Basing Characters On Real People

by | November 28, 2014 | General | 11 comments

Elizabeth Black writes in a wide variety of genres including erotica, erotic romance, and dark fiction. She lives on the Massachusetts coast with her husband, son, and four cats. Visit her web site, her Facebook page, and her Amazon Author Page.

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Every writer on Facebook has seen a variation of this meme: “Be nice to me or I’ll put you in my book and kill you off”. Those same writers probably gave the meme a wry smile. I have based some of my characters on real people. Two professors in my Night Owl Top Pick erotic romance novel “Don’t Call Me Baby” are based on two professors I had flings with in college. Neither man knows I’ve done this. If they read the book, they’re probably recognize themselves. Why did I do this? Because I wanted to write a fictitious account of one summer during my college years, and those two men were a part of that summer. I’ve also based a few characters in some short stories on people I’ve met in real life. The depiction of one prof is not very flattering, but the other one is. I’ve even based my character Eric in my free “Tuesday’s Tales” short stories on my husband. He likes that. Those stories are available at my web site.

With the recent news that J. K. Rowling based her Harry Potter character Dolores Umbrage on a teacher she despised, you may wonder what other characters have been based on real people. Here are a few of the more famous ones:

Tintin – The Adventures of Tintin

Based on Palle Hude, a Danish boy scout who traveled around the world in 1928 as part of a competition set up by a Danish newspaper. He had to circumnavigate the world in 44 days, unaccompanied, and not set foot on a plane. Hude’s travels made newspapers all over the world, and it’s likely Tintin’s creator in Belgium would have read about him. 20,000 people greeted Hude at the end of his tour, not unlike the crowd that greeted TinTin at the end of his first album.

Ebenezer Scrooge – A Christmas Carol

Based on John Elwes. He was an 18th century politician who was a miser. Despite his wealth, he lived a sparse, hermit-like life. He’d eat rotting food rather than spend the money to buy fresh produce. Rather than part with his fortune, he chose to horde his money and live in squalor.

Severus Snape – Harry Potter novels

Based on John Nettleship. J. K. Rowling’s former chemistry teacher. He had no idea he was the basis for the character until after the movies came out. He, his wife, and kids figured it out as they saw Alan Rickman play Snape on the big screen.

Dolores Umbrage – Harry Potter novels

Based on an unnamed teacher J. K. Rowling “disliked immensely on sight”. This person had been Rowling’s teacher “long ago… in a certain skill or subject.” In her essay on Pottermore, Rowling wrote “The woman in question returned my antipathy with interest. Why we took against each other so instantly, heartily and (on my side, at least) irrationally, I honestly cannot say,” Rowling wrote. She was also struck by the woman’s “pronounced taste for twee accessories,” including “a tiny little plastic bow slide, pale lemon in color,” which Rowling felt was more “appropriate to a girl of three.”

Dorian Gray – The Picture of Dorian Gray

Based on John Gray, one of Oscar Wilde’s alleged lovers. Wilde gave the character the first name of Dorian in reference to the Dorians, an ancient Greek tribe that engaged in m/m sex. John Gray was mortified when the story came out since he could see it was based on him, and it caused a rift in his relationship with Wilde.

I interviewed several writers who based characters on people they know. They had plenty to say, including why they chose to do it.

Romance writer Jeanne Guzman: Years ago, while having lunch at my favorite lakeside restaurant, The Oasis on Joe Pool Lake in Grand Prairie, Texas, I said to myself “Self, this would make the perfect spot for a murder,” and so was born my novel, Bridge Over Troubled Waters.

With the enthusiasm of my waitress, my main character was born. The character of Misty was a combination of several of the waitresses on staff, but the name was a gift from the original Misty who sadly moved away and found other employment. From the manager, to the cook, and even the ladies I was having lunch with are mentioned in the book.

Keep in mind, I had to change the names, but once you read the book, you’ll be able to go to The Oasis and know who everyone is. Most important, you have to meet the matriarch who not only has inspired me, but is so love by those around her that the city named a street after her. (The book is dedicated to her, and all those who put up with me while I did my research and wrote the book sitting on the outside deck.)

My inspiration came from the servers and the managers at the Oasis, it’s my favorite place to go to relax and have a good time. The ones that were working there at the time knew of my book, and the fact that I was using them as models for my characters. They allowed me to take pictures and follow them around as they did their jobs. I had originally wanted to use the name “Oasis” as my setting, but when I talked to the owner, she said she didn’t feel right gaining publicity through my book, even though she, and the employees were cast in a positive light. I told her I would change the name and the location, but I would still dedicate the book to her. And I did. As for the employees that still work at the Oasis, they all have a copy of the book and even though I combined different aspects of them into the characters, they knew who I was talking about. They loved it.

Romance writer Lindsay Klug: My male leads are almost always, without fail, based on my husband. He’s everything I’ve ever wanted, so why not use his attributes? When he was military, the leads wore shaved heads and clean faces. Now that he’s got a beard, I can’t imagine a lead without one. Kind of weird, eh?

[As far as inspiration goes], [i]t just flowed naturally into my story lines. He doesn’t read what I’ve written but he knows he’s a part of it. Lol, I just couldn’t and still can’t picture anybody else for my leads. He always makes fun of the pictures I look at for inspiration, but he doesn’t know I’m seeing his face and character with them.

