Authors Basing Characters on Real People: Some Examples from Classic Novels

I don’t know how much most authors base their characters on people they have known. I would guess that most combine various characteristics taken from numerous people in real life with some from those they have encountered in fiction to create something original.

A writer observes on this website

https://litreactor.com/columns/keeping-it-real-a-rough-guide-to-using-real-people-as-fictional-characters

‘Fictional characters, especially main characters, almost never behave exactly like real people would.  They’re smarter, more persuasive, more appealing, more sensitive, better looking, stronger, more hot-headed, braver and at least twice as sensual as anyone we’re ever going to share office space or an apartment with. Make your characters too real and the reader will soon lose interest. Give them some real characteristics and they’ll jump out of the page and into your audience’s mind with a single bound.’

As a matter of fact, I don’t agree with all of that. Most people do meet larger than life characters, people who are outstanding in all sorts of ways. It is merely that they are vastly outnumbered by the greater number of smaller than life characters one meets …

It is however true that they probably don’t combine all these fascinating characteristics together.

For instance, perhaps my own best looking character is Reynaud Ravensdale in ‘Ravensdale’ (though some might prefer the looks of Harley Venn in ‘The Villainous Viscount Or the Curse of the Venns’).  Readers might imagine that I must have invented his appearance, or based it on some idealised portrait.

In fact, a man I knew looked exactly like that,  wide-set, heavy-lidded eyes, Grecian profile, waving chestnut hair and all. He was a petty villain I knew, who was a nice enough guy, but – to put it mildly –  rather stupid.

Reynaud Ravensdale is certainly more of a man of action than a studious type, and decidedly impulsive and given to theatrical gestures, but only stupid about his love object Isabella Murray and her predecessor Georgiana Toothill. Above anything, I wrote him as an ‘Ideal Type’  of the hero of the traditional robber novels like ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ and ‘Dubrovsky.

According to various books and websites, a fair number of writers of classic novels did base their main character roughly on someone they knew in real life, or sometimes, someone whom they knew only slightly. Or it could be, on someone the author had only glimpsed once.

For instance, it seems the appearance of Thomas Hardy’s ‘Tess of d’Ubervilles’ is based on a farm girl Hardy saw, belabouring some unfortunate mount and swearing.

Various pieces of advice on writing such as the website above strongly advise aspiring authors not to make their characters recognisable as real people. Still,  I remember reading that Kingsley Amis deliberately made the ridiculous Professor Welch in his first novel ‘Lucky Jim’ a wounding portrayal of his first father-in-law.   I don’t know if the unlucky man recognised himself.

What is interesting, is that it is a witty portrayal. Many portrayals dictated by malice seem to read as savage rather than amusing.  Also in the same novel, I believe that the Jim character was based on Amis’s friend Philip Larkin.

It seems that Samuel Richardson said he based his character Robert Lovelace from ‘Clarissa’ on the conversation and attitudes of a man he encountered. I only read this in passing in some piece of literary criticism, and find it rather an astounding notion, given the puritanical notions of that author.

Did Richardson encourage this appalling conversation about the seduction and betrayal of a series of innocents?   Was the man possibly self-deluded, boasting of conquests and betrayals that never happened and persuading Richardson to believe his boastful anecdotes?

But, as the characters that authors create are after all a part of our  own psyches, surely a large part of Lovelace was  the dark part of the puritanical Samuel Richardson’s own unconscious mind?  That he managed to keep such a scheming, exuberant, emotionally abusive and finally rapist aspect to his psyche under control is, if so, evidence of what an astonishing job an effective conscience does.

As it was, all Richardson did was write novels which expressly designed to  oppress generations of women with false notions of purity…

I had wondered on whom Oscar Wilde based his infinitely corrupt Dorian Grey in his famous novel. It seems from this website:

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/ten-famed-literary-figures-based-on-real-life-people-3537929

that his appearance at least was based on one John Grey, a minor member of his circle . If so, according to the website below,  the fate of this person was vastly different from that of Wilde’s character. John Grey later took holy orders.

Three inch high watercolour of Irishman Thomas Langlois Lefroy painted by leading English miniaturist George Engleheart in 1798

Critics are still undecided on who is the original of Jane Austen’s Mr Darcy. Some think his appearance at least was based on the  Irish William Lefroy, who admitted in old age to having as a youth been in  love with Jane Austen.

Some authors seem to have shown naivety in believing that characters they had based on people important in their lives could not be recognised by readers as long as they changed a feature here or there…

For instance, when reading the  ‘Forstye Saga’ by John Galsworthy, I noted his besotted, partisan attitude towards the female lead Irene, whose physical and mental attributes seem to be admired by everyone.

I was unsurprised to find out later that the character of Irene, and her marital misfortunes, are based on Galsworthy’s wife (who was previously unhappily married to his cousin).  Galsworthy seems to have thought that if he changed her hair colour from dark to golden, nobody would draw any conclusions about her origin…