Fiction vs Reality

Writers are often asked if their characters are based on someone they know. I have realized that my reply to this always seems defensive – “Heavens, no! I don’t want my friends or people I know casually to think I am writing about them! They might be offended, and I live in a small town. My characters are purely fictitious.” 

How do you, as writers, answer that question? I’ve been thinking about it myself and I realize I really should say, “Yes - not on distinct individuals, but on their character traits and what I personally know about real people, including my husband and myself.”

If you want your characters to seem “real” to your readers, then they should have “real” emotions, and character traits with which your readers can identify, i.e. – “Oh! I know someone who is just like that!” or “Oh, my gosh, that is exactly what I would have done!” Even if you are writing paranormal or fantasy, character traits and emotions should be real. Perhaps your character(s)’ super powers aren’t real, and perhaps the weird events surrounding them aren’t real, but if your characters are human beings, then their reactions, whether bravery or terror, should be real. They can still fall in love, even if they are ghosts – or, as in the original Superman, they can fall in love as a super hero, but realize that their powers could put the person they love in danger, so they choose to deny that love.

I write the “bad guy with a good heart” type of stories – and perhaps their prowess seems slightly exaggerated at times, but my heroes always have a reason for their behavior. An abusive childhood, a domineering parent, the devastating loss of a loved one, being forced to defend someone they love in a bloody, merciless way, getting involved in a war that tears at them emotionally – there are so many life experiences that affect your hero and his decisions.

The same goes for heroines. Why is she attracted to the hero? What has happened in her own life that affects the decisions she makes? Base all of that on how mostly all women think and feel – things that affect the heroine as a single virgin – or a mother protecting her children – or a widow protecting her inheritance – or a grandmother making sacrifices for her grandchildren. Has your heroine been emotionally abused? Sexually abused? Abandoned? Is she an orphan? Is she from another country and unfamiliar with our ways? The basic premise of writing a good heroine is understanding your heroine’s goals and motivations, and that understanding comes from how your own friends, or even people you know only casually, react to events in their lives. What breaks a woman’s heart? The number one heartache is losing a child or a grandchild, maybe not always through death, but because they have run off, or have made a horrible life decision. And that child’s motives also should be based on reality. Imagine how the mother of Frank and Jesse James must have felt, knowing her sons were out robbing banks and trains and were being constantly hunted. Sure, she probably understood their reasons and maybe even agreed with them at times, but that woman must have lived with a shattered heart. I can’t imagine how she slept at night. If you know someone who is going through something similar today, or if you are going through it yourself, you will write a believable heroine with whom your readers will empathize.

It’s impossible to write our fictitious characters without thinking about someone we know. My heroes are always fiercely defensive of their loved ones and they often have a temper and will give up their lives for someone they love because, my own husband has always been that type of character (although at 73, he has mellowed!). I know men who are braggarts, careless gamblers, womanizers, deeply Christian, very loving, hard workers or who hardly work, big spenders and conservative spenders, very smart and very stupid, those who own businesses and those who prefer to work for someone else and go home with no worries, brave men and cowards, are strong or weak. I know women who suffer emotionally because of a husband or child, women who seem to have no emotion, women who work hard or hardly work, women who are promiscuous and women who wouldn’t think of looking at anyone but their husbands. Flirts and those who think it’s sinful to flirt. Sassy, “blingy” women, and shy “don’t look at me” women. I know widows, women who have been married to the same man forever, and women who are starting over late in life, either with a life-long dream or a new man.

So, yes, our characters are based on people we know. Of course we never name them, but we have to admit that we do know people who are very much like our characters, even 
if – like me, we write in another time or if we are writing in another realm, maybe in a universe far, far away.


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