Friday, April 23, 2010

One Method of Creating Characters in Fiction

I once heard mystery author Diane Mott Davidson speak at a convention. She said her fictional victims were often based on annoying people she met in real life.

Until I wrote The Desert Hedge Murders, my characters were completely imaginary, most likely influenced by memories of everyone I've ever known, even if they were only actors in a movie.

With this second Sylvia and Willie mystery, I tried something new. In creating The Florida Flippers, a travel club of elderly ladies, I borrowed the names of four of my female relatives, aged them, and kept that imagined appearance in my mind as I wrote their story. One of the characters, Kristina Grisseljon, is the mother of my protagonists, Sylvia Thorn and Willie Grisseljon. She was briefly in the first novel of the series and is not modeled after a real person.

Linda Swayble, one of the Flippers, is named after my sister-in-law Linda, who sadly passed away just before the book was released. I added about fifteen years to her age, exaggerated a couple of her most endearing personality traits, and then expanded her bio, description, and speech mannerisms. When I dumped her into the novel, the fictional Linda was full of surprises--a first-class worrier and way more timid than I expected.

Marianne, Gail, and Diane were named after my cousins, sisters in real life. I've assured the cousins I will let everyone know my Flippers' characters and behavior are drawn completely from my imagination. For instance, red-haired cowgirl wannabe Marianne, who line dances with the sexy cowboys at a country bar in Davie, Florida, and plays Blackjack in Laughlin, Nevada, is actually a lovely white-haired grandma and first-grade schoolteacher in Oklahoma. She does not, to the best of my knowledge, wear cowboy boots.

Similarly, the real Gail would never kick anyone with her orthopedic boots, unless he truly deserved it. Cousin Diane, my first reader for all of my manuscripts, did not really win the lottery and does not live in The Sanctuary in Boca Raton, Florida.

Using real people to create characters in a novel has certain risks, of course. I wasn't thinking of real people while writing about the killers and victims in these mysteries. Although . . . someone who knew me in high school thought I was very tough on old boyfriends in The Prairie Grass Murders. But those were Sylvia Thorn's old boyfriends, not mine. Totally imaginary. Honest.

Have you ever used a real person as a model when writing a fictional character? Did you let your real person model read the manuscript?

Patricia Stoltey is a mystery author, blogger, and critique group facilitator. Active in promoting Colorado authors, she also helps local unpublished writers learn the critical skills of manuscript revision and self-editing. For information about Patricia’s Sylvia and Willie mystery series, visit her website and her blog. You can also find her on Facebook (Patricia Stoltey) and Twitter (@PStoltey).


  1. I guess I "draw" from life in my writing as well as in my paintings, because real people do become the characters. I mix it up pretty good though. A little bit of Jim, a little bit of Bob... I've always said my disclaimer would have to read that my characters are fictional but all of them will seem a bit like me. I tend to live vicariously. ;) Have to watch that so it doesn't get boring.


  2. Yes, I do it all the time. I tweak them and give them different traits, but I model my peeps after others I know. I usually model my "villains" after people who are mean to me or mine. It is cathartic to hit them back on the pages of my WIP.

  3. I've never done it specifically, just drawing from traits in certain people. However, I think it would really help to stick to the character traits. Though exaggerations and some differences would be necessary.

  4. It's hard not to write ourselves into our characters, Dani, especially when writing a first person POV. When I created Sylvia Thorn, I discovered she had creaky knees and a bad left shoulder, just like me. Amazing coincidence...

    Christine and Terri -- I must try picking a real baddie from my life and knock him (or her) off in a story. I can see how therapeutic that might be, as long as the real person didn't read the book and recognize himself. :)

  5. I don't base characters on real people, but do draw from real life. Little bits of me here and there. Bits of other people I know. But I'll never name names.

  6. I think most of us use a mix of real people to create characters, or to pattern them after. That is one of the benefits of people watching.

  7. I often take people I've known or met, then give them a good, hard twist -- more virtuous, lazier, more manipulative. Whatever serves the larger story.

    In my most recent project, I modeled one of the main characters after my father ... but only to a point. I borrowed heavily from surface facts: his profession, his background, his manner. And then I imagined what such a man might become with a more horrific past and some secrets he was trying to keep covered up. Again, all in the service of the story.

    One of the great things about fiction is the ability to borrow heavily from reality and then to write make the fantasy much more interesting!

  8. I write for escapism, so I don't introduce reality into my work in the form of people I know in real life. I like to explore character traits that are a little foreign to me as I find it fascinating to get into the skin of someone completely different to me.


    Blood-Red Pencil

  9. Only one completely real person has made it into my WIP. He has a small cameo and only appears in a scene where someone is remembering him - he never actually appears 'live' on the page.

    I don't know him very well, but I'm curious to see if any of my friends will spot him when I give them the MS to read :)

  10. hahah I can relate about using the real people as fictional victims. I've done so many times,after some tweaking


The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice. Some of our contributors are editors, some are authors, and some are writing sheep. Yes, sheep.


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