I came across such statement here on Writing SE and I don't agree much with it. But what I'd like to know is why would it be "impossible" to make good characters using real people.

Searching about this, I found that one of the reasons that it's not recommended to use real people as characters is because "real people are boring characters". But I think there's no point in taking it in an absolute way, since real people make boring characters because the people used are boring, but if the people are interesting people, couldn't they be good characters?

Can real people really be good characters? If not, why?


(Of course, disconsidering the legal implications of using real people as fictional characters. I'm asking character-wise only.)

  • 5
    There is a difference between "Real" people and "Ordinary" people. Ordinary people are boring, they live boring lives and they read about extraordinary to escape those boring lives. I think you'll find that the "real people" being referred to are those ordinary people, with ordinary lives – Thomo Mar 18 at 22:41
  • 9
    “Real people don't make good fictional characters”... well, I guess because if they're real then by definition they're not fictional. :-D – Simba Mar 19 at 10:29
  • If you are writing fiction, then by definition, that isn't a real person, even if it is very similar to a real person. Whether real people make good characters, I can't say, but if not, it's not because they are boring. Most people are not as boring as we've/they've been led to believe. – WGroleau Mar 19 at 16:31
  • 3
    I've always associated this with the idea of "stage makeup." If you wear a normal amount of makeup onstage, it looks flat. You really have to overemphasize what you see in order to make it "look real." – Cort Ammon Mar 19 at 21:18
  • @CortAmmon - that is a great analogy – Thomo Mar 19 at 22:25

15 Answers 15

up vote 46 down vote accepted

I'm part of a Facebook group where aspiring writers look for beta readers and have read quite a few first and second drafts of first novels over the past months.

I have found that when aspiring writers use either themselves or people that they know really well (such as family members or close friends) in their writing – which beginners often tend to do –, these characters are often unlikeable to the reader.

This is a problem in genre writing, where readers want to identify with the protagonists. The reason why real people come out as unlikeable fictional characters, I believe, is that characters in genre fiction usually are abstractions of real people. They are somewhat simplified and even stereotypical, representing what the writers and readers know of "certain types" of people in general, and often they represent not anything real at all but some kind of idea (the lonesome ranger) or ideal (the hero, the antagonist). Real people, on the other hand, have a complex personality, with many internal contradictions and their character traits aren't usually clearly "good" or "bad" but muddled and vague. I am sure that if you got into the head of most real persons, you would soon become exasperated and irritated. And that's what happens to readers when aspiring writers write themselves into their tales.

Readers read genre fiction to escape from their real life on an adventure, to daydream about love, or to indulge in novel ideas, and characters that are too real are an obstacle to their immersion.

Literary fiction on the other hand is about reality. It may not be autobiographical or a retelling of real events, but it usually attempts to illuminate certain aspects of the reality that we live in, such as the attitude towards life of a specific generation, contemporary social problems, or the lives of the common people (whereas genre fiction usually focusses on exceptional persons like princesses and murderers).

Literary fiction relies on an author's intimate familiarity and understanding of the characters he portrays, and here the problem sometimes is that the aspiring writer lacks the (self-)reflexive distance from his subjects and is too emotionally involved in what goes on in their minds and lives.


To clear up a common misunderstanding that came up in comments:

I do not mean to say that you mustn't use yourself or other real persons in your fiction. I'm just pointing out some dangers in the hope that you can better avoid them if you know about them.

By all means, draw from life.

But remain aware of the aim of your writing. Do you want to tell a thrilling story to entertain your readers? Do you want to portray a character who is exemplary for their generation? Do you want to write an (auto)biography? They are not the same and they need different approaches to character development.

Writing is a skill that employs conscious control. Make sure you are in control of your characters. That is all.


As to the debated distinction between genre and literary fiction, I didn't mean to imply a distinction in quality. I think of "literary fiction" as concerned with social commentary, political criticism, and reflection on the human condition; focussed on introspective, in-depth character studies, sometimes at the expense of any substantive plot; a concern with the style and complexity of the writing; a meta-commentary on literary tradition, literary criticism, and the writing life. Genre fiction on the other hand is an industry that makes money with entertainment. Think of Disney movies versus Ingmar Bergman.

