1. Agent Vatani
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    Agent Vatani Active Member

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    Basing a character

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by Agent Vatani, Sep 12, 2012.

    What's wrong with basing a character off of someone you know or even yourself? I just feel like talking about this. A lot of writers I know won't do it or just don't, but there are some I know/knew that do. Pro and cons of it..? (There are pros and cons on everything just throwing that out there.)

    I have based a character off of someone I knew but that was long time and I did the same for myself...when I was younger.
     
  2. Padfoot
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    Padfoot Member

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    One of my characters I'm very attached to I based loosely off a person I know and adore. They're not exactly the same, in fact my character is in no way a good person (and the real person is), but it made it easier to be sure this character was believable. Rowling did it with Lockhart and a few other characters, I think Snape was based off a nasty teacher she had.

    I don't see anything wrong with it. Don't be very obvious about it and I would still make the character it's own "person" of sorts.
     
  3. Danvok
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    Danvok Senior Member

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    Well, it's always *your* interpretation of who that person is, right? Nobody can take that away from you. You are, in a way, creating a new person when you fictionalize them. That's the way I see it anyway.
     
  4. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    There's nothing wrong with it. In fact, it's done all the time. You should, however, change as much as you can about the person -- if you can change gender, that's great. But you can't always do that. So change everything else you can -- hair color, height, favorite hobbies, hometown, hobbies, etc. And of course, as Danvok noted above, it is your interpretation of them. I hear all the time about people who are afraid that the person on whom the character is based will recognize him or herself, and they don't at all.
     
  5. Zombie Writer
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    Zombie Writer New Member

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    Nearly all my characters are a hodge-podge of various people I've met through the years or a combination of favorite characters I've seen in the movies or read in books. By adding this and that element from different people I create (at least I think so) an entirely new character but with recognizable attributes that make themselves known here and there.
    Thankfully with 7 billion people on the planet there's a lot to choose from.
     
  6. captain kate
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    captain kate Active Member

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    My MC, Kate, started as me, but she's grown, morphed, and developed her own path, that you couldn't even call us remotely similar. The pros: you know all the person's quirks. The Cons: you could end up with a Mary Jane character.
     
  7. GillySoose
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    GillySoose Member

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    There's nothing specifically wrong with it, I don't think, it's more like the danger of basing a character on someone you know might cause frictions between you and said person if they happen to read the book and recognize themselves in it. It's pretty easy to disguise characters enough to have plausible deniability, however.

    As for basing them on yourself, I think the only real problem is to make sure the character doesn't become a Mary-Gary Sue-Stu.
     
  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Not really. The courts are full of defamation suits around "disguised characters", and many of those lawsuits are successful. Even those which are not successful can be costly.

    Basing characters on real people is generally NOT worth the risk. Disguises are rarely as clever as you think.
     
  9. Eva-Athena
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    Eva-Athena Member

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    There really isn't anything wrong with it. I mean, sure, if you name your character off of someone else, first, middle, and last, they're really knot going to like that so much, maybe. But I base my characters off of real people.They generally have one trait in common. You just want to make sure the character isn't a copy of someone else and that, all in all, he/she's her/his own person, not just a replica of someone else. But if you base the character off of yourself, well, I guess it's okay, as long as there are some things unique to your character.
     
  10. Pallas
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    Pallas Contributing Member Contributor

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    If it's a revenge or spite characterization in which you loosely veil the source then probably no bueno; however if it is a honest literary effort with protected identities then muy bueno.
     
  11. TheUnseenPoet
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    TheUnseenPoet New Member

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    If at all possible I think the best way to avoid possible litigation is to tell the person who your basing the character on that you are doing so but express the fact that it is a general representation to avoid any hurt feelings incase your characters path turns dark or anything.
     
  12. Still Life
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    Still Life Active Member

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    Every writer is different in their approach to their characters. No answer is going to be absolutely correct. This question has never been a big issue for me though, thank god. I know it sounds a little looney, but I write my characters and visualize them as if they are real, breathing people rather than manifestations or replicas of people I know. They could just be projections of my inner weaknesses and shortcomings, but they're not "me", and they're not really "people I know" either.

    I have to highlight once again what Cogito mentioned about defamation lawsuits. If it can happen to very famous writers who move in social circles we could never dream of touching, then it could happen to us. If you're going to do it, you must know the craft very well --- or at least well enough to disguise them. (And, yes, I do believe there is a craft of writing.)
     
  13. Reinhardt
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    Reinhardt New Member

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    I do this all the time. The main character for my books is based on me, while all of the other characters are people I know. They know I do it and they like it since they get to read what these alter-lives do. As an additional treat when I have writers block I can typically ask one of them how they would handle the situation and use that as inspiration for my stories.
     
