Can You Use Real People As Vectors For Characters?

I’ve returned from my Dallas trip, and I’m ready to write again! I’m halfway through Chapter Seven in my current edit, so I’m about 30% done.

So, back to blogging. I’ve wanted to write this post for a couple of weeks now, but haven’t had the chance. Basically, is it advisable to base your characters on people you know, or even celebrities?

First, some advice from the professionals. Lawyers say it’s not advisable to create a direct-from-life translation of any real person, especially if you portray them in a negative light. You could get sued for libel. This is how Lindsey Lohan keeps suing companies like Grand Theft Auto for supposed portrayals of her (although most of them are bogus and just show vanity on her part). I’ve also heard that it takes 3-4 real people to equal one good book character. Most people are too mundane to read about, although they have aspects to their personality, when combined with others, that can make for a larger-than-life character.

However, real people certainly inspire and influence authors all the time. John Green was inspired to write The Fault In Our Stars after befriending a real cancer patient named Esther Earl. Hazel Grace is NOT Esther, and her plot does not represent things that happened in Esther’s life, but the combination of Green’s friendship with her, his experience as a parent, and his time as a hospital chaplain converged into this bestseller. It’s also well documented that Cornelia Funke based her Inkheart protagonist, Mo, on Brendan Fraser. Which turned out delightful for her, as he starred as Mo in the movie, and narrated the audiobook to its sequel Inkspell.

Personally, I often base physical appearances of my characters on living people. Usually actors, although sometimes it’s friends/family. This helps me lock onto an image of the person I’ll be writing about. For whatever reason, I have a difficult time coming up with physiques of characters, although I always know the general weight/race/physical features I want my people to have. I knew I wanted Connor and Clara to be Middle Eastern and I knew Raphael should have blue eyes. I knew I wanted Aphrodite to be a dark ash blonde. From there, I locked onto a few famous faces – Cillian Murphy, Lea Michele – and wrote the story from there. Some of their physical features have deviated from the base actor over time, which is great. The actor is only used as a template. I also advise using people who are marginally famous. No Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Adams, George Clooney – all too well-known.

But even more than a face, it helps me to hear a voice. I know what Cillian Murphy sounds like. If I embody Raphael as Cillian Murphy, I can better hear Raphael’s voice in my head. This helps a LOT with dialogue.

Yeah, the Mary Sue Litmus Test would probably fail me instantly for the above exercise, but here’s my philosophy – so long as you’re not casting famous people as your characters 1) to make them exceptionally attractive, 2) to fulfil a celebrity crush wish fulfilment between the celebrity-insert and a self-insert, 3) to actively draw attention in-text to how much they look like Attractive Celebrity or 4) to model ALL aspects of your character, not just their appearance, I think it’s probably safe. Personally, I am a movie-minded person. I mentally cast actors for my books in the way I would for my screenplays. Because I straddle both fiction and film, there are some filmmaker things that come off in my books and some literary things that come out in my (future) movies.

It’s more rare that my characters are based off people who I know, but sometimes I get in the right mindset by thinking “hey, Character behaves a bit like Friend…” For example, my friend A. has a dark past with a lot of pain. But while he holds people at arm’s length and has trouble trusting, he’s one of the most helpful and genuine friends I’ve ever met. He’s also very ambitious and determined to leave his past behind. I tried to endow Connor with this personality – someone who has trouble trusting but is still a friendly, nice guy. In fiction, we often see characters with such a dark past as loners, grumpy, or hardened assassins. Rarely are they line cooks with a friendly shell. That’s the only thing A. and Connor have in common, but I couldn’t have pinpointed Connor without knowing A.

What about basing characters on yourself? This, I avoid. It’s dangerous to write a larger-than-life version of ourselves, because we often forget to include our flaws. When writing a fictional person, we can be more objective.  However, I am considering writing my next book in a pseudo-me perspective – mostly just my first person voice, about a character with much different interests and circumstance. But because that entire story follows one character, in her own mind, with no other human interaction,  I’m latching onto emotions that are universal for all humans – fear of mediocrity, fear of dying with regrets, disappointment at letting our dreams die, fear of death in general. I’ll probably change the voice when I figure out the story more (it’s still in its “two pages of scrawled notes” stage). But for now, I’m getting the creative juices flowing by thinking “what if this happened to me? How would I feel? What would I think?” Empathy is necessary for an author and shouldn’t be condemned. A self-insert a la “I’m going to write an adventure about me and a rugged explorer searching for relics and then he falls in love with my ravishing beauty?” Not so professional.

Overall, I feel that using real vectors for your characters is nothing to be ashamed of. The most important part is that all of your character doesn’t come from one place. Throw in aspects of a few of your friends. Combine one person’s face with another’s sense of humor, or personality. Throw in yourself. And don’t forget to throw in a some original aspects which turn your character from cardboard into legend.

2 thoughts on “Can You Use Real People As Vectors For Characters?

  1. I’m guilty of using real people as sort of visual representations of my characters, and sometimes personality quirks get in there too… I’m very afraid of that but at least you’re mindful so you can warp if necessary to make the character your own and not get sued! LOL.

    • No guilt needed! Nothing wrong with that, so long as the similarities with the actor (or friend) have their limits. That’s actually one of the reasons why using obscure actors is beneficial. I don’t know much about who Cillian Murphy is in real life. I just know his face and his voice and some mannerisms. I have him “play” Raphael in my head just as he would play any other part.

      As for using people from your real life more directly, well….most authors admit to killing off or tormenting avatars of high school bullies, crappy coworkers, ex-husbands, etc. There’s even an old saying like “don’t piss off authors or you’ll end up dead in their books.” LOL. So long as they can’t PROVE it’s them.

      I’m more worried about accidental self-inserts. Even though Clara was based on Lea Michele’s exterior, sometimes I have a hard time seperating her from myself because we’re so close in age, we’re both analytical, etc. But she’s much more compassionate than me, and maybe less independent. I’m still trying to nail her down, as you know, but I’m determined to draw a very thick line between her and I.

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