April 7 – 13: “What are the dangers of modeling characters after people you know?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week we’re discussing the dangers of modeling characters after people you know. Join ITW Members Brian Poole, Tom Wilde, Richard Mabry, Colin Campbell and Paige Dearth as they discuss when they, as authors, resort to using this device.


Montecito Heights (2)Ex-policeman. Ex-soldier. International tennis player. And full-time crime novelist. Colin Campbell is a retired police officer in West Yorkshire, having tackled crime in one of the UK’s busiest cities for 30 years. He is the author of UK crime novels, Blue Knight White Cross and Northern Ex, and US thrillers Jamaica Plain and Montecito Heights featuring rogue Yorkshire cop Jim Grant. He counts Lee Child and Matt Hilton among his fans.


When Smiles Fade by Paige DearthPaige Dearth was a victim of child rape and spent her early years yearning desperately for a better life. Living through the fear and isolation that marked her youth, she found a way of coping with the trauma of her past and the angst that scarred her present: she developed the ability to dream up stories grounded in reality that would prove cathartic for her and provide her with a creative outlet. Paige’s novels are a fine balance between what lives on in her imagination and the evil that lurks in the real world.

The Blood of Alexander by Tom WildeTom Wilde has worked as a government criminal investigator on cases that range from homicide to child abduction, and in that service traveled across the United States, as well as Germany, Romania and Mexico. Wilde is qualified as an instructor in police firearms and weaponless defense training.



Critical Condition by Richard L. Mabry, M.D.Dr. Richard Mabry is a retired physician and the author of six published novels of medical suspense. His books have been finalists in competitions including the Carol Award and Romantic Times’ Inspirational Book of the Year. His novel, Lethal Remedy, won a 2012 Selah Award. His medical thrillers, have garnered rave reviews from Library Journal and Publisher’s Weekly, as well as thousands of readers.

Grievous Angels_FinalBrian C. Poole is an author, attorney and all-around pop culture junkie. A Boston area native and graduate of Boston College and Suffolk Law School, Brian’s published novels include Grievous Angels and Echoes of a Distant Thunder. You may also have read some prospectuses that Brian wrote, but for your sake, he hopes not.



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  1. It’s not too often my characters are developed from one person that I know. When I do use people from my real life, it’s typically a hybrid of two or more people, to create a robust character. With that being said, I’m able to minimize the danger of people being recognized in my stories.

    For example, if I’m building a mean character, I may use someone who is overly selfish and another person who speaks without using a filter on their pie hole. I’ll offer that my characters rarely take on the physical attributes of someone in my life.

    The funny thing is, when I finish a novel, several people who know me often ask with excitement, “Am I in your book?”

    For the most part, I use people I know to build sub-characters who come into my story and change the path of my protagonist – in other words to shift my plot with a bang!

    As for the hero’s of my stories, I almost always create them from my imagination. This allows me to give them exactly what I’d look for in a good human being.

  2. Many years ago, in my long-since abandoned first attempt to write long-form fiction, I noticed that without quite meaning to, I’d based many of the characters on people I knew. Given the suburban Boston setting of that book, that might have been problematic and was one of many good reasons to abandon that project. It also was a good learning experience for me, in terms of how a writer conceives and fleshes out a character.
    For me, I try not to base any of my characters entirely on people I know. Not just because it lead to people in my life ceasing to talk to me, but it feels in some ways lazy to just slap a clone of an actual person into your story (unless, of course, you are writing a story where you’re actually incorporating a real person into the narrative, which is entirely different).
    Instead, I sometimes find that I might be able to use a particular quality or trait of someone I know or have met as a strand of a character I’m creating. The ultimate fictional person tends to be quite different than the real person who may have contributed to the character’s DNA, but it can be a hook to help me understand my character. Another thing I’ve done is use a dynamic between myself and another person, or between other people I know, as a guide, usually in writing dialogue. I don’t want to use a clone of a friend, but sometimes the way I might banter or geek out or something like that with a particular friend might help me make dialogue sound more natural (which, given some of my plots, is a plus, since there’s so much else in my books that’s unnatural).

