"I really don't like the idea of 'basing' a character on someone, and these days I don't like the idea of going into the mind of the real unknown dead," said Byatt in an interview with the organisers of the Booker prize. "It feels like the appropriation of others' lives and privacy. Making other people up, which is a kind of attack on them." Oscar Wilde appears in her own Booker-nominated novel, The Children's Book, she added, but "the novelist doesn't say what he thinks".
I understand the temptation; I've felt it myself. A real life person has a life and context all ready for you, using them is shorthand for a whole array of layered meaning. However, and as Byatt has suggested, using someone else's actuality for your own novel feels to me to be an ontological transgression. In moral philosophy, there is the question of whether you can do harm to the dead; this is one example where I feel that yes, you can. I agree with Byatt that it is a kind of attack on that person, in the sense that you are overwhelming their haecceity with your own.
It is impossible, finally, to know the mind of others, even someone as close as a spouse, a parent, a child. Trying to truly comprehend the mind of someone you only know by hearsay seems even more impossible. Creating such a person, an historically based individual whose mind was shaped by a different society, seems to me a novelist's duty: creating, rather than using a ready made Real Person and doing violence to their individual identity. When the character is someone lost far back in time, such as Cleopatra or various biblical figures, it doesn't bother me as much; they seem more like an archetypal figure than an individual at this point. Is this inconsistent? I'm not sure, but I do know that I generally dislike books that have recent historical figures as the main character, even when the story itself and the writing may be excellent.
Does this bother anyone else? Does anyone feel the opposite way, that real people make great fictional devices? Please weigh in, this topic is one that has fascinated me for years.