The "Character" Question: Are They Real?

I’m sure it happens to other writers, but I regularly get asked if the characters in my books are based on real people. Occasionally, I have friends who are certain they know the “true” identity of a particular character.

Akin to that question, some will speculate that one of the characters—perhaps the handsome, hunky, heroic leading man?—is actually me, with a different name. After my last book, a friend wrote to me, asking if I was HIV positive. (No, I'm not. I've also never been visited by a flamboyant Guardian Angel!)

As an author, I’m thrilled (and humbled) that my characters seem real enough to even prompt such questions.

Are they based on real people?
Of course not!
None of my character are based on any real person, living or dead.
They are all completely, absolutely and totally fictional.

That is, except when they aren't.

Seriously, I don’t think there’s a simple answer, and that has nothing to do with writer’s integrity or giving away trade secrets, like a magician refusing to reveal how they made the tiger appear on stage.

I will readily admit I’ve used actual people as inspiration. For example, on my website I have a short story entitled Drained Dreams which is completely based on a woman I met at a very vulnerable time in my life—just after I left the ministry, and during my divorce. We worked together in a nightclub, and she was very kind to me.

But that doesn’t mean this character is an exact replica of my real-life, courageous co-worker. I wrote the story based on knowing only a few facts about her. I didn’t do an interview because it wasn’t intended to be her life story. One night we were talking while getting ready for the evening show, and she told me a few things about her life. Several years later, after we’d lost touch, I thought of her and that prompted the story of my character’s determination. It wasn’t a biography, but she was in my thoughts. In the story, I didn’t even give the woman a name.

My first book, Sow the Wind, Reap the Whirlwind, was probably the most personal story (so far) for me. Peter, the main character, is a youth minister at a Baptist church in my hometown of Birmingham in the mid-70s. I was also a youth minister at a Baptist church in Birmingham during that same period. Therefore, people assume it’s autobiographical. It is true that Peter and I share the DNA of experience…but I did not write him as me; I see us as very different people. (He’s built much better.)

Some of the individuals Peter encounters are also loosely based on people I knew during my time as a youth minister. (e.g., the pastor of Peter’s church is a composite of two men with whom I served during my time in the youth ministry.) And most of what happens to him in the story comes from actual experiences.

In an earlier post about writing, I emphasized that research is essential. If I know a handsome fireman, and decide to base my main character on him, I still must imbue the character with a personality, motivation, goals, desires and problems to make him “come alive” in a story that is not the real life of my fireman friend. I also have to know what a fire fighter does if I plan to show him doing his job. Omitting these details, or faking them, will make my character one-dimensional. Worse, getting the details wrong can lose the reader!

I think as writers we are obligated to present believable characters, but they don’t have to be the mirror images of an actual person in our real life. While an individual might inspire us, helping us visualize and form a credible character, we filter that image through the confines of our story, in the environment we created, with new situations and a cast of other characters. The person who was the pattern morphs into someone different on paper.
And hopefully, we see what I call the "Pinocchio Miracle." The person on the page is...real!

Are my characters based on real people?

Absolutely NOT!
Maybe.
Sometimes.
Slightly.
Uhm…well, let’s just say it’s complicated.

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