February 25 – March 3: “What are the dangers of modeling characters after people you know?”

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week ITW Members Robert Dugoni, A. F. Brady, Rick Treon, John Vanek, Victoria Gilbert, Dana King, Russell James, Hilary Davidson and Hannah Mary McKinnon will discuss the dangers of modeling characters after people you know, and tell us when they resort to using this device. Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along – you don’t want to miss it!


Robert Dugoni is the critically acclaimed New York Times, #1 Wall Street Journal and #1 Amazon Best Selling Author of The Tracy Crosswhite series, My Sister’s Grave, Her Final Breath, In the Clearing, and The Trapped Girl. The Crosswhite Series has sold more than 2,000,000 books and My Sister’s Grave has been option for television series development. He is also the author of the best-selling David Sloane series, The Jury Master, Wrongful Death, Bodily Harm Murder One and The Conviction, and the stand-alone novels The 7th Canon, a 2017 finalist for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Award for best novel, The Cyanide Canary, A Washington Post Best Book of the Year, and several short stories.


Hannah Mary McKinnon was born in the UK, grew up in Switzerland and moved to Canada in 2010. After a long and successful career in recruitment, she quit the corporate world in favor of writing. Her first novel, Time After Time (a lighthearted rom-com) was published in June 2016. Her second, the domestic suspense story The Neighbors, arrived March 2018. Her third, Her Secret Son, will follow in May 2019. She lives in Oakville, Ontario, with her husband and three sons, and is delighted by her twenty second commute.


Hilary Davidson is the author of the Anthony Award-winning Lily Moore series–which includes The Damage Done, The Next One to Fall, and Evil in All Its Disguises–and the hardboiled thriller Blood Always Tells. Her next novel, One Small Sacrifice, will be published by Thomas & Mercer in May 2019.



John Vanek was a physician in his previous life. He’s the author of the Father Jake Austin Mystery Series (think 21st century version of G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, with a shadowy past and hints of PBS’s Grantchester). John now lives happily as an ink-stained-wretch in Florida. He teaches a writing workshop for seniors at a local college, and enjoys swimming, hiking, sunshine, good friends, and red wine. Book two, Miracles, is now available.


A. F. Brady is a NYS Licensed Mental Health Counselor born and raised in Manhattan, currently living in New York with her husband, their children and their dog. Her first novel THE BLIND (Park Row | Harlequin Books) was published in September 2017. In addition to writing, she currently works as a psychotherapist in private practice where she works with individuals and couples. She also runs a professional organizing and design business based in the idea that mental health is affected by our home environments.


Rick Treon is a member of the International Thriller Writers, the Writers’ League of Texas and the Texas High Plains Writers. Prior to writing suspense novels and personal essays, Treon had a career in journalism that included reporting for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, reporting and editing at the Amarillo Globe-News and serving as managing editor for The Kerrville Daily Times. He still lives and writes in Texas.


Raised in a historic small town in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Victoria Gilbert turned her early obsession with books into a dual career as an author and librarian. Victoria’s first cozy mystery series, the Blue Ridge Library Mystery series, garnered her a three-book deal with Crooked Lane Books. The series has recently been expanded to five books. The first two books in the series have been optioned by Sony Pictures Television, and were produced in audiobook by Tantor Media. A MURDER FOR THE BOOKS, the first book in the series, was a Southern Independent Booksellers “Okra Pick” and was longlisted for a Southern Book Prize. Victoria is a member of Mystery Writers of America, International Thriller Writers, and Sisters in Crime.


Dana King’s Penns River series of police procedurals includes Worst Enemies, Grind Joint, and Resurrection Mall (all published by Down & Out Books). His Nick Forte series has two Shamus Award nominations, for A Small Sacrifice and The Man in the Window. The third book in the series, Bad Samaritan, was published by Down & Out Books in January 2018. His short fiction has appeared in Spinetingler, New Mystery Reader, A Twist of Noir, Mysterical-E, and Powder Burn Flash as well as the anthology Blood, Guts, and Whiskey, edited by Todd Robinson.


Russell James grew up on Long Island, New York and spent too much time watching late night horror. He graduated from Cornell University and the University of Central Florida. After flying helicopters with the U.S. Army, he now spins twisted tales, including paranormal thrillers Dark Inspiration, Sacrifice, Black Magic, Dark Vengeance, Dreamwalker, and Q Island. His Grant Coleman adventure series covers Cavern of the Damned, Monsters in the Clouds, and Curse of the Viper King. His wife reads his work, rolls her eyes, and says, “There is something seriously wrong with you.”


