Do You Put People You Know in Your Books?

09 Sep

Finding Characters

Guest Blog by Romance Writer Jan Scarbrough

Author-Jan-Scarbrough's-dogs“Do you put people you know in your books?”  How many times have I been asked that question by friends?

Once the ladies in accounting asked my husband (then my boyfriend) if he was the inspiration for my love scenes. He blushed and hid his face, ducking quickly out of the cubicle where they were working.

Robert McKee, author of Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting talks about this very thing in his presentation at the Chicago Romance Writers of America (RWA) convention in 1999. I recently listened again to the tape.

Writers watch people, he said. They gather material through observation, assembling characters from the bits and pieces of people around them. Sort of like Dr. Frankenstein creating his monster.

More importantly, writers find characters in themselves, because the only person they can truly know is themselves. We understand other people the more we know ourselves, because we’re all fundamentally human. McKee points out that if we are thinking it, feeling it, others are experiencing it too. Self-knowledge is the key to all great writing.

Okay, I’ll buy all that. I don’t have one person in mind when I create a character, but I admit to putting myself into each one of my characters. McKee says we have to love our characters just as we must love writing simply because we love doing it.

All profound stuff. All eye-opening stuff. But I want to fess up:
I put my pets into my stories too.

In Kentucky Flame, I created a white English Setter named “Major” after a dog I rescued as a puppy from the Humane Society. The real dog, “Flops”, shared my life and my children’s lives for fifteen years.  What better way to memorialize a faithful friend?

Kentucky Cowboy contains pets that have also crossed over Rainbow Bridge. “Ginger”, a tortoiseshell cat with a peculiar stripe down the bridge of her nose was the real life “Gloria”, a cat my daughter brought home from college for Thanksgiving. My husband’s cat “Jester” also stars in the book as “Joker”, the hero’s black cat. Our late Border collie, “Binky”, was my inspiration for the heroine’s pet dog.

When I wrote Santa’s Kiss, I had fun giving the heroine a traveling companion named “Little Bits”, who is the carbon copy of “Lenny”, my comical Pembroke Welsh Corgi.


Lenny, the Welsh Corki

Excerpt from Santa’s Kiss where a dog named “Little Bits” comforts the heroine:

That dull, nagging pain of regret hit her again, souring her stomach, making her want to throw up. Dawn reached for a Coke Zero in the console and took a drink from the half-empty bottle. It was tepid and flat. As flat as she felt. Flat and defeated. She was having trouble coping with the sudden changes in her life. Yip! Yip! Yip!  The sound of barking from the travel carrier in the back of the SUV made her smile. “Hush, Bits. We’re almost there. Yip! Yip!

Dawn heard Little Bits circling in his crate, trying to get comfortable. The trip had been hard on the small Corgi, but he had been a trooper and her only companion on her cross-country journey. Self-pity surfaced and Dawn wiped another tear from her eye. No, she wouldn’t cry. She had done enough of that. She would make the best of this, no matter what. She just needed some rest, some peace and quiet, and solitude to figure out what had gone so terribly wrong.

There’s one important lesson I learned about putting pets in books—never kill a cat in a romance. In my first book Tangled Memories I broke the rule! I must admit the gray cat “Munster” that met a sudden death in the book is really a gray domestic long-haired cat named “Bugsy”. She lived long nineteen years until old age took her across the bridge while I wrote Tangled Memories.

Jan Scarbrough



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8 responses to “Do You Put People You Know in Your Books?

  1. Tonya R. Moore

    September 10, 2013 at 7:18 am

    I do put people I know in my stories… with different names though.

  2. christiestratos

    September 10, 2013 at 10:09 am

    This is a great guest post! Yes, I agree that many characters are made up of people we know as well as bits and pieces of ourselves. We draw inspiration from all around us, and even when we create a brand new world, we are drawing from what this world is lacking. I think it’s really cool that you include your pets in the stories, too. What an adorable picture of your corgi. 🙂

  3. nineteen98spirit

    September 10, 2013 at 6:08 pm

    I completely agree. I might not put an entire person in my story, but I will take characteristics from people who have made an influence on me, and I will take things about myself and put them into my stories and my characters. It’s natural.

  4. romancerider

    September 10, 2013 at 7:07 pm

    Well, I won’t say if I’ve put my mother-in-law in a story….I’m a corgi fan. You can’t guess how many corgi pages are on Facebook. So many cute pictures. My daughter is a vet. I suspect she came by it naturally.

  5. Teresa Reasor

    September 11, 2013 at 10:52 am

    I do put people I know in my books. I’ve even picked similar names to people I know. But I haven’t put any animals in. Well, horses. But I’m always careful not to allow anything to happen to them. I have a thing about that. I couldn’t even watch the movie Warhorse even though I knew nothing happened to him. I sit on the edge of my seat unable to relax throughout the entire movie because I’m terrified something might happen to them. Maybe I have a phobia.
    I loved the pictures you included. Wish my critters would allow me to photograph them.
    I enjoyed the blog, Jan. I need to go back and visit McKee again. I have the book on CD. I’m going to do that.

    • romancerider

      September 11, 2013 at 4:43 pm

      Teresa, I’ve never seen War Horse, the movie, either. I’ve put my old horses into books too.

  6. jpgrider

    September 17, 2013 at 7:59 pm

    I never thought of putting my pets in my books, but I do put myself into every character. I may use bits and pieces of other people’s personalities, but ultimately, my characters are an extension of myself. Great post.

    • romancerider

      September 18, 2013 at 7:43 am

      JP, I don’t think you can be a writer without putting yourself into your characters. I agree with you.


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