There is a strong focus on family this time of year. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa and others, the holiday season encourages togetherness and reconnecting with loved ones.
For many, this involves big family dinners—and they tend to invite awkward questions or uncomfortable conversations. Whether it's asking about your relationship status, gossiping about relatives, talking about politics, or trying to one-up each other, a lot of us know what to expect when sitting down for a holiday meal.
For me, this tends to also include being asked about my writing.
Pretty much everyone knows I write, and most know I write historical romance. Family get-togethers often have people asking how the book's coming or quips about needing to remember them when I'm "rich and famous."
And on some occasions, I've been asked if I can write certain people into my works. This is usually the person who has asked the question, though I have been asked to write someone's dog into a story.
I touched on this in a past post covering some of the questions I get asked a lot by acquaintances who aren't writers. That post is two years old now, and it's that time of year where that question is bound to come up again, so it feels like a great time to revisit the topic and the reasons I typically do not base characters off of real people.
On one or two occasions I've mentioned how I avoid writing real-life people into my fiction, it's been met with asking if there are any legal reasons behind it.
Truth be told, that's not exactly it.
Portraying real-life folks in fiction or dramatizations or real events is not illegal, per se (but it can certainly inspire backlash if done poorly, offensively, or when proper consideration and consultations appear to be overlooked).
Among copyrights and other publication details, novels typically include a disclaimer stating that the story is a work of fiction and that no character is directly based on a real person, meaning any parallels to any individual is pure coincidence.
This is mostly for legal reasons.
In addition to the First Amendment having the author's back, this disclaimer makes it clear that the author's nosy neighbor Linda is not their protagonist's nosy neighbor Linda.
But let's say nosy neighbor Linda finds out about fictional neighbor Linda and notices quite a few similarities. Both Lindas are from Detroit and moved to Seattle. Both are real estate agents. Both have Pomeranians. Both have been divorced three times.
This is where the waters can get murky.
If the fictional Linda is a carbon copy of real Linda, and the fictional Linda is the antagonist, the living Linda could possibly sue for libel if the book drastically impacts the way those in her circle view and treat her.
From what I've read, it's relatively uncommon for these cases to make it far in the legal system. The depiction of Linda would have to be the root of severe defamation that can be proven for the case to make it all the way up the chain.
All the same, it's not a chance I want to take.
Not Giving Main Character Energy
It's said that the villain is the hero of their own story, meaning that they likely view their actions as just and fair, and that the story's protagonist is in the wrong for trying to prevent them from reaching their goals.
This doesn't see too far off from people asking if they can be a character in one of my books.
It's probable that they envision themselves as the protagonist. The hero embarking on a quest. The swoon-worthy guy or adorkable leading lady suddenly swept away by a whirlwind summer or Season romance.
Not every character can be a protagonist within your story. Despite the character development advice of giving your side characters equal attention, it's not feasible for everybody to be a main character in the same book.
So much of the story's life comes not from its protagonists, but it's side characters. The supportive best friend who's always there for the protagonist. The witty sidekick with the best one-liners. The ditsy-but-sweet popular girl who means well but causes more problems for your protagonist than she fixes. The character who turns up dead by the second chapter in a murder mystery.
Or, hey, maybe that guy in the village who has one or two lines that just take off beyond the fandom and becomes a staple of pop culture—looking at you, Cabbage Merchant.
The point is, chances are that if I were going to write someone I know into a story, they most likely wouldn't be the main character. There are so many roles within a work of fiction that need to be filled.
But for those hoping to be the protagonist at the center of the action, their casting might come as a letdown.
The Constant Of Change
Writing is an art of evolution. From the initial plotting and planning phases, to the first rough draft, through every draft and revision up until publication, our stories change. We continue to develop our skills from chapter to chapter.
There is plenty about my WIPs that has stayed fairly the same from the first iteration, but so much more is different.
This is especially true for characters.
Characters, especially protagonists, are designed to change and grow. But sometimes, they undergo changes outside of their arc. Physical appearances, personality, perceptions—nothing is ever set in stone.
It often depends on the needs of the plot and the direction things have taken.
For me, my story concepts are often inspired by characters. A perfect example of this is found in Forged in the Salle. I had wanted to write about a blacksmith for a while, and I also had an idea for a woman who sneaks into a men's only fencing club on a regular basis thanks to her alter ego. Weaving the two together resulted in Marcus and Nancy's romance.
That said, theirs being an enemies-to-lovers romance wasn't the initial plan. I just thought they'd butt heads but still get along because of their mutual goals. Instead, it's shifted into an unexpected direction that improved the plot.
Had I kept things as they were at first, I'm guessing it wouldn't have that same spark.
Even if the character were based on someone I know in real life, they may not stay that way. They would likely become more loosely based on that person, to having some commonalities, to being pretty unrecognizable when compared to the starting point.
Suffice it to say that if I were to write someone into a story, it wouldn't be them by the final draft.
Inspiration, Not Direct Inclusions
If my protagonists don't come from people I know IRL, where is the inspiration taken from?
It's not like I never use real-life people as a launching point for characters. But that's all it tends to be: a launching point, and just for some aspects.
Take Zach from Bound to the Heart as an example. As far as his looks go, I'll be the first to admit his appearance was moderately influenced by those of singer Alvaro Soler, in eyes and hair in particular.
But that's about the extent of Alvaro's contribution to this character.
Bound to the Heart started as part of my research project for a travel course in college. I spent the semester studying bookbinding and printing, and so I wanted the protagonist to be a bookshop owner specializing in printing and binding work. His somewhat reserved nature came from his dedication to his business and not hitting the town all that much compared to others in his circle; it later on was also attributed to his upbringing.
Zach Thayer is not Alvaro Soler. Even though their share similar features, at least in my head, they are far from the same person.
The same likely goes for any images a writer might have collected on Pinterest or use in an aesthetic board for their story. Having visuals at the ready is helpful when you're in need of reference or inspiration, but you won't always see them recreated detail-for-detail in a story. Rather, they're a tool to get you going and there to be tailored to fit the needs of your stories.
My characters in particular are usually blends of multiple sources. This sometimes includes people I know personally, but it's also reference photos, research, encounters I've had and things I wish went differently, personal tastes, and what the story simply calls for at that moment. Mixing elements together to paint a portrait of someone totally new, yet somehow familiar.
To create a character based entirely on one person alone, I think, would lose that sense of creativity and exploration.
"Don't annoy the writer. They may kill you off in their next novel."
It's a teasing threat we've likely heard at least once, or maybe one we've made.
For some, being put into a work of fiction is one of the highest honors out there. However, it may not go as expected.
Writers work in mysterious ways, usually doing whatever needs to be done for the sake of our stories. When it comes to characters, we want our readers to find themselves in our work, but not necessarily as characters. For me, at least, I hope my readers find connections laying beneath the surface and relate to my characters, sharing in their struggles and in their successes. This connection feels more powerful than being written in as a character because it extends to multiple readers rather than one individual.
Those shared connections are truly among the greatest accomplishments any work of fiction can achieve.