Thursday, April 12, 2012

Am I in Your Book?

By Sheila Webster Boneham

"Be nice to me or I'll put you in my novel."
(T-shirt seen at cafe)

"Are your characters based on real people?" I’ve been asked that several times recently, and since my first mystery, Drop Dead on Recall, won’t be released until October, I have to wonder whether the subtext of the question is, "Am I in your book?" Only a handful of people have actually "met" the characters at this point, after all.

The answer is an unequivocal "sort of." What kind of people, other than real ones, can fictional characters be based on? Our concept of people comes from meeting and watching and listening to living, breathing human beings. Yes, we also "know" fictional characters through books, movies, song lyrics, and other verbal art forms, but fiction that works is what I think of as "enhanced reality." Even fantasy and sci fi and magical realism have to be grounded in our sense of the world or they just don’t work for most people. Even aliens from planet Sjtxs are based on real people!

Philosophical meandering aside, though, what about those characters in my "Animals in Focus" series? Let me begin with the non-human characters – dogs and cats in the first book, and other animals to come. The critters in Drop Dead on Recall are based on real dogs and cats. One of them is snoring beside me on the couch as I write this. That’s my Australian Shepherd, Jay, whose namesake in the books is quite true-to-life, right down to most of his backstory. In the book, his human, Janet, is not his breeder. In real life, Jay was born into my hands. Otherwise, yep, that’s him in the book. Other animals are composites, but their behaviors are based on real life actions of real life animals. Oddly enough, not a single dog or cat has shown any interest in whether they’re in the books. Go figure.

The human characters come in two varieties, neither of them "real," but both "reality based." Most of them are completely fictional, although of course they do things, wear things, eat things, say things that I’ve observed or heard about real people doing, wearing, eating, saying. A few are loosely based on people I know or, ahem, am. Take Janet MacPhail, the protagonist. She’s very loosely based on moi. She’s a she, she loves dogs, she has a creative career. But Janet isn’t me; she lives a very different life from mine with a very different family. (No, I won’t tell you what’s real and what I made up!)

Here’s the funny thing about reality and characters, though, and I’ve heard this from other authors as well. Readers get the connections wrong more often than not. A reader of one of my drafts said of one not-so-lovely character, "Oh, I know who that is." Thoughts of lawsuits immediately danced through my head as I squeaked, "You do?" "Yeah, that’s..." she said, and then named possibly the last mutual acquaintance I could imagine in that role. Funnily enough, she did not mention the mutual acquaintance who actually inspired the character, albeit with many a change twixt inspiration and book.

So, the answer to the first question is yes, my characters are based on real people, sort of. And the answer to the second question is yes, you are in my book, whoever you are. You just won’t recognize yourself.


Do you know a real life dog who would like to be in the second Animals in Focus mystery? Check out these raffles to support canine health and raffle off a role (and please share with your dog-loving friends).

Sheila W. Boneham, Ph.D., is the author of the forthcoming "Animals in Focus" mystery Drop Dead on Recall (now available for pre-order) as well as award-winning books about pets including Rescue Matters! How to Find, Foster, and Rehome Companion Animals (Alpine, 2009), The Complete Idiot's Guide to Getting and Owning a Cat (Alpha, 2005), and fifteen others. Sheila's books are available from your local bookseller and on line. Learn more at or on Facebook at


Robin Allen said...

Lots of my characters are different sides of me with a dash of other real people to make them more three-dimensional. Some dashes are bigger than others, but so far, no one has asked me if they're a character in my book.

Sheila Webster Boneham said...

Robin, I don't think we can avoid having dashes of ourselves in most characters, even the unsavory ones. After all, the thoughts and actions we give them come from our minds - even if we're borrowing from experience and other input, we each attend to and remember different things, and that puts "us" into the interpretation.

Beth Groundwater said...

None of my characters are based on real people I know because they ARE real people in and of themselves--at least in my head. ;-)

Lois Winston said...

I constantly have people coming up to me, asking if they can be in my next book. One of Anastasia's co-workers is loosely based on one of my friends, which thrills her no end.

In the 4th Anastasia Pollack Crafting Mystery, which I'm working on now, the CEO's secretary has the same name as a fan who desperately wanted to be in one of my books. But I only use her name. There's no similarity between the character and the real person.

However, Anastasia's mother-in-law is more than loosely based on my own mother-in-law. Lucky for me, she's no longer alive. She'd never speak to me again. Hmm...maybe that wouldn't have been such a bad thing, come to think of it. ;-)

Shannon Baker said...

I fully intend to kill a big-butted barrel racer in one of my books. And yes, SHE will be based on a real person.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Looking forward to the book! Your post photographs are all I need to know you've got some great characters.

Sheila Webster Boneham said...

Aw, thank Kathleen!

Ha! Shannon! But you know what's even better than killing them? Making them look ridiculous. It's MUCH more satisfying than mere death. ;-)

Linda Hull said...

I put a character very, very much like my dad in a book and my critique book made me tone him down. Not believable they said.