10 Real People Behind Classic Fictional Characters

Ernest Hemingway once said, “When writing a novel, a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.” Good characterization invites the reader to personally identify with a narrative.

What makes vivid, believable fictional people? A well-drawn persona creates an emotional connection to the reader. Age, gender, quirks, habits, and character flaws contribute to making this connection. Some writers build up fictional people entirely from imagination, and many are inspired by real individuals. Classic fiction is replete with memorable dramatis personae that owe their three-dimensionality to being based on real people in the first place.

A previous list discussed Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robinson Crusoe, and Tom Sawyer. This list adds ten more characters from classic novels.

Related: 10 Tragedies Blamed On Mythical and Fictional Creatures

10 Anonymous Lunatic/Bertha Mason-Rochester

Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre (1847) is the story of an orphan girl who grows up with abusive relatives and is later sent to an equally miserable charity school. Upon adulthood, Jane is employed at Thornfield Hall by the dashing Edward Rochester as governess for his illegitimate daughter, Adele.

Mutual attraction eventually leads Rochester to propose to Jane, but on the wedding day, Jane discovers that Rochester is already married to Bertha Mason, a mixed-race woman born in the Caribbean who has gone insane and is secretly locked up on the third floor of Thornfield Hall. Bertha never speaks and only laughs or snarls, nor does anyone talk for her. At the novel’s climax, Bertha burns down Thornfield and jumps to her death.

Bronte had the inspiration for Bertha while visiting the Norton Conyers manor house in North Yorkshire in 1839. From the owners, she heard of the legend of a madwoman imprisoned in a remote attic room in the previous century. The manor itself was the model for Thornfield Hall. In 2004, a hidden staircase was discovered strongly resembling the one in Jane Eyre, which Rochester uses to reach his wife.

As is common with fictional characters, Bertha also seems to be a composite of other people. Bronte also knew of North Lees Hall in the Peak District, where a mysterious captive was kept in a top-floor room and who, like Bertha, later died in a fire. Bertha, being of mixed race, might have been inspired by one Eliza Raine, half-Tamil and born in Madras, who was taken to an asylum after becoming unhinged by her lover’s unfaithfulness.[1]

9 William Henley/Long John Silver

“I’m cap’n here by’ lection. I’m cap’n here because I’m the best man by a long sea-mile.”—Long John Silver

Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of adventure Treasure Island (1883) tells how young Jim Hawkins discovers a treasure map among the possessions of a dead pirate. With two companions, he undertakes an expedition to Skeleton Island to find the treasure, hiring a band of other pirates to help them.

Their leader is peg-legged Long John Silver, whose complex and powerful personality makes him the most memorable character in the book. He is, in turn, attractive and repellent, brutal and sympathetic, and intimidating and gentle. Jim describes him as “intelligent and smiling… clean and pleasant-tempered.” Frugal, sober, and respectful, Long John Silver is not the stereotypical pirate, peg-leg notwithstanding.

The model for Long John Silver was Stevenson’s friend, the poet William Ernest Henley, famous for the poem “Invictus.” Tuberculosis caused his left leg to be amputated below the knee, and it was during his confinement in an Edinburgh hospital in 1874 that his long, close friendship with Stevenson began.

With his missing leg, hearty laughter, and big red beard, Henley was a natural in the role of a pirate. Stevenson confessed to his friend, “It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver… the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.”[2]

8 Welsh Brunty/Heathcliff

“Do I want to live? … [W]ould you like to live with your soul in the grave?”–Heathcliff

The dark, brooding Heathcliff, a foundling adopted by the Earnshaw family, is the protagonist of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights (1847). The novel fołlows the complicated relationships between Heathcliff, his adopted sister Catherine, and Edgar and Isabella Linton. The latter part of the book revolves around Heathcliff’s revenge against the Earnshaws and Lintons, whom he feels have ruined his life.

The parallels between Heathcliff and Emily Bronte’s great-grandfather, Welsh Brunty, make him the real-life model for the obsessive, vengeful anti-hero. Brunty was an orphan whom Irish cattle trader Hugh Brunty found on a ship on one of his trips to England. He and his wife adopted the urchin as their own. With his gypsyish features, Brunty thought he was from Wales and named him Welsh.

