Donna Rewolinski asks: When people you know wish to be in your book…What to do?

Donna Rewolinski asks: When people you know wish to be in your book…What to do?

Donna is the author of the Novice mystery series about a retired cop and social worker whose travels leads them to solving crimes. You can find out more about her here, see her books here, and read her last post here.

When I wrote my first novel, Novice Mystery – Ireland, few people knew I was endeavoring to be published. I spent a great deal of time researching names that were appropriate given the character’s age, country of origin, and how the first and last names sounded together.

Donna Rewolinski
Donna Rewolinski

Unfortunately, I used a family member’s married name for one of the villains. The family member called and pointed this out to me. Although an innocent mistake, I have made note of being more careful in future writings.                       

Now, having two books published, a third in editing, and a fourth being written: some family members, friends and even co-workers have asked to be a character in one of my books. I thought this was cool. I must have made it as an author. Funny, I shared this with my writer’s critique group, and it brought a swift response from someone who writes family memoir. She replied, “No one wants to be in my writing.” I realized this can be a delicate line to walk, even after discussing it with the person.

One day a co-workers was being sassy to me. I quipped, “Careful or I’ll put in one of my books and make you a not nice character.” She replied, “Can it be my mom?” That stopped me in my tracks. I was skeptical that her mom would want that, or my co-worker would be disinherited and said so. She assured my there was nothing to inherit, and her mom would love it because at 87 years old, mom doesn’t get out much.

Pensively, I said I would consider it and asked her mom’s name. It’s a cool name, Marcyellene (pronounced phonetically as Mar sa lean). I used the name, formed the character, making her younger and of questionable morals, who has outlived two rich husband’s untimely accidental deaths.  I ran this information past my co-worker, who assured me it would be positively received. When the novel was published she bought her mom a copy for Christmas and I held my breath. I learned that Marcyellene read the book, noted when her character appeared, and she loves the character’s naughtiness. 

Cover of Novice Mystery Mexico

However, it’s not always that smooth. A co-worker asked to be in my second novel, Novice Mystery – Mexico. I told him I’d put him in the book, but he would be a victim. He agreed. When the book was published he informed me he wouldn’t buy a book because, “I had killed him”. Another friend was sad that I didn’t kill him. I felt bad. Had I not fully explained how their character would function in the story line? Had they said more, and I wasn’t listening when they asked to be in the book?

What I’ve learned is to be very clear when someone asks to be a character, or I think that they would make a good one and ask them. It can be done with forethought, clear character development, and a vision of the trajectory or arch of the character’s actions and/or motives in the book.

It helps to truly know the person however I also ask questions. A lot of questions. Such as:

  1. What type of character do you see yourself as? Suspect, murderer, willing to be a victim, or criminal type other than the murderer that will be used as misdirection?
  2. Are you comfortable with being described as you are including, height, weight, hair, and eye color?
  3. If not portrayed as you are, then what? Taller, thinner, more hair, or other features. One of my co-workers is willing to be described as she is but wants her character to have a tan Pug dog.

Areas I focus on are the five senses:

Visual: Age, height, weight, hair and eye color, or any distinctive features, such scars, a pock marked face.

Auditory: The sound of their voice such as an accent, nasally, high pitched, etc.

Physical Stature: Are they muscular, flabby, or anorexic.

Olfaction: Is there an aroma of cologne, soap, tobacco, garlic, or other food scents.

Tast: If kissed, what does it taste like? Mouthwash, tobacco, or food.

It allows me to fully develop a character. More importantly it allows the person portrayed a chance to see various facets of what the outcome will be.

What I’ve learned is to be very clear with anyone who asks to be a character or if I believe they would be an interesting one. It can be done with forethought, clear character development, and a visions of the trajectory or arch of the character’s actions/motives in the book. I also hold my breath when the book is published. I want people to have fun with their character. I would never want anyone to feel I’m making fun of them.