And yes, literary fiction can employ genre, and genre fiction can be literary. Please don't expect every answer on a Q&A site to address your pet peeve.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation about distinctions between genre fiction and literary fiction has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Mar 20 at 16:25
  • Good thing S.E. Hinton didn't ask for advice from you before she wrote Outsiders! – JBiggs Mar 20 at 22:23
  • @MonicaCellio The deleted comments highlight a weakness in the answer as well as forming relevant "meta-information" as endorsed in comment FAQ on meta. Comment by R.M. makes the case for relevance to quality. Answer not updated/edited/clarified in light of comments. FAQ advocates deletion "Once a clarification has been made, an edit added to the post to include new information, or the issue in the comment is otherwise resolved". Premature deletion of comments deprives future readers of necessary context and, on an accepted top-voted answer, creates a misleading sense of unanimity. – DeveloperInDevelopment Mar 21 at 2:50
  • 2
    @DeveloperInDevelopment the first six comments seemed to be deprecated by an edit. After that, comments were mostly a discussion, not focused on improving the answer. Nothing was deleted; I relocated the discussion to chat, where it can continue. If you (or someone else) have requests for improvement that the author of this answer can address in an edit, please feel free to use comments for that. I'm not trying to shut down all comments, but to move the extended discussion out of the way so people can actually find the requests for improvements. – Monica Cellio Mar 21 at 3:00
  • Answer makes valid observations regarding a diversity of objectives in characterization, the limits of introspection, and potential for distortion through personal perspective. However, the relationship between these objectives and an alleged literary/genre divide is tenuous, even if one accepts it exists. Counter-examples from "literary fiction" abound. Meanwhile, that fraction of sci-fi not victim to Sturgeon's law is often celebrated largely for social commentary, in which context it benefits as much from nuanced, naturalistic characterisation as "literary fiction". – DeveloperInDevelopment Mar 21 at 17:26

It very much depends on what you mean by "real people". You can, of course, make people from history into characters in fiction, as writers of historical novels do, and you can base characters on people you know, as Kerouac based Dean Moriarty on Neal Cassidy . In that sense you clearly can base characters on real people.

But on another level the question might be rephrased as, can you make stories out of real lives? Here the waters get much more muddy. Almost always when a novel is based on a real incident or a character on a real person, the author cleans up and simplifies the story, sometimes moving incidents around, merging or eliminating characters, or adding outright inventions.

One of the great questions of existence, perhaps the greatest question, is does life have meaning? Our brains are pattern-making engines, and often they find pattern and order in things were objectively it does not exist. If the materialists are to be believed, the universe is random and disinterested. Our lives mean nothing and our deaths mean nothing and nothing that happens in between has any larger shape or meaning. The great religions of the world all consist of denials of this, of assertions, in the face of the chaos of everyday life, that this is indeed a meaning to life and a shape to human affairs.

Stories do the same thing. They assert an order and meaning to life. They are an artifact of the pattern finding brain finding a pattern in the lives and actions and destinies of people. Go far enough back and the stories are all religious in nature and origin.

The postmodernists tried to assert the meaningless of life against the religious story arc of the classical west and the progress-based story arc of the moderns. But it did not make for much of a literature. Who reads Camus anymore?

But whether you accept that human life has shape, meaning, and destiny or not, the everyday life of most people is characterized more by stasis and chaos than it is by a well defined story arc. Story lives are a cleaned up, focussed, version of life with all of the dross and the distractions stripped away. Every motion and decision is purified, enhanced, concentrated, and focussed. The path of the story arc is straightened and made smooth.

Whether life is ultimately meaningless or meaningful, ordinary lives are too mired in chaos and inertia to make good stories. If you believe life does have meaning, then you need to clean up the messiness and banality of everyday living so that the real shape of life can become apparent. And if you believe that life does not have meaning, then your story is essentially a fantasy designed to comfort the pattern seeking brain, to quiet the rising howl of despair as it looks into the abyss and sees only chaos.

Either way, ordinary lives are not the stuff of stories.

