Friday, June 19, 2020

Who's Hiding Behind Your Characters?

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?

by Paul D. Marks

This is sort of a two part question. First there’s the question of basing characters on people that you know. Then there’s the question of basing them on celebrities or historical figures. I do both.

A lot of my characters are based on people I know —including on myself. I think there’s a little piece of me in all of them. Or sometimes a bigger piece. But when I do base them on people I know or who I’ve come across they’re usually composites of multiple people. So far no one’s come up to me —probably because the people I know don’t read my books, just kidding —and wanted to bop me on the head for a portrayal. Most people see the good and the heroic in a character in themselves. They don’t see the bad.

Villains are often based on people I’ve come across one way or another. At least certain traits of theirs. But I don’t want to make them exactly like the real person for obvious reasons.

Just released 6/1/20
In my just released novel The Blues Don’t Care, the main character, Bobby, is loosely inspired by a real person. But that person didn’t become a detective in any way, at least to my knowledge. There are other characters in the book also inspired by real people. Tony Leach, the gangster who runs the gambling ship off the L.A. coast, is sort of a combination of infamous L.A. gangster Mickey Cohen and Tony Cornero, the guy who ran the real gambling ships off the coast. But probably a little kinder and gentler than either, though still a gangster under his fancy suits. Cary Grant’s real name was Archie Leach and the gangster’s last name was chosen because of that, so he has a little of Cary in there too. (See my website for my close encounter with Cary Grant.) Bobby’s tough guy pal, Sam Wilde, is based on some people I knew, though I knew them in contemporary times but set their character traits in the 1940s of the story. And there’s a character in The Blues Don’t Care, Mary Cooper, named after a girl I knew a long, long time ago. I’m sure she hasn’t thought of me in ages. But she crosses my mind every once in a while and since she’s a benign character in a small part I used her name. Others in that story are also composites of real people.

In Broken Windows, the second in my Duke Rogers series after White Heat, there’s a producer character named Joseph Hartman who, if you call him Joe the thunder will reign down. He is definitely patterned after a real person —or at least that affectation is patterned on a real producer. Though I think when I’ve mentioned him before I conflated him with another famous person who hung up on someone for calling them by their first name.

I sometimes pepper real people into a story because it hopefully gives the reader a sense of verisimilitude (one of my favorite words) —a sense that the world the characters inhabit is a real world with people they know and landmarks they might have heard of. But you have to use the people in small cameos and not show them in a bad light unless there’s something demonstrably provable that they did that you want to include. They might get only cameo parts but it gives the story a feeling of being set in the real world. For example, in Blues Don’t Care Bobby runs across Gable at the zigzag moderne Sunset Tower Hotel and Louis B. Mayer at the Coconut Grove, as well as others in various situations. The book is, after all, set in Los Angeles and seeing movie stars from time to time is part of the L.A. experience:

Someone bumped into Bobby.
“Excuse me,” the man said in a familiar voice.
Bobby was too flustered to respond to Clark Gable, as the King of Hollywood walked past. Bobby went to the front desk.
“May I help you?” the clerk asked.
“I’d like to see Tony Leach.” The words stumbled out. Bobby hoped his nervousness didn’t show. He’d heard that Leach lived here. Bugsy Siegel too, as well as several movie stars off and on. Infamous gossip columnist Hedda Hopper had said so.
“Can you just call up and tell him Bobby Saxon, from the ship’s band, is here.”
“You play in a band on his ship? I’m afraid he’s too busy for—”

And in Broken Windows, Duke, the main character, goes to a producer’s house above Sunset Boulevard. He finds two Jags in the driveway and expensive art in the house. The character who lives in the house is the Joseph Hartman character mentioned above. But in real life the producer who lived there was another person. And in real life, though he lived in the lap of luxury he wanted me to work for free.

And then there was the time that I based a character on another producer—a major ass—in a script I was rewriting…for him. He never made the connection. And I’m not telling what it was.

The character of Warren in White Heat is based on a friend of mine, though someone who isn’t as angry as Warren.
Duke Rogers series

So, yes, I base characters on people I know or have come across. Which is a good way to have more realistic, well defined characters ’cause you have real life experience in how someone acts.

Everyone I come across is fodder, the way they look, the way they talk. Their character, etc. Not just people I know, but people I may cross paths with for only a few seconds or a few hours. A clerk, someone on a street corner. Someone in a bar. It’s like we costume our characters, disguise them and send them out into the world incognito.