In time, Welsh grew closer to Hugh, who lavished more affection on him than on his own sons, provoking their jealousy. After Hugh’s death, they expelled him from the house, just as Heathcliff was turned out by his foster brother Hindley.

In the novel, Heathcliff returns a rich man to Wuthering Heights and becomes its master. Welsh likewise became prosperous due to his cunning and business acumen. He took control of the Brunty property, married the youngest Brunty, Mary, and adopted Hugh, Mary’s nephew. But as his fortunes declined, he turned cruel and abusive. He treated his adopted son poorly, causing him to run away. Hugh eventually married and had Patrick Bronte, Emily’s father.[3]

7 Thomas Lefroy/Mr. Darcy

“You showed me how insufficient were all my pretensions to please a woman worthy of being pleased.”–Mr. Darcy

Fitzwilliam Darcy, a man of high birth and wealthy master of the Pemberley estate, pursues the affections of Elizabeth Bennet in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (1813). Elizabeth, though intrigued, is initially turned off by Darcy’s arrogance and haughtiness at their first meeting, while Darcy holds aloof from Elizabeth as a social inferior. Despite himself, Darcy grows to love her for her intelligence and vitality, but Elizabeth rejects him. In the end, after Darcy rescues the Bennet family from scandal, Elizabeth realizes Darcy has gained a measure of humility, sees him in a new light, and finally accepts his proposal.

Mr. Darcy’s real-life alter ego seems to be Thomas Lefroy, a law student who met Jane Austen while on a break visiting his uncle and aunt in 1795. Jane, a favorite of Tom’s aunt, was living nearby. Jane and Tom attended holiday balls that season. However, in her letters to her sister Cassandra, she wrote, “I mean to confine myself in future to Mr. Tom Lefroy, for whom I do not care sixpence.” Nevertheless, she did confide, “He is a very gentlemanlike, good-looking, pleasant young man, I assure you.”

Knowing her letters would be read by others perhaps made Jane less forthcoming about her true feelings. Others who saw Jane and Tom together sensed something more than friendship was afoot. When they parted after four weeks, Jane confessed to Cassandra, “At length, the day is come on which I am to flirt my last with Tom Lefroy, and when you receive this, it will be over. My tears flow as I write at the melancholy idea.”

For a woman who wrote so passionately about love, it is remarkable that Jane Austen never married. Tom Lefroy, however, wed in 1799, had eight children, and went on to become chief justice and member of Parliament, dying at age 93.[4]

6 Robert Blincoe/Oliver Twist

“Please, sir, I want some more.”–Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist (1838) by Charles Dickens follows the story of the title character from the orphanage where he grew up to London, where he gets involved with Fagin and his gang of pickpockets. After many harrowing adventures, Oliver manages to be free of Fagin. He inherits a large fortune, enabling him to spend the rest of his days in comfort.

Dickens drew from many aspects of the dreary existence of Victorian England’s poor for his portrait of Oliver Twist and his world. One key inspiration may have been the memoirs of Robert Blincoe, first published in 1828. Blincoe was born around 1792 and, being illegitimate, was sent to the dirty, odoriferous, and overcrowded St. Pancras workhouse. At six, Robert tried unsuccessfully to escape, but he was later sent to work in a textile mill.

Children typically worked 16 hours a day without pay in such mills, doing dangerous jobs with fast-moving machines. Robert endured these plus severe physical abuse from overseers for 14 years. When he was finally released at age 21, Robert’s body was stunted, scarred, and deformed from the experience. He worked in other mills and saved enough to set up his own cotton business and, like his fictional counterpart, prospered late in life. Blincoe died in 1860.