Donna Rewolinski

Donna Rewolinski is the author of the Novice Mystery series, whose main characters, Dan Novice, a retired American detective, and his social worker wife, Karen embark on a promise, to spend more time together and to travel to a variety of foreign countries. She is married to a police detective, who has over 35 years of experience. Follow her on website donnarewolinski.com

This Post Has 11 Comments

  1. I had someone tell me he wanted to be the bad guy and that I should go to some really dark place. Of course, we were at a winemakers party. So I took his suggestion with a grain of salt.

    1. Christine DeSmet

      I would run far away from a person who said something that creepy. Sorry. But really.

  2. Christine DeSmet

    If any new writer reading this is thinking of putting a real friend or family member with a real name into their books, also have a good bank account in case the person decides to sue you. This is a dangerous area. If you put a real and private person (not famous) in your book, please obtain a written message of consent with their name clearly attached and/or signed that they gave you permission. Even then, if somehow it’s perceived that their reputation or “name” was hurt somehow by the depiction, there could be trouble. Defamation as well as privacy are tricky issues. As you can tell, I don’t recommend putting any real friend or family member with real names in any novel you write. You certainly can use cues from real people to create your characters, but disguise any real person by changing their body type, where they’re from, color of hair, a mannerism, etc.

  3. Sheila Lowe

    My hair stylist wanted to be a victim in one of my books, and she loves to tell people about it. I’ve donated character names at library author luncheons and always make it clear that the winner doesn’t get to choose how they might appear in the book–they might be a victim or a killer. (It was exciting to have a character name sell for $500 at a luncheon for the library system where I went to school.)

  4. Joy Ann Ribar

    Thanks for such an interesting topic. I think authors feel strongly one or the other about putting real people into their books as characters. I know one author who has a raffle for her fans to be a named character in her mysteries, but the character is always incidental and benign. I did use my local hair salon in my series at their ask, but it’s incidental and they are depicted in a favorable light. We’re always walking a fine line as authors in so many respects.

  5. Avanti Centrae

    Great topic. I like the idea of raffling off a character name and giving the proceeds to charity.

  6. Laurie Buchanan

    Interesting post! The character names in my books are made up. And I change the names of locations (i.e., bookstore, coffee shop, florist) if something terrible happens there in the storyline. If something innocuous or good happens at the site, I use its real name.

  7. Sherrill Joseph

    Really interesting post, Donna! My detectives are composites of some of my former students. I didn’t use any of their real names for their safety. I almost offered newsletter subscribers a chance in a giveaway to have their names use, but for the reasons Christine mentioned about possible legal trouble, especially with strangers, I decided against it. Relatedly, I have offered readers a chance to choose the next street on Botanic Hill that appear in an upcoming main title. The winner of that one-time offer will see her choice in my Book 5. Overall, like Laurie, I make up my characters’ names. I also have lots of fun coming up with charming or humorous place names, e.g., Grounds for a Cup Coffee Shop; Feed Bag Groceries. Thanks for your provocative blog.

  8. Great post, Donna! Very thought-provoking. I’ve seen character names raffled to charities at writers conferences by big name authors. It’s fabulous that some of us Blackbirds have also done that! I hesitate to use real people in my mysteries, even if I just use their name. In fact my first publicist advised against it, stating it can cause all kinds of problems, some more serious than others. To avoid having to hold my breath at book launch time, I also avoid including people I know. I think you’re brave to respond to your friends’ and readers’ wishes this way. It’s an individual decision.

  9. Saralyn Richard

    I have named characters after people I wish to honor, but I haven’t actually had them portray themselves in the book. The closest I’ve come to that is in A MURDER OF PRINCIPAL, because it is set in an urban high school similar to one in which I worked. Many of my colleagues are trying to match up my characters to real people, but while the book’s setting is real, the characters and the plot come purely from my imagination. It’s a fun game to play–trying to figure out how autobiographical a work of fiction is–but in my case, it’s really not.

  10. Tracey Phillips

    Very interesting post Donna! I’m always careful about names and people’s descriptions. I try not to make anyone too much like someone I know. Clearly I’m coming at this from a different angle than you. I’m on the same page as Christine.
    Great conversation piece!

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