Is it OK to use people you know as your characters?

IMAG0156“Am I in it?” friends and colleagues have often asked of my Work In Progress.  Is it ever OK to use someone you know as a ‘fictional’ character in your novel or short story?  Some bestselling authors auction off their characters for charity: if you are the winning bidder then a character in their next novel is named after you, or you at least get a small ‘walk-on’ part. Marian Keyes and Jojo Moyes have both done this and it’s a great idea: who wouldn’t want to star in a top ten bestseller?

But what of us mere writing mortals?  Can we use real people without getting sued?  My WIP novel is set in the legal profession so I am going to have to be doubly – if not trebly – careful that nobody in my book bears the faintest of resemblance to anyone in real life!

My answer, though, is of course you can use real people for inspiration.   Observing people is one of my great passions in life.  How we interact, our relationships, the complicated dynamics of family and friendships, our character quirks, even office politics: people just fascinate me.  In another life I perhaps would have been a social worker or a psychologist; I even have the sociology degree gathering dust.  In fact, I spent years wanting to retrain as a prison psychiatrist.  The depths of evil in the human psyche amaze me, but that’s another blog post.

The trick is not to copy wholesale but to use snippets and observations from here and there, stitched together like Frankenstein’s monster to create the whole character.  Borrow a single character trait from a colleague by all means, but change their appearance, job, age and even sex.  The chances are most people won’t recognise themselves anyway but be extra vigilant that none of your fictional characters instantly bring to mind a real person – especially if the character is an evil one. When people ask if they’re in your novel or story, they always envision themselves as the romantic hero: nobody wants to appear as the vile mass murderer who skins puppies alive! Tempting as it is to take revenge on those I don’t like by casting them as the villain of the piece,  I try not to offend.

What about family?  Three years ago when I had a short story published featuring a woman at the end of her tether who stabs her evil mother-in-law to death, (Mother-in-law’s Revenge, Best, January 10 2012 issue) I had to hurry round to my in-laws to reassure them it wasn’t based on real life!  Luckily, my late mother-in-law had a great sense of humour (we joked about her not coming near me when I was wielding a potato peeler!) and I can state here with confidence she was nothing like Maggie.  Was Maggie, the mother-in-law character of my story, someone I actually knew?  No, she was a hybrid of several mother-in-laws about whom friends and colleagues lamented , with a dash of two women I once met thrown in.

For my novel which is based in the courtroom, I am thinking about little bits and pieces of the people I’ve met over the last 18 years. Like tiny glittering jewels, these characteristics will be strung on the necklace of my story to make what I hope is a dazzling whole.  Some of those I’ve encountered are wonderful, some are hideous, with just about everything in between.   Take judges, for instance. We all think of the stereotypical out-of-touch, dust and crabby old man in a wig, but in my experience many are charming, warm, friendly, compassionate and very switched on to the modern world. And maybe I’m getting older but a lot of judges are looking younger!

Another rich seam of material for characters is those who own, show or work with dogs.  Since becoming the owner of a rescue dog four years ago I have been plunged into a whole new world: groomers, vets, behaviourists, dogsitters, breeders and other dog owners.  I also volunteer at an animal shelter.  Although I maintain that dog lovers are the nicest people ever, and I have made some great friends, there are also some very unusual characters out there and it could definitely be the subject of a book!

Good luck with your characters and if you have a tricky mother-in-law, bite your tongue and stay away from the potato peeler!






What’s In A Name?

Quite a lot, actually.  As a writer, when you’re naming your characters, which do you choose?

We all have a name we loathe: if you were the unfortunate target of Keith, the school bully, then the name Keith will forever have negative associations, however much of a perfect specimen of manhood is the fictional Keith. And of course names can, on the whole, give away the age of your character: my grandmother was Madge and her sister-in-law Nora, my mum’s generation is full of Pats, Jeans and Hazels and, as a child of the 1970s, Julie and Sarah were my peer group.  Daisy, Kieran and Poppy are teenagers now.  Biblical names for boys, Matthew, Thomas and John, are always popular and are largely, ageless. And does class matter with names?  Katie Hopkins, queen of controversy, caused uproar on daytime TV when stating that she wouldn’t let her kids play with other children who had certain perceived ‘lower class’ names: they were bound to be a disruptive influence.  So are Dwayne or Chardonnay always bad news?

So how can you suggest character through a name?  I would never, for instance, name a rough diamond barely educated hero Giles, nor a scheming modern femme fatale Doreen. Names have a powerful association in the reader’s mind.  Below are what certain names suggest to me:


Clara is bossy, tall and opinionated.

Helen is spoilt and manipulative.

Katie is flighty, pretty and a little dizzy.

Sarah is practical.

Eloise is vain, affected and self-obsessed.

Mary is a touch old-fashioned, sensible and wise.

Rachel and Claire are salt of the earth girl next doors, kind, reliable and good fun.

Catherine is intelligent and a bit of a tomboy.

Zara and Poppy are exotic and glamorous.

Zoe and Abbie are flirty party girls.

Simone is mysterious.


And what of the boys?

Lee is always in trouble and laddy.

Jack and John are reliable and slightly boring.

Mark is strong and sensible.

Peter is a perfectionist.

Tom and Robbie are manly and sporty.

Richard is steady.

Jeremy, Julian and Hugo are, of course, extremely well-heeled.

I would like to make the point that we all know exceptions to the above, people with these names that are nothing like I’ve suggested (I know gorgeous, fun-loving Sarahs, two very dependable Lees, glamorous Catherines and a grounded Katie and so on). These are just what characteristics certain names bring to my mind.  But if anyone ever meets a Hugo or a Julian from a sink estate, please let me know!

So what’s in a name?  You decide.


Note from Rebecca: this article is intended to be light-hearted, entertaining and fun, not a serious debate on the class system or people’s characters …