Real People in Fictional Realms

Today is the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, the 1809-born 16th president who would have been 208 if he were alive in 2017 — meaning 143 years of Social Security payments.

But, seriously, I’m reminded that many fictional works — and not just historical novels — feature actual famous people.

That can of course be very attractive to readers who want to “get in the heads” of often-long-dead notables, see the times they lived in, see the way authors depict those luminaries, and see how real personages interact with fictional characters. Many readers find this a more palatable way than nonfiction history books to learn about high-profile people of the past — whether those people were heroes, villains, or something in between.

“Honest Abe” himself has appeared in everything from Gore Vidal’s Lincoln to Seth Grahame-Smith’s Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter.

Another president — Ulysses Grant, commander of the Union army during the American Civil War that marked Lincoln’s presidency — shows up in Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back, along with various real players from the legendary 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings baseball team. Brock’s sequel, Two in the Field, includes a deservedly scathing depiction of General Custer.

Also set in the 1800s is Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, which of course includes Napoleon among its large cast of mostly fictional characters; and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace, which features a real-life person (Grace Marks) accused of murder. Not the best way to become famous, or infamous, but Marks is a known name — especially in Canada.

Moving to literature set in more recent years, there’s the novel containing more real people than most fiction: E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime — in which we see Henry Ford, Sigmund Freud, Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, J.P. Morgan, Booker T. Washington, and other well-known figures.

Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna devotes quite a few pages and conversations to artists Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

Fannie Flagg’s Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! includes a memorable scene with playwright Tennessee Williams as he discusses the downside of fame.

And moving to fiction set many centuries ago, we have such novels as Mark Twain’s Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc, Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and its sequels (which feature King Louis XIII, etc.), and Anthony Burgess’ The Kingdom of the Wicked (which includes Jesus Christ. One can argue about whether he was “the son of God,” but he may have existed as a person).

Which real people have you noticed in fictional works? Bonus question: Who’s the better president — Lincoln or Donald Trump? (Hint: The Electoral College can’t help Trump this time!  🙂 )

The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone.

My new book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time: The Book Lover’s Guide to Literary Trivia will be published soon.

But I’m still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as “Dear Abby” and Ann Landers, and other notables such as Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for Baristanet.com. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.

They’re Famous in Their Fictional Worlds

Every fictional character is famous in a way — after all, they’re in a book! But then there are fictional characters who, within the context of that book, are actually famous — as in being a celebrity, being at the top of an important profession, being a notorious criminal, etc.

So I’m not necessarily talking about characters who are famous to readers. For instance, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre is one of the most iconic protagonists in literary history, but she’s only known to a fairly small number of people in her fictional world and is thus not famous for the purposes of this blog post’s theme.

It’s interesting to see how authors depict the fictionally famous and how they show the pros and cons of prominence. In their works, writers might answer questions like: Is the fame sudden or the product of a long period of hard work? How much luck was involved? Is the fame fleeting or enduring? Is the high-profile person enjoying the fame or is s/he “lonely at the top”? Does fame change the celebrity, in a good or bad way? For instance, is s/he feeling proud, satisfied, financially secure, etc.? Or does fame bring negative consequences such as egomania, neglect of family, the break-up of a marriage, etc.?

As usual, I think of blog ideas while reading a book. In this case it was Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals — a comic novel, with plenty of heart, set in a fantasy university area populated by wizards, dwarfs, goblins, and other creatures. The seemingly ditzy kitchen worker Juliet is unexpectedly chosen to model dwarf clothes (despite not being a dwarf) and handles her overnight fame and wealth with more common sense than expected. Her kitchen boss Glenda becomes well known not only for her cooking but for having a more impressive mind than the university leaders she feeds. And the genial, overachieving orc Mr. Nutt becomes prominent for his amazing intellect and physical strength.

In J.M.G. Le Clezio’s Desert, young Lalla leaves the arid wide-open spaces of Morocco for big-city France, where she becomes a prominent photography model without seeking that profession. She finds the shallow celebrity life not to her liking, and returns to Morocco within months.

Enough about models! The ambitious, hard-working Thea Kronberg becomes a big-time opera singer in Willa Cather’s The Song of the Lark. But as is often the case with celebrities (particularly female ones), there is some sacrificing of personal and family life. Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto also features a mega-celebrity opera star (Roxanne Coss) who gets a lot closer to the general public than usual when she’s taken hostage along with her audience during a performance.

In Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen becomes well known in the dystopian country of Panem for her courage, archery skills, and more as an involuntary contestant in the trilogy’s brutal games.

A real sport — baseball — is featured in The Natural, whose protagonist Roy Hobbs becomes a major Major League star but has major difficulties before and after that happens. The movie version of Bernard Malamud’s book gives Roy a happier ending.

Speaking of films, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon stars movie producer Monroe Stahr, who was partly based on real-life Hollywood legend Irving Thalberg.

Another producer — a TV one — is Savannah Jackson in Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale. She has a very successful career but a messy personal life.

Henrietta Stackpole is a fairly famous journalist in Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady, and — unlike a lot of fictional celebrities — seems fairly happy with her career and life.

Another prominent journalist is Mikael Blomkvist in Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels. He too seems pretty comfortable with himself, but has to endure some dangerous situations while conducting his impressive investigative reporting.

Then there are fictional characters famous within a relatively limited sphere, but famous nonetheless. One example is the beloved teacher Mr. Chipping in James Hilton’s Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

Some villains who are “celebrities” in their fictional worlds? Sauron of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Lord Voldemort of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Professor Moriarty of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Count Fosco of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White, Iago of Shakespeare’s Othello, etc.!

Those evil fellows squared off against also-famous heroes and heroines: Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf, Aragorn, Harry, Hermione, Ron, Dumbledore, Sherlock, Walter Hartright, Marian Halcombe…

Who are your favorite characters well known in their fictional realms?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at dastor@earthlink.net to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.