Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Putting Real People in Your Made-Up World Part One: People from your daily life.

I’ll start with the overly broad question writers often ask.

Question One: Can I use real people in my book?

Short Answer: If you don’t you won’t have a book.

Here’s the longer answer. Every writer who’s ever written has written about a living person she’s met. Even if you are writing a sci-fi epic about a cluster of beings who are made entirely of energy, one of them will probably end up acting an awful lot like your sister. That black hole they’re afraid of will probably use that stupid catchphrase your junior high school gym teacher always threw around, too.

The thing that makes us writers is the ability to look at the world around us and draw a new and interesting story based on it. Some of us may end up drawing spaceships and others vampires, while those of us writing contemporary satire come pretty damn close to just drawing what we see. Historical novelists often strive to draw the most accurate picture they can of something that happened in the past. People writing narrative nonfiction are basically trying to trace the exact lines of an event in a way that tells the story. But, whether you’re writing a MG fantasy about elves or narrative nonfiction about the Romney campaign, you’re going to at least touch on people you either know or have heard of.

Not only can you use real people in your book, you have to. Otherwise there’s no book.

Question Two: Do I need their permission?

Short Answer: No, you need to write better.

The longer answer is that it’s fine if you want to get someone’s permission. You may want to do that for all sorts of reasons. But that’s usually not the best way to go. For one thing, until someone’s read your completed manuscript, he or she will not really know what the portrayal is like. You may even tell that person that the portrayal is flattering (because, let’s face it, you’re not going to find many people who want to be portrayed as the idiotic, misogynistic boss, so that’s not the conversation you’ll be having). But that still doesn’t mean things will go smoothly. Telling the person it’s a nice portrayal presents a few problems.

First, your idea of nice may not be hers. That cute honking noise she makes when she laughs may be something she was relentlessly teased about in fourth grade. Now she’s convinced she doesn’t do that anymore, despite the flocks of geese that land on her yard whenever she’s watching Seinfeld reruns. That quirky habit your writer radar picked up on isn’t just quirky, it was born of a horrible childhood trauma. You just don’t know.

Second, you’re essentially locking yourself into a contract. If someone agrees you can use her in your novel in response to you saying your portrayal is nice, you’re stuck. Suddenly, your character is constrained not just by the obstacles in the story but also by the requirement that the way she handles them be flattering to the person you named her after.

Third, real people suck. Jason Borne did more badass stuff within an hour of waking up than most people do in their entire lives. Do you really think cousin Eldridge is essential to the story? It might be nice to give him a nod, since people with names like Eldridge tend to be computer whizzes and die childless, but that’s what the dedication page is for.

Fourth, it’s not over ‘till it’s over. Having just spent three months rewriting the last 30,000 words of my manuscript from scratch, I have no doubt that I’m speaking the truth when I say: you have no idea how things are going to turn out until you’ve written them. And gotten feedback. And rewritten. And gotten more feedback. And written to editorial order and you’re looking at something that is no longer a manuscript, but is actually a book.

Fifth, fictional real people suck more than real real people. Almost every good hero has her demons, just like interesting villains usually have some misplaced good in them. Interesting characters are almost always conflicted, but your Aunt Sallie does not want to read about how she’s torn between her love for your Uncle Bud and her desire for Javier the pool boy. Uncle Bud sure as hell doesn’t want to read about that, and Javier may have just thrown up in his mouth. The alternative is to turn Aunt Sallie into Aunt Mary Sue, which is to say, a cardboard cutout of a one-dimensional, boring Aunt Sallie who doesn’t want Javier to clean her pipes.

Note that I’m not really talking about law on this post, although the others on the topic go pretty deep into legal questions. There is no bright line between the (statistically unlikely but enormously expensive) legal problems that can stem from using a person in a novel and the (financially free but highly likely and personally costly) family/friend problems that can stem from using a person in a novel.

The bottom line, when it comes to friends and family, is that you need a really good reason to need to include them. And if you’re just writing a novel, there usually isn’t one.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t use their traits. Mine the crap out of those. Those traits are what makes good writing. But mix and match traits and jobs and relationships and appearances and genders so that no character is discernibly a person two cubicles down or whose name you might draw for the family Christmas gift exchange.

Got an axe to grind? Don’t do it. Now you’re substituting personal motives for good storytelling, and your book won’t be as good. Everything we write should be in furtherance of the story. Our traumas, heartbreaks, and hatreds can provide powerful fuel for a good narrative, if we use them to serve it. Setting out with a score to settle is the opposite – your story is now being used to serve your pissy little vendetta. Get over it. Your story matters more than revenge – which will just come across as whiny anyway. Your emotions serve the story, never the other way around.

Question Three: What about names?

Short Answer: A rose by any other name…

You don’t insulate yourself (much) by taking a person who is clearly known and slapping a new name on him. The flipside is, you don’t have much of a problem taking a name from someone you know and slapping it on a character. But you should be doing that for the same reasons characters get other names – it’s the best name for the job.

Case Study: Rochelle Ames

There is a character in Velvet Falls named Rochelle Ames. Her daughter, Susan, introduces her in the narrative by saying, “that bleach-blonde narcissistic bitch is my mother.” She is not a nice person. On the plus side, she’s hot. Her negatives include being slutty, manipulative, narcissistic, a horrible mother, greedy, short-sighted, and adulterous. She also has a drinking problem.

I named her after my Critique Partner.

A couple of things about the real Rochelle. She is not bleach-blonde, she is not narcissistic, and she is not a bitch. Since I’m in trouble if I say she’s “not hot” and probably in even more trouble if I say she is “hot” I’m just skipping that part of the analysis, although I will say she is a beautiful young lady who in no way physically resembles said bleach-blonde bitch. The remaining items on the list are also nonstarters.

But you’ve gotta admit, Rochelle is a killer name for a manipulative blonde seductress. That’s how Rochelle Ames got the name Rochelle. Plus Real Rochelle knows this book better than anyone but me, she is so different from the villain named for her it’s an inside joke, and the name just fits.

What about Ames? That’s where those personality characteristics come into play. Think about it.

. . . . . . Thinking?

Let me ask you this, have you read East of Eden?

If you have, I don’t need to say another word. If you haven’t, you should. But, basically, I knew what the character had to be before I named her, and found the literary character who most consistently matches her (Cathy Ames).

So that’s a pretty good window into the type of things I consider when naming characters. I start with the thing that will serve the story best. Within that, if I can tuck an inside joke and a literary Easter egg, I’m all for it.

But the character herself is 100% fictional. And bears no resemblance to any narcissistic, self-centered, greedy, manipulative women I’ve ever met.

Honest.

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5 thoughts on “Putting Real People in Your Made-Up World Part One: People from your daily life.

  1. Because I’m an uncultured swine who hasn’t read East of Eden, I figured Ames just made for a great last name for the best segment on her talk show. 🙂

    A great post, per usual.

  2. I haven’t ever based a character in a novel on a whole, real person–it’s always a trait here mixed with a characteristic there. My husband occasionally comments on how my (our) life provides fodder for my fiction. But I think anyone other than he would be hard-pressed to come up with something specific in my work that is art imitating life.

    On another note, I nominated your blog for a Liebster “Award” today (see my post: http://audreykalman.wordpress.com/2014/02/07/leaping-liebsters/). As you can tell, I’m taking it with a grain of salt, but it was a great opportunity for me to discover new blogs, which is how I found yours. Do with it what you will.

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