June 16 – 22: “What are the pitfalls of using real people as characters?”

This week ITW Members discuss the pitfalls of using real people as characters. Join Joseph Amiel, Eugénie D. West, Karen Harper and Francine Mathews. You won’t want to miss this!


Joseph Amiel is an internationally best-selling author, whose novels include STAR TIME, BIRTHRIGHT, DEEDS, HAWKS and A QUESTION OF PROOF. He has also won awards for screenwriting and for his comedy-mystery web series Ain’t That Life. A graduate of Amherst College and Yale Law School, he is married and lives in New York City.

Eugénie D. West lives in a rural area of the Northeast and holds an MA from Boston College. She is fluent in several languages, travels widely, enjoys gardening, and is an inventive and intuitive chef. West has reported on ‘hard’ news for her local newspaper for more than 15 years. She has also written entertainment news for regional and national publications, and worked in a branch of law enforcement for over four years.

New York Times bestselling author Karen Harper writes contemporary suspense for Mira Books–not with real people. But she also writes historical novels, most recently MISTRESS OF MOURNING, a Tudor-era murder mystery, for Penguin USA and Random House UK. Each of her historicals centers on a real woman from English history. Harper won the Mary Higgins Clark Award in 2006. A former university and high school English teacher, she has been published since 1982 with over 50 novels, many of which have been translated into foreign editions.

Francine Mathews is the author of 22 novels of mystery and suspense. A graduate of Princeton and Stanford, she spent four years as an intelligence analyst at the CIA, where she briefly worked on the Counterterrorism Center’s investigation into the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. Publishers Weekly named her previous book, THE ALIBI CLUB, one of the 15 best novels of 2006. As Stephanie Barron, Francine also writes the critically acclaimed Jane Austen Mystery Series. She lives with her husband and two sons in Denver, Colorado.

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  1. Anne Woodward’s suicide was said to have been precipitated by her reading an excerpt in Esquire from Truman Capote’s yet-to-be-published book Answered Prayers. The excerpt was a thinly veiled roman a clef detailing how the fictional Anne, “a gold-digger and harlot”, as it’s put in Wikipedia, killed her husband after he discovered she was a bigamist. The real-life Anne, who had been cleared of the killing by a grand jury, presumably confided the true account to Capote in what she thought was total confidentiality. His self-serving comment about whether he bore any guilt for her death was that she should have known he would betray her because he was a writer, as if morality was irrelevant for writers.

    Anne Woodward’s suicide is obviously the drastically sharpened end of the basing-on-real-people stick. But many people suffered lesser fates after enduring what they nonetheless claimed were humiliating portrayals at the pen hands of writers they considered friends. Some have sued the writers, employing causes of action that go something like, “Everyone in Springfield knows ‘Jim Jonas’ is really me, John Jones, and the false portrayal has caused me grievous damage.” The question of liability can turn on the question of whether the person allegedly portrayed, whether with real name or not, is a public figure. Many writers have lifted public figures out of the real world and plunked them down into novels, presuming they have the right because The New York Times v. Sullivan stated the principal that those claiming they were defamed or libeled must prove the statement was made with actual malice, that is the speaker or writer knew the statement was false or acted in reckless disregard of the truth. A high bar to mount! So, we writers happily go on putting presidents and movie stars into our novels with little concern for retribution, unless of course we’re maliciously out to do them in.

    I’ve always steered clear of writing those “thinly veiled” accounts of friends’ and relatives’ misfortunes or misbehaviors. I truly believe they are betrayals and immoral. But I have put many friends into my books using their real names and with their permission (and signed releases). I do it for the fun they would have reading about themselves in a totally different life than their own, and I never cast them in an unfavorable light. In my soon-to-be-launched legal thriller A QUESTION OF PROOF (July 25th pub. date), my dear friends John and Marti Rosenthal of Portland, Oregon, make a cameo appearance as husband and wife timber barons who have come to pay their respects at the wealthy murder victim’s funeral. I know John and Marti get a good deal of pleasure when their stunned friends tell them of discovering their presence in my books (John, my good luck charm, has appeared in all of them).

    But driving an acquaintance to suicide is homicide and that stays inside the covers of my books.

  2. Over the years I’ve written quite a few historical novels with “real” main characters. Of course it takes more research than a totally fictional cast. But my question is, how true do you have to be to what you can find as “facts?” (Tudor research sometimes has differing facts, so at time I take my pick.)

    For example, can we in good conscience write a novell where George Washington can tell a lie and Benedict Arnold is, if not a great guy, at least totally sympathetic? This is a continual debate among “true character” mystery and thriller writers, hitorical romance writers, etc.

