Finding inspiration: Developing characters based on people you know (but doing so secretly)

This is a post by Marie Borthwick

[jbox color=”platinum”]Welcome to a week-long theme week on the Novel Publicity blog during which we'll cover a series of four posts about finding inspiration. Let's go deeper with another character development exercise.[/jbox]

When looking for inspiration, you should never be afraid to use what you know. Our friends, family, co-workers, neighbors and acquaintances are what we know… so we should use them. That said, there can be inherent dangers (I first blogged about this in my post “That Relative”) in using the people we know, even if we don't ever admit they were inspiration for our work (a great example of this is Kathryn Stockett and her best seller “The Help”.) Still, with a little care you can use the people you know and they will likely be none the wiser (unless you open your big mouth *wink, wink*). There are a few ways you can take advantage of the wealth of characters in your life:

Option 1: Using a piece of paper, write the name of a person you are considering using for inspiration. Without thinking, write all the words that come to mind when you think of the person. Later you can expand on these “words” by writing longer descriptions.

Option 2: Draw a line down the middle, at the top of the left column write “good” at the top of the right column write “bad.” In the left/”good” column, write all the things that you like about the person. In the right/”bad” column write all the things you don't like about the person.

Option 3: Write out your experiences, good and bad, with the person.

Option 4: Create a bio. Write down the particulars about the person you are using – physical appearance, personal history, job experience, education, likes/dislikes, etc

Option 5: Use a picture. Take a picture of the person and write a description based on that picture.

The key when using the people you know is to use only parts of them. Take your dad's gruff attitude, pair it with your mom's love of Care Bears, and ta-dah! You have a unique character people will talk about. Okay, so that was a bad example, but I'm sure you get my drift right?

Depending on the mood, you can use several of the examples I give for using the people you know – and even combine them! You’re a writer, a creative person, remember? Don't let anyone tell you differently!

marieprofileMarie has depended on books all her life – for entertainment, for emotional support, and for escape. She enjoys writing on her blog, Write Panic Live, where she shares the high, lows and in-betweens of living with mental illness, her path to becoming a published writer, and all the books she reads along the way. In addition to working on her current WIP, “Route 6”, she has started developing a business to share her love of crafted items, a charity she hopes will spread the hobby of knitting/crocheting to those in need, and has begun taking on developing two series of children’s books to promote social awareness.

Dane Zeller


I just write and let the characters appear. Oddly enough, the hero is me!

Next novel I’ll do the same, but flesh them out with your five options. Thanks for the idea.


Can you imagine being at your friend’s place one day and randomly coming across a piece of paper with your name and all your attributes on it? That’s serial killer creepy! But yeah…. Sounds about right….

Sue C

Marie, I find writing about the situations that characters have found themselves in rather than the character as such. But it is scary if they realise and it turns out they’re not happy about plundering their life story or bits of it.
Hopefully my current central character won’t be recognised.

Marie Borthwick

I am glad these options will help you! You’ll have to let us know how things work out!

Marie Borthwick

definitely serial killer creepy! but still you got it on the nose, totally right! hehe

Marie Borthwick

Definitely scary! that’s why the key is to change just enough to have plausible deniability! I am crossing my fingers for you tho!

Sydney Aaliyah

Maria, I have a character(the antagonist) in my WIP that closely resembles my boss. Actually she is my boss and at the point and time that I decide to publish it. . . well, my hope is that I will no longer be working for her.

Actually all my characters have a little bit of people in know in them. It is easier for me to picture who I am writing about when I write. Keeps them alive.

Great post on characters. It is something I really need to improve on.

Steve B

The Darjeeling Limited had some hilarious jokes about this idea.

Shu Hikari

Well, this is an awesome post.

I do this very often, but without writing details about the person, but ‘mentalizing’ the way that he/she [she mostly xD] makes me feel.

My greatest illustrations was made with this kind of inspiration.

Thanks for this post
God Bless ya

Dixie Chic

Thank you for this advice!! I have been thinking about doing this and now am glad someone shares my same ideas!!! Not to find the time!!

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