Thursday, January 17, 2013

How to Borrow from Real Life

by Rachel Coker

Rachel is a sixteen-year-old home school student and award-winning author who resides in Virginia with her parents and two sisters. Her gift for writing became apparent at the age of eleven through a simple fiction writing assignment in school. She signed with Zondervan in 2010 for her first YA fiction novel, Interrupted, released in March 2012; her second novel, Chasing Jupiter, released in December 2012. You can visit her at her blog,

Hey, ya'll! So sorry I ditched you last month. Well, I didn't so much as ditch you as I did totally forget about you, if we're telling the truth here. As in, my brain apparently turns to putty five days before Christmas and the launch of my second book and I completely forget all prior commitments in my utter exhaustion/excitement. Sorry! Won't happen again!

My brain is back from vacation and ready to pop out some vital writing information.... SO, you may have heard by now that my new YA novel, Chasing Jupiter, is available now!!! Yipee!!! Happy dance!!! (IMAGINARY happy dance as I am so clumsy in real life that if I actually tried this I might fall down or break something.....)


In the whirlwind of interviews and guests blog posts I've been doing to promote my book, the question keeps getting thrown around, "Where did you get the inspiration for this story?" I actually thoroughly answered that question in a video blog you can watch here, but a lot of readers definitely seemed surprised to find out that I based so many of my characters on real people who I know in real life. Which raises the question.... How much of real life can you borrow for your stories and how much do you need to leave alone?

I'll explain... Let's say you know a woman who goes to your church who would be absolutely perfect as a comical character in your book. She's more than pleasantly plump, she wears bright orange lipstick, and she sings in an operatic voice loud enough to shatter windows three blocks down. And--get this--her name is Lakeesha. Two e's and everything. You're just dying to write her into a book. She would make everyone laugh and would brighten up so many scenes. And goodness gracious, think about what laughter just her name would induce. It's pure genius. Your readers will love it.

But hold on a minute. There's something you may have forgotten. Will Lakeesha love it? Don't kid yourself into thinking "Oh, she'll never find out" or "It'll give her a good laugh". Even if you change her name or hair color, there's still a pretty good chance that she'll find out you were writing about her. And guess what? Lakeesha probably won't find it very funny. In fact, she might be pretty hurt or angry. And then I can pretty much guarantee how you'll feel. Horrible.

It might sound like I'm being kind of dramatic, but I'm really not. And while I'm sure that all of you are smart enough not to write someone into a book without changing their name, hair color, or weight, there are things that we as authors miss sometimes. People who are known for certain expressions, sayings, or physical characteristics are pretty quick to recognize themselves in a character. And if you didn't have their permission to copy those traits into a character, they have every right to be mad at you. However, there is a level of grace that I think authors can abide in.

As writers, people naturally assume that we'll be copying from real life. And, in fact, I'll do this all the time. If I love someone's birthmark, gap-toothed smile, chewed-up nails, or squeaky way of saying "Yep!"--I might put that in a book. Or if someone shares with me a cute or sweet story from their own past, I might incorporate that into a scene or plot twist. I might even go as far as writing a book based on someone I met or heard about, as was the case with Chasing Jupiter!

But, every writer has to have limits. They can be a good thing, and can keep you from offending someone. So, before you copy something about a friend or family member into a book, keep these things in mind:
  • Try to stay away from using the names of people you know in real life, unless they're for an insignificant character or you've already mentioned it that person. Nothing's weirder than reading a book where someone with your name turns out to be a total brat or, worse, dies--especially if you know the author. Awkward.
  • It's okay to copy a character trait or quirk of someone you know, but if you do that then make sure everything else about that character is completely different from their real-life counterpart. Your character's mother might have the same heart-shaped mole as your Aunt Sallie, but their personalities have to be entirely different!
  • If you hear a story from a friend or family member that you just have to turn into a story, then don't be afraid to talk to them about it. Sit them down and explain as humbly and sweetly as possible, "Look, I'm just so touched by the story you just told about how your grandfather carried around your grandmother's lock of hair in his coat pocket all across France during World War Two. I'd really love to write a story based on their romance and include that aspect of their relationship. I understand if you don't want your personal life to be turned into a novel, but would you ever consider talking to me more about that possibility?" If you're honest and undemanding, your friends and family will be more comfortable sharing their lives with you.
So enjoy life! Soak up the details from it and use them to saturate your stories with color and humor. But just remember to always be sensitive of others. As writers, we walk a fine line between fiction and reality. And we should never make others uncomfortable because of that fact!