    What do you think? What have you read or written and how close does it stay to research?

  3. ITW Roundtable
    July 16-21
    The Pitfalls of Using Real People in your Books

    Eugenie D. West

    Real living people are an extremely rich source of physical attributes and personality traits, and any author who says s/he completely invents her/his characters is not being completely honest. Some of our descriptions must come from real people because they are our constant reference point. However, the way authors change, or intermingle or switch aspects of different people is what makes our characters our own, and unique.
    The draw, for me, in using real people is twofold. First, there is the fun of including friends in my work. People generally are flattered when I say ‘you’re in my book,’ and some have even asked–with a mix of trepidation and longing I think– ‘am I in your book?’
    Second, if there are people whom I do not like or respect, or who have behaved in a despicable way, at least in my opinion, sometimes I imbue a villainous character with their qualities. I won’t deny that investing a ‘bad guy’ with characteristics I know belong to a real person I find loathsome, and then writing about that bad guy’s demise, is a catharsis for me: a way to level the playing field, if you will.
    But all these characters are just that: characters in my fictional works. They are not actual, real people although parts of their makeup may be drawn from real people.
    If I portray real people by name in a book of mine, their character is nearly always a ‘walk on’ part, or not a very fleshed out one. Obviously, if a real living person is mentioned and identified by name, the author must be sure her/his description is accurate and account verifiable, else s/he risks libel charges.
    So: the pitfalls of using real people in books?
    1. You must portray the person accurately, with no room for an author’s creative impulse to embroider or tweak.
    2. You must be prepared for the real people to object or criticize your portrayal of them to some degree.
    In the first case, this can sometimes make for a bad fit between the real character and the story line.
    In the second case, it can create an imbalanced perspective of the work as a whole, since the real person is focused on their portrayal in your book, and not on the entire book. And, since people tend to not see themselves as others see them, it could create stress between the author and the real person, particularly if that person is a friend.
    If an author is writing historical fiction, I think this rule is more flexible, in that we only can know what’s been written about the historical person. There is no living person to say, ‘I didn’t (or wouldn’t) say that.,’ or ‘I am not like that–am I?’ The caveat here is once again to do one’s research, so that the portrait of the historical person is accurate. But because the person is dead, and the characterization drawn from written material, it is open to interpretation by the author to some degree.

  4. Hi, Karen,
    As you I’m sure, when writing historical fiction, I try to find the gray areas in which to insert fiction. And as we have all learned, there are 50 shades of them

  5. Over the past two decades I’ve written books based on the lives of actual people, as both Francine Mathews and Stephanie Barron. Jane Austen strides through eleven of them; Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West dominate another; Allen Dulles and Queen Victoria and Madame Curie’s son-in-law pop up in the rest. For the past two years I’ve been writing about Jack Kennedy at age 22. I’m clearly in the camp that believes historical fiction can and ought to be written about historical figures—whether that be the Other Boleyn Girl, Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell, or Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

    There are certain gaps in the known record of a famous life that prove irresistible to someone like me—periods when no letters in Jane Austen’s hand exist to document her days, and I can fill the blank space with fiction; or the three weeks between Virginia Woolf’s suicide note and the recovery of her body, when she might possibly have been anywhere. I find “what-if” moments compelling: instants in a historic life when events might have gone differently. To me, there’s nothing more exciting than imagining that alternative past. Jack Kennedy spends six months driving alone through Europe as Hitler mobilizes to invade Poland, researching his senior thesis—but what if he’s also researching something else, for FDR, that might get him killed?

    I’m tempting the gods and readers alike by doing this. If a known character offers an obvious hook—Jack Kennedy’s face on a book’s cover—it also presents a dangerous obstacle. For every reader enchanted by my vision of a young, ill and intellectual Jack, there is another whose personal sense of the man is violated by my fictional one, in ways that an entirely fictional character might not arouse. Appropriating other people’s icons for the purposes of storytelling can provoke strong reactions. That’s one of the pitfalls, and one of the gifts.

    It goes without saying (but I will say it anyway) that research is the critical backstop to any fictional journey. I would never have created my version of Jack without reading his school records from Choate and Harvard in the Kennedy Library; tracing his itinerary during those six months in Europe; studying blueprints of the Queen Mary or the location of Platform 61 beneath the Waldorf Astoria; or parsing J. Edgar Hoover’s definition of sedition. Those of us who write from life have a duty to educate ourselves—and make hard decisions about how we alter what is known.

