June 10 – 16: “What are the pitfalls of using real people as characters?

thriller-roundtable-logo5This week ITW Members DiAnn Mills, Frank Zafiro, R.J. Pineiro, Gerald Dean Rice, Michaelbrent Collings and Lee Murray are discussing using real people as characters in their novels. What are the benefits? What are the potential pitfalls? Scroll down to the “comments” section to follow along!


Frank Zafiro is a retired police captain who writes procedurals, hard-boiled crime, PI mysteries, and more. He has teamed up with other writers such as Eric Beetner, Colin Conway, Lawrence Kelter, B. R. Paulson, and Jim Wilsky. He hosts the podcast Wrong Place, Write Crime, which features mystery authors. He is a big fan of Bruce Springsteen, hockey, and The Wire. He currently lives in Oregon, where he is also a tortured guitarist.


Lee Murray is a multi-award-winning writer and editor of science fiction, fantasy, and horror (Sir Julius Vogel, Australian Shadows), and a two-time Bram Stoker nominee. Her works include the Taine McKenna military thriller series (Severed), and supernatural crime-noir series The Path of Ra co-authored with Dan Rabarts (RDSP). Lee lives with her family in New Zealand where she conjures up stories from her office overlooking a cow paddock.


Born in Cuba and raised in Central America, R. J. Pineiro spent several years in the midst of civil wars before migrating to the United States in the late 1970s, first to Florida to attend Florida Air Academy in Melbourne. There, R. J. earned a pilot’s license and high school diploma in 1979 before heading to Louisiana for college. R. J. earned a degree in electrical engineering from Louisiana State University in 1983 and joined the high-tech industry in Austin Texas, working in computer chip design, test, and manufacturing. R. J. is married to L. M. Pineiro, an artist and jewelry designer. They have one son, Cameron & daughter-in-law Sarah, and two crazy dogs, Coco and Zea.


Gerald Dean Rice is hard at work on something right now. Whether it’s vampires, zombies, or something you’ve never seen before, he’s always dedicated to writing something unique. He’s the author of numerous short stories, including the Halloween eBook “The Best Night of the Year”, the YA book “Vamp-Hire,” the anthology Anything but Zombies, and the upcoming fantasy thriller The Bureau of Retired Spells and Broken Magic.


DiAnn Mills is a bestselling author who believes her readers should expect an adventure. She weaves memorable characters with unpredictable plots to create action-packed, suspense-filled novels. DiAnn is a founding board member of the American Christian Fiction Writers, a member of Advanced Writers and Speakers Association, Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and International Thriller Writers. She is co-director of the Blue Ridge Mountain Christian Writers Conference, Mountainside Marketing Conference, and the Mountainside Novelist Retreat with social media specialist Edie Melson, where she continues her passion of helping other writers be successful. She speaks to various groups and teaches writing workshops around the country.


Michaelbrent Collings is an internationally bestselling author, multiple Bram Stoker Award finalist, and produced screenwriter. Though best known for horror, he has written bestsellers in fantasy, sci-fi, YA, middle grade, urban fantasy, thrillers, and more.




  1. As one who was a cop and wrote police procedurals set in the city where I worked, I encountered the ‘who is this based on?” or ‘who is this supposed to be?” question a lot. And I steadfastly avoided basing any characters directly on any real people that I worked with. You can understand why. And while I am now six years retired and can confess that while elements of many people found their way into my characters – and not always admirable traits – I did generally stay away from using real people as characters. In twenty-five books now, I’ve only actually based two characters on real people. In both instances, they weren’t exact representation, but an idealized version of how I saw the person.

    The first was Thomas Chisolm, the grizzled patrol veteran in my River City series that I based upon real life patrol officer Thomas Chapman. He was just too big of a personality not to find his way onto the page! When I asked the real Tom if this was okay, he was incredibly supportive. His only request, after a few books, was that Tom Chisolm get a girlfriend.

    The second instance is in the just-released CHARLIE-316. Real life detective Marty Hill has a couple of small scenes along with a minor speaking role. I did this as an homage, and a tribute to the real life men and women at that department who do such an admirable job. Marty, both the character and the real person, exemplifies this.

    I didn’t know it at the time, but the Detective Hill character ended up getting a secondary role by the time Colin Conway and I made it to book three of the CHARLIE-316 arc. So now, the character on the page has evolved into his own entity, beginning to separate from his inspired real person.

    Again, out of courtesy, I asked for permission from Marty, and he didn’t hesitate.

    In both instances, I was always very cognizant of walking the line between treating the basis for the character with respect while remaining true to the character on the page. I feel fortunate that there was never a situation where the difference was big enough to matter, because I think that’s a real pitfall.

    And….now that I’ve answered this, I realize the question may have been directed more at using famous people, or at least those publicly known. Hmmmm. I guess my answer is kind of the same, which is that if you present them in a neutral or positive light, I don’t think there’s much danger in it. If you portray them as evil, I think you’re not only looking for legal trouble, but it’s kind of a dick move. At least fictionalize them first, right?