  • I think the second paragraph nails it. (Incidentally, most lives, IMO, are a series of hero journeys. (Very) Small ones to be sure, but even finding the wherewithal to go into the office one more day, away from family, into the abyss, only to return home victorious or vanquished, fits the arc!) – DPT Mar 18 at 15:34
  • Wonderful comment but I can't give you a vote because I utterly and totally disagree with you. The art of writing really, really well lies in training and practicing observation. Watching, understanding, recording, transcribing what you feel and experience and see into another form. All art must imitate life and to the extent it does so it is good art. The very best things I've ever written were always the thing so close to real events, real people, and real situations that they border on nonfiction. I am not alone: just read Hemingway or Thomas Wolfe or Pat Conroy. – JBiggs Mar 18 at 20:51
  • 5
    @JBiggs I haven't read Thomas Wolfe or heard of Pat Conroy, but you and I must be reading a very different Hemingway. Are you suggesting, for instance, that The Old Man and the Sea is just any old day in the life of a Cuban fisherman? – Mark Baker Mar 18 at 21:30
  • 6
    @JBiggs I'd hope that 100% was based on the observation of real life. But maple syrup is made of tree sap, yet you would not put tree sap on your pancakes. Syrup has to be boiled down to between 1/20 to 1/50 of its original volume. Similarly, fiction boils down real life to 1/50 or less of common experience. More than this, it shapes human experience into a meaningful arc. Certainly there are novels that don't do this, but the overwhelming majority, including the great classics, do this. Art is human experience refined and shaped to bring out its most piquant flavours. – Mark Baker Mar 18 at 23:16
  • 1
    I don’t much like the “hero’s journey” as an interpretative tool, but I think this answer is spot-on. All fiction seeks to find the unusual and meaningful in life. There is no artificial demarcation between “genre” and “literary” fiction along the lines of attempting to portray average individuals. As you say, what fiction doesn’t portray extraordinary people (and most fiction does, even if they’re not spies or wizards) generally portrays ordinary people in extraordinary situations - which often amounts to almost the same thing (see: half the action movies out there). – Obie 2.0 Mar 19 at 6:05

Sure! You'd be surprised how many great fictional characters were based on people the author met, people interesting enough we idiomatically call them "characters".(Well, maybe you wouldn't be surprised if you appreciate how writing benefits from reflecting human nature.) For example, Basil Fawlty was inspired by a real hotel manager encountered in holiday. The key is using the traits that make someone interesting in real life as a starting point for character design. You have to change or invent some details: not to make them even more interesting, but to plant them into your world, alongside your other characters. (For example, how much do you think John Cleese knew about that real person?)

On the body of your question you say

But what I'd like to know is why would it be "impossible" to make good characters using real people.

I believe it is possible to use real people as characters, and that it is even desirable to make characters feel like they're real people, so I cannot answer that question.

However, you then close your question with

Can real people really be good characters?

Yes, they can. My genre of choice is historical fiction, and while many writers create characters from bygone eras, many choose historical people and use them as their characters, main ones or not.

I think the topic has two factors that lead to that (IMO) false statement that real people cannot make good characters.

First, as your research brought up, many people believe that

"real people are boring characters".

You saw this as a reflection of using boring people to create characters. Perhaps, but I disagree. Real people are complex, and to read a character, whether it's based on a real person or not, that can convey that complexity is both exciting and inspiring. Cardboard and one-dimension, maybe even two-dimension, characters are boring (at least IMO). But it takes a good writer to write a complex, true-to-life character.

But perhaps you know this young man who is the epithome of boring. He watches TV thoghtlessly and plays video games as if every move were automatic reflexes. He has no opinion on anything and looks moronic whenever he's asked anything. Boring indeed. To the onlooker, at least. If one could listen in on his thoughts, if one could discover his inner struggles and fears, the dramas he keeps hidden from the world, perhaps his boredom would become compelling. A good writer can make the most boring person/character feel interesting. One just has to find the right angle.

Again, (and in response to @cloudchaser who touches upon a very interesting point), characters that are true-to-life in their complexity, whether it's a literary or a genre tale, are the most interesting to me. The more simplified a character is, the more boring and annoying it becomes. Again, as @cloudchaser points out, many beginners are too close to their characters and fail to create compelling characters.

Where does the myth come from, then? @cloudchaser touches the wound, in my opinion. Some writers look at real people they know and incorporate them in their writing... but do so badly. They create such characters based on one, maybe two dimensions, of the person they know. In reality, they are creating a cardboard character and overlooking what makes that person a real person. A person is more than the manneirisms or the behaviours one witnesses. If that is the only thing a writer can copy from the muse to the creation, then the creation is going to be lacking and boring.

However, when people say that real people are boring, I think they're mostly saying that their lives are boring, and I suppose it could be true. I suppose some real life people have boring lives from the day they are born to the day they die. At least they sound boring to an onlooker, but I'm pretty sure that if a stranger looked at our lives, they would find them boring. We ourselves may find our daily grind boring and confuse that for a boring life. But think about the hardships you yourself have faced. Perhaps most days of your lives are boring, but there are also plenty of moments of tension, of drama, of tragedy, of comedy, of victory... A life can be boring, but there are plenty of exciting episodes even in the most boring life.

And then, of course, there are people who have exciting lives of exciting episodes on top of interesting episodes. Say, a Churchill. A Leonardo da Vinci (although all those hours spent painting sound extremely boring to me). An anonymous mercenary in the Italian Renascence.

