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In fiction, a composite character is a character composed of two or more real life or fictional individuals, appearing in a fictional or non-fictional work. Two or more fictional characters are often combined into one upon adaptation of a work from one medium to another, as in the film or video game adaptation of a novel or comic book. A composite character may be modeled on real historical or biographical figures in either type of work.
Sometimes composite characters are created in journalistic works, but such use raises ethical questions.
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- Major Frank Burns as portrayed in the 1970 film M*A*S*H, is a composite of Captain Frank Burns and Major Hobson from the original novel. The composite character was carried over into the TV series.
- Chico as portrayed in the 1960 film The Magnificent Seven, is a composite of the samurai Kikuchiyo and Katsushiro from the film Seven Samurai, which Magnificent Seven was based upon.
- The musical version of Les Misérables features an adaption distillation with composite-type characters, such as how charismatic revolutionary Enjolras dies waving a flag at the top of a barricade when the original novel by Victor Hugo had a character named Mabeuf die in such a way.
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- The character Bobby Ciaro in the biographical film Hoffa.
- Several characters in the movie 21.
- The character Henry Hurt in the docudrama Apollo 13 is portrayed as a NASA public relations employee assigned to the wife of astronaut Jim Lovell, and who also is seen answering reporters' questions. This character is a composite of the NASA protocol officer Bob McMurrey assigned to act as a buffer between the Lovell family and the press, and several Office of Public Affairs employees whose job was to actually work with the press.
- The character Peter Brand in Moneyball is a composite who is partly based on Paul DePodesta. DePodesta didn't want his name or likeness used in the film. The character attended Yale University, while DePodesta is an alumnus of Harvard University.
- In order to simplify the story to fit the running time, many of the characters in the film Black Hawk Down are composites, including the lead character Matt Eversmann.
- 1st Lt. (later CPT) Colleen McMurphy on China Beach is a composite of real life Army nurses who served in Vietnam.
- Marshall Matt Dillon on Gunsmoke is a composite of real life Old West Kansas lawmen.
- Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs is a composite of serial killers Jerry Brudos, Ed Gein, Ted Bundy, Gary M. Heidnik, Edmund Kemper and Gary Ridgway.
- Hannibal Lecter as portrayed in the 1986 thriller film Manhunter by actor Brian Cox was partly inspired by Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel while author Thomas Harris took inspiration from criminal psychopath Alfredo Ballí Treviño.
- The Senator: My Ten Years with Ted Kennedy, a controversial but best-selling memoir by Richard E. Burke allegedly exposing various activities of the late U.S. Senator Teddy Kennedy, featured several composite characters associated with Kennedy's alleged drug use and sexual dalliances; the inclusion of such became a point of criticism for the book.
Use in journalism
While creating composite characters for a fictional work is a useful tool, doing so in journalism is considered to be like any other passing off of fiction as fact and is, in general, considered to be unethical. Nonetheless, writers have been known to employ this type of creative non-fiction. In 1944, The New Yorker ran a series of pieces by Joseph Mitchell on New York's Fulton Fish Market that were presented as journalism. Only when the story was published four years later as the book, Old Mr. Flood did Mitchell write, "Mr. Flood is not one man; combined in him are aspects of several old men who work or hang out in Fulton Fish Market, or who did in the past." Mitchell assigned his character his own birthday and his own love for the Bible, Mark Twain and columnist Heywood Broun. Similarly, John Hersey is said to have created a composite character in a Life magazine story as did Alastair Reid for The New Yorker. More recently, Vivian Gornick admitted in 2003 to having used composite characters in some of her articles for the Village Voice.
It remains a somewhat open question to what degree journalistic standards of newspaper reporting apply when one is writing for a magazine. In his introduction to Mr. Flood, Mitchell wrote, "I wanted these stories to be truthful rather than factual, but they are solidly based on facts."
War and propaganda
Composite character may a real or fictional person to effectively immortalize this person. One legendary example is the case of Spartacus, a commander during the Third Servile War, where all captured slaves admitted to be him. A modern example is the sniper Juba of the Islamic Army in Iraq during the Iraqi Insurgency who claims to have killed 143 US soldiers. With the arrest of two men claiming to be Juba and the high kill rate, Juba is considered[by whom?] to be a fictional person composed of several snipers.
- Gutkind, Lee (2011) Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction W. W. Norton & Company, ebook
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- "House of cards - The Boston Globe". Boston.com. 2008-04-06. Retrieved 2013-10-13.
- Kluger, Jeffrey; Jim Lovell (July 1995). Lost Moon: The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 (First Pocket Books printing ed.). New York: Pocket Books. pp. 118, 209–210, 387. ISBN 0-671-53464-5.
- Barshad, Amos (2013-09-05). "If It’s Cool With Everyone, Paul DePodesta Would Really Rather Jonah Hill Not Use His Name in Moneyball - Vulture". Nymag.com. Retrieved 2013-10-13.
- Allen Barra. "Dodge Vs. Deadwood | American History Lives at American Heritage". Americanheritage.com. Retrieved 2013-10-13.
- Shafer, Jack (2003-06-12). "The fabulous fabulists". Slate.com. Retrieved 2013-10-13.
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- O'Rourke, Meghan (2003-07-29). "Literary license". Slate.msn.com. Retrieved 2013-10-13.
- "Unethical writers love the power of creative non-fiction - WTOP.com". Wtopnews.com. 2006-01-13. Retrieved 2013-10-13.