Writing based on real places and people.


Well-Known Member
Jul 26, 2021
I think it goes without saying if you are writing a story based on real events that you were involved in, or at least making use of people you actually know, you shouldn't make it too obvious who is based on who in case it causes some issues so that the people make complaints if they don't like what they see. The obvious option is to make sure the descriptions don't match up too much, give them entirely different names and so on.

But can you get away with still using the same character traits (which is probably the more important thing anyway) without possibly causing offence?

I'm currently writing a (totally fictional) story set in my old school, I've described the building well enough that people could navigate the real building if they wanted to, but I've gave it and all the staff and pupils different names, altered descriptions and so on to try to avoid potentially offending anyone. (After all, I'm sure we've all had teachers we wish we'd never met :) ) But has anyone gotten into any trouble from having done this in the past? Is there anything I should do that I've not thought of to reduce the chance of offending someone who recognises themselves in some way?
A couple of threads from last year which may be of interest about using real places Using real locations and conflicts in fictional context and Standard Disclaimers...

And here's one about using real people as inspiration for characters Is it ok to base some of your villains looks on real bad people you know personally?

Basically, try not to write any characters too closely to their real-life counterparts, particularly if those characters are unpleasant or commit crimes, and that would include character traits.

Beware, too, if you're using a real school which is still in existence and can be recognised since companies and businesses can also sue for libel, so if you're suggesting criminal activities were allowed to take place there, which might serve to ruin the school's reputation and lose it money, you're in just as much potential trouble as if you ID'd the teachers or students.

One way to reduce possible problems is to change the setting more thoroughly, both as to the school's layout and where it's situated, so that the chances of its being recognised are much reduced.
In a recent class given by an author; he admitted to using some acquaintances as models for the characters--his caution was to not let them read any of the drafts before you smooth out details to try to hide the obvious.

I seem to remember something about Alfred Hitchcock putting the names of some of his harsher critics on tombstones in cemetery scenes.

I have used some of the character of a dear friend in my second published novel--he had passed several years before that.

I have been guilty of putting in names that sound like, but are not the same as people I have known.

It is really difficult to not put things in that might end up mirroring someone that we know--the trick is to try to recognize this before it is published and make sure that you either hide it better or at least are prepared in case that person reads the novel.

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