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Who Are They, Really?

There’s one type of question about my characters I really don’t like to answer. It usually comes from family members, sometimes close friends. “Who is that character, really?” “You based them on ____, didn’t you?” And worst of all, because of the accusatory tone that generally accompanies it, “That’s supposed to be me, isn’t it?”

So here’s the short answer: None of my characters are representations of a real person. Never.

And here’s the real answer: My characters often draw individual physical or personality traits, speech patterns, habits and experiences from people I know (and not necessarily people I know well—I may simply have noticed them in passing), but in every case, the final character is a composite of many different people plus a lot of additional elements that emerge from the fictional character’s life history and circumstances. They might look a little like one person, have another one’s career, a third one’s taste in food or clothing, a fourth’s favorite phrase. Some of these people might not even be the same gender, age or ethnicity of the character in question. It’s far too reductive to say, “That’s really so-and-so, isn’t it?”

Besides, if a character “is” anybody, it has to be me. They come out of my head. I determine every one of their actions and reactions, their moods and emotions, every word they speak. As Gustave Flaubert famously said of his best-known character, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”

Still, while I don’t like answering the question, especially since nobody ever seems satisfied by my answer, I’m glad that it is being asked. It shows that people are identifying with my writing, that my characters seem real enough to compare to actual people, even to themselves. That my characters are relatable, believable, convincing. What better reaction could a writer ask for from a reader?

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