Creating a character · Plots · Writer basics 101

Should you use real life in your novels?

How do you make good stories out of real life?from Peter Richardson and David Orme's Cloud 109
hould you change things?

 This week, a picture popped into my inbox. It’s a frame from the manga graphic novel Cloud 109, the latest WIP by artist Peter Richardson and writer David Orme. Peter sent it because he’s put me and Dave into the background as a cameo.

This is something arty folk do regularly, of course; we’re forever using each other as cameos and walk-ons in our stories.

But this is only for cameos. Not main characters.

In fact, this topic has been hot all week. Mysteries writer Elizabeth Craig started it when she asked, should you write about people you know? Non-writers assume that everything we write is recycled from our own lives – but they don’t realise how much invention is added. The debate carried on on Twitter, where the consensus from writers was this: sometimes real people go into novels, but if they are to play major parts, they require a lot of tweaking. What comes out is not necessarily that similar to the raw materials that went in.

No character from real life, however remarkable, is going to be completely suitable just as they are.

And that’s just when they start off in the story. If characters are to be explored in any great depth they will probably – and should – evolve as the story goes. They may surprise you, develop a will of their own – that oft-repeated phrase ‘the characters took over’. Not only do they do what they want, they go through their own changes which you can’t necessarily predict when you start.

To use real life well in a novel, you have to allow everything to go its own way.

This doesn’t just apply to characters, but also to events.

I used to go to a critique group, and one week a lady read from her novel about a couple divorcing. There were many scenes featuring bitter arguments. Everyone agreed the characters’ distress was plain to see but following it all was difficult. We started to make suggestions that would help us find a way in – so that we could engage with the characters and why they were so upset with each other. There were suggestions to amalgamate two characters, show some of the other person’s point of view, tone down the villainous behaviour. Every comment was answered with ‘but I can’t change that, it’s what really happened’.

Really, she was writing the novel as therapy, so telling it exactly as she saw it was the point. Inviting the reader to become involved was not her purpose.

But if inviting the reader in is your purpose, you have to be prepared to change things.

You have to know the difference between real truth and dramatic truth. Dramatic truth is universal, in some ways it is about us all. Real truth is messy, overblown, particular to one situation. For instance, coincidences – in real life they happen all the time. In novels coincidences usually look like lazy storytelling. In real life, people behave in ways we will probably never understand. Real life is a terrible template for a story – it only gets away with it because we can’t turn it off.

Truth is stranger than fiction – or, if you’re a storyteller, fiction cannot be as messy and strange as truth. In a novel, the reader knows you have made up the events – therefore the events themselves are not as important as what they signify, or their part in a coherent whole. This is an absolute rule, no matter what kind of material you are basing your novel on – and I’ve helped clients make novels out of truly horrific childhoods, which you might think gave the writer a free pass for the reader’s indulgence.

If you’re basing a story or characters on real life, don’t get hung up on what really happened. You are not giving evidence for the police. When you write fiction, no matter what you are making it out of, you cross a line. Telling the real truth isn’t your job. Telling the dramatic truth is. 

If you’re going to write about real life, be prepared to let it change to make a better story.

There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

47 thoughts on “Should you use real life in your novels?

  1. I think that – for a first novel, anyway – the writer can’t help but make herself a big part of it whether it be in part character, plot or whatever. As writers we are egomaniacs, aren’t we? We can’t help but leave our ‘mark’ then later on have the confidence to delve elsewhere.
    At this point I must admit that I have based one of the main characters in my novel on Alistair Campbell, I’m not sure what that says about my psyche…
    Great post, and food for thought

    1. Cath, of course we put ourselves into our novels – if they’re heartfelt in any way. But we have to be prepared to adapt the material because we are creating a new entity.
      Also, there’s a danger we may be trying to cram far too much in and should in fact save some material for subsequent novels.
      Alistair Campbell… brave confession! Seriously, though, a strong character is a strong character. I used a tincture of Derren Brown in one of mine.

  2. Roz, such a great topic. I have never had much luck incorporating real life events into my novels, but have “borrowed” from many friends I’ve known over the years, not full-on cloning, of course, but certainly been inspired by elements of their personality, as I suspect we all have.

    But any time I’ve tried to use events in a novel, it always felt contrived and out of place to me. Curious.

    1. Erika, that’s such an interesting observation: ‘it always felt contrived and out of place’. That’s the problem – real life rarely fits neatly enough into a story, although it’s often hard to realise. You have to develop particular sensitivity for that – as, in your case, is evident from your posts.

  3. This comes back to the old stand-by write what you know. The thing is sometimes what we know and experience doesn’t translate well on paper. If we’re writing fiction and not a memoir, then it’s a given that freedom of expression takes the lead.

