Who is that character based on, really?

Years ago after the publication of my second novel (the first volume of the Highroad trilogy, titled A Passage of Stars and written under the byline Alis A Rasmussen), a friend said to me, in a smirkingly knowing way, “You based the main character on yourself, didn’t you?”

Well, no, I hadn’t.  Yes, my heroine was adept at martial arts (I was studying Shotokan karate at that time, which is not the same thing as being adept at it, but I figured I could use something I knew to develop within the plot);  however, my heroine was not me in so many ways I won’t bother to enumerate them now (in fact, I deliberately gave her several traits quite opposite to my own in order to practice writing about them).  But no matter what I said, this particular friend refused to believe me.  Of course secretly I had based the lead character on myself (surely all writers did that!);  I was just being coy, or ashamed, or clever–or what, I don’t know.

I don’t actually base characters in my books on real people, much less myself.  First, I’m quite uninterested in writing about myself.  Second, I work very hard to develop and write complex characters, but to work on the page I find they  have to be a bit tidier than people are in real life.

And yet–perhaps because of the existence of the roman a clef (novels that are thinly disguised autobiography)–some people will continually and persistently assume that this character or that one must be based on a real person.

I may, it is true, be puzzled or enamored or intrigued by a specific characteristic of a person I know or someone I am aware of from history or the news, but even if I spin out iterations of that characteristic into a character, that does not make the character that person.  [I pause to note here that I have based one (1) secondary character on an actual living person, in a sidewise kind of way.]   I may amplify a characteristic I am aware of in myself, explore its ramifications in a character, but that does not make that character me.  Mostly, I try to delineate characters who develop enough “roundedness” that they come to seem like someone you could actually meet and could actually know for better or for worse.

So I wonder:  is it just easier for some people (usually non-writers) to assume that characters are based on real people?  Rather than drawn out of the imagination and a writer’s desire to explore human nature?

And what about you?  Do you base characters on actual people?

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  1. 1. Kelly

    Nice question, Kate!

    For me, I will sometimes start with traits that I admire and sometimes give characters flaws that I myself have. I do this because I’m intimately acquainted with these flaws.

    But it’s amazing how even if I may start with some common traits, every character takes on a life of their own. If I am inspired by a real life person for a character, I will usually go out of my way to choose certain personality characteristics that are opposite and in doing so, the character becomes their own person and the characteristics put in originally to distance them from resemblance to anyone else will in turn become their strongest qualities and shape their personalities.

    That’s a really long way to say I create my own characters, but I do sometimes write what I know when it comes to certain characteristics about them.

    I also find that my sense of morals and my world-view tends to creep into my heroes and heroines.

    I say take the comment as a compliment. It’s great that he thinks your character is so realistic that she must be you! How ironic, because usually those who would just insert themselves into a story rather than creating a new character would not be self aware enough to fully round out that character. :)

  2. 2. Adam Heine

    I do like you: I pull characteristics from real people to give me ideas. But I mix and match and twist until the characters are their own. I don’t think I’ve ever intentionally based a whole character on a whole person.

    That said, I have noticed that many of my characters share critical aspects of my personality. The bookworm who thinks he’s too weak to do anything worth doing. The air pirate who’s cool on the outside but bursts into seething rage when pushed. The geeky teenager who’s annoyed at his father for thinking his games are too violent.

    But none of these characters are based on me. And certainly none of them are me. I think it’s just a result of writing what I know.

  3. 3. Ilana

    This is an interesting topic, and one I’m actually a bit surprised at. I don’t think I’ve ever assumed that a writer based any character on themselves or people they knew, not unless I heard in an interview or something that they had.
    Perhaps this is because I, like you, develop characters that I write about as a way of exploring different characteristics of human nature, different traits and quirks and so on, and so I always assumed that anyone creating characters does this.

