Stories have the power to stick with people for years and decades, centuries even. Sometimes the story feels so real you believe you know the characters — but what if the characters are real?
Like many of you, I’ve both read and watched Winnie the Pooh as a child. That yellow, round, slightly silly bear who had among his best friends Christopher Robin. In my childhood the bear was called Nalle Puh and the boy Risto Reipas, but the stories were the same.
I happened across an article that talked about how AA Milne and his son, Christopher Robin, felt about Winnie the Pooh and I was surprised. They didn’t seem to like the stories very much at all. Why?
Because the stories became too real.
Milne used his son’s name and the illustrator, EH Shepard, even drew the character to look like the real boy. People who read the story put two and two together, and after real Christopher’s involvement in Pooh-related activities (such as reading the books aloud), his fate was sealed. He was the Christopher Robin from Winnie the Pooh.
That’s the danger when using real people in fictional stories. Characters in books are usually based on someone real but they might have qualities from multiple different people. Giving them the actual name of the person you’re basing them on can lead to a world of difficulties, as was in Christopher’s case. Most people probably meant no harm but the impact on his life was tremendous.
Taking inspiration from the real world is crucial and necessary for creating amazing stories that move other people, but we should carefully consider how we use that inspiration.
Fiction is created by mashing pieces of reality and fantasy together to create a seamless story, but it’s important to keep those pieces of reality in check.
I’ve heard some advice along the lines of “if it really happened, you can write about it” and in principle that’s all good and well. No one owns reality, so to speak — why couldn’t you put it in your book? Milne probably saw nothing bad in writing about a character who reminded his beloved son until it was far too late to change it.
Of course, the people involved might see the whole thing differently and think you’re deliberately making them look bad (or too good, I suppose). And those who read the book know nothing else about the character. The very real person in your life might soon be seen through fiction-colored lenses that distort their personality in ways you probably didn’t even consider.
Fiction that’s based on real events can be great, but we should all take care to keep reality separate from our fiction.
Have you ran into cases where a fictional character has caused problems for a real person? Do you think we should never use real people in our books or is it enough we’re careful about it?