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Have You Ever Based A Character On A Real Person?

Hello, lovely writers! It’s Monday, which means it’s time for another post about the weird, wonderful world of writing. Lately, as I revise this beast of a novel, I’ve been thinking about where my characters initially came from — and how far they’ve traveled since those original conceptions.

From first draft to tenth (or twentieth, who’s counting), some of my characters have changed gender, changed skintone, changed personality or physicality; some look exactly like my original idea but act nothing like them; and some are exactly the same as they were that first day I put pen to page and gave them life. Interestingly, some that have changed the most from my original mental image were characters that I had initially modeled after a random actor — either because the character itself naturally evolved, or because my interest in that actor, for whatever reason, flatlined, and the character morphed accordingly.

I’m wondering, have you ever based a character on a real person? An actor, maybe, or someone from your real life? Do you find that method more helpful, or more constrictive than creating them from scratch? I’m going to go through those three options below, and unpack my feelings about each a little more.

(Coupled with some peeks of my character aesthetics boards on Pinterest, because I can’t get enough of them, okay?)

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Modeling A Character After An Actor

Physically, I’ve definitely modeled characters after actors and actresses. It makes it much easier, especially when you’re first shaping a character, to have that reference for descriptions and deciding physical details. (And sometimes you’re just obsessed with a given actor or actress and feel a great and insatiable need to cast them in your project.) I’ve found, though, the more time I spend with a character, the less they “look” like that original model in my head.

Pros of modeling a character after an actor: You have a great visual reference for writing character descriptions. You can use the actor as a launching pad for deciding your character’s voice, mannerisms, eye color, and body type. And, if you have a hard time picturing people from scratch, using an actor that you’re familiar with can help you visualize scenes.

Cons of modeling a character after an actor: Maybe it’s just me, but modeling a fictional character after a real person has led to me being unnecessarily hyper-critical of that person in real life; and if that person disappoints me (says something ignorant, commits a crime, or simply reveals themselves to be a terrible actor), it — very stupidly and unfairly, I realize — derails my enjoyment of the character. Besides, after a certain point, your characters need to be your own, not a carbon copy of an existing person.

Happy Medium: Using an actor as a base for a character can, again, be incredibly helpful for deciding the basics of their looks and maybe even personality. But once you have that foundation, build something more up from it. Make sure the mannerisms, personality, and even elements of physicality that you choose for your character make sense for your story, and aren’t just there because you’re playing dress up with an existing actor.

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Modeling a Character After A Real Person In Your Life

I’ve done this once, kind of. Unintentionally. For the most part.

I needed to write out a description for a very unpleasant character, and I found it very easy to … uh … borrow characteristics from an unpleasant person in my actual life. Now, I’m sure most writers who model characters after real people in their lives find the experience cathartic, or that it helps the imaginative process to have that actual person to mine for details and quirks and complexities. Maybe most writers model characters after real life people in a positive light. But, I have to admit, I feel kind of guilty every time I read the scenes with my modeled character, because I know I sort of did it maliciously and as a petty act of revenge.

(I mean, I’m not going to change the character now, but I’m also not going out of my way to let the real life person know they’re featured in my novel…)

Pros to modeling a character after a person in your real life: You have ample material right at your fingertips! Since you know this person, you can more in depthly describe this character’s looks, their mannerisms, their tone of voice. And the experience of writing a doppleganger of someone in your real life can be cathartic; and it can be a great compliment to immortalize someone you care about in fiction. If done in a positive light, the person will get a kick out of seeing a fictionalized version of themselves in print.

Cons to modeling a character after a person in your real life: Well. If you’re not writing them in a particularly positive light, you could definitely risk offending them. You also want to make sure that your characters are authentic and have earned their place in the story, and aren’t just inserted into the story so that you can get petty revenge on someone in your real life or give a cheeky nod to one of your friends.