  2. I believe there’s value in “sprinkling” a fictional tale with carefully-chosen real characters because it adds to the authenticity of the fictional tale if done right (i.e. it must feel natural to the storyline, not forced). But you must be very careful. The moment you inject real characters into a fictional tale, you are crossing into the grey zone separating fiction from nonfiction. You must do your research to portray the “real” characters in their true light and you almost want to keep some form of footnotes to make sure that you can back such portrayals. But using real characters in a fiction work can also backfire, as shown below.

    I’ve used real characters twice in my novels, and it involved world leaders. The first time I did it was with ULTIMATUM, my second novel, which I wrote in 1991. It was a scenario where I was pitting Saddam Hussein against George H.W. Bush in a second gulf war scenario. So, I researched everything I could about both leaders. I finished the novel, it was edited and ready to be published by Forge Books when H. W. Bush lost his re-election to Bill Clinton. So, my editor calls and tells me, “Hey, R.J., you need to rewrite it with Clinton in it, and we need the revision ASAP.” I was working full time in high-tech at the time, and I was forced to take a two-month sabbatical to dive into the life of Bill Clinton and plug him into the story. In the end, the novel got terrific reviews from PW, Booklist, Library Journal, etc. But I still see it as a cautionary tale about the use of real people in fiction.

    I did it again years later in WITHOUT FEAR, the second novel I coauthored with Colonel David Hunt published in August 2018. This time, however, the story takes place in 2006 in Afghanistan, and we pitted George W. Bush against Vladimir Putin, and Osama bin Laden (who was at large back then). Just as in ULTIMATUM, a lot of research went into it, but we didn’t have to worry about world events or elections forcing us into an eleventh-hour rewrite.

    Using real characters in a present-day story carries the risk of world events making it dated even before it hits the stands, as was the case with ULTIMATUM. Using them in historic fictional tale eliminates that risk. But above all, please make sure to do your research to portray those real-life characters as they were.

  3. People have a distinct opinion about real people, either historical or contemporary. Sports, criminal, religious, political, and the entertainment world are filled with personalities we’ve come to know by what they’ve contributed to the world, good or bad.

    The benefits of using real people as characters are readers can connect to them by what they know, the positive and the negative traits. Using common knowledge and hopefully facts, the writer can share a person’s life in a credible way.

    The pitfalls happen when a writer strays from what is acceptable. A great man or woman is shown in a less than favorable light or a stain on society is lifted to a hero or heroine status.

    My suggestion is to use real people only as a mention or a secondary character. Controversy exists over every figure in history or viewed by media. Why risk a writing career by stepping onto a bandwagon that causes a reader to shut the book?

  4. I’ve used real people numerous times in my writing – most notably in THE LONGEST CON, in which I have as main characters fictionalized versions of myself and some of my favorite friends/authors, including Kevin J. Anderson, Dan Wells, Larry Correia, DJ Butler, Mercedes Yardley, and numerous others.

    I’ve also done so in my Western Romance novels (under the pen name Angelica Hart), in which case I used some famous western heroes/villains (Doc Holliday comes to mind); in my an upcoming middle grade fantasy, in which Bruce Lee plays a part as a main character; and in a number of my thrillers I’ve used real world political leaders as bit parts or mention them as players in the background.

    The upside to using such characters is that, often, they come with what I would call “useful baggage” – the reading public is aware of them, and it saves time with character building. In other words, a cut-from-whole-cloth character requires that I build them – both in my own head and in that of my readers – whereas a person like, say Barack Obama or Donald Trump, would each come with basic information about where they came from and how they got to where they are now.

    The baggage can be a detriment, however, if the character is polarizing (again, Donald Trump comes to mind), which means that making one person happy with the treatment of that character will make another angry. If the reader base for the piece is homogeneous in makeup, this isn’t a big deal, but the wider the audience, the more carefully you have to tread.

    Easiest to use are the figures who are already long gone (Doc Holliday, Bruce Lee). But even then, if you are “borrowing” them, you must also borrow their history – or explain why your own version diverges from that person’s reality.

    All in all, the use of real people as characters can be a lot of fun. It allows you to ground your piece in a fun “reality,” and subverting what people know of them allows for wonderful surprises. But in order to use them, as in every other aspect of writing, you have to be aware of the “rules.” Know the people you use better then your audience, and that will enable you to respect the audience’s expectations and, when subverting those expectations, will allow you to do so in a way that delights instead of maddens.

    A final note: many thrillers are set in the “real world” of today. Using real characters has the necessary effect of dating a piece. A perfectly serviceable thriller that talks constantly about President Reagan, for example, might result in people putting it down. All fiction requires a suspension of disbelief, and the more layers of things that the audience must consciously disbelieve (“Oh. Okay. Reagan is president. Right. Gotcha.”), the more moments where they may withdraw from the story – the kiss of death for any piece.

  5. Hello Michaelbrent, Diann, Frank, and RJ. Great to see you all again on this forum. Already some great answers to this question. I’ve enjoyed reading your responses!

