How about Using Real People in Fiction?

Jun 10, 2020 | 2020 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze

by Kaye George

If you’re a writer, do you do it? If you’re a reader, do you like to see it done? Or do you even know it’s happening?

As a reader, you don’t know how “real” the characters are unless they’re famous, or unless you know the author pretty well.

I enjoy seeing real historical or famous people enter the story if they’re not too intrusive. Especially if I learn something about them that I didn’t know. I don’t really do that myself, though. It would add a huge amount of research, and I already do a ton of that. I appreciate what goes into the process when others do it, though.

Shh! Here’s where I’m divulging our secrets. If you’re a writer, you already know this. Every character consists of either a real person you know, or a mix of real people you know. We can’t make up characters if we have no knowledge of what people are like, right? We have only our own brains, our own experiences to draw from.

I’ve never named anyone after a person I know, at least not entirely. I’ve used a first name or a last name, but not both. My acquaintances are used for both good guys and bad guys. I’ll admit I’ve used people I dislike for both the victims and the killers. It’s more satisfying to use someone odious for the killer because then I know my readers will dislike them, too. Does that make me a bad person? I think it makes me a mystery writer.

Kaye George

We all do it. We have to base a character on someone, after all. We only have knowledge of people we’ve known or known about.

I had a unique experience in my Vintage Sweets series, though. My lovely, talented, beautiful granddaughter (she takes after me, after all) has begged me for years to be in one of my books. She wasn’t even old enough to read them when she started doing that, but she knew I wrote them, and her parents bought them.

I think she’s old enough now, so I decided to include her in my latest cozy series, Vintage Sweets, published by Lyrical. She makes her appearance in the first one as my main character, Tally Holt, is getting her new sweet shop off the ground and hiring people, first to work a party, then to work in the store. She tries out three promising candidates at a reception for her globe-trotting parents as they make a brief stop back home. Guess who one of them is? Yes, my granddaughter! She’s obviously the best candidate—the other two are iffy.

Showing my blatant bias, Lily Vale, the character modeled after my granddaughter, quickly becomes a favorite of Tally’s, hardworking, smart, showing initiative by getting the shop online. I suppose you can tell she’s never going to be a serious suspect, but I try to make her a bit of a one. We need suspects, don’t we?

In the first book, Revenge is Sweet, she’s someone Tally can depend upon and trust. When Tally needs to leave early, she is confident that Lily can close up the store and do all the cleanup tasks to get ready for the next day, including handle the money. There are some problems with missing money, and everyone has to be suspected, of course, but I hope I don’t ruin it for you that Lily isn’t stealing from the till.

The book that came out last week, Deadly Sweet Tooth, has Lily taking more responsibility and becoming even more of a right-hand woman. In the third book—wait, I can’t talk about that yet! It’s not coming out until next year. Okay then, back to the second book. Lily has a few of her own personal problems and Tally gets closer to her, debating whether she should be a friend or an employer, or both.

So, here’s the thing. I told her she’d be in my next book when I started writing it, but it takes a long time for the book to actually happen. When it came out, I reminded her that she’s in it. She asked what her character was like and I told her she’s tall, she’s a dancer, she’s a redhead, and very nice and smart. I think she’s happy to be in the books, BUT, now she wants to be a killer in another book! I told you she takes after me. We’ll see.

What about you? As a writer, do you use real people obviously? As a reader, do you like to see people you know about walk into the story?

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Kaye George is a national-bestselling, multiple-award-winning author of pre-history, traditional, and cozy mysteries (her latest is the Vintage Sweets series from Lyrical Press). She is a member of Sisters in Crime, Smoking Guns chapter (Knoxville), Guppies chapter, Authors Guild of TN, Knoxville Writers Group, and Austin Mystery Writers. She lives and works in Knoxville, TN. You can learn more on her website.

Disclosure: This post contains links to an affiliate program, for which we receive a few cents if you make purchases. KRL also receives free copies of most of the books that it reviews, that are provided in exchange for an honest review of the book.


  1. Thanks for hosting me here! It’s a real pleasure to be at KRL!

  2. A friend once asked me if my stories are autobiographical. I said, “Isn’t everyone’s?” How can we make up a story without the clay to make it with?

  3. Enjoyed your post. I write two cozy series. Black Cat mysteries (my black cat hero looks a lot like the cat on your cover!) In my other series, (1st and second books — Mrs. Odboddy Hometown Patriot, Mrs. Odboddy Undercover Courier) we meet Mrs. Roosevelt and the President. I think as long as they are portrayed within the bounds of correct history and do not disparage them in any way it’s okay (since they’re dead and public figures). I would not use a current President in a story. Best wishes with your series.

  4. Thanks Kara! Eugenia, people who ask me that are wondering if I AM one of the characters, I think. Or maybe if THEY are. Elaine, meeting Mrs. Roosevelt sounds fun!

  5. Thanks, Kaye. Sometimes I consciously choose names in fiction, and then sometimes the composite is so subconsciously complex I don’t even know who the combined people are until the character fleshes itself out! Always an interesting question. Thanks always, King’s River. Stay safe all.

  6. Like most authors, I’ve “borrowed” real people–friends, people I’ve read about, etc.–on which to base characters. I always wonder whether they recognize themselves or not, but I never ask. I’ve also published two short stories whose main character is Weegee, once a real (and famous) crime photographer in New York City in the 1930s and 1940s. Fun to do.

  7. Thanks for stopping by, Susan. I’ve had to change the name of a character when they won’t develop with the wrong name I’ve given them.

    Bruce, I would never ask that either! I’ll have to look up Weegee!


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