10 February 2023

I'm In That Book, Aren't I?

 Ah, yes. We get that question all the time, don't we? We write a book and immediately, the main character is always the author. Yeah. I'm a 21-year-old interstellar spy of Indonesian descent according to the scifi book I released today. Or I based that character on someone I know. Or the person asking the question. Or some celebrity.

Of course, I did. Because never, in the history of writing, has any author anywhere made something up. Well, someone had to. I'm currently reading Gilgamesh as I write this, and even characters in Greek mythology would say, "Dude, that's just too weird to be real." 

That's not to say writers don't base characters on real people. Some inspire them. I had a bubbly, party girl neighbor once who became a villain in a Nick Kepler novel. But no one would mistake the character for the real person. There are even whole novels where the characters are thinly veiled versions of real people. These make up a genre known as the roman a clef

And most of them are awful.

The most famous example is Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. It's still a bestseller, but I can't imagine how happy Judy Garland (who died not long after the book appeared), Ethel Merman, or Dean Martin could have been when Valley hit the bestseller lists. Certainly anyone who knew Carole Landis at the time of her death squirmed reading about Jennifer North's suicide. It might have been a bestseller, but it was never a classic. In one memorable scene from Star Trek IV: The Search for Nuclear Wessels, Leonard Nimoy, playing the emotionless, unflappable Spock, can't keep the sarcasm out of his voice when Kirk rattles off the names Susann and Harold Robbins. "Ah," he says in a dry tone that does nothing to hide what Nimoy the actor is thinking, "the giants."

Jacqueline Susann did manage to sell a lot of books. But try basing a character on a real person and getting it to work in the framework of a fictional story. I have tried. I always have to either reduce the character to a walk-on, emphasizing personality traits that made this sound like a plan, or throw out the character altogether. The fact is, when I or most writers create a character, the character doesn't care where I got the idea that brought them into being. They are in a fictional world I created, and they're going to go do what they want. So, you're weird friend from high school whom you thought would make a comedic version of Jeffrey Dahmer ends up being the annoying used car salesman instead. (Actually, I think my one weird, creepy friend does sell used cars now. Bad example.) 

I did successfully pull it off one time. There is a very short Nick Kepler novel in the drawer that has Nick dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He goes into a restaurant called Candy's Home Cooking, owned by a short, vivacious Kentucky girl named Candy. I just happened to marry a short, vivacious Kentucky girl named Candy who used to cater. It did work, but notice the book is not published and not likely to be in the near future.

I've had characters people assumed were me. Jeff Kagan from the Holland Bay series. JT Austin from my scifi. But Kagan is the son of one of the Mafia's pet cops. JT stormed out of a life of wealth and privilege only to blunder into an interstellar war. My parents were neither rich nor knew anyone in the Mafia. At least, not enough that it affected them directly. And anyway, I have more in common with Jessica Branson, the once-disgraced detective trying to revive her career. But I married a short, vivacious Kentucky girl who used to cater, not shacked up with a lovable hairy nerd.

The fact is, most characters come from the ether. There might have been a real person there in the beginning, but even obvious avatars of real people end up with their own histories. It goes back to a possibly apocryphal story about Leonardo da Vinci. Da Vinci had an enemy he so despised that, while painting The Last Supper, he put the man's face in for Judas. But he could not get the painting to work. He used a different face, and now the painting hangs in a convent in Milan that is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So, if da Vinci couldn't do the roman a clef, it's probably a hard no for anyone else.

Da Vinci was nearly sued by Moe over use of his bar, as well as being portrayed as Judas.
Said the master artist, "D'oh!"
Source: Fox


  1. Jim, excellent article. Actually, I have written several stories based on two real living people: Sherlock Holmes and his friend Watson.
    Edward Lodi

    1. Sherlock Holmes was inspired by two people Conan Doyle knew, but the final character is fictional, not a real living person.

  2. What about all those books using Poe, Jane Austin, Francis Bacon, and other historical characters as detectives to solve mysteries? The character is based on a real person, but the author puts words/actions/and personality into them and includes events from the real person's life. I have seen this work well. Perhaps it helps to only have the exterior appearance and events. The author can bend the personality to what is needed. I have done this sort of thing in a short story, but with an ancestor of mine that I never met.

    1. That's not quite a roman a clef. Frederick Forsyth used to use contemporary figures fictitiously, mainly because they would affect or be affected by the plot. His most famous example is The Odessa File, though it comes off as a Cold War version of Inglorious Basterds (in the same vein with an alternate history), where the lead blows away a well-known Nazi war criminal.

      In a roman a clef, if you decide to write a novel where your character is literally your boss, and his antagonist is the literal CEO, both with the names changed, you're still having to make real people and events conform to a story.

      Not to mention it's a great way to get sued. But The Odessa File and Valley of the Dolls are leagues apart in the types of novels they are.

  3. Great post, Jim, and I agree. If a "real" person appears in my work, it's always a cameo for the reasons you state so clearly: their real traits won't work for the plot. And if they're still alive, we now live in a very litigious age and there's always the chance to end up in court.

    I've had many characters (and even entire books or stories) that were INSPIRED by real people or events, but the details are always very different from the truth. Locations are easy to change, and, if I'm worried about a character, it's easy to change a major detail in description, like hair color. In some cases, switching gender works well.

    I have had people ask me if there are real people in a story, and my answer is always, "They were real to me when I wrote them."

  4. Oh, Steve, what a great response to people who ask if the character was a real person! I'm gonna steal that one.
    I have used a real person occasionally in a story - usually as minor characters (a waitress, etc). What's hilarious is that the one time I used a real person as the template for a supporting character, that person (who was always insisting they knew who every character "really" was) was ticked because they couldn't figure out who that one "really" was. Classic.

  5. Steve, I was being, or attempting to be, facetious.
    Edward Lodi

    1. Holmes and Watson seem all too real.

      Unfortunately, all the Moriartys I've run into have a bad habit of outsmarting themselves. Especially when they run afoul of four teenagers and their great dane.

    2. You are dangerous, Mr Lodi. And funny.

  6. Great post, Jim! I have done this. In fact one of the two major characters that n my novella PAPER SON is based on historical Chinese labor wrangler Chin Gee Hee. His words, mannerisms and actions are created by me, his name, description and much of his historical backstory are historical fact. And I think in order to succeed such a character can have only be partly based in fact. The author must have agency and write the character in such a way that works in service to the plot.

    Thanks for writing this!

  7. I remember that like from ST IV. (It had a log of great lines, dumbass.)

    Gilgamesh… No worries. He IS weird.


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