    An early mentor of mine suggested that naming real people in your story only serves to date the narrative, and I believe there is a lot of truth in that. My mentor raised it as a caveat, claiming that adding well-known people to the storyline can date the work, and since it can take 2-3 years to get a book picked up by a publisher and released into the world, by that time the reference might be irrelevant. This was the case in an early work of mine, a chick lit called A DASH OF REALITY, where I had my character wake up the day after a work-out feeling as if Dan Carter had kicked her into touch. When the book was published in 2011, this worked well because at that time Dan Carter was a household name, and particularly in New Zealand households. The highest point scorer in test match history, Carter was international rugby player of the year in 2005, 2012, and 2015. However, since his retirement from test rugby, new readers, even Kiwi readers, are less likely to know who he is, making the metaphor less effective as time marches on. (Although perhaps that is about to change as I note in today’s twitter feed that Carter has been working on a documentary of his 2015 World Cup journey, which will be released on August 29). On the other hand, dating a narrative can helpful, with recognisable public characters serving to ground a story in a certain period of history, such as during the cold war, or in the Reagan years, points Michaelbrent and RJ have made above.

    Using real characters can also give your story a sense of place. My Path of Ra supernatural crime-noir series, which I co-write with Dan Rabarts, is set in the near future ‒ 2045. In both books, HOUNDS OF THE UNDERWORLD and TEETH OF THE WOLF, we refer to ‘iconic’ people from New Zealand history: people who are actually in the news now, like filmmaker Taika Waititi, or local songstress, Lorde, and even lesser known folk, like fashion designer and TV personality Amber Peebles. Since readers know these personalities as Kiwis, it reinforces the New Zealand context to our narratives. And if a story is set in the future, you can extrapolate and give those people new ‘alternative’ futures, although, as it has already been noted by my colleagues here, authors need to take care when doing this.

    I haven’t based any characters entirely on real people as Frank has done, although my characters are often inspired by and informed by the traits of real people, who I hope I have cleverly disguised. After all, we’ve all had that boss who winds us up the wrong way, the mean-girl school friend, or a creepy neighbour. My character, Taine McKenna, the hero of adventures like INTO THE ASHES is inspired by my NZDF military advisor, among others. I think using real motivations and reactions, and even physical descriptions, serves to make our characters authentic and believable, and that helps to get the reader invested in the story.

  6. Interesting comments from everyone, thank you! I think the danger of using a famous person from a particular area of expertise is that there are many people who won’t have heard of her/him so the connotations are lost. I’ve never heard of the footballer Lee mentioned because I’m not interested in any of the codes at all. I’ve heard of Maradona, Beckham and Pele and a few Aus locals who feature in the news 🙂

    On the other hand my husband and I love the Michael Connelly Harry Bosch novels. Harry is a jazz nut and the books are full of esoteric comments about particular albums and players. My husband is a pro jazz drummer and loves that stuff. He said ‘Harry was talking about a particular album Coltrane did and quite by coincidence I was listening to that exact album yesterday!’ That delights someone like my husband but maybe not too many other readers. Either way Harry’s passion is described with a great deal of knowledge and is a terrific character building attribute.

  7. Great comments, everyone! I think these discussions are interesting because of how everyone comes at the question just a little bit differently.

    I think the use of real people who are big figures (like MIcheal’s Reagan example) definitely risk dating the piece, and breaking the reader out of the story. But the jazz references in the Bosch novels that Elizabeth brings up are, as she poionts out, a different breed of cat, obviously — who was President versus what music is available and/or timeless.

    I think HOW someone listens to music might be more likely to date the piece, right? Does she pop in a cassette or access a playlist on her phone? Still, these dangers will always exist, while the use of real people in key positions is one we can avoid or mitigate if we choose to.

    And R.J….? My sympathy goes out to you on that rewrite scenario. It sounds like it was worth it, given the reviews, but dang… what a lot of extra work!

  8. The benefits are the pitfalls. The pitfalls are the benefits. In my novel, “Dead ’til Dawn” I used two celebrities, Tom Sizemore and Liam Neeson (Neesom? I don’t know and I’m too lazy right now to look it up). The reader has instant name recognition and a picture in mind of what the person is like and the writer can play on those pre-established notions. But the writer is also hemmed in by them as well. Even if the character is killed it won’t be the worst death and even if the character does something bad it won’t be the worst thing done. We’re a little hesitant because we want those celebrities’ (or celebrities in general) approval and having them do something appalling might be offensive. In the scene in my novel with the two actors they are in an ‘It’ party where everyone wants to be and be seen. Tom Sizemore hits on the big bad who can kill a man with a touch and she is surprised and declares him as ‘not knowing death’ (I’m paraphrasing–again, lazy). I could have made any number of jokes about drugs considering they were going around the party but I know how the actor has struggled and I didn’t feel right about putting such a thing on him. I did have shades of Taken with Liam Neeson (Neesom?) leading the charge against the bad guys with him yelling that they (the bad guys) were attacking the men who sold them drugs. I didn’t explicitly state that he took drugs himself and he got to be heroic in the process considering the drug dealers were the good guys.
    So while I might write a character who murdered his own child I couldn’t do the same with an actual person. It would come off as defamatory unless I had a personal relationship with that celebrity and she/he was okay with it.

MATCH UP: In stores now!


ThrillerFest XVI: Register Today!



One of the most successful anthologies in the history of publishing!