You Got Real People in my Characters!

The Jolly Boat (the respectable middle- or upp...

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One of my biggest struggles with my NaNoWriMo novel has been keeping people I know in real life out of my work. It’s easy to begin borrowing characteristics of people you know or have known, yet in this age of sue-happy people, it is even more imperative to not fictionalize family, friends and acquaintances. But how far is too far to take it?

For example, my NaNoWriMo novel is populated with intelligent, upper-middle class African-American people who graduated from an exclusive private school. I went to an exclusive private school with affluent people. Some of them have names that would be perfect for my book. They were born around the same time as my characters, when those names were popular. I’m not basing the characters off of these people. In fact, they bear no resemblance to anyone I actually went to school with. Should I use the first names or not?

I haven’t used any of them, but I’m unhappy with some of the substitutes. Some may not have even been popular back then. Some of the characters just feel like a name they don’t have. Names are so personal, and do have a bit of an impact on the person. Names can be indicative of family lineage, and sometimes socioeconomic status, particularly in the Black community.

The other problem is my main male character, Nathan. He is beginning to sound a bit too much like my own boyfriend. He has some of the same views he does about marriage, for example. He is not my boyfriend. However, both the Nathan character and my boyfriend are grounded and logical, whereas their women are a bit more free-spirited and whimsical–one of few things I share with my protagonist.

How do you deal with characterization? Do you ever use names or characteristics of people you know? How do you avoid being sued? Am I overthinking it?

Note: I’m not entirely happy with the image, but it’ll work for now.


4 thoughts on “You Got Real People in my Characters!

  1. Borrowing certain characteristics from real people is one of my favorite parts of character development. What I often find happening is that some of the characters end up with a consolidation of traits taken from several real people. So no one single character is identifiable as a real person. Hope the NaNoWriMo process is going well for you–and Happy Thanksgiving! –Cheri

    • It’s one of my favorite things as well! I’m enjoying taking people and putting them in a blender, so to speak. I try to keep a few thi ngs completely made up or characteristics of strangers I see as well, to keep it fresh.

      NaNoWriMo is going well…my word count should be higher, but I’m enjoying the experience and learning a lot.

      Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, Cheri! 😀

  2. I think the only way you could get sued for a character in your book would be if you either blatantly stole a character from another author. I don’t know if you can get sued for having a character similar to a real person, unless that real person is famous and you cast said person is an undeniably negative light. In which case, your novel would have to be published and make it big enough for it to matter.

    In the case of using names, it depends on how well you knew (or know) the person in real life. Changing the name can change a character, as well, especially if you are close with someone who has the same name.

    I knew someone in high school who has the same name as my current MC. Since I hardly knew the person, my MC does not share any traits with the Oliver I knew in reality. However, if I were to give a character the same name as my brother, I would have a few problems.

    Hope that helps. Good luck with NaNoWriMo and have a fantastic holiday!

    • I don’t know if you can actually be sued, but there has to be a reason they have the long quote in the front pages about how this is a work of fiction and any similarity to real persons living or dead is purely incidental. Don’t mind me; I exaggerate a bit when it suits me. 😀

      I didn’t know a lot of the people’s whose name I would use well enough to give my characters any important or identifying characteristics of them, really. I transferred right before I started 11th grade, so I was only there half the time. I did live in the dorms with some of them, though.

      I agree with you about not using people you know well. The name could influence how you develop your fictional character.

      Thanks so much for your comment! It was definitely helpful and gave me some things to think about. Have a great holiday! 😀

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