  3. Perhaps as many as half my characters, primarily the supporting cast, have attributes of people with whom I’ve come in contact—attributes, not the total character. If I want someone to act in a certain way, I cast my memory back over people I’ve encountered who behave like that and use them as models. But these are creations, not the same people, and like Frankenstein’s monster they are most likely made from parts of more than one person.

    What I never do, however, is use a name closely associated with the real person for that character. Some of these people know my email address, and a few even know where I live.

  4. I’ve never felt using avatars of real people in stories to be a danger for the simple reason that (so far) no one has ever recognized themselves. Of course, for the most part, characters are usually a mélange of characteristics drawn from actual people, and then usually jazzed up a bit. In other words, story characters are what real people would be like if they were more interesting.
    As for when I resort to this writing tool, the most interesting person in any book has got to be the Villain. The greater the Villain, the greater the Hero’s eventual conquest. Bottom line, Villains are really the stars of the show. If James Bond didn’t have an Auric Goldfinger or an Ernst Stavro Blofeldt to contend with, he’d just be a government employee with a fussy taste in drinks.
    And when I base a Villain on someone I know, I’m certain they’ll never figure it out.
    No one pictures themselves as a Villain. Especially not the Villains.

  5. Funny story about a character in my first book. A grumpy overweight bully who is the caretaker of a tower block for the elderly. People down at the tennis club swore blind I’d based him on one of the other members. Truth is, I didn’t. So taking that as my guide, I’ll take characteristics from anyone then deny it in court.
    On a serious note, back when I was still in the police, I used to write a short story every Christmas and hand it out to the shift as a Christmas card. One year I put a mate in the story and got him pretty much bang on accurate. He loved it. From then on I had a queue wanting to be in the next story. When it came to the books I used another friend as the basis for Mick Habergham in Through The Ruins Of Midnight, again with his blessing. Blue Knight White Cross is based on a true incident except I changed the name but everyone, including Steve, knew it was him. Those were positive uses of people I know. I suppose the problem comes when you paint somebody in a bad light. Not a problem if you don’t like the person anyway. I’ve done that. It’s embarrassing if you say a woman’s got a big nose and a squint and the woman recognizes herself in the book. My rule of thumb is, if I’m using a name, let them know first. If I don’t like them, let the chips fall where they may. I remember Lee Child saying he’s done terrible things to people who shafted him at Granada Television. But who’s going to argue with Jack Reacher?

  6. Collin’s comment reminds me of the golfing buddy who drove the rest of the foursome nuts by constantly talking on his cell phone. I wrote a short story about a doctor called on to remove a cell phone from a golfer’s posterior after the rest of his group grew tired of his constant phone use. The offender in our group read it, laughed louder than anyone, and never realized he was the butt of the joke (excuse the expression).

  7. Nice one Richard. Back when mobile phones (cell phones in America) were starting up, I was sick of other coppers getting calls when we were working. I swore I would never have a mobile phone as long as I had a hole in my arse. Since then I have succumbed, and even wrote a short story called The Puckered Butt. Guess what the subject was.

  8. There’s another aspect of all this–not necessarily making a character in a book recognizable as a real person, but rather in using someone’s name. In my book, Diagnosis Death, I created a deputy sheriff who was maybe good/maybe bad, and the name of one of my high school classmates just seemed right for him. I thought nothing more about it until I was asked to speak at my high school reunion–and the chair of the program committee was his wife! Fortunately, he was flattered at my use of his name.

  9. On the other hand, there’re the people we know who presume we’d use them as characters in a book:

    “So, Tom; which character am I supposed to be?”


    “Really? Well, when are you going to use me as a character?”

    “When you do something interesting.”

  10. Tom, that takes me right back to the Christmas short stories. Who’d have thought a bunch of policemen would be pestering to be in the next story? Of course I had to be careful not to be too close to the truth. We’re all the heroes of our own story but it must be flattering to be included in somebody else’s. Maybe it’s a little stab at being part of the celebrity culture.

  11. I’ve borrowed a couple names of friends for characters. So while I don’t base characters on people, lots of people want me to name characters in their honor.

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