  14. randomme1
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    randomme1 Member

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    I think that there is a certain limit to HOW MUCH you can base your character off of someone else, but I do think that a lot of character's now a days have some inspiration taken from other people/characters. I don't really see a big problem with it, as long as you don't go way over the top with it. It just depends on how you use it. Like with me, I wrote a couple short stories that centered around three characters, and those characters were basically me, my brother and my sister put on to paper. I did change the way we looked of course, in fact I changed us into goblins instead of humans. But when my family sat down and read they knew right off the bat from their personalities who the character's were. They laughed for hours too, but that was because I basically wrote the stories to make fun of the stupid things the three of us always did. But they were the only one's who knew what I had done, and the story was overall good, at least that's what other people who read it told me.

    But if you make a character named Larry Clotter and say he has an L shaped scar on his forehead and his nickname is "The Guy Who Didn't Die" people will have a problem with it. :)
     
  15. Ettina
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    Ettina Active Member

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    Pros are that you get a rich, realistic source of inspiration for that character. If you do an accurate portrayal of the person you're imitating, you're guaranteed a believable, realistic character, because they are real.

    Cons are two things. Firstly, it's often hard to take an unbiased enough look at the real person you're basing the character on. If it's you, your self-esteem (low or high) will often color your portrayal of them - you can get a Mary Sue if you're a narcissist, for example, or you could get an unrealistically pathetic person. If it's based off someone you like, you could overly idealize them; or if you base it off of an enemy, you could get a one-dimensional villain. You have to look past your personal feelings and see the real person whether you like them or not.

    Secondly, if it gets out that you based the character off of someone you know, people might see the character and plot as depicting how you feel about them, and feelings could get hurt. (Personally, if I did base a character off of someone I knew, I would never admit to it.)
     
  16. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't even see it as a distant possibility that ANYONE would actually sue a first-published author with 0.5% royalties for loosely basing a character in his novel on a real person! Even if that person is a third-rate tv celebrity from late 1980s!!

    Or is it just in the States? If I base my wizard's sidekick's brother-in-law who appears as a comic-relief in the seventh chapter on my second-grade math teacher, he could ACTUALLY make a legal move and win MONEY for that???? Wtf?
     
  17. DoctorNovel
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    DoctorNovel Member

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    Pro: it could make the story and character a lot more genuine and realistic

    Con: your own personal judgements and feelings for that character may cloud your creativity during the writing process..

    only speaking from experience..

    Good luck!
     
  18. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    I did a quick google and there is quite a bit of discussion of this problem from what appear to be people with a legal background. Having read one such page, I think it gave better advice (as far as I can see) than has been posted on this thread so far. However, this forum doesn't allow posting of links. So all I can say is that I googled 'sued character book "based on"' and found interesting content.

    My summary of what I read is that if the character is recognisable, and the content is potentially defamatory, and is believable, then there is the potential for problems. If someone who knows the person in real life will recognise the character as that person, then the character is recognisable. Including too many characteristics of the real person may cause trouble. Disguising people, or mixing up the characteristics of multiple people, may help. I read. Then, the defamatory content needs to be believable. If the character has supernatural powers and will take over the world by mind control of the world's governments, then that's not believable, and won't be defamatory. But if the recognisable character is an alcoholic and sexually unselective, then that's believable. Disclaimers that the characters are entirely works of fiction are said to help, but I'm not sure how they help as authors can still be sued. You're OK if you depict, but don't disparage. And you're OK if the real life person is dead.

    Googling the cases for the books 'The Help' and 'The Red Hat Club' may be useful and informative. In the former case, a person whom a character was based on sued, but I think the case was dismissed due to being outside the statute of limitations. But from what I read, the character was clearly recognisable as being based upon the real person. In 'The Red Hat Club', a character was said to share 30 characteristics with the real person, and was . . . a sexually unselective alcoholic. I believe that the real person who sued, won. At least that's what is reported, but I may have missed reports of appeals.

    I must point out that this is not legal advice. Even the lawyers say that, as all cases are different. But this is just my non-legal summary of what I've read in a few cases.
     
  19. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    Don't get me wrong, but I think it's all a pile of kuhscheise :) a quick wiki search revealed this definition
    And considering 'The Red Hat Society'
    So, bottom line is, if you base a character on some personal characteristics, like physical look, childhood memories, quirks and traits, the way a person act, or the way you see them act, and you don't just write down someone's life-story word-by-word, in a way that said person may find it offending... then you just go with it! On the other hand, if you plan on publishing a novel about someone's real life, what stops you from actually approaching him with your manuscript, share thoughts about your character, maybe even organize a few interviews to get better insight into his life-story... and of course you are going to ask him for permission to use those details, as a human being, not because you are afraid of a lawsuit.

