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 You can email me at 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.