Basing characters on actual people is a fairly common literary practice. The people around you can be a great source of inspiration. I don’t, however, recommend basing a character on a single person. It can be problematic for the following reasons:
- If that person finds out, they may not like it. It can hurt a friendship or even get you sued.
- You may be tempted to recreate moments from their life too closely and not let the plot take its natural course because you know how everything took place. In other words, it can be difficult to stay fictional with a character based on a real person.
- You might find yourself unwilling to portray the darkest aspects of a character because you don’t want to hurt the real person.
I believe it is a much better idea to base a character on two different people. When you combine two people who share at least a few common traits, you can pick the traits that you want and fictionalize the remaining traits. It is easier to demonstrate this process than explain it, so I’ll give an example.
Turning Two People into One
I have two friends that I believe share some common traits and experiences. There are many links between them, but for the purposes of my story:
- Both are about forty
- Both have careers in the computer field
- Both have worked for their respective employers for over ten years
- Both enjoy watching and playing games such as baseball, pool, poker and bowling.
- Both have recently bought new houses with their significant others
- Both own a lot of electronic equipment and gadgets
- Both are extroverts
Using these characteristics, I have the base of a character. Now I can use their differences to try to make the character unique and to try to fill the story needs I have for that character. Here are some of my choices.
- Friend A is married while Friend B lives with his girlfriend. For my purposes, I am going to choose to have the character live with his girlfriend, which will happen during the story rather than at the beginning. This is to contrast him with other characters in my story who are already in long-term relationships.
- Friend A’s significant other has a five year old son. Friend B has no children. For the purposes of my story it is better for there to be a child, but I want the boy to be older, so that he can interact with another boy I have already added to the story. My character’s significant other will have a twelve year old son.
- Friend B has strong political views and Friend A does not. I think this will make for an interesting character trait, so my character will have strong political views.
- Friend A attended a university, Friend B went to a technical school. Friend A works for a university, friend B works in the private sector. I want the character to work in an academic setting, so I am going to have him be a university graduate. I am going to add that he is pursing a master’s degree, which neither friend is doing.
- Friend A dated prolifically and was married briefly before his current relationship. Friend B did not date much. My character will have an extensive dating history and a past divorce, which will set him apart from other characters in the story.
- Friend A is very concerned about his looks and has a daily workout routine to maintain them. Friend B is neither in shape nor self-conscious about it. I am going to have the character maintain a workout routine.
- Friend A is a hard worker who takes his job seriously while Friend B is a decent worker but not the sort of person who takes his work home with him. My character will take this a step further than Friend B, to the point that he has a hard time staying busy at work because so little is required of him.
Using all of these traits I have enough information to create a character who is unique, but still maintains many of the qualities of his real life inspirations. Based on what I’ve decided so far, I have created the character profile below. It has aspects of both my friends, but it creates a unique character that should mesh well with the other characters in my story.
Larry is a forty year old database programmer at a university. He has worked for the university since before he graduated fifteen years ago. His has excellent computer skills, but his job is easy and he is so settled in it that few people even understand what he does. He has earned telecommuting rights, so he is often not at work and instead spends his time at the gym or at a nearby bar where he watches sports and bets on horse racing. He keeps his computer, phone and PDA within quick reach so that he can fix a problem if he needs to.
Larry attends at least one class per semester, working on a master’s degree in sociology that he has no real need for, but pursues because he finds it interesting. His conservative libertarian political views often put him at odds with the younger, more left-wing students in the classes he takes. He calls them “the crunchy granola people”.
He is attractive and outgoing, frequently dating the women he meets at the gym or at the bar. This has led to many strange and sometimes embarrassing situations that his friends never let him live down. Most of the time, the women are significantly younger and less educated than him, but he soon meets a woman close to his age who has a twelve year old son.
Larry is a little shy of commitment since his divorce ten years ago, but find himself moving quickly with this woman and bonding with her son. The relationship is not without its problems though, as he finds his loose, carefree lifestyle growing more and more structured and restrictive. He also has to deal with his girlfriend’s emotionally abusive ex-husband.