Romance writer Phoenix Johnson: So my only ‘based on real life’ character is Bailey. She’s the slightly-overweight, self-conscious, lacking self-esteem and confidence leading lady in my contemporary romance Acapello’s Lady. So far, she’s much like me. We’re also both on a weight-loss track to be happy with ourselves. I’m hoping that writing her story week either motivate me or shame me to keep at my own. However, unlike me, Bailey is single. She doesn’t feel deserving or needing of a guy right now. Until hunky escaped-con Joe shows up looking for somewhere to hide. He was doing time for someone else’s crime, and couldn’t stand it. Silly man. However, his heart was broken when his wife died so his actions aren’t the smartest right now. His attraction to Bailey, and their growing connection, however, reminds them both that it’s ok to love and that they do deserve happiness.

Writing Bailey is not just a way to try to motivate myself. I’m finding that she is freeing for me, and in writing that she deserves to be happy and to love herself, I’m frankly telling myself the same thing. Bailey, unintentionally, is my way of saying to myself “be happy, you deserve it. And love yourself; you’re allowed to, and it’s ok.” It’s actually something I want all readers to take from her when I finish Acapello’s Lady and get it released. (I haven’t intentionally based Joe on anyone but I think, with the lost-love, and escaped con elements, he could possibly be based on the potential I see in my fiance as well. Or he could also be a combination of the potential I see in both of us.)

[On why she chose to base her heroine on herself]: I was having a shower after a workout, and it started running through my head as a written scene. And it occurred to me that there aren’t enough heavier heroines, so I thought it was my turn, and loosely basing her on myself would hopefully be like a sounding board for healthy changes. It’s also therapeutic, in a way, when you’ve actually worn your heroines know exactly what she’s thinking or feeling because it’s what you have or would think and feel.

Romance writer Jacques Gerard: Yes, I have written many short stories with one of the characters based on somebody I know. In those stories the heroine is based on a lady I use to be involved with. I don’t use the lady’s real name, but the heroine’s name begins with the same letter of that lady’s first name. Those short stories are based on a date that lead to us making love or what could have happened between us two in a certain scenario I dream up. I have never shared with a lady I knew that they were in my one of my stories. However, one lady I know had an idea I used her as a character and was flattered.

What inspired him to base his character on that particular woman? “She was a co-worker and we had a special chemistry.” He said. “She also read one of my stories and enjoyed it. We were talking at an office Christmas party and got on the subject of romantic Christmas getaways. It was funny because at the time I was thinking of writing a Christmas story for my website. I shared that with her and asked her opinion about a lounging dress for the female character in my story. She chuckled and asked if I was going to write about us. I replied that wasn’t a bad idea.  She also knew about my foot fetish and liked it as well.”

Horror writer Dave Gammon: Eric A. Shelman often does this and in fact has written myself in his runaway zombie hit series Dead Hunger. I come in at part 2 and part 5 is my actual POV and continue on until part 8.

There are many reasons writers may choose to base a character on a real person. Writers may even base characters on themselves. This inspiration has lead to the creation of some fine fiction. Without Palle Hude and John Gray, we may not have had the pleasure of enjoying Tintin and Durian Gray. It’s always interesting to learn who influenced certain characters. It’s sometimes flattering, and that spark helps bring characters to life.

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You may find these authors at Amazon and other sites.

Jeanne Guzman – Amazon Author Page

Lindsay Klug – Amazon Author Page

Phoenix Johnson – Amazon Author Page

Jacques Gerard – Amazon Author Page

Dave Gammon: (regular contributor)

If you’re interested in reading my novel “Don’t Call Me Baby”, you may find more information at Amazon and other outlets.

Elizabeth Black

Elizabeth Black's erotic fiction has been published by Cleis Press, Xcite Books, Scarlet Magazine, Circlet Press, and others. She also writes dark fiction and horror as E. A. Black. She lives in Massachusetts next to the ocean with her husband, son, and three cats. The beach calls to her and she listens.


  1. Jeanne Guzman

    Thank you for this post, Elizabeth, it's nice to know I'm in such great company in my writing

  2. Elizabeth Black

    You're very welcome, Jeanne. 🙂

  3. Jacques

    Great post! I think writers basing characters on somebody they know is part of storytelling.

  4. Elizabeth Black

    Thank you, Jacques!

  5. Fiona McGier

    I dated quite a few guys while I was in college, but there was one name that always was attached to guys who were a-holes. Alpha-holes. Pricks who caused me no end of grief. So whenever I have a character who is a self-absorbed jerk, that's what I name them.

  6. Lisabet Sarai

    Many of the characters in my stories, both male and female, have attributes of people I've known – and usually loved. My villains, however, come straight from my imagination.

    Fun post, Elizabeth!

  7. Reuben

    On reflection, I think ALL my characters are based on real persons to some extent.

    Sometimes there's just a sprinkling of a certain something about someone; sometimes the real person forms the main ingredient of the character.

    And sometimes a character is drawn largely from just one person; sometimes there is a blend of elements from various real people.

    But I definitely see the characters as distinct in the end; formed FROM those real elements, rather than simply transferring real people wholesale into a fictitious form.

    Fascinating article. Thanks, Elizabeth.

  8. Elizabeth Black

    Fiona, I have a few names like that. 🙂 I also have a few names I like to use based on people I care very much about.

  9. Elizabeth Black

    Thanks, Lisabet. I have names I like to use for villains that are not necessarily based on real people. My problem is that I know people I like and people I despise with the same first name. I go to baby name lists for some names to remedy that. Glad you liked the post.

  10. Elizabeth Black

    I've done composites, Reuben. Come to think of it, many of my characters are composites. I guess since I have only my own frame of reference for all characters they're most likely an interpretation of how I see a particular someone, not necessarily what that person may actually be like.

  11. Jean Roberta

    Fascinating post, but I wonder why it attracted spam from Mumbai Escorts. 🙁

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