For many writers, a big source of inspiration for characters are friends and family. Makes sense. These are people whom you see frequently and know their quirks, speech patterns, personality, and could describe quite easily. Why struggle for hours thinking up a name or description or poring over character sheets when you have a throng of people at your fingertips? Some authors even go so far as to mine the backgrounds of friends and family for plots and subplots. Indeed, the joke about being nice to the writer or else you’ll end up in their next book can be quite true.
Unless you’re me. For years I have stayed away from using family and friends for inspiration. Though I am clearly writing fiction, I worry if I use someone I know, even if it is as simple as a description or pulling a couple of interesting traits from them, they will think I view them as being that person on the page. I shied away from even using their names regardless if the description or personality of the character had zero connection with the same name real life counterpart.
It’s not that I worry about being sued. Writers are covered under the law from being sued just because a character either has a strong resemblance or a passing resemblance to a fictional character. It’s why this language appears after the title page: This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
But even with this legal protection, I was still afraid. Afraid of what other people would think about me. I used to worry what would happen if I have a character which resembles someone I know and the person they are loosely based on reads it. Will they jump to conclusions and believe I view them like that? Will they be upset? Will they be happy? Will they stop talking to me? I’m usually a non-confrontational person and though I know what my intent was and recognize a fictional character is not the same as a flesh and blood person, it was a risk I wasn’t willing to take.
However, I’ve realized how flawed this thinking is. Yes, my characters and situations are entirely made up. But I get inspired from a variety of sources: newspaper articles, listening to NPR, shows and movies I watch, books I’ve read, bullshitting with people, etc. So how is using a friend’s name or distinctive look or personality traits of a family member any different? Why not use people I know, even in a small way, to help flesh out a character?
Looking to friends, family, and even myself makes things a little easier. Writing is incredibly difficult, and I am someone very prone to making things more complicated then they need to be. It’s one of my few natural skills. So, if I can make certain things like names, descriptions, character traits, even events easier to come up with then I should use them.
Another way to look at it is those around you are resources. They can become part of your writer’s toolbox in whatever way you need them to be. Perhaps a friend has an interesting job that inspires you to write a story. Or maybe a family member has a unique personality that fits in with the world you are creating. Again, anything which makes writing a little bit easier, use it.
And while I have realized it is okay to mine people you know for you work, it is also important to keep in mind that at the end of the day, your friends and family are still people. Be respectful and think heavily about how you use them in a story. Don’t be afraid, though, as no matter how strongly a character may be based upon someone you know, that character is still its own one of its kind person.