I have an incredibly entertaining best friend. She is crazy in all the best ways and nothing like me. The crap that comes out of her mouth and her goofy antics seem to be made for fiction.
But because she is my best friend, I can’t use her as a fiction character.
We all have people in our lives who do and say things that seem so classically perfect for the written word. However, basing a character off of someone you know can do serious damage to your story.
Write What You Know, Not Who
Regardless of where you began your writing journey, you’ve likely had someone tell you to “write what you know.” It is a great piece of advice when it comes to setting and theme.
If you’ve never been to France, writing a Parisian romance novel can be tough. If you’ve never encountered addiction, a story based around alcoholism could be riddled with stereotypes and clichés.
Having a background in what you are writing – whether it’s from research or personal experience – enhances the connection you’ll be able to make with readers.
On the other hand, using your dearest pal can cause your readers to feel distanced.
Why Your Readers Won’t Connect With Your People
In fiction, it takes a lot of time and effort to get your readers to fall for your characters. From the crease in an antagonist’s forehead to how the male lead treats his mother, character connection is supposed to build slowly from the ground up. And it’s up to you to ensure that process is fully depicted.
When you’re trying to use someone you already know, your personal feelings will make you skip steps. A dig at one of their flaws can cause you to recoil because of your attachment. The reaction is often completely subconscious, but it is an intrusion on your creation.
I was in my third year of creative writing before I realized how detrimental personal association was to fiction. At that class level, our assignments didn’t have guidelines. At this point in our education the instruction was to simply write a story and listen to class critique.
I had recently gotten out of a bad relationship with a guy who’d grown addicted to painkillers. For therapeutic and vain reasons I thought my story was worth a read. But I was a fiction major so I changed the names and rearranged a few things so that it wasn’t nonfiction per se, but still represented my ex in the way I saw him.
I had managed to write a close-to-reality story and everyone said they didn’t believe that the character was a real person. I had based him entirely off someone I knew and yet, there was a synthetic feeling that each of my classmates felt.
The problem was, I had an expectation that people would feel what I felt because it came so naturally to me. I hadn’t bothered to consider the two years I needed to gain those feelings. I just thought the sentiment was strong enough to carry the short story.
How was I supposed to know people wouldn’t instantly grow attached to a drug addict? (#Dense)
An “imaginary” person allows you to join in on the journey of getting to know that character. The less initial information you have about the people in your story, the more organic their development will be.
Borrowing Character Features
Just because you can’t take on an entire loved one’s personality, doesn’t mean you can’t borrow a thing or two. Human observation is essential to being a writer. The ability to articulate movements, gestures and expressions is key to drawing a reader in.
Instead of using your best friend’s humor or your father’s pride to shape a fictional character, use their features.
If you have a class-clown character, don’t base him off your jokester from high school. Instead, think of physical cues. The curl of his smile before torturing a substitute or the uncomfortable laughter of the clown’s victim.
The sensational contributions – rather than emotional – of the people you know can add the realistic element you’re seeking.
We all have character-worthy people in our life. But if you’re thinking of incorporating those people into your story, understand the risk you’re taking by knowing too much too soon.
Have you ever written a fictional story that involved someone you know personally?