  4. 4. CE Murphy

    Not only do I not base characters on real people, I also–apparently unlike quite a few writers–don’t base them on or get inspiration for physical descriptions from real people/actors. I’ve done it accidentally. The main character of the Walker Papers looks like a girl I went to high school with (and who grew up to be a supermodel) down to the last half-inch in height, but I’ve almost never done it deliberately. It’s all pretty interesting, how our brains work. :)

  5. 5. S. Megan Payne

    Never. I could never base a character on someone I know, because I know them too well. That gives me 2 problems. I would never wish on them the awful things I do to my characters and also, I can’t get under their skin and find out what makes them tick and expand and grow them and–well, you get the drift.

    I do sometimes swipe a character from a TV show or movie or book, but they’re usually unrecognizable by the time I’ve gone under their skin and done all of the above. I don’t do this often, just sometimes and it’s a side effect of writing fanfiction (a nice low-pressure way to practice writing for me).

    Most of my characters are NOTHING like me. I’ve only written one ever that really was a lot like me and it was sheer coincidence. I wrote about her parents first and then each of her siblings. By the time, I got to her, she had been shaped by her environment, but definitely not my character.

    I hate it when writing books say it’s going to be autobiographical, when for me it never is.

  6. 6. Joseph Lewis

    I create my characters by (1) picking a key trait (courageous, funny, frightened), (2) establishing two or three facts about their identity (family, job), and (3) picking an actor or movie character (for face and voice).

    Then I just let them run around the novel in my head until I start to understand how they would function as a complete person.

  7. 7. Dawn

    I think most writers DON’T consciously base their characters on themselves. At least, not in an immediately recognisable way. Maybe when they’re first starting out there is the temptation to do so (the dreaded Mary Sue), but I’ve almost never seen an experienced or even half-way good writer do that. There are some exceptions (Hemingway I think). As for basing a character on some other real-life person, I know some writers do that but usually only to a very limited extent. There is such a thing known as a lawsuit!

    I agree it’s almost always non-writers who make this assumption. Probably because they’re the same people who will ask “Where do you get all your ideas?”. They don’t have the ability to churn out ideas and create characters out of thin air the way writers can, and therefore they cannot imagine how it can be done. The same way people wonder how a magician pulled that rabbit out of the hat.

    No offense to your friend, but I think this inability to believe that characters CAN be *created* betrays a certain lack of imagination. The creation of worlds/people that are NOT modelled on a Real Life Original is an act requiring a level of imagination that I suspect a lot of adults don’t have. Kids have no trouble making stuff up and would have no trouble believing that you just made it up.

    Very often, in my experience anyway, the same unbelievers will also say they don’t read SFF because “It’s not based on reality!”. I even once heard someone say they could not possibly read any fiction at all because “It’s not real!”. But when you do shove a novel under their nose and make them read it, they’ll start wondering if the lead character was based on the writer and/or writer’s best friend/lover/fathermotherfairygodmother/second cousin’s third son’s girlfriend’s dentist.

    It’s a strange variety of crazy that I’ve encountered.

  8. 8. S.C. Butler

    I don’t write characters based on real people either (or on movie stars). Characters are usually based on the needs of the story. Character is plot, as folks sometimes say. I’ll start with the idea of a character, their past and backstory, and go from there. Sometimes I find the ways my characters react to the situations I put them in quite surprising, and much more interesting than if I worked with a fixed template.

  9. 9. Tara Maya

    In highschool, I wrote a story once about a boy who was abused by his mother and who, obsessed with trying to find the right girlfriend, fell in love with, became disillusioned by and then murdered three successive girlfriends.

    The story was shown to a couselor who assumed the main character must somehow be based on me, even though, (a) I’m a girl, (b) I have a good relationship with my mother and (c) I never murdered anyone.

    Counselor: Where is all this rage coming from?
    Me: Dude, from my IMAGINATION. Look into it.
    Counselor: I don’t believe it’s possible to show that much rage and depression unless you’ve actually felt it.
    Me: (totally thrilled) Wow. So you think I’m a good writer?