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  1. So my novel coming April 9, 2019, The Eighth Sister is about protagonist Charles Jenkins. Charles Jenkins was my law school roommate and remains my good friend. He’s 6’5″ and 230 pounds of sculpted muscle but a gentle giant. I told him in law school someday I’d make him famous. We laughed, never thinking it would happen. The benefits of using the name and likeness of a character is he becomes real to me as the writer, and I believe very real to the reader. There is an authenticity to the character. The challenge is making sure that I don’t make him a character without faults, for fear that I will offend. Every person has skeletons in the closet of some sort. It doesn’t make them a bad person. It makes them human. So when I asked Chaz if I could use his name and likeness he agreed. The character, a former CIA officer sucked into Russia who quickly realizes nothing is as was represented, is not Chaz. He knows that.

    1. I love that Charles is getting his own novel. He was my favorite character in your David Sloan series. Did he ever read your manuscripts (or at least the scenes with him) at any point?

  2. We had a very dear friend who was a jazz singer with an incredible life and career behind her. Born in India to British parents who shipped her back to the old country to boarding school when she was five, regarded her older sisters as her parents, became very independent and went on the the road as a big band singer all over Europe in the 50’s and 60’s. Owned a bar with one of her husbands in Bangkok and ended up teaching jazz vocals in Australia which is where we met her in her later years. What a character! She called everyone ‘darling’, terrified her accompanists and had a unique teaching style never having had a lesson in her life. She said to one student ‘Darling you’ll sing much better when you get that carrot out of your arse.’

    Sadly she died several years ago but her memory lives on as I use her shamelessly when I need a flamboyant character. She appears as a neighbour in my April paranormal/historical/mystery/romance release Shadow Music.

  3. My novel Sacrifice was inspired by a reunion with friends from high school. It was so much fun, I wondered what circuumstances would keep old friends from getting together. Of course that led to a horror story.
    Each of the fictional friends shared a similar name with a real one and one attribute like a similar career. But after that I made the character details and the flaws all their own. Part of it was not wanting to imagine my friends going through hell, and part of it was not wanting to violate their privacy. Friends open up to friends about a lot of things, and I didn’t want, even subconsciously, to let any of those confidences slip out onto the page.

    1. I agree, Russell. While editing an early draft of my second novel, I realized I’d included something that happened to a dear friend – cue lots of furious rewriting to obscure the vast majority of the details. It was almost like a placeholder, of sorts, for me to come back to and change.

  4. I have a short answer to this question – I don’t ever do this. However, for the purpose of this roundtable, I will expand on this comment.

    Of course, in order to make my characters feel human, I do include traits, actions, physical aspects, and behavior that I have observed in other people, including some people that I know well. However, I never base a specific character on a specific person. Instead, when I initially create my characters, I blend together various aspects of individuals I have known, as well some parts of people that I have simply observed. Then I allow those characters to develop in their own way, as distinct individuals.

    I actually work hard at this, because I don’t want a reader to be able to point to any one of my characters and link them to someone in real life. I prefer that my characters feel like unique people in their own right.

    Another thing I try to avoid is a “self-insert” character. I don’t create characters who look like me, or who have a lot of my personal characteristics. Of course, some of my opinions and beliefs will creep into my characters, but I make sure that the characters are never “clones” of me. For instance, although the protagonist in my Blue Ridge Library Mystery series is a librarian — my previous profession — I deliberately made her much younger, more impetuous, and decidedly more adventurous than me. I also gave her a very different appearance. Of course, using my experience as a librarian was beneficial, but I felt that making her too much like me would be detrimental to her story. Not to mention, rather boring!

    So to make a long answer short – I never use this device. To me, one of the most enjoyable parts of writing is creating characters who “come to life” as I write their stories. Trust me, just like real-life people, they often surprise me!

  5. I don’t see modeling characters after people I know as a danger; I see it as an opportunity. Friends and family are a bottomless well of inspiration. Consciously or unconsciously, I believe most writers model their characters to some extent after people they know (including themselves).
    I my case, I intentionally modeled the protagonist of my Father Jake Austin Mystery Series after two Catholic priests who were my close friends (fictionalized, of course). When their Roman collars came off, I found that they were simply human. Seeing these righteous men wrestle with the same emotions and problems that we all share shattered my preconceived notions. I wanted to portray Father Jake as a spiritual man, but as realistically as possible. Also, Father Jake’s ex-high school sweetheart, Emily, is modeled after a blind neighbor who leads an active life despite being sightless. Her strength and resiliency is a daily inspiration to me, and the inspiration for the heroine of my mystery series.
    Obviously, you can’t simply photocopy your friends into your stories. One must blend the key traits of various individuals together, add a cup of fabrication and a pinch or two of deceit to create a unique and original character living solely on the pages of your novel – but fear not the familiar and “write what you know.”