That real people make poor characters is a myth, IMO. Assuming that the myth really focuses on the people/characters rather than their lives (which is another story altogether), how can one state that real people are boring to read about? Surely most readers don't think that their fears, their love and hate, their ambitions, their very selves as real people that they are, most readers don't deem themselves boring, do they? I mean, my life may be boring as a whole (despite very intense episodes that might make compelling reads), but I don't see myself as boring. The intensity of my emotions, thoughts, desires, longings... the very importance of 'me' against the world makes 'me' a compelling character to read about. But it takes a good writer to be able to transport a real person into a tale and maintain them interesting.

  • And within any real person's life, or fictional person's life, used as a character, we try to cut out all the boring stretches of time from the writing. :-) – DPT Mar 18 at 15:26
  • 1
    @DPT Exactly. We tell about the times real people did unreal things. And sometimes we can tell about people doing things that don't seem to be extraordinary or heroic, but turned out to be a piece in a larger story that produced extraordinary/heroic results, like the French family that hid a downed Allied pilot until the Resistance could help get him to safety, and he was able to participate in bombing Nazi fortresses overlooking the beaches of Normandy. – Monty Harder Mar 19 at 19:40
  • 1
    @MontyHarder - that's the exact point that needs to be made/remembered. A story about ordinary people doing extraordinary things is vastly different to ordinary people doing ordinary things. – Thomo Mar 19 at 22:37

Characters based on real people are the only ones worth spending any time on.

You will never achieve any real depth with an archetype, or with a walking plot device. To fool the reader into spending real emotion on a fake person, you have to make them seem real, and there is absolutely no better way to do that than to closely watch and observe real people. The very best writers were all observers of people, and the people they observed came out in their writing.

The plot is an abstraction just like the setting. It doesn't matter whether the character is sitting on a steam train heading into the old west or about to be launched into space to board a starship or sitting in an office cubicle. What a reader cares about is that he is worried about his son's developmental problems, is mad at his wife, and secretly ashamed of the business his family is in. The universality of the human experience is what good writing is about, and the very best way to get at that is to watch real people and yes, sometimes use real people in stories.

If you think that you are so incredibly brilliant that you can literally simulate five or ten people as complex, as deep, as conflicted and fucked up and beautiful as five random people you meet on a bus all in your own head and print out their behaviors like the output of a computer program, you are both deluded and in the wrong line of business.

Really great characters grow out of parts of us, but they need the complexity than can only be achieved by observing real people in the real world. The closer to a real person, the better the character.

Don't listen to people with their theories about how "real people wouldn't fight a threat or do really interesting things" because A: they absolutely do in real life, and B: the EVENT or THING is not the interesting part about a good story, it is how the PERSON we are following reacts to it. What kinds of stories really grab us and pull us in? Would you say Transformers is better than Breaking Bad because the characters are more obviously clear cut and don't get distracted by too much "real world style" complexity? If so, I really pity you. No matter what the characters are doing or where they are, that grounding in what real people really would do is what gives them the realism to allow a reader to suspend their disbelief, forget about whether a fire breathing dragon could ever really exist, and just get lost in the psychic pain of the knight watching him make for the town his family lives in, knowing he has no way to stop him in time.

EDIT: Mark Twain based Huckleberry Finn on Tom Blankenship. "In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was." Virtually EVERY character in Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" is based directly on a real person. Severus Snape was based on a real teacher Rowling had. William Faulkner based many, many characters on real people. So did Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises is 100% based on real people). Steinbeck based Adam Trask on a neighbor, John Green based The Fault In Our Stars on a real person he met at a Harry Potter convention, Everything Pat Conroy ever wrote was based on real people.

I'll go into a little detail just on Hemingway; After The Sun Also Rises, he was criticized by John Don Passos for basing characters too much on real people. He reacted by satirizing this style of writing in Torrents Of Spring (which was much less successful). His friend F Scott Fitzgerald maintained that basing characters on real people was the right way to go and he did this extensively in his own novels. Hemingway continued to do so, though not as transparently as in Sun Also Rises "the way a painter will use a model" according to most people who studied his work.

Allow me to quote from a textbook here (Fiction Writing Master Class: Emulating the Work of Great Novelists to Master the Fundamentals of Craft by William Cane.) "Was Hemingway cheating by using real people as the basis of characters for his fiction? Or was he doing what all great artists do, including portrait painters like John Singer Sargent, N.C. Wyeth, and Norman Rockwell? How you answer this question reveals a lot about your maturity as a writer. ...Every great writer from Tolstoy to Flaubert to Hemingway to today's heavyweights uses real people as the model for fictional characters. Some beginning writers fear basing fictional characters on real people... ...some writers don't know how to base characters on real people. ...Don't write stories about totally made-up people. Base characters on people you know and your stories will spring from an undercurrent of reality that can't fail to move readers."

