Tuesday, September 10, 2013

"Who's So-and-So Based On?" : Using Real People as Character Inspirations

Writers steal. That’s a simple, constant truth.

Okay, maybe “steal” is a strong word. “Borrow” may be more accurate. Or better yet, let’s say writers draw on everything in their experience in order to create fiction.

When I say they draw on everything, I do mean everything. Every experience, every place, everything we ever saw or heard of is fair game. That means people too.

Whenever a writer creates a character there is always the suspicion that somehow he or she is based upon someone the writer knows or knew. If the writer is telling a story closely related to his own career, such as a police officer writing mysteries or police procedurals, for example, the suspicion is even greater.

It doesn’t help that one of the most oft given pieces of advice is “write what you know.” This isn’t bad advice. If you write what you know, your stories will have an air of authenticity to them. While authenticity alone won’t make a bad story good, it can make a good story better. It also puts the writer in a comfort zone in which he operates from a position of confidence. Confidence is always an important element in producing good work.

But the suspicion remains. Was character X based upon so and so?

The answer is always yes.

Now before anyone points a finger and says “A-ha! I knew it!” or files a lawsuit, let me clarify. It is virtually impossible for a writer to create a character out of whole cloth. Just like there are no new stories under the sun, there are no new characters. Or at least character traits. Any little trait that a reader discovers his new character has probably has a basis can someone he knew or at least heard of. Maybe it was a coworker or someone he saw at the park or on TV. It’s entirely possible that the writer isn’t even aware of where that trait originated. It might occur to him as a stroke of brilliance. “Hey! What if this guy calls everybody ’Chuckles’?” The fact that the writer saw this in the movie nine years ago might be the core inspiration. Truth be told, it might not even be something he remembers, but it’s there nonetheless.

I don’t mean to say that whole character traits come from subliminal memories. Some of them are very purposeful. But just because a particular character shares a particular trait with a real person that the writer knows doesn’t mean that character is based on that person. It could mean that particular trait was stolen… err, borrowed… err, drawn from the writers experience with that real person. In all likelihood, the trait will be modified and heavily amplified when it is applied to the fictional character. After all, this is fiction and requires greater drama than real life.

I’m speaking strictly for myself, although I suspect many or even most writers have a similar experience. Writing mysteries and police procedurals novels while simultaneously working as a police officer and drawing on those experiences to create more compelling and authentic fiction has certainly made people wonder if I’ve based characters on real people.

Of course I have.

But as I explained above, I have drawn little pieces from here and there. A habit from this person, a snarky phrase from that one, some small piece of nobility from another. I’ve drawn from people I’ve worked closely with, people I’ve come across briefly, and cops I’ve seen on TV and movies. I’ve drawn from situations I’ve encountered and some I’ve only heard about. Some of it has been purposeful and I’m sure some of that has seeped in through my subconscious.

That’s what writers do.

So for those people who wonder who the real Lieutenant Alan Hart is… I’ll never tell.


Actually, while I did have a particular person in mind when I first began writing about that character, he quickly took on a life of his own. By the end of the first book and certainly by the time of the second, Hart became an amalgam of every weasel and every bureaucrat I’d ever met since grade school.

And what about Katie MacLeod? Did I have someone in mind when I penned her?

Of course. She actually started life as two different cops but I eventually combined both characters and their respective story arcs into one. By the time I did that, Katie was already herself. As the series has gone on, she has outgrown her inspiration, taken on traits from new inspirations, and most of all, she has grown and developed in her own right.

All of this is to say that while characters may have some source of inspiration or may bear some single point of resemblance to a real person, the writer’s real goal is to bring that fictional character alive. For the character to stand on his or her own two feet and be completely independent. That’s really when the magic starts happening. Everything else, to quote a little Breaking Bad, is a precursor.

Having said all of that, I come to Thomas Chisolm, the protagonist in my new novella, Chisolm’s Debt. Chisolm was originally based on a veteran cop I know named Tom Chapman. Tom was and is a veritable legend at the Spokane Police Department. Like Chisolm, he served in Vietnam as a Green Beret, was a veteran presence on patrol for years, has a great sense of humor, and is a straight talker. He even has the same scar. In fact, you could easily say that Thomas Chisolm was based on Tom Chapman, because he was. I took all of those elements that I admired in Tom and gave them to Chisolm.

Then a funny thing happened. Chisolm took on a life of his own. He faced his own demons, dealt with his own problems, and became a very different person than who Tom Chapman became. Tom, retired now for several years, is undoubtedly happier than Chisolm. For starters, he’s married, and Chisolm isn’t. He and Chisolm have taken the divergent paths in this world… or actually in their respective worlds. And while the basis for Chisolm had the far too many ingredients from the real Tom for me not to see some Chapman sometimes when I look at the Chisolm, Thomas Chisolm has emerged from the very real shadow that his inspiration casts. The truth is, when I look at Chisolm, I see him… most of the time.

Even so, as an homage to the man to inspired the character, I used a photograph of Tom Chapman on the cover of Chisolm’s Debt. I figured it was only fair, since he never asked for anything. I went to him before Under a Raging Moon was published and confessed that I’d based a character closely on him, and asked if he was all right with that. I said I could revise the character if he wanted (although that would have been less than ideal). Tom was flattered and graciously gave me the thumbs up. He was also intelligent enough to get the difference between reality and fiction and to know that this character would travel his own path.

And he has.

Anyway, that is one piece of the writing life. This is where some characters come from, and where pieces of all of them come from.

Oh, I almost forgot. There’s part of the writer in every single one of those characters, too. But that’s for another post.