The well-known quotation from Jane Austen’s 1816 letter to her nephew, Edward [“the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour”] seems to have been a metaphor comparing the fashion for painting miniature portraits of people upon small sections of ivory to the delicate depiction of characters in Jane Austen’s own writing. There is (Don’t we know it!) author frustration here, as well as an acknowledgement that creating characters who are convincingly real is a lengthy and laborious business. Readers often ask if fictional characters are based on real people, especially when their delineation is complex; the beauty of fiction is that our contact with humanity provides not only a splendid range of interesting individuals, but also (much more useful!) unlimited character traits and mannerisms to drum into service in a book. Bits of this and bits of that may be merrily joined together into a fictional original; ‘larger than life’ is an apt way of describing such a one. In these days of (sadly) increasing conformity to society’s norms, what is really exciting is to meet real larger-than-life characters, as they spring uniquely fully formed, with glorious individualities and eccentricities, out of the amorphous mass of the majority.
As a writer, I might take the ‘idea’ of a Boris Johnson, but, even with all his astonishing absurdities, I shouldn’t have a place for him in my book; he wouldn’t fit. He is much better left where he is, in reality, for people to enjoy there.