Character Assassination

Francesca considers the tricky problem of using real people in fiction

In novel class this week, someone brought up the subject of using people we know in our novels. One of the students had received several requests from people to be included in her latest novel, real names and all. An in-depth discussion on the matter ensued. Our tutor (novelist Elaine Everest) pointed out that even if the person concerned gives you permission to use them as a character, DON’T. At some later date they may decide they hate your portrayal of them and sue. Or, if they unfortunately die, their family might sue instead.

One person in this family photo has featured in a story, but which?

One person in this family photo has featured in a story, but which?

It’s possible to get round this by changing their names of course.  I believe it’s something writers do all the time in any case. I know I do. Sometimes I’ve chosen the person concerned because they are interesting or their story is fascinating. Sometimes it’s that I have that person in mind as I’m creating a character, because they’re similar. Or bits of different people end up in one character.

My own children have come in very handy, particularly when they were younger and I wanted to create a teenager for a short story (don’t think they’ll sue!) My parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins and occasionally past friends (or ‘friends’) and acquaintances have all played their part in my make-believe world. Many are long dead or well in the past but I’ve still changed their names. Currently I’m writing something which is based, albeit loosely, on when my parents met.

The original 'Cosmo' who is actually in a 'woo woo'!

The original ‘Cosmo’ who is actually in a ‘woo woo’!

Now it’s the grandchildren’s turn. Luca was the inspiration for little ‘Cosmo’ who liked his ‘woo woos’ in a long story I nearly had published recently (sadly the anthology didn’t go ahead). His distinctive phrases and facial expressions are easily recognisable in the text. He is cute in the role, so I’m quite happy to tell you it’s him, though I was at pains to point out to my daughter that Cosmo’s mum isn’t her!

The examples I’ve used so far have been, for the most part, nice characters. But what about when we turn a person into someone who isn’t very nice, or even a villain, even though it may not be much of a leap?  When I’ve done this it hasn’t been about revenge, (well, maybe a teensy weensy bit) but more because they’d simply make a darned good ‘baddy’. I always find myself looking for reasons why they’re like this, a background that has informed their present, which isn’t necessarily the reality. A lonely. impoverished or abusive childhood? Let down by a lover? Bullied at school? We should do this with all our main characters of course, but it’s particularly poignant with the rogues. They’re often much more fun to play with than the more virtuous characters.

The one thing I would never do is give the ‘bad’ character the real name of someone I knew, however tempting that might be. There’s a good reason why works of fiction start with a disclaimer about the characters in the book being fictitious. We’d all do well to take heed of Elaine’s advice: DON’T!


You can read more about my adventures as a grandmother on my occasional Nonna Blog

4 thoughts on “Character Assassination

  1. Another great post Francesca. I don’t recall ever using someone I know as a character but I do listen out for usable dialogue. Sometimes when I hear things I think that’s a cracking line but then I have the issue of trying to remember it. I know, I know, that’s what the notebook is for. Elaine R.

  2. I suppose if you write about historical characters, like Hilary Mantel, for example, at least they can’t come back to sue you, although they may well haunt your nightmares.
    Having written a novel based, loosely, on the life of a relative, I know how you have to be very careful, as you don’t want to hurt or offend in any way. I chose some of that person’s characteristics, and some key points in her life, and everything else was fictionalised. I wasn’t writing her life as such, but I wanted to portray a life of courage and resilience and use the backdrop of my own childhood landscape and culture.
    I read somewhere that Val McDiermid was faced, at a book signing, with somebody who was convinced that one, rather unsavoury character, was based on her, and threw ink over her at a book signing, It says a lot about Val MCDiermid that she could laugh about this in retrospect.
    Dickens based Micawber on his father, and there is great affection for that feckless man. I think if you write with kindness, and with love then nobody should object to seeing fictionalised versions of them selves.
    However, recognition of self can be a problem with satire. Orwell got round this rather cleverly, by portraying politicians as animals. I also wonder if Jane Austen’s readers saw them selves in her clever and subtle satire.

    • I heard that about Val McDermid too, Angela. I’m sure lots of us write with certain people in mind. It’s the naming, especially if you’re shaming, that’s the problem. I don’t think any character I’ve created has been an exact copy of their ‘model’, perhaps because most people are essentially uninteresting!

      I look forward to reading that book of yours (and the others!).

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