I recently asked about getting inside of someone else's head for writing good characters who are noticeably different from myself and received some great answers. One answer suggested that you should absolutely not borrow traits from friends. On the other hand, over on a question about how to develop characters, an answer suggested to shamelessly steal personality traits from others.

My earliest attempts at varied characters used the shamelessly stealing personality traits approach. Unfortunately when I let friends read my work, it backfired badly. The reader would identify a character with one of his or her traits and assume I thought he or she had all that character's traits and that character was basically them. That meant that my friends thought I had a badly skewed perception of each of them and I ended up playing damage control.

So what's the solution and why? Was I just bad at masking my stolen personality traits or did I use too many items from a single real person in each character (an easy way to make a consistent character)? Should you never think of friends during character development? Should you think of them only to avoid them? I had a writing professor who told us about a perfect detail from a friend that she didn't use for a character because she thought the friend would be too hurt.

This is something that I think might plague myself and other writers without trait stealing. My mom thought my favorite character of all time was modeled on her when I hadn't thought of her at all during my writing!

  • 2
    I would say don't steal a person's life...but their personality is fair game...if your writing is what makes them realize who they are...well...frankly if it bothers them that much you are probably doing them a favor!
    – James
    Commented Jan 7, 2014 at 19:54
  • The answer you linked doesn't say "you should absolutely not borrow traits from friends" or anything of the sort, really Commented Oct 11, 2016 at 16:55
  • As a songwriter I've noticed a tendency of others to think songs are about them and also in myself I often wonder/believe that songs my friends write might be about me. I suspect a certain amount of that is unavoidable and I don't usually ask my friends to listen to my songs to avoid that problem. Commented Jan 30, 2018 at 15:06

5 Answers 5


My answer is: steal a little.

For example, your character needs to be a big spender, or a big gambler. If you have a friend who is impulsive in every capacity — overly generous with money, dashes off for a weekend jaunt to Mexico on a whim, walks into a store for a pair of headphones and walks out with a new stereo, eats anything put in front of him, drives like every street is the Autobahn — then pick one facet of that impulsivity, like spending without thinking, and give that to your character.

Don't copy any phrases this friend says, and don't use any real-life incidents. Just keep that person's single habit in mind when developing the character. That will help give the fictional person real texture without making an avatar out of someone who doesn't want to be so enshrined.


While you may not be attempting to "write what you know" when you take a seat at the keyboard, it is bound to happen to a varying degree. Inspiration, though sometimes spontaneous, can all the more often be traced back to something you've recently encountered in your day-to-day life.

Of course, taking too much from any particular person can run the risk of your work becoming biographical, I'd say you should consider that risk and embrace it while you write.

Understand that your most realistic and consistent characters may come from the melding together of real-life attributes with your imaginary ones. In this case, you might consider blatantly mashing together two or more of your friends. By using John's bad temper and Jack's pension for expensive food you've essentially told both of them that you aren't basing your character entirely in either of them. Thus, any negative traits that are attributed to your character could more easily fall to another person.

At the end of the day, however, I'd say you just embrace it. If you've got writing that you don't want Jack to read because it might h


Here's how I see it:

If someone you know believes that a character you wrote is based on him or her and is happy about it, you probably don't need to say anything. The only reasons I could think of that this might turn into a problem is if you plan to do something with the character that the person who thinks he or she is the inspiration for that character won't like or this person is overstating his or her role in making your story happen. It's usually fine for someone to think that he or she helped to inspire you, but if it's to the point where that person thinks he or she has as much ownership of the story as you do, you might want to nip that particular notion in the bud.

If someone you know believes that a character you created is based on him or her and is unhappy about it, just be as honest as you can about your process. Explain that you did base some (hopefully positive) traits on this one person, but the character is a combination of various people you know and your own imagination. Of course, for this to work, you have to be careful and make sure you're not taking too many traits from any one person. If you're using a few positive aspects of someone you know as inspiration for one character, make their flaws traits that the person you're drawing from clearly doesn't share. If you're basing a negative aspect of a character on somebody you know, make doubly sure that nothing else about the character remotely resembles that person.

Reasonable friends and family should understand once you explain to them that your characters aren't intended to be faithful portraits of people you know. People who get upset over a character you've written when you haven't given them any logical reason to and won't listen to your explanation probably aren't worth your time. Just wait until they cool off and try not to bring it up.


This was literally decades ago (the 1980s), but what I used to do was to "splice" characters by mixing and matching the traits of my heroes and heroines.

For instance, in one novel, I gave the fictitious heroine my jet black hair, my real-life boss, and my English pub, while otherwise keeping her true to her "other" counterpart.

I gave the fictitious hero the real life heroine's blonde locks and sense of adventure, while giving him many of my other traits.

Basically, you have to make each "person" a few things that the original clearly is "not.

No one recognized either of us for who we were, and people had quite a few laughs when they found out.


I know this answer is very late to the party, but I do not ever take a trait unique to a single friend. Ever!

It seems like a shortcut to me, that would be harmful for the exact reason the OP put forth: My friend would recognize it, his other friends would recognize it, and if I don't make that trait purely positive and that character a perfect hero, I risk resentment from my friend, and risk having him made the butt of jokes by our mutual friends.

Isn't it a shortcut? Isn't it just laziness?

Doesn't it prove a lack of imagination on my part, that I cannot for the life of me invent an entirely fictional unique characteristic for my character?

Doesn't it show a severe deficit in my analytic ability and understanding of humanity if I cannot for the life of me come up with a "coherent" character unless I cast actual people I know in my fiction? With such a deficit, I have no business being a writer!

My characters may have generalities in common with my friends, but so do thousands of other people. I am a heterosexual with homosexual friends, if I write a homosexual character I may draw on "realistic generalities" I have learned from my homosexual friends, about themselves or their own homosexual friends, but in a way I expect to be true of tens of thousands of homosexuals. I will make strenuous effort to not include any detail I think is specific to only one (or even a tiny minority) of the people I know.

I want that character to ring true to any homosexuals that might read it, without insulting or invading the privacy or betraying the trust of anyone I know.

As for one comment about "writing what you know," I disagree. I at times need to write about thieves, spies, ruthless killers, rapists, corrupt cops and politicians, world class athletes and geniuses and businessmen. I write about magic and medieval settings, space colonies and aliens. I don't know what any of those lives are really like, and never will.

I can inform my writing with research, history, logic and inference, sometimes from people actually in those roles. So that my writing is plausible. That doesn't mean I know what it is like to be a prostitute: I do know what a few prostitutes have said it was like.

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