Do Fiction Writers Use Real Life Characters in Their Novels?

Surely if you put a real person in your novel they might recognise themselves?

Is it all right to use real people to create characters in your novel?

Kenneth Branagh as conceited fop Gilderoy Lockhart
Kenneth Branagh as conceited fop Gilderoy Lockhart

Suppose they recognise themselves?

In my experience this is extremely unlikely.

JK Rowling based the character of Gilderoy Lockhart on someone she knew. In “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets”, Gilderoy is the new Defence Against the Dark Arts Teacher and he is a conceited egoist whom Hermione has a crush on. Kenneth Branagh had great fun with the role in the film of the book. JK Rowling is quoted as saying the original of Gilderoy is probably the last person on earth who’d be likely to recognise himself in the character who’s based on him.

The only character who is deliberately based on a real person is Gilderoy Lockhart. … the living model was worse. [Laughter]. He was a shocker! … I can say this quite freely because he will never in a million years dream that he is Gilderoy Lockhart.

Can Authors Always Get Away with Using Real People in Their Novels?

The answer to this is probably yes!

That’s because self-knowledge is a rare commodity, and most people are unable to recognise their own characteristics in a fictional character.

Authors are, in theory, supposed to protect themselves with the formula “All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental”.

But what is coincidence, in the creative imagination?

In the process of creative writing, the character will gain fictional attributes anyway. And other people you’ve known may well insinuate themselves in.

I’ve used several real people as models for characters in my novel “Mystical Circles“.

I hazard a guess not one of them would ever recognise themselves.

And not one of them is a pure, clear representation of a living person. Other bits and pieces have attached themselves to my fictional creation.

In any case, how can you  fully inhabit the character, mind, body and spirit of another real person? Impossible. Imaginative sympathy is the key.

I believe authors fictionalise characters by letting go of the need to “copy”, “represent real life” or “get the facts right”.

Instead we trust to our unconscious (as Carl Jung knows very well!) to process observation, imagination and knowledge.

What do you think? Do you believe you’d recognise yourself if someone put you into a novel? And if you’re an author, what’s your take on this? Let me know what you think about this!

Spaces, Holes and Boundaries in Creative Imagination

In the Birmingham City Art Gallery I found an artist whose work conjured up for me an imaginary conversation between two people meeting at a party: “So what do you do for a living?” “I tie threads round holes.”  As I imagined the likely response, I gazed at a series of photographs of various holes in fences – barbed wire, timber, whatever – on private or official property – which the artist had woven around, decorated, defined, and given meaning with thread.  The thought sprang into my mind, This could only be done secretly and without permission. Then I read in the artist’s note that was exactly what she did. I loved it.

The exhibition Lost in Lace showed me how holes, spaces and gaps concentrate meaning within themselves.  The artists, inspired by lace, had shown this in various ways. They had built networks and connections, by creating boundaries and structures – like an inverted crystal cathedral hanging from the ceiling, or After the Dream, a room filled with a disturbing and sinister network of black embroidery wool, enclosing four long white dresses. A glittering rose pattern punched on a wall seemed to have been created with sequins, or glass beads, or crystals. But they were only holes. Behind them a large window let in natural light; and the holes defined the pattern.

I entered a room A Thin Line Between Space and Matter which plunged the viewer into darkness and only threads of light could be seen, curving around, above and through space,  given meaning by the hole of darkness at the centre.  Recognising this put me in mind of another kind of space – the alleyway.

When I was a young child, an alleyway opposite my house was the way through to colour, adventure, romance, magic. This was because it led to the road along which the local Mayday Carnival processed. The amount of excited anticipation that I concentrated on that alleyway lent it a significance that would haunt my dreams of years. The reality of the alleyway may be weeds, delapidated concrete, a weathered gate, broken paving stones. But in my imagination that alleyway is a portal to another world.

So it is in creative writing. Gaps are essential to great story: the gap that opens up between the expectation of the reader, and what actually happens. And from that gap pours a flood of insight.

SC Skillman