    In my case the first book I wrote, had a cruel bad ass in it. I knew what he looked like, how he talked, and what to expect from him. What I forgot to do was divorce myself from reality and keep his fictional face front forward. I had even given the character the same name as my real life persona. Once I wrapped my head around my problem with the character and changed up names and outcomes, the story flowed.

    In the end fiction is meant to take liberties with realism. (Hugs)Indigo

  4. Fantastic post Roz! I think that is why I have always written whether it be poetry or stories…to seek the Dramatic Truth….I was actually just saying how I could never use certain episodes from real life in fiction as readers would not find it believable. Real life is mostly unbelievable …. but we can use these emotions from the experiences and inspire our stories of fiction with them.

    1. But the best thing is, Dragonfly, that you can split all those episodes up and have several stories.

      And yes, I agree – the emotions from these real stories give us the core for the ones we make up.

  5. “fiction cannot be as messy and strange as truth”

    Scott Adams, the creator of the comic strip Dilbert, once wrote about this. When he started Dilbert he intended it to be a satire of corporate incompetence. But once his work became widely known people began to write to him with their own experiences and he discovered that in fact real corporate incompetence is way stupider than the events in Dilbert. Moreover, he realised he couldn’t just turn up the absurdity level in his own work because real life was actually too crazy to be funny!

  6. I don’t base any of my characters on real people. I occasionally borrow real incidents for my characters to remember or experience as they go, or I’ll borrow someone’s first name because it fits my purpose, in this case, it didn’t sound like a standard American name.

    Marc Vun Kannomn

    1. Names are a good example, Marc. I often borrow a name because of what it reminds me of. It’s a starting point that helps me connect personally and reminds me what I want to bring out in the character.

  7. I loved this sentence, Roz.

    To use real life well in a novel, you have to allow everything to go its own way.

    Elements of real life trickle into fiction almost without our full awareness … but if we don’t make the story follow a life script, or what we think happened, letting things unfold per the story being written, it might work out. Can be difficult, but fun. Leave the suspense in our work, right? (even when pieces of the action sound oddly familiar!)

    Great post, as always, Roz. I actually pulled a fiction project out of my files last week, dusted it off to see what might be lurking! Take care, Daisy

    1. Hi there, Daisy! Yes, fiction does feed on our lives, of course. And then it has to pull up the anchor and sail away.

      Glad to hear we may have got you into fictional habits! You’d better post about it… Expect odd surprises, but I don’t doubt there will be good ones too.

    1. Ha ha, Terry, that’s so true. I remember that feeling too. I never felt self-conscious while I was writing, but once I handed the manuscript to someone to read I felt peeled.

      Thankfully I have now developed elephant hide.

  8. Actually I have to say that Cloud 109 isn’t strictly speaking manga. Peter Richardson does draw on manga influences for the unreal parts of the comic – if those *are* the unreal parts; maybe they’re the *real* parts. And if that sounds intriguing, you need to check out the Cloud 109 blog and read the story so far!

    As for real people in fiction – supposedly both Long John Silver and Sherlock Holmes were based on real people, but that is of course only the popular simplification. In reality I’m sure Stevenson and Conan Doyle drew on their imaginations and added just a seasoning of actual experience.

    1. Ah, dearest – you know I don’t know as much about comics as you. But Peter says on his very fine blog that cloud 109 is manga influenced.

      As to Holmes… great example. He was a doctor, wasn’t he?

      Alan Garner claimed he put an Alderley Edge local into The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Gowther Mossack went in, according to Garner, ‘Straight and undiluted’. Which meant, accent and all. Gowther Mossack was the character I found insufferably irritating.

  9. I used to work with some odd characters, and people often said “you should put him/her” into a book. It never occured to me to do this, since their lives and my stories didn’t touch upon each other.
    Only recently I have thought about incorporating, not the people themselves, but the impact they have on other people, or adapting their warped logic.
    One former colleague was a real nut case, but while they’re good for anecdotes, I can’t ever see putting them into a novel. Not least because they don’t deserve it.

    1. Ha ha, ‘because they don’t deserve it’… One day, though, you may have the perfect use for a loathed or dull colleague. Never say never.

      I like your point about the impact that people have; that’s a crucial point about an interesting character. They cause trouble and change.

  10. This is such a great issue to discuss—we all have to write what we know (how can we write anything else with authenticity?), but if we write exactly what we know it’s not fiction, it’s memoir.

    When I interviewed my old friend Craig Bartlett, the creator of Hey, Arnold!, he talked about using real life as kernels for episodes. But they always had to beef them up, he said, otherwise they weren’t complex enough for complete stories.

    I think that’s the key. You use a kernel for your story that you know is a real truth about a living person. And you flesh out your scenes with details you know are real details about real life.

    But the depth of your layers comes from the juxtaposition of those details, the ways in which you arrange them around that real truth, and the deeper real truths your arrangement eventually reveals about a life it turns out you didn’t even know you were living.