If you REALLY think that a totally made up character based on an archetype is going to be more universally appealing than the Great Gatsby, Severus Snape, or Huckleberry Finn, you go right ahead, but you are literally flying in the face of the methods of all of the most revered novelists of the last two centuries. Just sayin...

  • 1
    You seem to be mixing up the particular kinds of stories you like with the kinds of stories that people actually buy and read. You don't like Transformers? OK. Not my favorite movie either. But this is not a place to express personal preference to but to try to provide objective professional guidance. Archetype-based fiction has been the staple of Hollywood since Star Wars and the Vogler memo. Pity if you wish, but your pity isn't evidence. The box office success of that model is. – Mark Baker Mar 18 at 23:47
  • @MarkBaker how many people have bought and read what you write? If that is your standard, then I am sure you will provide the numbers to back up your success. Clearly someone who is only going to write what you refer to as "archetype based fiction" isn't likely to care enough to spend time on a site like this, as the OP appears to be doing. Also, I am very curious about why you think Star Wars characters were not based on the real world. Luke mapped to many details of Lucas' real life. Don't mix up plot and characters. – JBiggs Mar 19 at 1:24
  • 1
    I agree with your first three paragraphs. But thereafter I don't agree at all. It requires deep insight, yes; it requires that you really LIVE life, that you be a PART of life, yes; but if you do that, then you can create real, living, breathing characters without "copying" from real life. – Wildcard Mar 20 at 5:53
  • Mark Baker's point seemed to just be that archetypal characters do have universal appeal, allowing them to transcend genre boundaries and reach a larger consumer demographic. Book and movie sales figures do indeed suggest a correlation, incidentally, but that's not to say that people should write for market trends or forgo character development. Formulaic fiction irks me, personally, but it doesn't make Mark any less correct. And how can he mix up plot with character? Plot is an extension of a character. They aren't mutually exclusive. – Mel Mar 20 at 8:37
  • Mark Twain based Huckleberry Finn on Tom Blankenship. "In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was." Virtually EVERY character in Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" is based directly on a real person. Severus Snape was based on a real teacher Rowling had. William Faulkner based many, many characters on real people. So did Hemingway (The Sun Also Rises is 100% based on real people). Steinbeck based Adam Trask on a neighbor, John Green based The Fault In Our Stars on a real person he met at a Harry Potter convention, Everything Pat Conroy ever wrote was based on real people..... – JBiggs Mar 20 at 13:54

Personally I believe the reason not to use real people in fiction is very simple: the writer already knows them too well.

When you write about a person that you know first-hand, it is very difficult to know what to tell the reader in order for them to understand the character. Anyone that you've known for years would be very difficult to summarize in a few sentences, but that is the job of a writer. Unless you're writing a biography, you can't just transcribe someone's entire life story to make the reader understand the nuances of their personality.

So even if you manage to break down this person's character into a digestible description, trying to separate what you know about the person from what the reader knows about the character becomes very difficult. You may know what the real life person would do in a given situation, but if you put that into writing, it may seem entirely out of character to the reader, as they only have a limited knowledge of who they are.

However, when inventing a character, the writer is forced to go through the same journey as the reader. They also need to understand what makes this fictional character the way they are, and it is much easier to have the same expectations and understanding of the character as the reader will have, which ironically makes them a much more realistic portrayal of an actual person.

Doing this for a real famous person is a middle ground between a fictional and real life person. The writer can always make an assumption that the reader will have a certain level of knowledge of the character already, so they won't have to go into excruciating detail when describing the character.

On the other hand, it is difficult to know exactly what any specific reader will feel about a character based on a famous person, so it is much harder to control the narrative. Particularly with interesting people who are worthy of having stories about them, different readers might have completely opposing opinions of them already established.

Overall I wouldn't say it's impossible to write a story containing a real-life person, but I wouldn't advise it. Real historical figures would probably be the best to make stories of, but usually the only reason we know anything about them at all is because their life has already been documented in stories.

There are two things that every fictional character needs to be likable: a clear motivation or goal and a distinct voice or personality that comes through their actions and dialogue.