    And, well, the OP [Agent Vatani] obviously didn't have that kind of character basing in mind... He asked about actual writing reasons why some may avoid it.
     
  20. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    I have read your post. But, the description I read by an actual lawyer seems less optimistic than you. If the character is recognisable, the added character traits or other "information" are believable, and they are defamatory, then it looks to me that there is a non-trivial amount of risk.

    The main article I read was by Lloyd J. Jassin. Information at the top of his webpage and his biography strongly suggest that he knows what he is talking about. To me anyway. I see what you're saying, but don't believe that avoiding "writ[ing] down someone's life-story word-by-word" is enough. He says that if people can recognise who the character is based upon, that is sufficient.

    I wish I was allowed to link to the page itself, but anyone can google it with the information already given in this thread. Lloyd J. Jassin is the author of the book "The Copyright Permission and Libel Handbook".

    Just because he has a lot of background in this area does not in itself prove that he is right and you are wrong. But I think I need to see more argument as to why he's wrong before I change my mind. At present, I still believe what Lloyd J. Jassin says.
     
  21. Burlbird
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    Burlbird Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hey, I'm not saying that he is not right about how things work out in the States... I'm from the Old Continent and we have such things as freedom of speech etc :D
    Just kiddin'... but seriously, about what I said on contacting the model for your character and being a responsible human being, I do think this is the key to such problems.

    Anyways, what is the point of writing, if you can safely stick only to high fantasy? If you can't publish a semi-autobiographical novel without the risk of your mother sueing you because you made her look bad?
     
  22. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm from the UK, but was discussing the US case. If you're in the UK you'll probably be aware of the problems of libel law in this country and the need for libel reform. And that people from other countries will engage in "libel tourism" because our laws in the UK are too pro-litigant (IMHO) here. Allowing libel cases to be won here that couldn't be won in other countries, and IMHO very much against natural justice.

    I had a quick google, and novelist Amanda Craig was sued because of a character in her book "A Vicious Circle". Initially threats of a libel suit caused the book to be dropped by its publisher. Only significant fight by the author led to it being published, after modifications to ensure against liability for libel.

    If you're interested in the UK, you might want to read the article by Amanda Craig in the Telegraph, 27th June 2012.
     
  23. Anthrax
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    I believe this is the key. First, I’m not even sure you can get away from basing characters on the people you know. They are the sum of your experiences so chances are even though you may be unaware of it your characters will have some of their traits. The trick is not to base a character on one specific character as they can create problems. There is a reason why the exclaimer – People in this work are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is accidental – exists.

    For example, say you base a character on your wife/husband. Suddenly, you’re going to start getting the questions: Is that how you see me? It’s going to go badly, especially if you base a villain on them. The same with family, co-workers, neighbors.

    So, while it might be okay to use people you know as a shell you can’t mirror image them or you set yourself up for a host of things including legal action. But, as Captain Kate suggested, what usually happens is you use someone as a base, but eventually they become morphed and develop into their own path and thus become a totally different character.

    There is another reason. Let’s say you base a character on your child. She’s a mirror image of your child in most respects. As the story develops it’s now time for your character to die. Can you kill off a character based on your child, mother, father, brother, wife or husband? Therefore, mirroring a character off someone you know can end up limiting your story.
     
  24. CyanideBreakfast
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    Ok...this is an interesting topic, pretty valuable in terms of an idea I have for a future story that I was loosely basing off my teenage years (very dramatic, something I'd rather not go into too much detail over). I realise, amongst a group of authors, this is could sound a bit daft, but what is a 'Mary Jane/Mary Sue' character that gets mentioned a lot when you say a character is based off a real person. I'm pretty much just curious about termonology.
    Thanks!
     
  25. DefinitelyMaybe
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    DefinitelyMaybe Contributing Member Contributor

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    A "Mary Sue" is an overly idealised character, often inserted into fiction as a author substitute. Wikipedia says that they often function as a wish-fulfillment fantasy for the author and/or reader. One dimensional, no flaws, often becomes romantically or sexually involved with main characters from franchises when used in fanfiction.

    If you search online you may be able to find the original story "A Trekkie's Tale" by Paula Smith, which satirised these types of characters in fanfiction. The MC in that story was called "Mary Sue," and the name is now used to indicate such a character.
     

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