4 Reasons why You Shouldn't Base Your Characters on Real People

As an author, I've often been tempted to put people I know into my books. If you've ever written a story, you might have tried to do this, too. Maybe you wanted to immortalize your best friend in writing because you love them, or maybe you wanted to get revenge on your worst enemy by making them into a despicable villain. Either way, making your characters think, speak and act like people you know will help to make your book more realistic, right?

Of course, there are exceptions, but I generally find that basing characters off of real people is not a good idea. I've tried it several times before, and I can tell you that it very rarely, if ever, works. There are plenty of reasons why it's not a good idea, but here are the four main ones.

1. It's hard to give a character flaws if they're based off someone you like

If you really like the person whom you're basing a character off of, you're naturally going to be wary about portraying them as anything other than fantastic, especially if that person is going to be reading your book. You don't want to hurt their feelings, or their reputation, by giving them flaws in your book.

But characters need flaws. Nobody is perfect, and your characters will feel completely flat if there is nothing wrong with them. Unless you can be completely and brutally honest about your friend's true nature, basing a character on them will not end well.

2. It's almost impossible to be objective when your feelings towards people are subjective

You have opinions about people. It's just a fact. But those opinions can get in the way when you're writing a character based off a person you know.

For example, if you base your villain on your worst enemy, you will probably make him or her the most atrocious (and stupid) villain you possibly can. Never mind that the real person is actually really witty and smart, and very good in a crisis. She stepped on your toe that one time and didn't say sorry, and she must pay for it.

The result? One overdramatic, cardboard villain. You're welcome.

3. You need to know your characters inside and out. You probably don't know your acquaintances inside and out

There are some things about people which are plain for all to see, like blond hair or blue eyes. Those things are easy to replicate in a story. However, unless you're incredibly close to someone, chances are that you see only facets of their character, not the full thing. And if you are incredibly close to them, chances are that your judgement of their character is clouded by your liking for them (see points #1 and #2). Either way, you'll end up with an underdeveloped character.

4. Characters develop as you write the story. Are you willing to let them?

During your second draft and beyond, especially if you're a pantser like me, you'll probably find that the personality of your characters will start to shape itself (here's a post which I wrote on the subject). By basing a character off of a real person, you will almost certainly smother that natural shaping in favor of trying to stay true to the original.

In a nutshell, basing characters entirely off of real people is a bad idea, and almost always leads to flat, unrealistic characters.

But don't get me wrong; real people can be a great source of inspiration for your writing. Giving characters certain traits from people you know is totally fine. There's a joke in my family that, in my Super Sporty series, Sporty's sister Miranda is based off of my own little sister. Both my sister and Miranda are kind of weird, and also a little ditzy, but that's where the similarities end. My sister isn't as enigmatic as Miranda, and she certainly isn't an eighteen-year-old horse who is studying psychology at university and has a pet rock called Clover.

So you don't have to leave real people entirely out of your writing. And, if you really want to use your book to commemorate someone, you can always write their name on the dedication page (I dedicated a book to each of my siblings, including the aforementioned little sister). Dedications are a great way to acknowledge your loved ones, and there's no chance of them being offended by your portrayal of them.

Please, though, don't turn people you know into actual characters. For all our sakes.

Seriously, don't do it. You'll end up facepalming.

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