I was reading the other day about writers who model characters on people they’ve known in life, and the reasons they do it. It’s not always easy to guess the motivations of writers, particularly since as storytellers many writers take delight in lying or being coy in interviews, but there seem to be only a handful of essential reasons people do this: revenge, inspiration, or entertainment.
Despite talk I’ve encountered over the years as a mystery fan, most writers don’t seem to put real people in their stories in order to torment or murder them. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, but I don’t think it’s as common as is believed. The writers I was reading about seem to simply have drawn inspiration for a character from someone they knew. Even JK Rowling, whose notoriously negative portrayal of a real-life teacher of hers resulted in Severus Snape, seems to have designed from the start to make the dour, mean-spirited man a hero.
I don’t know that I could imagine putting a person in a book for vengeful reasons. I don’t think there’s anyone I hate enough that I would want to bare them to ridicule anytime someone picked up my book, even if they didn’t know and the reader didn’t notice.
As a writer, and I think I speak for most writers, when you meet someone who leaves a lasting impression your instinct is to try and figure out why, but that doesn’t always carry over into the work. Possibly the writers I was reading about were just hard up for interesting characters to fill their books; I can better imagine doing this, though it’s still nothing I’ve ever done, at least as far as I recall. Whenever I find myself drawn to characters in books I try to decide what it is about them that creates an impact, so that I can eventually re-create that impact in my own work, but it seems sort of invasive and presumptuous to try and figure out enough of a real person’s personality to rebuild them in a book.
In Lewis Carroll’s case, writing stories about Alice for a girl named Alice was clearly done to entertain her. On the rare occasions I’ve put someone in a story, I’ve done it for Alice In Wonderland reasons — on their request or in order to entertain them.
I don’t think putting a real person in a book is an inherently negative practice, whatever the motivation, but I think it’s a fine line to walk. JK Rowling’s “real life” Snape was hurt by the link, but it also led him to a self-evaluation. Dorothy Sayers reputedly based Lord Peter Wimsey on a man she was in love with who didn’t return her affections, which I can only imagine was awkward, but eventually the character also took on a deep emotional and spiritual life of his own. Grace Metalious, whose novel Peyton Place was a bestseller about the sordid secrets of a small New England town, based her story on several towns in New Hampshire. The residents of Gilmanton, the small town in which she lived, took offense at her portrayal of their lives, and by all accounts made life very hard for her.
I don’t think writers, as a set, are particularly vengeful or vicious, but like most creative people they have access to an especially powerful weapon if they wish to use it. Art and literature engage their audiences by stimulating their imagination, and it’s easier to persuade someone of a particular belief or concept if their minds are already opened.
If you take as a given that a particular person isn’t “real”, you allow the writer to build a very specific portrait of that person in your mind, especially since the vast majority of books are written from a semi-omniscient or at least presumedly-honest viewpoint. If you then find out that portrait is based on a person, your first instinct is to apply the portrait to the person rather than the other way around. If a literary portrait is nasty and cruel, that can influence the public view of the person being portrayed. Even if you know going in that the book is satirising a person or group of people, you’re likely to do this if you don’t know much about them, especially since culturally writers are assumed to be the intelligensia. This is one of the reasons the various *isms are so dangerous in literature, because the printed word is one of the most hardcore ways to perpetuate a stereotype or myth.
It’s also easy, because writers mostly use their imagination to tell stories, to forget that a real person, the real person, may read the result and react to it. Most of the time writers don’t need to worry about the consequences of their prose within the book, because they’re running the show and what happens to made-up people doesn’t matter. When the made-up people really exist, it matters a bit.
And books are very permanent: they’re printed and distributed, and don’t easily go away.
At any rate, the upshot is that outside of deliberate satire, linking books to specific individuals is a pretty major handle-with-care situation. Writers who are drawing characters from life need to cultivate as part of their skill set a consideration for the relationship between literature and reality, and be cautious of the way in which they mediate that relationship.