Columns > Published on May 23rd, 2012

Keeping it Real: A Rough Guide to Using Real People As Fictional Characters

Pop quiz: what do Ebeneezer Scrooge, Alice in Wonderland and Tintin all have in common?

OK, the title makes the answer obvious (and if it didn’t, you’re too tired to be reading this): all of these ‘fictional’ characters were based on real people.

It’s not an unusual thing for a writer to do. In fact it’s so common, the subject has inspired a whole book of its own: The Godfather Was A Girl written by Eamon Evans, who, I’m assuming, is a real person and not a piece of fiction inspired by a real person.

But let’s not get reductive. Just because something is commonplace doesn’t mean it is right. When does ‘inspiration’ cross the line into defamation? Which parts of a person’s life or character can you use or should you use? Or is sticking to your imagination the only and best way to write?

The big no-no: writing about your family

When author Hanif Kureishi produced his novel Intimacy in 1998, its story line about a man who leaves his partner for another woman seemed unexceptional. The trouble was, Kureishi had just done the same thing in real life. His ex-partner was not amused. At all.

You can see her point. Not only had Kureishi rejected her (and their two children) for someone else, he had then gone on to exploit the episode for fiction. Kureishi didn’t deny the accusation. His defense?

I'm just the messenger. I'm writing a book about divorce - an experience that many people have had…That book was a record of that experience. I don't see why I should be vilified for writing an account of it.

To which you might ask how Kureishi might have felt if his partner had chosen to make a record of her own.

But at least Kureishi attempted to disguise his subject matter. Authors Julie Myerson and Rachel Cusk, both usually producers of fiction, have both turned to writing books about their personal experiences. Myerson interleaved passages about troubles with her teenage son with a story about a dead Victorian painter. Critics were incensed at what they saw as her capitalizing on her child’s problems in order to sell books, and were even more appalled by Cusk's book about her divorce, Aftermath. No stone was left unflung. No fight unrecorded. To be fair, Cusk didn’t paint herself in a flattering light, but no one seems to have asked her ex or her children if they wanted the details of this painful period to be put between two covers and sold to the world in black and white.

The message here is that it doesn’t matter if you lightly fictionalize a real incident as Kureishi did, combine truth and fantasy like Myerson or go the same route as Cusk and use your established position as a fiction writer to promote your misery memoirs; using your family as material for your writing is about as easy as navigating a swimming pool full of sharks while clad in a pair of sirloin Speedos. Do it with caution and always with the question in your mind: how would I feel if they said this about me? If the answer is 'I'd feel like crap,' do yourself and your family a favor and write about something else.

I see dead people: channeling historical figures

But if using your nearest and dearest is off limits, what about taking people who are no longer alive and basing fiction on them?

Many writers of historical fiction have gone down this road. Some to the extent that you could say what they produce is neither fiction nor non-fiction, but something in between. The prime example here is Hilary Mantel, who fictionalized the key events and personalities of the French Revolution in A Place of Greater Safety, and moved on to greater renown with her two (eventually to be three) books about Thomas Cromwell: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

The characters we create are only going to live and breathe if we give them realistic and believable ways of behaving, and there’s no other way to collect those behaviors other than by noting them in the people around us.

Mantel isn’t the only writer who plays this game: Peter Carey did the same with The True History of the Kelly Gang¸ Joyce Carol Oates did it with Marilyn Monroe in Blonde, and Gore Vidal does it with just about everybody in his Narratives of Empire series, based on key events in US history.

The relevant questions here are: does this approach work and - if the events and people are real - is it still fiction? Taking the second question first, the answer is probably yes. Even if past events are a matter of record, the thoughts, motives and attitudes of the main players often aren’t, which is where the fictional element comes in. And as to whether it works or not, using an intriguing figure like Cromwell or Monroe provides an immediate draw. Cromwell, while not famous in his own right, was Henry VIII's henchperson of choice and the orchestrator of Anne Boleyn's downfall. And Marilyn of course was Marilyn. The writers need to do little to persuade us that these are characters we want to read about.

