10 Famous Literary Characters and Their Real-Life Inspirations


We all know truth is stranger than fiction, and some things (and people) are just too good to have been made up. We’ve already shown you quirky cartoon characters based on real people, and though we imagine there are many more life-to-literature adaptations than life-to-cartoon, we’ve decided to continue the trend and pick some of our favorite famous literary characters inspired by real-life people. For the most part, we’ve skipped the autobiographical inspirations, mostly because there are too many too count, though many writers would probably tell you there’s a little bit of themselves in every character they write, so in some ways that distinction is a losing battle. Click through to read out list of ten famous literary characters and their real-life counterparts, and let us know your own picks for your favorite truth-inspired heroes and heroines in the comments!

Tintin — Palle Huld

The 15-year-old Danish writer and actor’s 1928 voyage around the world, documented in his book Around the World in 44 days by Palle reportedly inspired Hergé’s Tintin, himself a young jet-setting fellow. As far as we can tell, Snowy was just a stroke of pure genius invention.

Alice — Alice Liddell

Famously, Alice Liddell was the inspiration and namesake for Lewis Carroll’s children’s classic Alice in Wonderland. Carroll, then known as Charles Dodgson, was close with the Liddell family (he took the photo of Alice above), and when 10-year-old Alice begged for a story, Dodgson began to spin his famous tale of Alice and what happened after she fell through the rabbit hole. Unlike previous stories he had told her, she asked him to write it down. The rest, as they say, is history.

Moby Dick — Mocha Dick

Mocha Dick was an albino sperm whale who lived in the early 19th century, so-named because he tended to frequent the balmy waters near the island of Mocha, off southern Chile. Of him, explorer Jeremiah N. Reynolds wrote, “This renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, was an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature… a singular consequence had resulted – he was white as wool!” Needless to say, Melville drew on the notoriety of Mocha Dick as well as his own seafaring experiences for his classic novel.

Molly Bloom — Nora Barnacle

The wife of main character Leopold Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses, Molly Bloom corresponds in many ways to Penelope from the Odyssey, but was also modelled off of Joyce’s own wife, Nora Barnacle. In fact, the novel, which takes place in a single day, is set on June 16, 1904, the occasion of their first date. Let’s say it together: aww.

Long John Silver — William Ernest Henley

When Robert Louis Stevenson was trying to come up with a good villain for Treasure Island, he was inspired by his friend, William Ernest Henley, an English poet, critic and editor, a jovial fellow who had had his left leg amputated from the knee after a childhood bout of tuberculosis. After the publication of Treasure Island, Stevenson wrote to his friend: “I will now make a confession. It was the sight of your maimed strength and masterfulness that begot Long John Silver…the idea of the maimed man, ruling and dreaded by the sound, was entirely taken from you.”

Sethe — Margaret Garner

Toni Morrison has said that she based the story of Beloved, and particularly the character of Sethe, on two articles she read about Margaret Garner, a slave who escaped captivity in 1856 by running away to Ohio, where it had been abolished. When slave catchers found her and her family, she killed her youngest child, publicly stating that she would rather have her child dead than experience life in slavery. In the novel, Sethe makes similar choices, to both her pride and torment.

Severus Snape — John Nettleship

When Rowling admitted that Snape was “loosely based on a teacher I myself had,” the press tracked down John Nettleship, who taught Rowling Chemistry at Wyedean School near Chepstow. When first approached, he was surprised, explaining, “I was horrified when I first found out. I knew I was a strict teacher but I didn’t think I was that bad.” In retrospect, however, he admitted that he was “a short-tempered chemistry teacher with long hair…[and a] gloomy, malodorous laboratory,” which seems pretty on-point to us.

Carlo Marx, Old Bull Lee and Dean Moriarty — Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Neal Cassady

It’s a well-known fact that Jack Kerouac wrote all of his friends (as well as himself) into his groundbreaking novel On the Road. After all, what better way to write about the American experience than to actually write about the American experience you’ve been having with all your friends?

Charles Baker “Dill” Harris — Truman Capote

Harper Lee based Jem and Scout’s best friend and summer neighbor Dill on her own childhood friend, Truman Capote. As he once said, “Mr. and Mrs. Lee, Harper Lee’s mother and father, lived very near. Harper Lee was my best friend. Did you ever read her book, To Kill a Mockingbird? I’m a character in that book, which takes place in the same small town in Alabama where we lived. Her father was a lawyer, and she and I used to go to trials all the time as children. We went to the trials instead of going to the movies.”

Ebenezer Scrooge — John Elwes

Evidence suggests that Charles Dickens based legendary miser Ebenezer Scrooge on the 18th century politician John Elwes, who had inherited a fortune but was loath to spend a single penny, preferring to live as if in poverty, squatting in empty apartments. Whether he went around muttering ‘bah humbug,’ we really can’t say.