Writing Question Answered: Should Your Characters Be Based On Real People?

I get asked a lot about whether the characters in my stories are based on real people, and the answer is yes… and no, and for most writers, that’ll be true. A little piece of me is inside every character I write. It’s inevitable, because the characters are coming from me. As a writer, I’m going to infuse my own experiences and ideas into the characters in my stories, but that doesn’t mean that every character is exactly like me or any of the real people in my life.

The Boy, The Boat, and The Beast with SCBWI Crystal Kite medalFor example, the Boy in THE BOY, THE BOAT, AND THE BEAST has a voice in his head that constantly tells him he’s a coward, he’s going to fail, no one cares about him. That was inspired by me. I have always had a voice like that in my head too, my insecurities playing havoc with my feelings. Since I knew that so well, I was able to write about it.

In ARROW, the main character, Arrow, has grown up as the only human in a hidden rainforest, so when he meets other humans for the first time, he feels shy, unsure, and like an outsider. I didn’t grow up without other humans around, but I do know what it feels like to be an outsider. I’m an only child, and when I was growing up, my family moved to different countries. I was the new kid in school a lot, and I was very shy, so it was hard for me to make friends. I used that experience to try to understand how Arrow felt.

ARROW by Samantha M ClarkHowever, Arrow has a limb difference, and I don’t have a limb difference nor do I know anyone with a limb difference, so that part of the character wasn’t based on me or anyone I knew. The character had come to me with a limb difference and I wanted to honor that, but I also knew that I had to make his experience as truthful as possible to honor the people who do have a limb difference. First I did a lot of research about people who have limb differences, I read articles about people who live with limb differences like Arrow’s, I watched videos they’d made, etc. I tried to put myself in their shoes as best as I could, even trying to do physical things using only one hand, like Arrow, then I wrote the character. But even with all that research, I couldn’t possibly know what it’s truly like to live with a limb difference, so after the book was written, I hired expert readers who had the same type of limb difference that Arrow did. They read the book and gave me notes about changes that should be made to make the character more representative of someone living with a limb difference. I’m so grateful for their help in making Arrow more real.

Sometimes, though, I write characters who aren’t human at all, like in my GEMSTONE DRAGONS chapter book series, which is coming out next year. For these books, I’m writing characters who are dragons and unicorns and fairies and more. I don’t personally know any dragons, or unicorns, or fairies ;), but the way I create the characters is very similar to how creating other human characters. For book one, OPAL’S TIME TO SHINE, the Gemstone Dragon Opal is very shy, and I was very shy as a child. I used my experiences with shyness to help me write Opal’s feelings and actions, but I also used my imagination to write what it’s like to have the power to become invisible and to have a tail.

WRITING TIP: When you’re creating characters, don’t be afraid to use your own experiences and add your imagination to it as well. If you’re afraid of the dark and you’re writing a character in space, you can think about how you feel with you’re in a dark place to help you write how your character must feel looking out at all the inky blackness around them. And if you’re writing a character who’s different from you, make sure you do your research and ask people with those lived experiences to help you make your characters as accurate as possible.


What do you think?