Sep 30 2008

Please Don’t Base Your Characters on Friends Or Family

Generally, characters that are based on the friends and family members of the author turn out poorly.

1. These characters tend to be boring because they lack flaws. If your character is based on a friend or family member, you might feel afraid to give that person flaws because the friend might find out. PS: If you’re using someone as a model, they’re probably close enough to you that they’ll read the book eventually. (Alternately, if the character is based on someone the author hates, the character will probably have no likability or style whatsoever — that sort of character is usually a liability even as an antagonist).

 

2. It may limit the character’s development if you feel that you have to be “true” to the real-life model. Generally, it’s easiest to write when you completely own the material.

 

3. Your friend or family member might not fit into the story or a satisfying development arc. Well-constructed characters will have traits, flaws, skills, conflicts and usually growth arcs carefully tailored to the story. If the character’s details don’t work for the plot, it may detract from the reading experience. For example, Soon I Will Be Invincible inexplicably tried to fit several adult superheroes into a conflict between geeks and jocks.  If it seems strange that adults would really care about who was popular back in high school, it seems absolutely mind-blowing that a mutant tiger would.

 

4. Your friends and family are probably not quite as interesting or endearing to readers as they are to you.  No offense, but most people aren’t interesting enough to have biographies written about them. Why will we care about your friends?

 

5. If I were evaluating a novel manuscript, I’d be really concerned about whether the author had enough distance from what he was writing. 

 

6. While modeling characters on acquaintances is probably problematic, you can still use your real-life observations to make your characters or story feel more realistic. For example, you might draw on certain traits or habits from people you know rather than transplanting characters wholesale. That will help you maintain full ownership over the work and modify characters as necessary to fit the plot. If you find yourself making writing decisions based on what your friends/family would do in a particular situation, you would probably benefit from more creative control over your material.

41 responses so far

41 Responses to “Please Don’t Base Your Characters on Friends Or Family”

  1. Wingson 28 Apr 2009 at 9:25 am

    Oh, than I’m okay….

    Both Pierce and Connor are loosely based on people I know.

    – Wings

  2. Luna Jamniaon 10 Jul 2009 at 5:22 pm

    This one story I started writing a few months ago didn’t work out, but not because of the character based on my best friend. In fact, she ended up being the coolest character in the story, and she was almost exactly like her personality wise and other things.
    She was almost the main character because the main character … the main character had almost no personality. My friend has a ton. 😀 Of course I didn’t put in her obsession with HSM because it was a fantasy setting, but most of her was there.

  3. HUsheron 22 Jul 2009 at 5:03 am

    For me, luckily basing characters on my friends went out with Mary Sues. Well, mostly. Some of my characters, I look at them and say ‘he has my brother’s shyness, my friend’s smarts, my dad’s seriousness…’ and so on. Or a small habit is shared. (My brother’s walk is a run, my brother’s run is a sprint, which translated into one of my characters being a *very* fast walker.)
    A writer friend of mine would definitely benefit from this article. But I know he’s not going to read it. -_- He’s very touchy about his writing.

  4. Hawkfire101on 08 Dec 2009 at 5:53 pm

    I am basing a character on my sister. She is actually an archenemy of the heroine, Hawkfire.

  5. B. Macon 08 Dec 2009 at 9:03 pm

    A few questions. First, does your sister (or the model based on the sister) fit into the story? Second, would people want to read about your sister as a supervillain? Third, why not just make a new character? It might be easier to give the character more depth and (ironically) more verisimilitude that way.

  6. Wingson 09 Dec 2009 at 10:04 am

    Two of my characters (Connor and Pierce) started out as blatant self inserts of my brother and P (Pierce, appearance if not personality wise, still is. We’re working on it).

    However, they went in drastically different directions as production went on (See Ian for the biggest personality change probably in all history of the books. Darren and Pierce to a lesser extent).

    Self inserts can be done right, but you’ve got to be extremely careful (Twilight was just Stephenie Meyer’s wish-fulfillment fantasy with herself as the main character written down).

    – Wings

  7. PaintedSainton 09 Dec 2009 at 10:34 am

    Twilight was definitely a self-insert of Stephenie Meyer. But if anyone attempted to analyze the text, it seems like Bella has no discernable traits that make her compatible with Edward, nothing prevalent that would seem like a huge character flaw. That’s probably why it sells like crazy, because it’s like a “choose your adventure” book for fanfiction writing teens! They can easily imagine themselves in place of Bella in the story, because it was compatible to almost every fan of the book. At least, that’s my theory.

