completely unique apple tree

Cool, huh?

So here is my challenge to you. Think of a character you have based off of someone you know. Examine why you “borrowed” that person. What is it about them that you need for your story? List the attributes they are contributing to the story and as you are writing expand on them. If they aren’t contributing to the story, have the courage to cut the character and see how it changes the story. Don’t have any characters based off of real people? Think through the people that you know that you find interesting. What characteristics could they contribute to a story that would be compelling and interesting? 

I want to hear from you! What reasons do you usually base characters off of real people? Let me know in the comments below. 

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