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To what extent is it OK to base characters on real people?

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Wed Dec 28, 2011 12:49 am
Kibble says...

The topic was supposed to be "To what extent is it OK to base character traits/actions on those of real people" but that wouldn't fit.

So yeah, I'm not talking about 100% ripping off a person or even a real event here. I know it's illegal (not to mention immoral and, if you know the person personally, downright awkward) to write something that badmouths a real person. But what if there's something someone does/did that you admire, and you want to write a character who does something similar? Do you need the person's permission?

I'm also not talking about a specific life experience. For example, the guy in "127 Hours" (or however many hours it was) would have been pretty annoyed if one of his friends wrote a book obviously based on his experience. I'm not planning to do anything like that.

I mean something general that a person does, which for all I know plenty of other people might do. For example, let's say that when I was a kid, there was a woman who walked past my house every day wheeling her disabled husband in a wheelchair so he could get fresh air, even though it hurt her back terribly to push him*. Assuming I changed the appearance, location, and other traits of this woman so she wasn't instantly recognisable, and all other parts of this character's life were totally fictional, if I wanted to write a character who did this, would I:

a) not be allowed to write it
b) have to ask their permission
c) have to pay them royalties
d) not have to do anything; they don't own copyright to the concept of being super nice to their husband by taking him for a walk every day?

*This is a fictional example and any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental.

Anyway, this is the general gist of what I'm asking. I want to write a story based on a similar theme, but some of the characters will contain aspects of real people.
"You are altogether a human being, Jane? You are certain of that?"
"I conscientiously believe so, Mr Rochester."
~ Jane Eyre

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Fri Dec 30, 2011 7:43 pm
JabberHut says...

I choose D!

Basing characters on real people is okay. In fact, and correct me if I'm wrong, it's encouraged. Most of what we write is influenced by what we see and do in the real world. Even those new things we see like old ladies pushing their handicapped husbands around the neighborhood are considered excellent resources for character-building.

There are qualities that are unique to individuals we know, and that's okay. As you've said, there are plenty of other people in this world -- there's bound to be someone with a similar condition. That part shouldn't worry you, and there are still plenty of aspects to your character that you can change so that it doesn't entirely line-up with a person in real life. Characters tend to develop themselves moreso than we define them. As we write our stories, the characters gain their own minds and make their own decisions, and real life people would most likely acknowledge the fact that those characters are their own characters with whom those real people share similar qualities.

So basically, I definitely think it's an excellent exercise to utilize when building characters. Basing them off real people make them real people, and realism is key in our stories. They have to be relateable. Now, if you were to write a story around one particular real person, you may want their permission. But stealing a perosnal quality from real people for your fictional characters is completely legit. You're good to go!
I make my own policies.

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Sun Jan 08, 2012 8:23 am
AubrielRose says...

Sometimes the whole reason why I write is because I need to understand a person. People from my own life show up in my work usually if I want them to or not.
Try telling the event in a different way as to not fully give the "real" identity of the character away. Instead of describing Uncle Max stacking the dishes in sets of threes, describe the fictional character putting his tools back in the drawer three at a time. It'll gve the reader the idea of the character you want with out the risk of offending your real friend or family memeber.

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Sat Feb 11, 2012 3:13 am
hudz96 says...

I get what your saying. I choose D, i don't think you would have to ask permission at all. Many people have bits and pieces of reality in their stories, Its never purely made up (unless its a bizarre fantasy novel). Take Lord of the Flies, its based on the background of what was happening at the time it was written (WW2). You obviously shouldn't do a note to note/every single little detail, book about a persons personality. But as to the example... there are millions of people who could be doing the same thing, who is to say you got it from a certain someone.

When you finish writing this please tell me, i really want to read it.

Hope i helped.
Don’t let your victories go to your head, or your failures go to your heart.

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Sun Feb 19, 2012 4:59 am
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Tenyo says...

I think there is a difference between adopting someone's quirk or habit, and basing something on them, or a particularly personal experience of theirs.

So where would I draw the line?

~ Don't adopt or borrow personal experiences from others. For example, if a friend tells you some personal information, and you put it into the novel without it identifying in them to any way, it'll still tick them off. Memories belong to ourselves and we share them in good faith, so it hurts just to know that someone does that.

~ Don't adopt or borrow stuff from other writers. Chances are if you think this is great, they've already got dibs on the idea since it's their creation in the first place. Our art belongs to and comes from within ourselves, so when you use something that comes from another writer you're taking something that will probably also be characteristic to their work.

~ Third point I would say remember to appreciate them. In the situation above, maybe say hi to that person walking along the street, or ask how they're doing. For me it's more of a moral obligation, but you should mention that you've noticed how strong she is, or something like that. It will make them feel good about themselves, and from that you can either ease your moral worries or gauge how offended they would be if they found out. Maybe they wouldn't mind someone being inspired by their strength.
We were born to be amazing.

The last of the human freedoms is to choose one's attitudes.
— Viktor Frankl