How do you avoid offending people who are going to read your novel and then say, “Good Lord, that character is me!” We’ll answer that thorny question today.
Sarah posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
How do you create characters that are enough different from real life that they don’t offend your friends – or your enemies?
I like to observe real people then twist their situations around into humorous fictional stories. (Like the clueless postal worker who faithfully follows every postal regulation–in the wrong order.)
My problem is, I do this even when I think I’m writing purely from my imagination. (Like the cow who burns a batch of cookies. That happened to me at age 11.)
I’m afraid that if I invent really uncouth or evil characters, people I honestly respect will think I’m making fun of them, or getting back at them, or trying to tarnish their reputations.
I would never exploit anyone in that way. Not on purpose.
So, how do you do it? How do you make realistic personalities that are *unreal* enough to be inoffensive?
Randy sez: There is one sure way to never offend anybody: Quit writing.
I don’t recommend that. If writing is in your blood, then you can’t do that, because nothing I say could possibly make you quit writing.
The flip side is that if writing is not in your blood, you’re eventually going to quit and nothing I say could possibly make you keep writing.
Listen, if you’re going to write fiction, then you’ll probably offend somebody somewhere along the line. That’s just the way it is. There are unreasonable people out there, and you can’t do a thing about them.
The only real choice you have is whether you’re going to write in a way that won’t make a reasonable person believe that you’ve based a character on them.
My rule of thumb is to take no more than a third of a character’s traits from any one real person. Often, I’ll just take one major trait from somebody I know. Then I’ll combine that with a number of other traits taken from other people or just made up.
There are a couple of legal issues that you should be aware of. Standard caveat: I’m not a lawyer, so nothing I say here should be construed as legal advice. My understanding is that you have two main things to worry about if you base a character wholly on a real person:
- Libel. If you publish something about a real living person, then it had better be true and you’d better be able to prove it’s true. The libel laws in the US are fairly lenient, but I’m told they’re much stricter in Europe. Libel laws don’t apply to dead people.
- Invasion of privacy. Even if you publish something true, you can still be sued for invasion of privacy if you reveal embarrassing information about a private citizen. (Public figures are fair game, here. If you want to reveal embarrassing true information about the President or anyone else who lives in the public eye, then you can.) Invasion of privacy does apply to dead people — their family can sue you for invading the family’s privacy.
The above apply even to fictional characters, if the character is clearly based on a real person. So it just makes sense to not base your characters on real people.
I’ve only ever had one person ask me if a character was based on him. My answer was no. I had taken one of his major traits and used it for that particular character, and I told him that. But I also said that I don’t ever base a character completely on any one person. I take a bit of this and a bit of that from different people, and a lot of it I just make up. And usually, each of my main characters gets at least one major trait from me. That ensures that I can write that character realistically from the inside.
In the past, I’ve had friends ask me to name a character after them. At a biotech company I used to work for, several of my friends kept asking me to do that. So I changed the names of certain minor characters in my novel DOUBLE VISION to be close to my friends’ names. But I didn’t base the characters on them in any way.
I’ve heard of novelists killing off characters who resembled people they didn’t like — an ex-spouse or the Other Woman or whatever. Personally, I’ve never done that, but I can see why a writer might enjoy that.
I don’t recommend basing a character entirely on some real person. When you do that, you’re just asking to offend them, and then you really don’t have any excuse. I’ve heard of a novelist basing a character on her own mother and being scared to death that her mother would be horribly offended. As it turned out, the mother read the novel and loved it and had some harsh words about that character, but she never dreamed that the character was based on her. So you might get off the hook, but I wouldn’t count on it. Mix and match traits from several real people, and you should be just fine.
What do my Loyal Blog Readers think? Have you ever based a character in your novel on a real person? Did you get away with it? What happened when the real person found out?
If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.