Sunday, May 20, 2012

20. Basing fictional characters on real-life people

Roman a clef,” which means “novel with a key,” is the term for novels and movies  in which actual persons and events are disguised as fictional.

The most famous movie roman a clef is Citizen Kane, whose protagonist was based on the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. A more recent roman a clef is the novel and movie The Devil Wears Prada, in which  Anna Wintour, the editor of Vogue Magazine, is thinly disguised as the character Andrea Sachs.

                                 Anna Wintour         wintour

Now I happen to believe that all fictional characters are based in some way on real life people even if the author isn’t consciously aware of doing so. After all, we all learn human actions and motivations from the people we know, starting with our family members.

Peej, the protagonist of my YA novel, Going to See Grassy Ella, is based on my real-life sister Margaret Jane. In the novel, Peej survives her cancer, unlike my sister. For me, creating Peej was a way of allowing my sister to live again.

MJ Lolita Margaret Jane Lance

As a rule, it’s not a great idea to create characters that are too close to someone in real life. This is so for a few reasons. First, most obviously, if your novel is successful, you might get sued.

But second, basing a character too closely on someone real can limit you. The whole point of fiction is to create scenes and situations. If you base your character on Uncle Fred, you may second-guess yourself. “I really want Adam Stark to commit murder during a sky-dive, but I know that Uncle Fred would never do that!”

It is always tempting to use your fiction to settle scores, and I imagine that a large number of fictional characters were written for just that reason, even though we readers are never let in on the secret. I have done that myself on more than one occasion, especially in the young adult series novels I wrote as Lynn Beach. For example, a certain girl who bullied me in junior high school was strangled by a ghost in one of these stories. Just saying.

The bottom line is to so thoroughly disguise any real person you use for a fictional character that he or she will never make the connection. Or at least won’t be able to prove it.

When I was first working on Pandora’s Children, a casual friend  who liked Pandora’s Genes asked me to name a character in the sequel after him. By the time he asked, all the important new characters but one had already been named. The remaining character was a villainous serving boy, and I did name him after my friend. When my friend read the book, he was furious. It turned out he wanted only a heroic character to bear his name

Tomorrow, a special guest post by Kate Fowler Kelley, on how to live with a novelist.


  1. Personally, I liked having a book dedicated to me--unknown to me before reading the book. That was awesome!! My friend Julie dedicated her performance in the play she is currently in to my deceased mother. That, too, was a surprise, but it felt wonderful to read. And Mom had seen her previous performances. Just sayin'. Dedication is good. And your dedication to writing is good.

  2. Thanks. Unfortunately, the guy who did my Kindle conversions left the dedications out. Someday soon I plan to fix that and two or three other mistakes in the e-versions of my books. I saw on FB about the dedication of Julie's play to Madge. I find that very touching.

  3. If you have time, would you please address a related topic about the relationship between "real" persons and characters in text? Suppose someone is writing a memoir, convering a number of years in the lives of several persons, and wants to include dialog in the text. Obviously, the writer was not taping or transcribing all conversations during all those years, so that much of the dialog in the text will have to be re-constructed from memory fragments, and as we all know, memory is selective and creative. Even persons whom the writer encountered along the way will have to be re-constructed, and literally, re-characterized, meaning that the persons in the text are inevitably going to differ somewhat from "reality." How does the writer handle this? It seems to me a disclaimer of some kind at the beginning of the book, explaining that the story being told is not intended to be (and cannot be) strictly factual journalism, or something like that, should be sufficient, so that the reader is not misled by the contents. What are your thoughts, if any? Have you ever written a memoir, by the way? Thanks again for all of the helpful articles.

    1. Great question, Dr. Dave. This is actually a hot topic in journalistic circles these days, as it seems the line between fiction and memoir has blurred. In my many years of researching and writing I have learned that there is no such thing as objective truth on the page. In a dusty back room at the NY Public Library I once found some old diaries while researching a story (for Scholastic) on the Alamo. It turned out there were many more points of view than those presented by our standard textbooks and heroic movies. I think writing a disclaimer explaining that some dialogue is reconstructed is fine. Most readers don't expect every word of a memoir to be literal truth. Even our president, in his widely-acclaimed memoir, conflated two ex-girlfriends to make the thing easier to read. Thanks for reading my posts!