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.

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