  6. Like Francine, I walk a fine line in using such characters as Elizabeth Tudor, Mary Boleyn, etc. I do not change what I can find, even about where a character is when. The neat thing about Tudor research, as I mention above, is that there are conflicting diaries, records, and that allows a bit of leeway. But for plot and characterization, especially where there are gaps in the record, fiction takes over. (Of course, dialogue and thoughts that fit the real character are fictionalized.)

    When I wrote MISTRESS SHAKESPEARE (which was SHAKESPEARE’S MISTRESS in the UK) I was thrilled to find gaps in Will Shakespeare’s bio. Also, it has been long argued whether he could have had a “London wife” as well as a Stratford wife. He is recorded in the same parish record book as having been betrothed to two different Annes from two different villages. A slip of the pen–I think not. Based on what I could find, I filled in the blanks, but not, I hope, straying from the basic character and genius of the man.

  7. I have been giving some thought not only to the topic but to where the discussion appears to be taking the topic. It’s interesting. Two things have popped out at me.
    First, is what another person chooses to do based upon what has been written about them the writer’s responsibility? Surely we are only responsible for ourselves; while someone may say, as in Mr. Amiel’s comment, that s/he killed her/himself because of what was written–and while their reaction to that may have been a contributing factor–aren’t our actions, well, ours? We decide. We choose. I would like to suggest that possibly that person who allegedly killed herself because of the way she had been portrayed was using the portrayal as a catalyst, maybe, for something she’d wanted to do anyway. A hook, if you will, to hang her hat of suicide. Just a suggestion. But I firmly believe in taking responsibility for yourself, and not for others unless they are in your care (child, houseguest, passengers in vehicle, inmates in custody, etc.). I do not believe that readers are ipso facto in the care of the authors whose books they read.
    Having said that, I do feel it is an author’s responsibility (as I noted above) to portray actual people, whether living or dead, as accurately as possible. If, again in Mr. Amiel’s example, the author had proof of the character’s behavior and chose to write about it, well…the author wasn’t (in this scenario) presenting anything contrary to fact. If, however, any author chooses to vilify a living or dead person without proof, that is just mean spirited and wrong, in my opinion.
    This is why, in my books, if I choose to imbue a character with traits or behaviors or even actions I have observed in real life, I make sure the character is an amalgam of several people and that the traits/actions are only a part of the personality of my character. It’s still cathartic to me, but it’s not selectively, intentionally harmful, not obviously targeted at one person.
    Would they, upon reading it, see bits of themselves in the character of whom they are a part? Maybe. Is it my job to ‘teach’ them by holding their flaws up to them. Nope.
    The second thing that’s come to mind is a lot less serious in some ways and more fun. And that is the whole time travel/changing history aspect of historical fiction. Embroidering the grey areas of an historical figure’s life, and possibly even suggesting quite different motives or situations for what we know is the factual, recorded outcome, is fascinating. Because we are writing, we are not changing history in our timeline, although in the fictional timeline we may be to some extent.
    Anyone who has ever dabbled or thought of dabbling in time travel historical writing can also understand that while plopping a 21st century person down in, oh, say, the 11th century or even the 18th or 19th century (a la ‘Lost in Austen–what a brilliant concept!) is an intriguing precept, it is rife with possibilities that would mean an actual change in history going forward. Although some readers may not care (maybe those who accept the multiverse theory?) most who are drawn to this type of fiction are at least glancingly acquainted with the first rule of time travel: don’t change anything.
    Maybe it’s the author’s ability, or even the author’s purpose, in writing time travel fiction to do this very thing without actually changing history that makes the genre appealing. And to some degree, the historical fiction writer does the same thing: filling in the grey areas, the blanks, the holes that make both writer and reader wonder, ‘what if…’???

  8. “What if?” Exactly. I think Karen’s book about two possible wives for William Shakespeare is an enthralling idea (I’m going to go read it), and the very sort of imaginative recasting of history that a good novelist should be encouraged to pursue. Perhaps I was unduly influenced by Robert Harris’s FATHERLAND as a younger reader. I recall plunging into his alternative Reich, twenty years after the Nazis are victorious in his version of WWII, and feeling a sense of revelation–that such an imaginative journey was possible. But I think it’s possible that the further we move in time from a subject, the more acceptable a writer’s treatment may be. For instance: No one from Shakespeare’s family exists to be outraged at the suggestion he might have been a bigamist. That has to be a relief. It makes the fiction both more tenable and more credible.