While there is no direct evidence that Dickens had read Blincoe’s memoirs, it is almost certain he did, as it was widely read and was instrumental in the passage of the Ten Hours Bill of 1847.[5]

5 William Prynne/Hester Prynne

“Let God punish! Thou shalt forgive!”–Hester Prynne

Hester Prynne, the protagonist in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), is a strong, capable, and intelligent protofeminist—exceptional for 17th-century Puritan New England. She is forced to wear an embroidered scarlet letter “A to mark her as an adulteress for her affair with young minister Arthur Dimmesdale, with whom she has a child. Hester rises above the sexism of the community and, through her stoicism, compassion, and dignity, eventually gains their respect. The scarlet letter has become her badge of honor rather than of shame.

No doubt Hawthorne knew of Hester’s real-life counterpart William Prynne, an English Puritan lawyer whose pamphlets criticized the Church of England and King Charles I. Prynne was sentenced to life in prison and his ears cut off. Even in prison, he continued to attack William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. This resulted, resulting in his cheeks being branded with the letters “S.L.” for “seditious libeler,” or as he would rather have it, “stigmata laudis” or “marks of honor.”

While Hester might not share William Prynne’s strict Puritan values, they were both unorthodox thinkers. Prynne’s name was well-known in America as a symbol of defiance of ecclesiastical authority. Hawthorne used it to establish his heroine’s character as a nonconformist.[6]

4 James Annesley/David Balfour

“I have seen wicked men and fools, a great many of both; and I believe they both get paid in the end; but the fools first.”–David Balfour (Narrator)

Kidnapped (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson tells of the adventures of 17-year-old orphan David Balfour, who tries to claim his inheritance from his wealthy uncle Ebenezer. The evil-minded Ebenezer has David taken out of the way by having him kidnapped and sent on a ship bound for the Carolinas. David and his friend Alan Breck survive a shipwreck off the Scottish coast. Both are wrongfully accused of murder, but eventually, Alan escapes to France, and David is able to reclaim his inheritance.

No doubt, Kidnapped is a fictionalization of the story of Irishman James Annesley, born in 1715 to Arthur Annesley, 4th Baron Altham and heir to the earldom of Anglesea. At age two, his father threw his mother out and took up a mistress who banished James from the house when he was six. James roamed the streets of Dublin as an urchin doing odd jobs. Meanwhile, his uncle Richard plotted to get hold of the family’s wealth by eliminating the two other heirs, Arthur and James. He poisoned his brother Arthur and kidnapped 12-year-old James, imprisoning him aboard a ship bound for America.

James spent another 12 years as an indentured servant in Delaware. Upon gaining his freedom, he went to Jamaica and enlisted in the Royal Navy. Back in England, he was wrongfully accused of murder. At the trial, Uncle Richard manipulated the testimony, hoping James would be found guilty and hanged. But James was acquitted and proceeded to bring suit against Richard to gain his inheritance. Uncle Dick’s delaying tactics caused the case to drag on for 15 years.

Real life was sadder than the fiction. James died a pauper in 1760, having never received his titles. Upon Richard’s death the next year, followed by his only son, the earldom of Anglesea became extinct.[7]

3 John Gray/Dorian Gray

“I don’t want to be at the mercy of my emotions. I want to use them, to enjoy them, and to dominate them.”–Dorian Gray

The Picture of Dorian Gray, a work condemned as immoral and perverse when it first appeared in 1890, was Oscar Wilde’s only novel. It concerns the young and incredibly handsome Dorian Gray, who sells his soul to obtain eternal youth and beauty, even as a portrait of him becomes old and wrinkled.

Under the influence of its amoral painter, Lord Henry Wootton, Dorian spends the next 18 years in debauched living, increasingly being drawn to evil. His picture, reflecting his inner demon, grows old and grotesque while he himself remains young. The real-life Dorian Gray was English poet John Gray, with whom Wilde had a brief relationship in 1889, the very year he started on the book.

Wilde was immediately infatuated with the handsome and sensuous Gray, who was also learned in art, music, and languages. Wilde kept Gray’s surname in his book but called him Dorian, a reference to the Greek tribe of Dorians, known for their pederasty, or sexual love between men. Those in Wilde’s circle began calling Gray “Dorian,” and Gray himself signed a letter to Wilde “Dorian.” But the hostile public reception of the book unnerved Gray, and he began to distance himself from Wilde. He filed a libel suit against a newspaper for suggesting that he was Dorian.