    Self inserts can be done well, but it depends on the expertise of the writer. For example, some manga artists use a self-insert in the story, but they are rarely the main character (Kakashi Hatake as Masashi Kishimoto from Naruto). Kakashi was the main character’s mentor, he was there to guide him and to teach him to become stronger, but in the end it is the main character that drives the plot forward with his decisions, not based on what Kakashi would’ve done instead.

  8. B. Macon 09 Dec 2009 at 10:40 am

    Gary/Agent Black is probably uncomfortably close to an authorial self-insertion — a a result, I try to play up how bumbling and naive he is… I’m going for a Jon Arbuckle rather than a super-smart, super-collected Dan Brown protagonist.

  9. B. Macon 09 Dec 2009 at 10:45 am

    When Stephenie Meyer did her cameo in the Twilight movie, it was ASTONISHING how much she looked like a less attractive version of Bella.

  10. B. Macon 09 Dec 2009 at 10:50 am

    “Bella has no discernable traits that make her compatible with Edward…” What do you think about this? She’s sort of weak and useless. She doesn’t really do much of anything on her own and goes to pieces when Edward leaves. She’s virtually unable to function on her own, so it sort of makes sense that she would gravitate towards an (abusively) assertive boyfriend. I don’t think that’s the message Meyer intended, though.

    It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Meyer hates nice, normal guys. In the second movie, Bella knows three nice guys: her (allegedly) dorky father, a flamingly effeminate Asian guy, and a scrawny dude that can’t even sit through an action movie without throwing up.

  11. PaintedSainton 09 Dec 2009 at 3:56 pm

    It’s because all girls want bad boys…

  12. Luna Jamniaon 10 Dec 2009 at 7:31 pm

    Eh. ‘Bad boys’ are great for movies and everything but ‘in real life’ it just wouldn’t work … my dad wouldn’t approve, my brothers would beat the crap out of him, and that’d be the end of it.

    Besides, well, ‘good boys’ are so much better. ^^

  13. Leighon 24 Sep 2010 at 6:13 pm

    The Zombie Hunters webcomic has most of the main cast based on the author and her friends but they do it well. It’s actually quite funny and all the characters are human and flawed. You’d never guess it was a self-insert. So it can be well done.

    And then you Twilight and badly written fanfics on the opposite end of the spectrum.

    Really it’s all about being willing to give your good guys flaws and your bad guys positive traits. And a personality would be nice too (no more Bellas!) Of course it takes more than disabling, caricature-like clumsiness to make a character flawed and human.

    Side note: I was just talking to my cousin about the same thing- how the only reason people like Twilight is because they ID with Bella since she lacks a personality to not identify with and they’re too stupid to recognize that. Luckily my cousin shares my disdain for Twilight.

  14. Grenacon 21 Jul 2011 at 9:51 pm

    Huh, I was once writing a novel with characters based off my friends. Terrible stuff really lol

    For characters now, I only give them bits of myself that act as the push to kickstart their development. I like it because they feel more like my children that way 🙂

  15. B. Macon 21 Jul 2011 at 9:59 pm

    “For characters now, I only give them bits of myself that act as the push to kickstart their development.” Haha, I can totally relate to that. My main villain is like a distinctly villainous version of me and my hero is like a version of me that’s maybe a bit more bumbling. (Although, if you put me on a superhero team, I would certainly be as bumbling or more).

  16. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 21 Jul 2011 at 10:20 pm

    I try not to base characters on people I know, though when I need them to seem more human, I think of what habits my friends have and apply them to them. I usually make up my characters by playing with tropes, because I find it easier and more interesting.

    I did a self insert when I was ten, but it wasn’t the traditional type – basically, she had eight kids and was happily married to a guy who, unknown to me at the time, shared a name with my future boyfriend. I certainly hope the “eight kids” part isn’t a premonition. o.O

  17. Grenacon 21 Jul 2011 at 10:31 pm

    B. Mac, I’m willing to bet you’ll be better off than I would ever be in a superhero team.

    I almost wrote Big Mac :B

  18. Wingson 21 Jul 2011 at 10:46 pm

    Just betaed a piece for a friend of a friend that apparently had this problem. I say “apparently” because the characters were so poorly written that they had no personality whatsoever.

    …This person’s friends must be scary.

