“Write what you know,” they say. So it makes sense that many authors take a good look around at friends and family when creating characters for their books.
1. Mark Twain once admitted that he wasn’t terribly creative in creating Huckleberry Finn – he based the character almost precisely on his childhood friend Tom Blankenship. From his autobiography:
“In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person—boy or man—in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us. And as his society was forbidden us by our parents the prohibition trebled and quadrupled its value, and therefore we sought and got more of his society than any other boy’s.”
Sadly, according to the editor’s notes in Twain’s posthumous autobiography, Blankenship was repeatedly arrested for theft and died just five years after Huckleberry Finn was published.
2. When Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road, he was really writing about his own cross-country exploits with his Beat Generation buddies. For example, the selfish Dean Moriarty represents Neal Cassady, close pal of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead (among others). In fact, the character’s name is Neal in the original On the Road scroll. But that’s not the only character Cassady inspired: Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe all took inspiration from Cassady.
The real Neal died at the age of 41 after being found comatose by a railroad track in Guanajunto, Mexico, in 1968.
3. Even as one of the wittiest female characters in literary history, Nora Charles from The Thin Man doesn’t hold a candle to her inspiration, Lillian Hellman. Lillian was author Dashiell Hammett’s lover for 30 years, but she was also a respected playwright, screenwriter, author and outspoken political activist. Hammett apparently told Hellman that she was the inspiration for his female villains as well.
4. It’s almost hard to imagine that the furious and completely insane jilted bride of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations has a flesh-and-blood counterpart. But she does – in fact, there are at least three that might fit the bill.
Real-life Miss Havisham #1: Eliza Emily Donnithorne, an Australian woman who thought she was getting married in 1856. When she was stood up by the groom, she refused to change anything about the house; the wedding feast even sat out until it rotted into non-existence. Legend has it that Donnithorne never left the house again.
Potential Havisham #2: Elizabeth Parker. This Shropshire, England, woman was also jilted on her wedding day and became quite reclusive afterward. Dickins was known to visit Shropshire, and the fact that Miss Parker’s house was called Havisham Court seems like it must be more than coincidence.
Havisham the Third: Madame Eliza Jumel, Aaron Burr’s second wife. It’s said that Jumel may have gone a little crazy in her desperate attempts to break into New York high society; after finally throwing a successful dinner party for Joseph Bonaparte, she supposedly left the banquet and place settings out for decades to commemorate her social acceptance.
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