  9. One of my editors suggested that I bend history a bit to make something more exciting, but that made me nervous and I didn’t do it. Sometimes I wonder if I should have, but that’s just not me.

    I certainly agree that our characters, (even well-researched, historical ones) can be an amalgamation of actual people we have known. Unless it’s a roman a clef, writers seldom totally copy a person, but elements of others and ourselves are sure to show up.

  10. Hi all,
    I hope that readers are perusing our comments because for us writers, it’s been absorbing.
    I, too, want to read about Shakespeare’s bigamy (hey, in a sequel it could be trigamy–this could be a very long series). Having thought for decades that his dalliances in London were with men, the thought that they might have been with a woman is an intriguing thought (“Shakespeare in Love” portrayed him a heterosexual as well).
    As for the question of whether Anne Woodward’s death was her own responsibility and not Capote’s, of course she made that decision on her own and he was not responsible for her act of suicide. My belief is that he had breached a moral wall as a human being by betraying a friend’s confidence. He seems to have thought of himself as a spy in Upper Class land: His only loyalty was to his own self-interest; lying when expressing or implying a false oath of confidentiality was acceptable if it benefitted him. In other words selfishness excuses heinous betrayals. How sad that she didn’t take him out first! Sometimes morality needs a little payback.
    I hadn’t intended to plug my book A QUESTION OF PROOF, which is coming out in a week, but coincidentally it deals with a wife who is charged with murdering her wealthy husband. My character takes the opposite tack from Anne, admitting nothing, but insisting to her lawyer/lover that if he truly loved her, he would believe in her innocence; he would fight for her. I had actors speak that dialogue in the Book Trailer. If you’re interested it’s at http://youtu.be/rbjYlTgk1Ps .

  11. Maybe we should also discuss the non-pitfalls of using real people as characters–that is, what are the benefits. I write in a rather crowded field of historical novels, mostly Tudor era lately. I think readers are especially attracted to books which bridge history and fiction and biography–often with an almost “historical rock star character” as protagonist or a main character. The Borgias seem to be popular right now, perhaps because of the cable TV series with Jeremy Irons. Someone like Henry VIII, with his ‘bad’ reputation, often intrigues readers

    I have personally been drawn to novels greatly populated by “real” people, ones I may have read about elsewhere or briefly studied in school. Power corrupts absolutely is a theme of many of these novels. One of my greatest compliments has been when someone says, “I used to hate history, because it was just a bunch of dates and dry stuff. But your books make (fill in the blank) really come alive.”

    So how about the other side of this coin–pitfalls, yes, but magnetism for that sub-genre too? And I’ve found when the historical can be combined with suspense/mystery, it kicks the attraction of the book to a higher level.

  12. I agree, Karen, that historical/biographical/fictional works are extremely attractive and I enjoy them too! Even though I know some of what I’m reading about has been fabricated or at least embroidered upon by the author, I still get that delicious sense of discovering some hidden information or ‘real’ motivation for the character, and that, I believe, intrigues anyone.
    Even non historical ‘rock star’ fiction can employ this.
    In my first published book, Justice Served, I use, as I mentioned in my first post, a number of ‘real’ people as inspirations for my characters. Although my characters are amalgams of several people, the roles they play, i.e. District Attorney, female journalist, County Detective, etc. are not. They are definable. I have heard several of my readers say they enjoyed trying to figure out what parts of my characterizations of these people were real and which were made up. (These comments are from people who live near me and try to relate my characters to local people).
    Again, it’s the lure of discovery, the ‘thrill of the chase’ that has hooked these people’s interest.
    And I think it’s the same with Karen’s example of historical fiction, where we want to learn more about ‘the other’ Boleyn sister, or about Henry Tudor, or about–well, anyone.

  13. I don’t know if any of you get or keep Publishers Weekly, but the March 19, 2012 issue had an excellent Soapbox essay by Varley O’Connor, author and creative writing teacher called “Finding the Truth in Fiction.” She defends delving into the psyches of famous women. “Fiction brings out the innermost, invisible springs of life that cannon be revealed in factual narratives.” Good article. Bravo, Varley!

  14. I think it’s intereting that we authors have had a great discussion here, but the topic has not attracted others. Perhaps the rigors of research keep authors from trying this. Maybe the fact that this kind of thriller/mystery writing falls between the cracks of non-fiction (biography/history) and fiction scares people away.

    I’ll be attending the Historical Novel Society convention in the UK in Sept. and that will be full of authors using ‘real characters.’ Maybe I’ll also pick up some insight there into the allure (and fear) of using actual characters in novels.

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