Why real people must be the basis for your characters
Everyone you meet or have ever met is a potential character for your story. So is every real person that you seen on TV or read about in books. Real people can provide boundless inspiration for a writer. If you ‘write what you know’ they provide the characters for your story.
It’s good to write notes about people you meet. Racking your brain to remember all the people you’ve met over the years is a lot harder than just flicking through your written notes.
Look out for particularly interesting people. That could be a boss who is irritating but smart. Or a lovely friend that everyone adores despite the fact that he’s a bit of a failure.
Forget the setting that you met the person in. You’re a writer, you can put your characters anywhere! Practice thinking about them in different situations and roles. How would your lovely friend react to a war starting. Would they run or hide or pick up a gun and become a leader?
If your bosses heart was broken and he set out on a search for love how would he go about it? Randomly or methodically? Happily or desperately?
With people you know, especially people you know well, you don’t have to invent their reactions to a situation. You already know what it would be. That’s part of the beauty of basing your characters on real life people, things become a little easier and are even more authentic.
If you have trouble describing or inventing characters physical attributes then using a real life person can make things a lot easier. You can use Google to look up pictures of French looking women, or use Facebook to look up pictures of your ex boyfriend and describe him perfectly. (Though you might want to change the odd detail.)
There is no need to stick doggedly to one friend’s characteristics. Real people are there for your inspiration not to limit your imagination. You can combine several people to create a character. One simple thing to do is to combine the personality of one person you know with the looks of another.
More interesting though is to combine the most interesting characteristics of the most interesting people you know. For example, say you have a friend that always speaks her mind in a very blunt way. She doesn’t like to offend but often ends up doing it. This can make for some humorous dialogue. You could combine that with a friend that has some amusing habits. And another friend that is very successful in life but they’ve always had trouble knowing what they want in relationships, they think they might even be asexual but their parents are pressuring them to get married. Put all that together and you create an interesting protagonist for a romantic comedy.
Celebrities also make great inspiration for characters. As sad as this is to admit we often know more about celebrities than people we’ve met in real life. Chances are you’ve heard Tom Cruise say more in films than you heard quiet people utter at your workplace. And unlike with your real friends there is hours of footage on YouTube of these celebrities being interviewed that you can go and review. Reality TV shows also provide sources of people interacting in real life that can be useful for building characters.
One of the major benefits to using real people as a basis for your characters is that it helps you avoid fictional tropes. To take an example, lets say you are creating a serial killer character. You start off by making the killer clever, evil and a little crazy. Your first thought is basically built off tropes that you’ve seen of serial killers on TV. So instead you think about basing the killer off of your brother, someone you know well. It’s pretty unlikely that your brother fits the killer trope of being an evil crazy genius.
Let’s say your brother is a little dim. Killers are often clever in books to make the case harder for the protagonist to solve. But by breaking out of that trope of the clever killer, you may unlock a more interesting story, for example one where the killer randomly discovers an easy way to kill people. Maybe he works as a handy man and replaces people paracetamol with poison. They don’t actually die until months after he’s gone. He could have discovered it by accident when he knocked a lot of pills onto the floor and mistakenly replaced them in the wrong bottles.
Similarly if you make him misguided instead of evil you may think of a more relate-able motivation for him to kill, for example, financial difficulties.
The two best reasons to base your characters (at least partially) off real people are that real people are endless sources of inspiration and interesting characters and that using real people helps you avoid the tropes that are stuck in your brain.