Real people are vastly more complicated than this, of course. As a result, the difficulty with writing a story with a character based on a real person is that, in addition to (or sometimes instead of) focusing on giving the character a motivation and a voice, writers are tempted to add a third metric - how closely the character reflects their real-life inspiration. Unfortunately, in most cases, readers don't care about that aspect, and if a writer lets it take away from a character's motivation and voice, readers will be left with a less compelling character to read about.

If you can distill the inspiration you take from a real person into a clear motivation and clear voice for the character you write, you can make it work. An excellent example of this is the movie The Disaster Artist, which is about the creation of the cult classic and absolute bomb of a movie The Room. The main characters, Greg Sestero and Tommy Wiseau, are the two men who drove the production of The Room, so viewers of The Disaster Artist went into the film with expectations of how Greg and Tommy were going to be portrayed. The Disaster Artist does achieve fidelity to who Tommy and Greg actually are (or at least how their fans imagine them). For example, Tommy has, in real life, an impossible-to-place accent, leading to wild speculation about whether he is an immigrant and if so, where he is from. The Disaster Artist makes this aspect of him a running gag and important plot point. But the movie also captures a clear motivation for Greg and Tommy: to achieve their dreams of becoming actors and breaking into Hollywood. And it also captures clear voices for them: Greg is a naive kid in his twenties who gradually realizes how deep in over his head he is, and Tommy is wildly eccentric and wears his emotions on his sleeves. By creating clear motivations and voices for its main characters, The Disaster Artist successfully translated two very real people into fictional characters while still being largely accurate to who they really are.

First, as others have noted, real people's lives are rarely as event-filled as the lives of fictional characters. For example, Howard Carter became a world-renowned archaeologist when he discovered the tomb of King Tut. John Champollion became famous for deciphering the Rosetta Stone. I could give other examples, of course. For each of these men, this was the achievement of a lifetime. They then spent the rest of their lives examining their great find and refining their conclusions. But for a fictional character like Indiana Jones, we expect him to make AT LEAST one discovery like this in each movie or book. A fictional archaeologist will likely make dozens of amazing discoveries in his career. Because, "and then he went back and studied the same thing further and added several footnotes to his book" would not make a very exciting story.

Second, any story that uses a real person as a character is almost inevitably a lie. First of all, the person's life has to be simplified. "Docudramas" often create "composite characters". That is, the real person may have had ten good friends who all encouraged him to do whatever over the course of years. But in a story, we don't want ten characters each of whom has some small role. The writer often combines these into one character with a big role. Something that a real person figured out bit by bit over the course of many years gets simplified down to one "eureka" moment. Etc.

Furthermore, many important real-life events happened when no one was watching. At least, no one who wrote it down. The writer has to invent how these things might have happened. He has to invent what was said in private conversations. Etc.

We tend to expect fiction to be definitive. I mean, for everything to be wrapped up neat and tidy. Characters may be complex, but in the end we expect the hero's motives to be basically good and the villain's motives to be basically evil. I've seen many docudramas where the writers apparently found it necessary to make excuses for bad things that the hero did. The hero can have character flaws, but he must redeem himself by the end. He can run from danger and abandon his friends in scene 1, but if he does, he must be incredibly courageous by the end. He can be inconsiderate of his wife at the beginning, but by the end he must demonstrate his great love for her. Etc. It is surely POSSIBLE to write a story with a truly flawed hero. But apparently writers find this very difficult to actually do most of the time.

And finally, if you use a real person, you then have to battle between your opinions about this person and the readers' opinions. If you present him as a great hero, there will be readers who think he was not such a good guy at all, maybe even that he was a horribly evil person. And vice versa.

Here's a way to look at it: suppose a Cerberus the size of a horse shows up in the middle of a crowded shopping centre and starts grabbing people. Most "real" people would either run away screaming, or freeze in horrified shock. These people don't make a good story - they are boring. They are reactive, not proactive. The interesting character is the person who would attempt to face the monster, or help people away from it, etc. Now, this character is not "unreal" - it's not impossible that one such person would be found. Maybe even more than one. But they'd still be the one standing out, right?

When a real person is told "don't go to place X, it's dangerous, it could kill you", most "real" people would avoid place X. And then you have no story. Most real people miss clues because they were distracted, make excuses for why they failed at something, lack the determination to relentlessly pursue their goals, are sometimes too tired to do what they know they should - they are blander than they would like to be, blander than you'd want your character to be.

That is not to say that there are no people who would be like the characters you would want to portray, but such people are rare. There's a reason not every soldier becomes Napoleon.

That is not to say that real people, boring everyday people, shouldn't be an inspiration for you. The kind of character quirks the people you know might have - it's hard to come up with these if you have to invent everything from scratch. Observe people. The stuff that makes a person, any person, interesting, for good or ill - that's great story material.