    – Wings

  19. B. Macon 21 Jul 2011 at 11:55 pm

    “B. Mac, I’m willing to bet you’ll be better off than I would ever be in a superhero team.” Unless you’re a paraplegic arsonist, not likely.

  20. A11 L1V3S L0STon 17 Jul 2012 at 11:30 am

    I like having bits of myself in my MC, not a lot though. And honestly, I’ve noticed that if I put myself as the bad guy, I go crazy, like walking down the street full of people, and just pick a random person and… well… I think you get the point.

  21. Antareson 12 Apr 2013 at 6:54 am

    I think one of the major problems with people writing stories about characters loosely based off their friends is that inexperienced writers tend to just transplant their entire friendship group into the story, and tack on superpowers/magic/make someone a robot. They don’t really bother with characterization, because they’re working from existing people, and they don’t really make an effort to introduce characters to the readers, because hey, they already know their friends are awesome, right?
    The whole effect is like going to a restaurant and getting seated next to a group of squealing girls/bellowing prepubescent boys: you feel excluded from and annoyed by the group, rather than welcomed into it.

  22. Dr. Vo Spaderon 12 Apr 2013 at 7:18 am

    ^Thats actually an issue I deal with. My characters are creations of my imagination that I’ve had for a LONG time. I know them, so sometimes I write things expecting the future reader to know and understand. (Thankfully, I’ve caught these and have gotten better at avoiding it.) This is actually why I’m sore at my MC’s name dilemma…ack.

  23. B. McKenzieon 12 Apr 2013 at 7:38 am

    “They don’t really bother with characterization, because they’re working from existing people, and they don’t really make an effort to introduce characters to the readers, because hey, they already know their friends are awesome, right?” I see this a lot. Red flag #1: two characters are 100% friendly towards each other and/or completely ignore conflict angles (e.g. personal failures, personality clashes, etc) which could be interesting.
    Red flag #2: the 2+ characters never have differences in goals/motivation. (See Lucius vs. Batman in The Dark Knight for two mostly cooperative characters with a really interesting conflict).

  24. Sakitaon 14 Apr 2013 at 12:34 pm

    Well, i have one minor villain I based on an enemy. Can you do that?

  25. B. McKenzieon 14 Apr 2013 at 7:18 pm

    Sakita, I would recommend being VERY cautious there.

    Legal obstacles: First, depending on the portrayal in question, you may be putting yourself at risk of a lawsuit. One plaintiff won $100,000 in a lawsuit because an author falsely attributed flaws to a character identifiably based on the plaintiff. Your “enemy” would likely have grounds to take you for court if 1) someone who knew him/her could reasonably identify that the character was based on him/her and either of the following: 2) this character is somehow defamatory or libelous in some way untrue to real life and/or 3) you’re publishing “private facts” about that person without that person’s authorization.

    Creative obstacles: Because of the aforementioned legal obstacles, your ability to actually use this character freely is rather limited (e.g. you can’t make up negative traits for him/her). I’d highly recommend transforming the character and events more so that this character is not identifiable. If the real life inspiration read the book and might want to sue, the character is probably too identifiable.

    Professionalism concerns: Uhh… unless you’re in the military or law enforcement, I’d suggest against mentioning that you have “enemies” to avoid temperament questions.

  26. FVE-Manon 15 Apr 2013 at 12:15 am

    Sakita: this reminds me of a series I wrote when I was 14, where a minor villain was based on a schoolyard enemy of mine. One year later we were no longer enemies, and once I graduated a few years after that, it became apparent how absurd the basis of our conflict was (overreaction on my part, mainly).

    The point I’m trying to make is that you’ll probably outgrow your enemies long before you outgrow your friends.

  27. Gbuster861on 25 Sep 2013 at 11:42 am

    Alright… Well I can say that my entire series is based off of friends, family, “foes” and at first I would’ve agreed hands down because of the fact that NO ONE wants their book to turn out as a personal journal/diary of people you don’t always get along with. BUT, that being said and accounted for, if you come right out with it and give each person that has a character in your short story, novel, book, etc. a chance to help mold their, for lack of a better term, alter-ego, such as what their motivations are, what they’re like, how they personally would handle a given situation IF they were a character in your book, etc. at any rate I DO agree with you to a certain degree, don’t base any given character wholeheartedly on someone you have to face every single day and do what I said above because… wait for it… they MAY eventually and inevitably become an instant groupy! “Hey! Whats up buuuuuuuuddy… You remember that character in your book thats based off of me? Yea gimme money!” or something along those lines MAY happen or they could get really MAD that you killed them off and wonder if they did something wrong when really it was just to advance the plot of the story and give the characters within a drive or a push to go after the baddy.