  10. 10. Karen Williams

    I don’t base my characters on myself, though they and I have to share some connection or I don’t know enough about them to write about them. I’m not a good enough writer to base characters on people I know, though I do borrow certain characteristics and blend them in. I did start a story that had a Mexican-American male thief in it, and just didn’t know enough about Mexican-American culture to get a hook on writing it, and I despair that I will always have white American women as characters.

  11. 11. Foz Meadows

    Traditionally, I draw my characters from names. I’ll find a name, think ‘Oh, that sounds like *this* kind of person,’ figure how they look, what skills they have, and from there a world fills in around them. Other characters in that story then grow from a reverse procedure: what role they need to fill, and what name suits it. (A primary school teacher told me once I spent too much time on names, that I could call them all Bill and it wouldn’t matter, but I still think she’s wrong.) Only bit-players and NPCs get throwaway names, with few or no exceptions, and even though I’ll now build the shape of a character before naming them, the name is still hugley important.

    I’m not sure, though, how many characters end up resembling me. The way I view myself is doubtless different from how I’m perceived externally, so even if I made a conscious decision to base a character on me, it wouldn’t necessarily *be* me, or even an idealised version of me, as I’d like to think I’m a decent enough storyteller not to have random perfect characters running around. And oddly, given the fact that that I’m a girl in her early twenties, I’ve always found it difficult to write believeable young, female characters, despite the fact that they constitute the bulk of my protagonists. Most fun to write (and, again oddly, easiest) are grown men; and according to a variety of different blokes who’ve read my stuff, they appear to be my strongest characters. Which is weird. Cool, but weird.

  12. 12. Kate Elliott

    Lots of good comments, really interesting.

    I think the response of my friend had most to do with her being a non-writer. Few–maybe no–writers I know would think that way, imo.

    I would especially not try to write a character based on someone I actually knew; I can’t imagine pulling that off successfully, because I would inevitably be projecting into them my idea of what they were. Isn’t that part of what writing a character in a novel is all about?

    Tara, a few years ago my sons brought me a piece written by one of their classmates (they were then in 9th grade, I believe). It was brutal tale of a closeted gay teen boy whose father and older brother (mother dead) were abusive to him because they despised him. At the end of the piece, the teen is considering suicide.

    The first thing I said to them was, more or less, “I have to ask if this is a situation in which the writer needs to be seeing a counselor or possibly even alerting child protective services” — at which point they both burst out laughing. Yes, a friend of theirs had written it. It was fiction, and they had wondered what I would make of it. The girl who wrote it is now at university majoring in English. It was a good lesson for me. I ought to have known better! (but I guess the parent in me had a knee jerk reaction).

    So – yeah – that’s what writing character is all about.

  13. 13. Tom

    Me? I base all my characters on the authors from the Blogs I frequent. They’re all a bunch of characters….

  14. 14. Dawn

    Kate, I think your example above highlights an important point – sometimes the stories do reflect real life situations. I believe it was reported that the guy who carried out the Virginia Tech shootings has previously written some very dark, violent stories – unfortunately, it seems nobody was alarmed (enough) by the stories to ask the right questions and take preemptive action.

    Slightly off-tangent personal experience: at uni, I volunteered for a student helpline. Basically, other students could call us and talk about anything. One of the things you noticed straight off was that people often would call up just to talk about really innocuous stuff – like their dog, or makeup, or movies. It was only when you probed further that you discovered that what they REALLY wanted to talk about was abuse, trauma, depression, suicide.

    Nobody calls a helpline for the sole purpose of discussing their favourite shade of lipstick. And sometimes people write disturbing stories not for the sole purpose of entertainment.

    My point is, when shown a story with highly disturbing content, it’s ALWAYS worth probing further. Those parental knee-jerks may be way off the mark but at least you will not later regret keeping silent when asking the right questions might have saved a life.

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Kate Elliott

Kate Elliott is the author of multiple fantasy and science fiction novels, including the Crown of Stars series and the Novels of the Jaran. She's currently working on Crossroads; the first novel, Spirit Gate, is already out, and Shadow Gate will be published in Spring 2008. Visit site.

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