Happy Medium: Borrow traits from real people and fold them into otherwise fictionalized characters. Maybe your aunt is incredibly nosy and intrusive and always tsks as she watches you do something she doesn’t approve of — if you give those mannerisms to an elderly male character, your aunt (who probably doesn’t have the self-awareness to even realize she’s nosy and intrusive) might never recognize the character was technically created in her image. All joking aside, incorporating real life characteristics into characters that are otherwise unique can add nuance and depth, without making your friends and family feel like their every mannerism and mood is open to your poetic interpretation.

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Inventing A Character Entirely From Scratch

If I had to make a tally of my characters, I would say most sprout up in my head entirely independent of visual inspiration. In fact, I’m more likely to assign an actor to mentally play a character after I’ve written the character into my story (usually solely for the purpose of creating mood boards and character aesthetics, because I’m that kind of a productively procrastinating person.) By this method, of creating a character entirely from scratch, you don’t have an actual model to mine for character traits or physical descriptions — you have nothing more or less than your own wild imagination.

Pros of inventing a character entirely from scratch: No awkward moments when real life people realize your character is a little too familiar! And no chance of disappointment if you get too attached to an actor who will mostly likely never even know your character exists! You have free range to invent your character from the ground up. It’s your sandbox, you’ve got the shovel, the pale, and all the sticks and acorns and seashells you want to decorate with. You don’t have to apologize to anyone for how unflattering a characterization might be, and you don’t have to feel like you’re cheating or stealing by copying from an actor, character, or person who already exists.

Cons of inventing a character entirely from scratch: It can be really hard to visualize these characters at first, since you’re working entirely from a blank canvas. Also, if you’re like me and you’re addicted to creating moodboards on Pinterest, it can be really difficult to find models that quite match your head image. (This is a ridiculous Con, but dang it, it’s a Con nonetheless!!) You might also find these characters are more fluid and ever-changing; they might casually change sex on you, might grow much taller than you anticipated, or switch personalities at a drop of a hat. Since you’re making things up as you go along, you might find yourself changing aspects of your scratch characters constantly — just make sure she doesn’t have blonde hair on page six and brunette on page twenty-nine!

Happy Medium: Keep diligent notes of your characters as you develop them; tracking things that may seem arbitrary, like eye color, hair color, behavioral quirks and the like, will help you later on to make sure your characterization is consistent.

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When you come up with characters, are you more likely to model them after actors, someone in your real life, or create them entirely from scratch? Have you ever had the problem where an actor you’ve modeled a character after ends up being an insufferable person, and now you have to drastically redraw this character in your head?? (Am I the only one living in this personal hell???) Leave a comment below, let’s talk about characters and where they come from! 

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4 Comments

  • Reply christine @ the story salve

    I’d say a majority of my characters are based off people I know/have known in real life. A lot of times, though, I base characters around two different people I know, taking traits where I can and tossing ones that wouldn’t work in the context of the story. I do like to imagine who would play my character in a film, just for the visual reference, but I don’t necessarily base characters off actors (although it’s an interesting idea I might try out).

    June 12, 2017 at 1:53 pm
    • Reply happywriter

      Basing a character on multiple people is a good strategy! Everyone will take credit for complimentary traits and assume all the negative traits came from someone else. 😉

      June 13, 2017 at 9:10 pm
  • Reply Ivyclad Ideas

    You make a board for each character rather than just each story? That’s such a great idea!
    I’ve never modelled a character off a real person (unless you count myself when I was, like, eight and every protagonist had my name), but I did once give someone’s name to the villain. It was meant to be a placeholder. Unfortunately, the name worked, so it stuck.

    June 15, 2017 at 5:56 pm
    • Reply happywriter

      I do! Mostly because I’m Reigning Lord of Procrastination, but also because I like having all the separate aesthetics to look at when I’m getting in the mood to write for different scenes.

      I’ve had so many placeholder names/locations that have ended up staying through to the final draft. Hopefully the real life person takes it in stride that you named your villain after them, LOL!

      July 9, 2017 at 2:39 am

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