“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.
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.
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.