Memorializing Those You Know In Your Novel

1991: My brother Paul, on the right.
Yesterday was Memorial Day, a day to remember those who have served to protect and defend our country. It got me thinking about people in my own life. Tomorrow would have been my little brother's 40th birthday. Twenty years ago he was killed in a car crash.

There are many people who have made a huge impact on my life. Some are no longer here, but many are part of my life today. In the spirit of "write what you know", here are a few tips for including people in your novels.

Use a name. Give one of you characters the name of a person who is meaningful to you. The character doesn't have to be exactly like that person. You don't even have to let the honoree know you've done it. I named one character after a young girl in my town who is the epitome of the girl in my story. Knowing her inspired me to deepen the character.

Pick a favorite (or un-favorite) characteristic. If you'd like to be more subtle, think of what it is about a person you know (or have known) that can be reflected in your character. One woman I know is unceasingly optimistic in the face of huge personal and financial tragedies. I gave that spirit to a character in my first novel.

An editing client needed a nasty "supervisor-type" character. Having worked in several corporate situations under less-than-ideal managers, he made his character a composite of all the negative characteristics he had come across. It made for a truly unlikeable character.

Use description. There may be a habit. A nervous tic. A common phrase or reaction that a friend or loved one uses frequently. An expression. A way they wear their hair. A certain body language unique to them. These are things you can use to make a character unique. And you'll be able to describe them effectively because you've seen it up close and personal.

You don't have to tell a person that you're using them in your book, unless you want to. Say someone you know has a nervous habit of pushing their glasses up on their nose. You can give that habit to a character that is completely different from the person you're acquainted with.

Retell an event. With all the people in our lives, we've all had thousands of big and small events that can be used in fiction. Say your characters are having an argument. It's likely you've witnessed, or have been part of, quite a few arguments. You can mine those experiences for details that will make you fiction feel more real.

And you can take the feelings from an event and use them for something else. When I was five years old, I got lost in Kennedy International Airport in New York City.  Though that was long ago, I can use the feelings I remember in scenes where a character is feeling lost, abandoned or terrified. What events have you been through with others that might deepen one of your character's experiences?

Writing a novel is like creating a time capsule of your experiences and recollections. If you feel you need more experiences, try some people-watching to collect more details for your characters.

How have you used people you've known in your fiction? Have you done it deliberately, or without even realizing it?


  1. I just had a long talk with my Dad last week about people in the small Missouri town he grew up in. He had so many stories to share. I'm so sorry about your brother~ thank you for this beautiful (and helpful) post on ways to honor those we love.

  2. Thank you so much, Jess. I'm actually starting a blog to post my brother's journal entries. Just another way to remember him, and help my kids get to know the uncle they never knew.

    How cool to have heard your dad's stories! I'll bet a few of those details will work their way into your writing.


  3. I find myself drawing from a number of people who have either walked through my life or I've heard about from older family members and the stories about them they tell. There are a lot of "characters" in my family tree.

    What sadness to lose a brother--but what a beautiful idea to honor him through posting his journal entries. A special way to share his stories with your children...

  4. I love that! "Characters" in your family tree. :)
    Thank you so much for you kind words. He was an amazing guy. It's so cool that my kids are old enough to 'get to know' him now.


  5. Thanks for sharing about your brother. My mother called on Monday with family tales .... some are so odd one would believe they were 100 percent fiction. In those cases, I think fictionalizing them would make them normal.

  6. That's so cool, Stacy! Maybe you'll get those stories into print someday.

    If you'd like to see the start of my brother's blog, here it is:


  7. Thanks for sharing the blog. I signed up for updates. It struck me when I read about your brother that we are/would be the same age. I surfed the Internet a bit more than I anticipated tonight as some folks I knew were found deadin a plane crash - a fundraiser trip from a 50th high school reunion. Sad.

  8. I saw your picture on the follow list! How cool that you'd be the same age. I'm so sorry to hear about your friends--how tragic.




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