  28. B. McKenzieon 27 Sep 2013 at 6:40 am

    “I can say that my entire series is based off of friends, family, “foes” and at first I would’ve agreed hands down because of the fact that NO ONE wants their book to turn out as a personal journal/diary of people you don’t always get along with.”

    1) Are your friends, family, and “foes” interesting enough that strangers would want to read a book based on them? Most interesting characters (and especially interesting superheroes) get opportunities to make decisions and say things extremely few people would do in the same situation (e.g. Spider-Man letting the robber go, virtually everything Iron Man says and Batman does, etc). If your characters are acting more or less like ordinary people, will they actually be memorable?

    1.1) Personally, I’d much rather read a book from someone that had full creative autonomy over his characters rather than someone that was restrained in some way by what his acquaintances are like. Especially if your acquaintances are relatively ordinary.

    1.2) Personally, I would probably reject a fictional work based on a set of real people if I would have rejected a non-fictional work based on the same people. I suspect that would be the case here (unless your friends are extremely interesting to strangers, a publisher would pass on a story chronicling them).

    2) “They MAY eventually and inevitably become an instant groupy!” Your friends and family will total considerably fewer than 1,000 sales. Not enough to matter. And your friends and family probably would have bought the book whether or not characters were based on them. Second, I believe the sentence “They may eventually and inevitably become an instant groupie” contradicts itself at least twice (may vs. inevitably and eventually vs. instant).

    2.1) The publisher will care a lot more about whether the book has sales potential outside of your friends and family. If the book doesn’t sell at least thousands of copies, everybody involved is screwed.

  29. FireGodon 13 Jan 2014 at 1:58 am

    So, this article says everything about not basing characters off friends, but what about basing them off yourself? My MC is pretty much completely me, and it works pretty well for me. My other heroes are based off of my friends, and I’m not seeing much of an issue. A couple of them are the best characters I have.

    On a side note, I’m pretty sure I remember reading that Christopher Paolini based his character Angela off his sister, and she was one of the best characters!

  30. BMon 13 Jan 2014 at 10:07 am

    “My MC is pretty much completely me…” If you’re very introspective, self-insertion could possibly work, but generally it’s not terribly promising. Most people aren’t honest or interesting enough to make an autobiography work. I’d recommend working more to differentiate the character from you. If an editorial assistant figures out that the character is actually you, I’m guessing rejection will be swift (because it raises authorial distance questions — if the editors feel like they need to make a change to a character, but the character is actually you, making a change may be unusually emotionally difficult).

    However, exporting traits from you (or from other people you know) into your characters is not a problem.

  31. BMon 13 Jan 2014 at 10:10 am

    Alternately, if you’d like to write a book about yourself, why not actually write a book about yourself?

  32. NecroBladeon 27 Jan 2014 at 10:05 am

    Hi. I’m new. Just wanted to ask is it ok to base slightly on someone you know or have similarities but not base the entire character. i.e. someone who has a habit of eating loudly like my friend but the similarities stop there.

  33. Wolfgirlon 27 Jan 2014 at 1:01 pm

    Wish I had see this article last year. I had based a character on my at the time boyfriend. When he dumped me, I deleted the character and whole story.

  34. B. McKenzieon 27 Jan 2014 at 7:17 pm

    “Just wanted to ask is it ok to base slightly on someone you know or have similarities but not base the entire character…” You’re definitely clear here. Taking particular traits from people would probably be okay. If the characters are so similar that people who know the people involved might guess who the inspiration was, that could be problematic. If the character is so similar that you’re making decisions based on what you think the real person would do in that particular situation, that probably is problematic.