But it’s telling that criticism of Mantel’s work is that her books whitewash the character of Cromwell. When the facts are known about a person – who they ordered executed, how they plotted and maneuvered – it’s hard to get away with making them sympathetic. And main characters have to be sympathetic in order for us to identify with them. The same goes for Oates’ attempt to humanize the film star icon Monroe. We know so much about her- the nude shots, the unhappy marriages, the addiction to prescription meds- that there’s very little space for the author to alter our preconceptions. However hard the author tries to draw us in, the image of Monroe dictates how we see her.

If using a real person is too constricting, another method is to use historical figures as a backdrop to fiction. This is what Gore Vidal does in the seven books comprising Narratives of Empire. This is more genuinely fiction, in the sense that the story is carried by characters Vidal made up, but in terms of creating an enjoyable read, the results are mixed. The trap Vidal often falls into is that of including so much detail that the action grinds to a halt. He’s also stymied by the facts. It’s hard enough to make the situations you need to drive the plot seem spontaneous when all you have to do is make them up. When the situations are a matter of historical record, the effect on storytelling can be disastrous.  

The key to making this type of historical ‘faction’ work is giving yourself enough room. When Carey writes about Ned Kelly, he manages to extract the benefits from the technique and avoid the pitfalls. Kelly is an iconic enough figure to prime us for the story. We’re not expecting a man who loves ballet and opera; we already know Kelly was a bank robber and ruffian who terrorized the Australian outback. That’s the great strength of using a historical figure as material: our mental canvas is prepared without Carey having to write a single word. But Kelly’s life story is also patchy and this gives Carey enough space between the facts to let the character breathe. He can make stuff up without compromising reality. We get the backbone of the material, but the fiction isn’t straitjacketed by it.

Real but not real: the light touch is the right touch

But if writing is based on observation, is it possible not to use real people in fiction? At some level, the answer to that has to be no. Writing is founded on noticing the quirks, mannerisms and idiosyncrasies displayed by our fellow humans. The characters we create are only going to live and breathe if we give them realistic and believable ways of behaving, and there’s no other way to collect those behaviors other than by noting them in the people around us.

Collecting is one thing, reproducing them wholesale is another, and as with many things, it’s all a question of degree. If you make a character look, sound and behave exactly the same as someone you know, then you’re straying outside the bounds of fiction. And the person you are using will probably realize that is what you are up to.

This is what happened to Kathryn Stockett, author of The Help. The main character of this novel is a black maid called Aibilene who looks after the white children of a local family living in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960s. As it happens, Stockett’s brother who lives in Jackson, Mississippi also has a black woman who babysits for his children and has done so for over a decade. Her name is Ablene. The real-life help took out a law suit against Stockett for using her name and image.

Litigation aside, other dangers exist with being too literal in our use of the people around us. A subtle but important aspect is your own emotional attachment to the person in question. If when looking for a villain, you latch upon the boss who failed to give you the promotion you deserved, the chances are that although you know how totally nefarious that son-of-a-bitch was, the reader won’t. The evil lies in what the person did, not in their mannerisms or appearance. The same goes for objects of desire. If you’re married to a redhead, you’re likely to think that particular hair color is wildly sexy. That may not be how your reader sees it, though. Taking a step back and assessing what most people find attractive, or a turn off, is essential.

The final issue to think about is this: fictional characters, especially main characters, almost never behave exactly like real people would. They’re smarter, more persuasive, more appealing, more sensitive, better looking, stronger, more hot headed, braver and at least twice as sensual as anyone we’re ever going to share office space or an apartment with. Make your characters too real and the reader will soon lose interest. Give them some real characteristics and they’ll jump out of the page and into your audience’s mind with a single bound.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at LitReactor.com and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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