P.S. Please, please, please order a copy of my new book, "Chasing Jupiter"! Or, better yet, check out my blog for a giveaway of BOTH my books (signed, of course), ending tomorrow! And be sure to like me on Facebook, if you haven't yet!

Also, I would love to connect with you on Twitter! I'm doing a live Q&A chat on Twitter today (the 17th) from 2-3pm eastern time, and I'd love to see you there. You can follow me @RachelCoker3.


  1. "IMAGINARY happy dance"--that made me laugh ;)

    Very good to know; I'm always wondering whether this is too personal to go in my writing or that is too offensive. I'm a pretty sensitive person, so it just makes me all the more nervous...this helps, though! :D Thanks!

  2. From Amo Libros:
    Congratulations on your second book being out!!
    Thank you for this post. I have several family stories that I would love to write and share, because they're just too good NOT to, but it hadn't really occurred to me that others might not be so thrilled. At the very least I should ask, and probably clear what I write with them. Thanks for the reminder!!

  3. I always ask my friends permission if I put then in a story. They all have great personalities which make great characters so I ask then put them in if they dont mind
    Thanks for the post Rachel

  4. Great info, Rachel! I'll be sure to remember this! Don't want anyone to get angry at me! ;)

  5. Great advice! My MC is a mix of me and two of my friends ;) but I had their permission, so its all good xxx

  6. There's a woman at the church I grew up in that did the opera thing at the end of every song! It's my neighbors I really want to use, they are so strange but i do always als myself "what if they find out?" They are moving so.....

  7. What I huge accomplishment to already have your second book out at SIXTEEN . . . I'm sixteen too, but right now I'm kind of glad that I haven't gotten a book published yet. I'm not ready for it. And thank you VERY much for writing this post--I may have to refer to it when scrutinizing my characters. :)

    1. Aw, thank you Hannah! Just keep writing--you'll know when you're ready to get something published! :)

  8. A great post, Rachel! It is hard to say how much of real-life things I take from people and insert into my characters... perhaps, more than quirks and looks, I draw a lot from real life people's personalities and the way they interact with one-another. My mum always tells me to avoid using any names from real-life people I know in my stories :D.

    My short story,, A Love that Never Fails deals with the evacuation of children from England to Australia etc, and there is a really central scene in the story where my main character, Jane, is evacuated and she has to leave her beloved Grandmamma. The farewell is perhaps the most sentimental/touching moments in the story, as well as being a key one, and now, when I think about it, I believe I drew instinctively from the fact that my own Grandmother still lives in the land of my birth overseas, and I have not seen her in over 10 years. Last year when Grandpa died, Dad went to visit her and we got to contact her via facetime and get to know each other more. I think this instinctively worked something into my story as I wrote it. But when it got published, and I was planning on sending the story to all my relatives and friends, I found myself unable to send A Love that Never Fails to my grandmother, fearing that the story would be too raw and relevant to her in how much we miss each other. Yet, I believe were it not for my closer interaction with my grandmother after Grandpa died, that scene in my story would be far less emotional and real!

    1. That's so touching, Joy! I really hope that you find it in your heart to send it to your grandmother one day so she can take part in your beautiful story. :)

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  9. Great post! I struggle with this - some of my friends have such interesting and unique personalities, I think they would make great characters...

    I've found a great way to make unique characters based on real people is to take different traits from a bunch of different people - so then I can use all the great personality traits without technically writing about that person.