Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Based On a Real Person?

Life: Do you ever base characters on real people? Famous or people you know in your real life. And, if so, how do you deal with that?

From Frank

Not often, but yes. Not as often as people think, but I do.

The biggest example applies to the character of Thomas Chisolm. Chisolm isn't the main character in River City (that position belongs to Katie MacLeod, who is first among equals), but he is a main character, for sure. When I wrote my first novel, Under a Raging Moon, I based the Chisolm character very closely on a real life cop I knew and admired. Chisolm was an idealized and slightly fictionalized version of the man, but anyone who knew the real guy and read my book would immediately see it, without a doubt.

Of course, as soon as I put proverbial pen to paper, Tom Chisolm diverged from his real-life counterpart. I didn't include any real events anyway, so all that was "the same" was the character himself. He has his own journey and isn't a carbon copy. But he is definitely based on a real cop named Tom. They have a similar history, similar features, and the same sense of humor.

I actually wrote the book and had started negotiating with a small publisher before I realized that I should probably talk to Chisolm's inspiration. I mean...duh, right?

So I went and talked to the real Tom about the fictional Tom. Thankfully, the real guy was flattered, and thought it was pretty cool. He understood it wasn't a one-for-one translation, so there weren't any "I wouldn't do that" moments when he read the books. He totally got that Chisolm was his own person. But he was very gracious about being the basis for the character, and he followed the series, as well as the spin-off novella, Chisolm's Debt. For that book, he allowed me to use an actual photograph of him as part of the cover. I'd always thought that particualr photo resonated well with the Chisolm character at that stage of his life. In addition to his likeness, his wife, Pam, even wired me into a book club at a retirement community where his mother lived. I did at least three appearances there as each new book came out.

Several of the times I saw Tom after I retired, we went to dinner with our wives to celebrate book releases. I remember one instance in particular, in which he chose the restaurant because "it seems like a place Thomas Chisolm would go to eat."

A few other real people have made their way into River City, mostly as homages. Maria, the records clerk, and Janice, the dispatcher, both have their real life counterparts. As in the books, both women were highly competent at their job and very cool people.

There are other, smaller examples. For instance, I used the last name of one of my favorite college professors as one one of the teacher in my most recent installment of the series. But these are true homages, as the character is extremely minor and not based on the person. It's just a name drop.

However, I will freely admit to stealing character traits, both physical and behavioral, from real people and using them for River City characters. Doesn't every writer do that, though? It's just more noticeable if you worked at a place and write about the same place (albeit a fictional version). People make the connection more easily, if not always accurately. Sometimes folks I worked with will see something in one of the books and say, "Oh, that's so-and-so, right?" Usually, the answer is no. We all have different experiences with different people and that impacts our perception of those people. So the guesses are usually off.

But not always. Just don't ask me to confirm which are on the nose...

It's interesting, though. I can't tell you how many different women from my old agency have been guessed at for being the basis for Officer Katie MacLeod. At times, it's been officers who I do believe provided some small element in my mind for who Katie has become as the series has progressed. Maybe a trait in that real officer, or something she said. Maybe it was how she helped me understand the ways a woman might experience a career in law enforcement differently, or the ways in which it is exactly the same as her male counterparts. Other times, the guess is about an officer I barely knew, or who came on the job long after Katie's journey had significant miles to it. But the fact that so many different women have been guessed at as the inspiration for this core character is, I hope, a testament to her "real-ness."

Outside of River City, the trend is pretty similar. In the Charlie-316 series, Colin Conway and I took the same approach of using behaviors, traits, actions, etc. of some real people to create our fictional ones. So is there a real-life equivalent of Chief Robert Baumgartner? Nope. But are there pieces of what we saw in some real chiefs? Yep, a few. And then a whole lot of stuff we made up. Same with all of the other characters.

There are a couple of exceptions. In our series, there's a Liberty Lake police officer named Jerry Anderson. He's only in a couple of scenes over four books, but he's loosely based on a real Spokane officer of the same name. Helluva nice guy, and a great cop.

In Charlie-316, we paid homage to another helluva nice guy (and a great detective) named Marty Hill. He only had one scene, just like Jerry, though his scene took place over two separate chapters (so you lawyers out there, go ahead and argue that it is two scenes).

In both instances, we asked the sources if it was okay, just like I did with Tom, years ago.

At the time, Colin and I thought this was a stand alone book, so there wasn't any thought to the future of any of the characters. Then we realized we were going to follow this story a little further (three more books, to be exact). And the way the story went, the Marty Hill character ended up getting more and more page time, especially in books 3 and 4.

Of course, much like the Chisolm character, "our" Hill became his own character by this point, having diverged from his inspiration. But...I'm betting Marty will recognize himself. Or better stated, he'll recognize parts of himself in that character.

There's one key thing I haven't yet pointed out explicitly but which is very important. In each of the above-mentioned instances, the depiction of the character who is based on a real life person is completely positive. Thomas Chisolm is revered in River City. And though he has some rough edges, he is ultimately a hero. Maria, Janice, Jerry, all of the cameo/homage characters? They are all shown to be nice people and good at their jobs.

And Marty? He's depicted as a genuinely good guy with a sense of humor, a strong work ethic, who is also a talented detective. Hard to take issue with being portrayed in that fashion, isn't it?

All of these "based on a real person" instances, regardless of how prominent the role the character plays, is a case of a positive depiction.

I mean, I'd never take a real person and then portray them in a bad light. For example, there's no real life basis for the weaselly Internal Affairs Lieutenant Alan Hart. I just wouldn't do that.

Or would I?

The funny thing is, the true answer is no. But it's also yes. Do I have a picture of a particular person in my head when I write that character? Yes. Did I steal a trait or two from that person and give them to Hart? Yes. Is Hart therefore based on him/her? No. Because in creating Hart, I also stole other observed traits and behaviors from a dozen other people and then made some up, too.

Do some people correctly guess the face I see when I write Hart? Rarely, but it happens. That's when my poker face comes into play.

See, no matter how much a River City character (or a Charlie-316 character, at this point) may have has some loose basis in a real person, once I write a book with that character, s/he is his/her own person. And I've lived with some of these characters for close to twenty years, so at times it almost feels more to me like the real person was based on the character I created instead of the other way around.

Yeah, maybe it's time to call the people with the snug white coats with wraparound sleeves to come get me.


Speaking the Charlie-316 series, the second book in that series, Never the Crime, will be out in less than a week. You can still pre-order your copy before launch day.

There's no Jerry in this book, and I don't think there's any Marty either, other than a few throwaway references. But when Badge Heavy comes out in September and Code Four wraps up the arc in November, the based-on-a-real-cop Hill character will get some play.

But just remember, it's not really him.

And stop asking who Wardell Clint is based on. We're not telling.


Paul D. Marks said...

As you say about your college professor, Frank, we can honor people we like in our stories and also not quite honor the ones we don't, though we probably have to disguise them somewhat.

And I love this, the real guy that Chisolm is based on saying "it seems like a place Thomas Chisolm would go to eat." Sounds like him and the character have morphed into one.

Frank Zafiro said...

Thanks, Paul. It was a pretty funny moment with Tom. And he was right - it was totally a restaurant Chisolm would frequent.

I read your post, and it seems like we handle this sort of thing in a very similar fashion.

Bruce W. Most said...

Beyond borrowing body parts and personalities from friends and family, I've published two crime short stories using a real historical person: Weegee, the famous 1930s and 40s crime photographer in New York City. I didn't have to do much inventing. He was quite a character.