The Color Purple is a work of fiction, and it is not based on a particular true story. However, in examining Walker's notes and journals, scholar Salamishah Tillet, author of In Search of the Color Purple, learned that the character of Celie is based loosely on Alice Walker's step-grandmother, Rachel. Further, the tough, fearless, outspoken Sofia, Walker has stated, grew from a combination of real female characters she admired in her life, including a woman named Miss Sophie who lived near Walker growing up but in a house without a husband or children. Sofia was also based on Walker's mother, Minnie Lou, who, like Sofia, came from a family with many children. Walker, more generally, envisioned Sofia as an amalgam of all the strong Black women she had known over the years, many of whom were faced with abuse not only by white men but also by Black men. Shug Avery is based on one of Walker's aunts, a woman who worked as a cleaning person but dressed in her personal life in flamboyant clothes.
However, while her characters draw from real life, Walker creates a fictitious plot to explore a distinctly female perception of Blackness. Reacting to criticisms that she played into stereotypes of Black men as abusers, Walker pushed back by saying that rape was very seldom shown (at the time she wrote the book) from the point of view of the woman.