The first novel I wrote, about a screenwriter trying to make it in Hollywood, was basically a roman a clef. All the characters were based on people I knew, some very well known, others obscure and struggling, including little ol’ me.

So, not only do I base characters on family and friends, but on people I dislike, too, enemies. And isn’t that fun? We get our little revenges against people who’ve wronged us and, as long as we disguise them somewhat, we get away with it. What’s better than that? Sometimes just naming the bad guy after someone can be a satisfying way to get back at someone who wronged us.

So, yes, everything, everyone, is fodder. So be nice or reach a gruesome death…at least on paper.
What about you? Tell us about how you base characters on people you know.


And now for the usual BSP:

The Blues Don't Care is getting some great reviews:

"It’s the first entry in what promises to be an entertaining and thoughtful series --- mysteries that not only have the requisite twists, turns, surprises and reveals, but also offer a penetrating look into our ubiquitous all-too-human flaws: greed, corruption, fear of the “other” and, especially, racism."
—Jack Kramer,

"This is a beautifully noirish book, set firmly in the dark days of wartime and offering a sharp insight into the life and times of Los Angeles, 1940s style. Yes, it’s a mystery thriller, but The Blues Don’t Care is so much more than that, with historic detail, chutzpah, a cast of hugely entertaining characters, a really unusual protagonist and, best of all, a cracking soundtrack too."

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Dietrich Kalteis said...

I think you did a great job fleshing out the Bobby character.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Dietrich. And glad you enjoyed the book.

jake devlin said...

Great article, Paul. I learned a few months ago that the act of using real people's names, like those of friends, is called "Tuckerizing," after some author back in the 1930s or so used the name of a friend, Tucker, in one of his novels or stories.

I've done the same thing in all of my novels and short stories, mostly beach buddies, and posted photos of some of them on my web site ( > More > Photos). I did put one real (and obnoxious and arrogant) guy in with an ulterior motive: so he would never talk to me again. It worked; not a peep out of him since 2012. I even put some of our actual dialogue in the first book. Not that he read it, but some of the people in the group he sat with (not who sat with him) did and probably told him about it.

These days, I collect first names and use some of the unusual ones, like Teagan, Hazel Moon, Delaney, Kori, Belinda, Destiny, and many others; many of them are excited to have their name appear in a story, a few of them actually buy the books, and a few have come back and told me they were happy to see their names in print.

Susan C Shea said...

Wow - I clicked over to read the Gene Kelly and Cary Grant anecdotes. What impressed me is your having the chutzpah to write to them directly and that they CALLED you! Must have been good scripts to get a response.

Kaye George said...

Not at all the same, but I used my young teen granddaughter as a character in my new series. She has begged me for years to do this and she's finally old enough (according to her mother--for me, she was there years ago) to read my mysteries. When I told her, after the first book came out in March, she was disappointed to be a "good guy." She wants to be the killer! Maybe she HAS been reading my books.

Congrats on the new release! It's on my stack.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Jake. I’m aware of Tuckerizing but I keep forgetting to mention it by name. It just always slips out of my mind.

Do your buddies recognize themselves in your stories? I guess the guy who didn’t talk to you again read that story or at least heard about it from others.;-) . BTW, I tried to go to photos page but couldn’t find it. I did get to your main web page but that’s as far as I could go.

That’s cool that the people whose names you use actually buy the books and like seeing their names in print. It’s always good to know people like our stuff and better to know they’re buying it.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Susan. I was young and brash and crazy. If someone did those things these days they’d probably be up for some kind of harassment. What I found interesting, cause I did it with a lot of other people, some of whom were nice, some who didn’t respond, is that the bigger they were the more likely to be nice they were. I don’t think that would be true these days with some of the current stars. I also did it with producers and directors and the like and got in to have meetings with some pretty well-known people. I always thought you gotta try.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks for your comment, Kaye. You have me laughing out loud. Maybe she can do a switch in the sequel and become the bad guy or at least seem like it.

jake devlin said...

Ah. Here's a link directly to the photos page, Paul. That should work, I think/hope.

Paul D. Marks said...

Thanks, Jake. That link did work. And it's cool to see the people you base your characters on. It must be fun for them to see themselves in print too.

Anonymous said...

Glad the link worked, Paul.

Most of 'em had fun with the pics and the print. (No pic of the guy I put in for the ulterior motive. You can find one of him in the dictionary, under both arrogant and annoying ... and one other A-word.) I think I killed him off in the fourth book. -:)

jake devlin said...

Oops. Not anonymous. Maybe I was wearing my camouflage cap.