In the novel, Dorian slashes the picture in a fit of remorse for his misspent life and stabs himself. The picture turns young again while Dorian’s body shrivels and ages. John Gray likewise also repented of his past conduct and considered suicide but instead converted to Roman Catholicism and became a priest. Remarkably, even as a revered canon, Father John Gray remained baby-faced and wrinkle-free.[8]

2 Sally Horner/Lolita

“I was a daisy fresh girl, and look what you’ve done to me.”–Lolita

One of the most controversial novels of the 20th century, Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955) is the story, told by a prisoner named Humbert Humbert, of his erotic desires for 12-year-old Dolores Haze, whom he calls Lolita. After Dolores’s mother dies in an accident, Humbert takes her on a road trip, where they pretend to be father and daughter, even as Humbert fulfills his fantasies about the girl. Meanwhile, they are followed by the sinister Clare Quilty, who has his own sexual designs on Dolores. When Dolores checks into a hospital for an illness, Quilty kidnaps her. After years of frantic searching, Humbert finally finds his Lolita, realizes that he is really in love with her, and kills Quilty.

Nabokov’s tale bears a striking resemblance to the actual abduction of 11-year-old Sally Horner by convicted rapist Frank LaSalle in 1948. LaSalle caught her stealing a notebook in a store and, pretending to be an FBI agent, threatened to send her to juvenile reformatory if she didn’t follow his instructions.

LaSalle made Sally come with him on a trip across the country, evading police and posing as father and daughter. For 21 months, Sally endured LaSalle’s sexual assaults behind closed doors. In California, a suspicious neighbor took advantage of LaSalle’s absence one day and got the whole story out of Sally. She was rescued and returned home to New Jersey, and Frank LaSalle was arrested.

Though Nabokov never admitted it, it is fairly certain he drew the framework for Lolita from the Horner case. He even has Humbert say explicitly at the end of the novel, “Had I done to Dolly, perhaps, what Frank Lasalle, fifty-year-old mechanic, did to eleven-year-old Sally Horner?”[9]

1 Amassa Coleman Lee/Atticus Finch

“You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”–Atticus Finch

Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) established its hero, the lawyer Atticus Finch, on a pedestal as the icon of racial morality and African-American rights. He courageously defends Tom Robinson, a black man accused of raping a white woman while facing the hostility of his community of Maycomb, Alabama. Though Tom is convicted by the all-white jury and shot to death, Atticus has delivered a searing indictment of racial bigotry that reverberated throughout ’60s America.

So there was dismay and shock when Harper Lee’s recently-discovered manuscript was published in 2015 as the book Go Set a Watchman, where Atticus appears as a member of the all-white Citizens’ Council—described by a historian as a “white-collar Klan”—formed to oppose integration.

The Atticus of Watchman is so different from the Atticus of Mockingbird that readers were confused. To understand, we must realize that Watchman, though presented as its sequel, was written before Mockingbird as its first draft. Also, Atticus is the fictional counterpart of Lee’s own father, Amassa Coleman Lee.

The elder Lee became a lawyer in 1915 and gained a reputation for integrity and compassion, which led him to take up the defense of two black men accused of murdering a white storekeeper. He lost the case, and his clients were hanged, and many considered his views too liberal, provoking the hostility of the Klan. But even Amassa opposed integration, as his Deep Southern upbringing was hard to overcome. Like many Southerners, Amassa had complex and nuanced views on the subject. Like him, most decent people did oppose civil rights, but they also hated the KKK.

Amassa Lee was not perfect—no one is. Which side of Harper Lee’s father she wanted to portray in her book sums up the evolution of Go Set a Watchman to To Kill a Mockingbird. Happily, after many revisions, Lee chose to emphasize the positive—his decency, empathy, and kindness. Late in life, Amassa also became even more true to his fictional self by abandoning his segregationist views and fully embracing civil rights. He died in 1962.[10]

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