  6. While I’ve never based an entire character on a person I know, there are certain traits or things from my life — or the lives of family, friends and acquaintances — that have slipped into my stories. Case in point, I had lunch with a girlfriend a week ago, and she brought up my second novel THE NEIGHBORS.

    “You know that thing you wrote about when Abby went into labor?” she said. “You based that on *insert name of mutual friend*, didn’t you?”

    Oops. What happened in the story wasn’t a copy/paste of real life circumstances, nor was it particularly rare, and not at all derogatory or insulting, either. That’s why I’d felt safe enough to use a few facts. But still, her comment got me thinking – should we ever use stuff that has happened to people we know?

    I came to the rather weak conclusion that it depends. For me, the main consideration is how the person could perceive the borrowing of one of their life events, and that in itself, is a difficult thing to anticipate. When unsure, I’d recommend asking.

    But it can be fun to sprinkle a few things here and there, and which only close friends and family might recognize – my love of all things Tomb Raider, for example, or my husband’s surprise when I suggested seeing World War Z on our anniversary (I’ve just about recovered). Although I’ve found that with each new book, I borrow fewer and fewer traits and events, to the point where HER SECRET SON (May 28) has almost none. Maybe it’s a sign that I’ve become a more confident and creative writer?

  7. The real danger is rarely what readers think it is. People don’t often recognize themselves in characters unless it’s the wrong character, b which I mean they rarely recognize themselves but may see themselves in a character you did not base on them.

    I do this, but rarely too closely. If I use a real person’s description or a character trait I always change the name. If I use a real name I change everything else. My Penns River series relies on many ethnic names so I read the local paper for ideas, especially around high school graduation time where I can pull last names and have no fear of too closely associating a name with the personality traits that would define a real person.

    To me the real danger comes on my end. Once I have a friend in mind as a character it becomes difficult for me to place that person in too much jeopardy, and certainly not to kill him or her off. Nick Forte’s daughter is closely based on my own and I make no bones about it: ain’t nothing bad ever gonna happen to that kid. period.

    1. It is so true that people will recognize themselves in characters that were not based on them! In one case, an acquaintance was furious with me because she thought I’d written a character based on her. I was baffled by this, because the character didn’t look like her, talk like her, have any of her traits… it was a weird mystery to me for a couple of years. Then I found out from her sister that, when their mother had died, this woman had stolen all of her jewelry. It was a huge AHA moment. Of course, I’d never heard the story before, so it was odd to realize that she believes I have ESP!

      1. There should be some way to notify the therapists of people who recognize themselves in character like she did. Probably save the shrink a lot of time.

    2. I agree, people usually don’t recognize their own traits, but I’ve had several friends ask if I modeled a character after them when I had not.

  8. Whenever readers ask me if any of my characters are based on real-life people, I usually say no because I’ve never based a character on any one person. That’s not to say that I don’t steal quirks and dialogue and other traits from people I’ve met, but they’re mashed together so that the original source would be hard to place… at least, that’s what I assumed.

    It turns out, I was wrong about that.

    In one of my earlier books, I directly borrowed some dialogue from a media figure I’d encountered in my career as a journalist. To put it bluntly, this man was a creep who hit on women in a particularly obnoxious way: Within a minute of meeting him, he asked me to pose nude for him, and then went on to say that he was in an open marriage. The character I created didn’t look like him at all, but he said the same things. Hilariously, several journalists I know immediately recognized him. I know several who sent him the book, and I still wonder if he recognized himself. (I’m curious, but not enough to ask him directly. Like I said, he’s a creep.)

    My next book, ONE SMALL SACRIFICE, will be out on June 1st, and none of the characters are based on real-life people… not directly, anyway. For the first time ever, I have three characters in the book who are named for real-life people (all three won charity auctions for naming rights). That presented an unusual challenge, because it meant that I was using their names and likenesses, but creating entirely new and different lives for them. It was much more nerve-wracking than stealing character traits, because I found myself wondering about what they’d think of their doppelgangers. It’s much easier to steal!

    1. The auction is such a cool idea! But I don’t know how I would handle the pressure. A life of trait theft does sound much easier than that, haha.

        1. For research on my last novel, I spent a few months working on oil pipeline jobs, and I’ve had several want me to use their names for fun. I had one say he wanted me to pay him to use it. But he was a local bookie and ran an illegal 8-liner “gaming” club, so I declined his offer, haha.

          1. He’s actually a nice guy, and he works hard at his day job. He just also likes that underground stuff. Part of me wants to revisit him as inspiration for a character, but he didn’t quite fit into this one. He’d probably need his own story.