  • 2
    Or one can go the other route and describe the way "one of many" feels when running away. And the way the person wishes and imagines he was the hero etc. The boring character can also be portrayed in an interesting manner and it can be even more relatable to everyday man. – Džuris Mar 18 at 13:37
  • @Džuris you can. "All Quiet on the Western Front" is a great example. Creates a very different kind of story though. – Galastel Mar 18 at 14:08

Characters can be based on real people. John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, Genghis Khan, Hitler: real life leaders, gangsters, royalty, heroes and villains.

There are several problems with putting them in stories or novels.

For one, you cannot possibly know what they really think and feel or why they really did X instead of Y, if they even thought of Y, what they were feeling at the moment of the decision.

When we try to transcribe unplanned real-world speech from a recording, it is filled with pauses, um, uh, ah. Broken sentences, self-interruption, etc. It is boring to read.

Real life is the same way. Anything you portray is a sketch or caricature. for instance, you don't know what Thomas Jefferson's love life was like with Sally Hemings, the slave girl he (by computation) first impregnated when she was 14. She bore seven children by him (the first died as an infant). You can't even know anything about how she felt about him, her life, or anything else. She left no writing of any kind. You can know other people said she was quite beautiful, but that's about it.

The rest of Jefferson's life is similar. What did he do and think, day to day? You don't know. All we know about Jefferson is very distilled through his letters and the writings of others, and actual facts recorded, like land sales or contracts or business dealings he had. Which is not the real Jefferson. For later technological persons, photos, voice recordings and videos. Even a non-fiction biography is limited to such things. We know Jefferson recorded the name of the father for every child born to one of his slaves except for the children born to Sally Hemings. What was in his mind and what was he feeling when he made that choice? We might guess but will never know.

Characters in a fiction that limit themselves to actual known facts of acts and statements are boring. Mitch McConnell is alive, but I don't know him, and even if I did I can't say with certainty what his motivations are, how corrupt he is, why he does what he does, whether he thinks of anyone but himself at any given time.

To me, that's a boring character in a book; pretty much completely opaque.

Now you can base a fictional character on the acts, achievements and failures of a real person. The miniseries John Adams did a good job of that, but it is highly fictionalized. John Adams is far more than a few hundred lines of dialogue. So is Steve Jobs. But Luke Skywalker is not, Captain Kirk is not, Frodo is not, they are contained in their entirety in the pages.

Even if you write about yourself, authors cannot represent anything but a sketch, and likely filter out the most embarrassing or troubling parts of their past, rejections and stupid failures and stupid acts they regret, they forget what their motivations were and cannot remember what they were thinking. Real life is fatal to story telling. Characters are streamlined to create the illusion of real life, but real life is not streamlined, and trying to portray a real person in fiction is necessarily very selective and thus not representative of the real thing.

That's my opinion. I think authors are far better off inventing characters readers can actually understand and know for certain (by the end of the book or series at least) the truth of the character.

...why would it be "impossible" to make good characters using real people.

You've already received a lot of good answers so I'll approach the question from a slightly different angle. I suspect that this statement is alluding more to the creative limitations that might arise when crossing from nonfiction into fictional writing.

Every author shares the same ethical challenge when writing about real people who aren't themselves. But there's a higher industry standard for nonfiction writers that demands accuracy, truthfulness and accountability on a scale that simply doesn't exist for fictional genre writers. Nonfiction writers have a social, ethical and professional responsibility to present factual, well-vetted, objective information that isn't marred by sensationalism or subjective interpretations. Their reputation as memoirists, essayists, journalists and academics relies on this.

A fiction author, however, has much more room for creative license when using real people and events in their work. All fictional work includes a copyright disclaimer for this explicit purpose--they are fictionalizing true incidents and people for the sake of creating dramatic 'art.' Authors might distort or omit facts, include time gaps, discriminate and exaggerate, and invent or re-word existing text/speech/quotes at their discretion to maximize the story's narrative drive, pacing, and character development.

But the issue seems to be where the author draws the line between fiction and nonfiction.

Often, for authenticity's sake, writers try to confine their portrayal of living and historical figures to what's actually been said and done. They're trying to maintain historical integrity by remaining faithful to the facts. But from a creative standpoint this will only limit character development (and plot) because your character will only be able to express what was publicly recorded or chronicled in personal journals. A character's psyche, their deeper motivations and fears, can't be explored beyond this point without using some measure of imagination, which is "impossible" if you're trying to write only a nonfiction portrayal using limited information. In other words, your characters will be reduced to caricature representations. And I believe that this is what people are referring to when they claim that it's impossible to make good characters using real people.