    This is the joy of writing. We write as honestly as possible about the truth we know in order to learn even deeper truths.

    (Unless, of course, you want to use real people just to annoy them. I once put my big, noisy, hilarious-but-opinionated uncle into a novel and switched his race to one I thought he could stand to learn just a wee bit about. It was fabulous.)

  11. Excellent point, Victoria. As is your mischievous one. One idea I want to write is about a pair of old enemies who keep putting each other in each other’s novels and deliberately, provocatively misrepresenting them.

      1. He never knew. I mentioned it to my aunt once–“You know, I modeled that character on Peet”–unaware of how strong his attitude actually was, and her eyebrows just about went through the ceiling. Now I only regret I didn’t get a chance to taunt him with it before he unexpectedly died. He was a crazy, hard-bitten old rascal. A terrific character.

          1. Oh, Roz, I’m sorry. That’s one of my desk drawer babies. I’ve been too busy writing for a living all these years to pursue publication with any kind of practicality at all.

            But if it ever does come out, I will let you know.

  12. Hi Roz,

    Just stumbled on this blog — glad I found it!

    My “problem” if you want to call it that, is quite the opposite. People keep asking me to put them in a novel, like they want to be made famous or something. (I’m not Stephen King, so it’s a long shot anyway…)

    The more I think about it, the more I see a double-edged sword here. People might think they want a character based on them, but (a) even if you wrote it straight and changed little, the way you see that person is totally different than how they see themselves; and (b) the character is going to take a life of his or her own, and the real person the character is based upon my not like that direction. Either way, it could end badly.

    I think it’s hard to avoid writing about someone (or people) that you know. But I think it’s important to consciously make them different enough that they see the character is not entirely them.

    If you want to keep those friends, that is.


    1. Welcome, Graham! Yes, I’ve had that scenario. A very good friend is always asking me to put him in a novel. And I do want to – in fact he will make a central character. But I don’t think he’ll like what I examine.

      It’s not that I don’t like him – I wouldn’t be such good friends with him if that was the case. But once he crosses that line into dramatic truth he’ll be examined ruthlessly and pushed into situations he wouldn’t like in real life. And he won’t like what I make him do. He will, however, come out of it redeemed and happier – which is what I’d want for him in real life anyway. I think he’d know that, and so our friendship would be safe.

  13. Was it Raymond Chandler who said it doesn’t matter either way? The wrong people will see themselves in your characters and be furious, and the right people won’t see themselves. . .and will still be furious.

  14. I’m reading Nail Your Novel, Roz, and loving it, but it’s taking me a long time because I’m making sure every word sinks in. I used to be able to fly through books and walk away with just whatever stuck in my brainpan, but now that I do this for a living I have to be careful to milk it for all it’s worth.

  15. But what about Historical fiction? My character’s have always been flat. But I’ve been working on a historical fantasy and the opportunity to use some larger than life characters, with real, well known motivations has given it a life that’s invigorated my writing.

    At what point can I say, OK, now we leave the real world behind and these are not the people, but the characters?

    1. Lou – that’s a very interesting question. (And apologies if you’ve been waiting a while for a reply – for some unknown reason you were bounced into spam.)
      Really, it’s up to you how much you deviate from or stick to known historical facts. You may want to present the conventionally known character, or you may want to go out on a limb and show a side of them that you suggest is plausible but has not been documented in history. You may want to show a slightly different slant on what people already know.
      And what events will you show? Even the most famous people in history haven’t had every moment of their lives documented. And does your story feature them in situations that are famous, or is it downtime that no one knows about?
      And by the way, no matter how well known they are, you still have to show the reader some establishing scenes that demonstrate what the character is like. So you have to decide how you’re going to present those.
      So I reckon there’s still a lot of fabrication that can go on. And one of the questions you have to ask yourself is: how much do you want to stick to the known facts? It is entirely up to you.

  16. This is so true. My novel is based on my grandmother’s story and the biggest hurdle I had to jump was in fictionalising it. I felt I couldn’t/shouldn’t move away from the truth. Crunch time came when I added the love interest – my own creation – who is wonderful. He gave me permission to move on. My grandmother is still there but she is developing into the character she needs to be.

    1. Lynn – that’s a lovely example. I often find that when I’m stuck – even in stories that aren’t based on fact – it’s because there’s something I’m resisting changing. So I have to give myself permission to change – and then I can continue.

  17. Ridley Scott put a great early shot into Gladiator: the protagonist brushing his hand through stalks of wheat as he walks through a field. Who has not done this? And so we are reminded that the past is not another world entirely. People just like (or a lot like) us live there. And so we can relate to them. Lou, if you find you’re enjoying using larger than life characters, why not put them in your modern fiction too?

  18. Loved your content, very well-written and informative. I agree that stories from real-world interactions lead the readers to a compelling sense of mutual understanding. It will awaken an experience they have had in the past which touches their inner world.

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