          2. Yeah, he was always trying to hustle someone, mostly in a fun way. But I never used his services, so I only saw the fun side of him at our shared day job.

      1. The character-name auctions are really wonderful. They come up at big conferences such as Bouchercon and Left Coast Crime, and at smaller ones like Murder & Mayhem in Milwaukee. They raise funds for good causes, and they’re really popular. Overall, I love them, except for that moment when I start wondering if anyone will complain that I’ve turned them into a killer/crime victim/crazy witness/corpse! (On the other hand, they know what I write, so they must be expecting that, right?)

    2. I was surprised at the number of friends who asked if I would base a character on them, including using their name. When I do this, the character has similar physical features and major personality characteristics.

      1. I once had a friend who wanted to be in a story. He picked the name–his own first and a name he liked for the surname–and requested he be the bad guy (Done), wanted to be killed by the hero in the climax (OK), with a head shot. (Damn, Byron. You all right?) I did what he asked and he loved it.

      2. I had a Roman Catholic priest friend who is one of my beta readers ask me to use his name for the kill in book one of my mystery series. I refused, but gave him a cameo appearance in book two.

  9. I think to some degree we can’t help but model some of our characters after people we’ve known, whether personally or professionally. I hesitate to create a character that is the fictional version of a real person because I feel like it’s limiting. Fiction exists so we can make stuff up!

    When I write some of my characters, I tend to draw on people I’ve known in professional settings because I write psychological thrillers and suspense, so I have had a lot of experience with individuals who are diagnosed with some of the conditions I explore in my books. I think in this case it allows for richer and more true-to-life portrayals.

    It can get dangerous to model too closely on real people. If it’s a known person then the reader may lose some of the imaginative components of reading fiction, and it will stunt their reading experience. If it’s someone you know personally, and they’re not happy with your portrayal of them, it can damage the relationship.

    I say model sometimes, but tread lightly, and stay respectful.

      1. My daughter gave me a desk plaque that reads: If you were in my novel you’d be dead now.

        I place it in a prominent position to keep out the riff-raff.

  10. I haven’t based any characters on one person, but they all tend to lift traits from people I know. I have had people ask me if my characters are based on mutual acquaintances. I usually end up explaining how I used one or two details of a real person to make my character more real. Usually, the character is already in place, and I imagine that my character may react to a situation or have a similar backstory to a person I know. When it comes to physical descriptions, I change enough so that it’s not obvious to anyone but me and our mutual acquaintances.

    I will admit to having done this without asking express permission in my first novel. I’ve had both positive and negative feedback. The positive is people who are “seeing” me or a mutual acquaintance when they read the novel and finding it fun or amusing. On the other hand, I had a friend who said that everyone was going to see her in a bad light after reading the novel. First, I thanked her for imagining so many people would read it. Then I told her that she could own the parts of her character I lifted (which were in no way bad) and I gave her the inspiration for the bad parts, which were from my imagination and not real folks.

    I don’t feel I could write full characters without taking some details, and dialectal and conversational idiosyncrasies, from real people. However, the lesson I learned when researching my second novel was to let people know I wanted to use some parts of what I’d observed, and they all agreed. And as a bonus (and this is a bonus for me because I hate coming up with secondary character names), I have had a few contact me later asking if I can use their name for characters. Not necessarily one that may mirror them the most, but any character.

    One also wants me to make sure The Rock plays him in the movie adaptation. First, I thanked him for imagining my still unpolished novel would be made into a movie. Then I told him HE should slide into Dwayne’s DMs and see what he could work out.

  11. My writing highlights people I know but most often it’s a combo to create one character. A gesture, a comment, an attitude, and the guy who wears a certain necktie with pink polka dots. I know exactly who they are but the reader wouldn’t have a clue. I find myself laughing out loud!

  12. I’ll go a completely different route with this question. The danger I would encounter is that many of the people I’ve known are so unreal nobody would believe them as characters.
    It would read like a bad sitcom. The boss who, when once I said, “Good morning,” he answered, “What do you mean by that?” “I meant good morning.” “Are you saying I don’t a right to be here in my own office?”
    His name? Boss. (Actually the spelling was different but that was the pronunciation.)

    1. So true. Strange people do make the world go round, but don’t necessarily make for great characters.

  13. Not quite people but I use the houses and apartments that (usually) my daughter has lived in over the years. She moved a lot! It means I know the area and have a floor plan in my head.

    I used my brother-in-law’s house in Sydney for an early book and the family was thrilled, particularly the kids. The other day they were visiting and he said ‘you’ll have to come and stay in our new house and use it in a book.’ I told him I write suspense now not sweet romances but he reckoned that as they’re both lawyers they could be good for a plot!

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