But, of course, it all depends on the limitations of your genre. As a fictional author, you are an authority on your character because it is only an interpretation of a real person, and you can therefore create a beautiful rendition of a fictionalized person. These real-life people can become literary marvels through your creative lens. But as a nonfiction writer, you are not speaking as an authority on this character, and so your exploration of the character is much more restricted.

But generally speaking, all people would make great "characters" with a little editing and creative polish. Characters exist as a means to explore the human condition in an entertaining way, and all of us have had at least one interesting life experience. You just have to frame the story around that experience and omit anything that's immaterial to the story.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE Mel! Cool first answer. If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! – Secespitus Mar 19 at 8:33

My experience is that "real people" don't make good characters in their original form. Many of my fictitious characters are idealized versions of real ones. They are decidedly better than their originals, and that's what makes them "relatable."

In one of my fictitious works, the heroine insults a teenaged boy that the hero has befriended. Then she realizes her mistake, turns around and apologizes, wins back the hero, and gets the story back on track. This scene was suggested by a true story in which the real-life protagonist "doubled down" on her insults, and the real life version came to a grinding halt.

And while even the fictitious character's behavior may leave something to be desired, the story gave her an "excuse" (a medical reason) for it. The whole point of the medical reason was to create sympathy for the character; that is, if she's just out of a hospital, maybe she should be cut some slack for her words and actions.

You can even make fictitious characters worse than their originals, if that makes them "outstanding." What you don't want in a story is mediocre characters that don't rise to the occasion, which is what (original) real life characters too often are.

Yes, real people make for bad fictional characters. And yes, they make for a good basis for fictional characters. This distinction, I think, is the heart of this matter.

If you try to use a real person as a character in a fictional story they will generally feel out of place and disconnected. This is because the real person is not actually part of the story you are trying to tell. They are part of entirely separate context that is not relevant to the story. This makes them feel flat and boring.

If you want to use a friend or family member as a character it is better to create a fictional character with a place in the story and give them some recognizable traits of the person you are trying to place.

The issues come from the author thinking of the character as the real person, so as long as the character is clearly not the real person in the authors mind it does not matter how similar the real and fictional are. So there is no real reason to use the real person as is.

This is a limitation of how the human mind handles "people". If you think of the fictional character as the real person, it will limit how your mind handles the character based on the limits of the real person, automatically and invisibly.

You can compensate for this but the end result will look just as if you had created a fictional character based on a few key traits of the real person. Except you wasted lots of time and effort doing it. Probably won't be as fun and appealing either since you spent your effort on fixing things instead of creating.

I will suggest a slightly different reason than others. Specifically, one of the problems we have with reality is that it is sometimes unbelievable or formulaic. Modern politics in many Western countries, for instance, might seem cartoonish and overly dramatic to someone who wasn't familiar with it.

"Reality is stranger than fiction" isn't just a saying, or just a comment on reality. It's also a comment on fiction. Making fiction believable sometimes means that you can't base your characters on actual people, because some actual people behave in ways that are unbelievable.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE Dave! If you have a moment please take the tour and visit the help center to learn more about the site. Have fun! – Secespitus Mar 20 at 20:22

I don't think the problem are the people in general ... The problem are the chosen people.

Take an example. If you write about a broken character with various flaws and a negative view of the world ... would you choose the cheery school beauty that is allways smiling and having hundreds of friends for that role? Probably not. But the problem is: Most aspiring writers do that, cause they need something to relate and describe. I was that the first time too.

If you read about a character. You tend to asociate traits to real people you know. Maybe you are the only person who see this traits in the person, but that is pretty normal. But most aspiring authors idealize this person and take them as example.

My personal best way for including real people in finctional characters is, that I first think about the role of the character. What traits should he have? What are his strengths and weaknesses? Is the person an introvert or an extrovert person? Shy or open minded? Do they have many friends or social contacts?

After drafting out these characteristics I start to think about the looks of a character, and this is the point, where the real people start to kick in. I recommend for this case of investigation / research that you visit public places. Sit in an open Café, use public transportations, walk with open eyes through your live. You would be surprised how many people you see. You see happy people, sad people, shy people, all kinds of people. Try to imprint their appearance and behaviour in your mind and try to write that down to your character. In my opinion that is the best way to include real people in fictional characters.

Because: You want readers to asociate with your characters and what could be more effective, then describing people you can see on the streets all the time?

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.