  35. Glamtronon 31 Jan 2014 at 2:23 am

    i’m working on one of my stories. (not done with the 1st draft and it sucks already! Well i’m using this story to practice. Doesn’t mean i don’t plan to have it published).. My MC is just 16, and his sidekicks being his girlfriend and his best friend(i hate using the word “sidekick” more like team..whatever).. Now he’s not based on me but kind of he’s got some of my.. What would be the word here. He’s somewhat shy and unco-ordinated, he’s got some rather serious aspect of me. And he’s friend’s got the crazy side of me.but they’re both kiddy (mind you i do avoid having them make decisions that i would in certain situations) i really want to avoid making him boring and for someone shy, somewhat serious, and lazy in some areas, i’m looking for bright character traits that’ll make him more interesting. Help pleeeeezzzzz!-_^

  36. B. McKenzieon 31 Jan 2014 at 9:59 pm

    “(not done with the 1st draft and it sucks already!)” Please see the article “It’s Okay If Your First Draft Sucks” — EVERY first draft sucks, and I definitely wouldn’t recommend comparing a first draft to published works that have been through years of rewriting and editing by authors that have usually had decades of experience.



    “I’m looking for bright character traits that’ll make him more interesting.” Hmm… it may help to reevaluate what the character has going on in terms of heroic traits. Right now, it sounds like he doesn’t have heroic traits besides superpowers. (Is there anything notable he can do besides using superpowers?) I fear that making him shy/lazy/uncoordinated rules out pretty much everything that could make him impressive (besides genius or stylish eccentricity). Are you finding that you have to drag this character kicking and screaming to do interesting things? Personally, I feel a character that was better equipped to be a (competent and motivated) superhero would probably be more promising.

    Some ideas:

    1) Making the character less shy would probably make it easier to write interesting conversations. Otherwise, the main character will probably put a lot of pressure on the characters around him to sustain dialogue. That’s not necessarily a problem if he’s one superhero on a team, but given that he works alone with some friends on the side, there will probably be a ton of scenes where his friends won’t be available to bail out his dialogue. (It may help SOMEWHAT if his friends can speak to him via communicator or whatever so that they can help out somewhat even when they’re not there, but if his friends are that much more interesting than him, why not make THEM the superheroes?)

    2) You’ve mentioned that he’s shy and somewhat lazy and uncoordinated. What motivates him to become a superhero? He’s not exactly the first guy I’d expect to get into a combat position that requires meeting strangers and usually battling them. The first time he gets a limb broken by someone who’s been trained much harder by a harder life, what’s going to keep him at this?

    3) What makes this character likable?

  37. Glamtronon 01 Feb 2014 at 3:29 am

    thanks B.mac and sorry for the undetailed info in my previous post. He doesn’t have superpowers, he once stole a hand game from his uncle, unknown to him at first that it wasn’t just an advanced handgame but a high tech weapon. Not until he mistakenly pressed a button that turned him into one of the game characters. He found out he could turn into the unlocked characters in it. Thay said, and uhh..(some additions and details i didnt give earlier. He’s lazy in academics(in terms of reading and stuffs) but still intelligent. Plus, he’s the type that would be easily beaten in a fight(without his gameboy) but pretty brave and determined. He makes decisions without considerin the risks and dangers associated.(there’s a part along the story where he’s gonna be stuck in a situation where he’ll have to survive without the aid of his friends and the device). Also, he’s only shy with people he’s not yet familiar with. He only fears he’ll be helpless without the device, but an incident will change that. I dunno if its much better now. Thanks.

  38. DarkPaladinon 19 May 2014 at 8:04 am

    I’m not transplanting them wholesale, but I am taking inspiration for two of my characters from a niece and nephew. The character names will use their first and middle names. And the power sets are based on their interests.

    The character personalities and descriptions will be my own creations.

  39. B. McKenzieon 21 May 2014 at 7:23 am

    “I am taking inspiration for two of my characters from a niece and nephew. The character names will use their first and middle names.” These references will be so recognizable to your family that I’m not sure you’ll actually have creative autonomy to have the characters make disagreeable decisions. I fear this will result in the characters being blandly heroic.

    Also, do the middle names of your niece and nephew actually work as last names? In most cases, a middle name sounds more like a given name than a last name.

  40. Fireflyswordson 17 Mar 2017 at 10:38 am

    I had the reverse of this happen to me once… My friend based a character off me and said character ended up being eaten by a dragon.

  41. B. McKenzieon 05 Apr 2017 at 3:27 pm

    “My friend based a character off me and said character ended up being eaten by a dragon.” You’re in good company. George R.R. Martin based “Ser Patrek,” a character with a thinly veiled Dallas Cowboys star as his sigil, on one of his friends that is a big Cowboys fan. (George R.R. Martin is a fan of the rival New York Giants, and Ser Patrek eventually gets decapitated by a giant).

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