Did You Know These Characters Were Based On Real People?

by Charlotte Ahlin

Literature is full of larger-than-life characters. From Glinda the Good Witch to Sherlock Holmes, they don't exactly seem like people you'd encounter just walking around town — but many writers over the years have drawn their inspiration from the some very real people (this is also, incidentally, why no one should ever be friends with a writer, because they will steal your life story and put it in a book.) Authors' friends, family, and least favorite teachers have all found their way into classic works of fiction. Here are a few literary characters you never realized were based on real people.

I don't just mean characters who are thinly-veiled versions of the author, either (although there are plenty of those). Some of the most significant, memorable characters in the literary world started out as real people. Details like names, occupations, or ability to do magic might have been tweaked, but it's clear where the inspiration came from. Truth is often stranger than fiction, after all, and stealing your friends' personalities is a time honored writing tradition.

Of course, there are many characters based on real people out there: this list barely scratches the surface. Here are just a few of the beloved book characters who had real world counterparts:


Dill Harris

Not only was Dill Harris based on Harper Lee's BFF Truman Capote, Capote bragged about it constantly. He was super into the fact that Harper Lee had put him in the book, which contributed to the false rumor that Capote actually wrote all of To Kill a Mockingbird. Lee and Capote were childhood friends, though, and frequently gave each other feedback on their writing.

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The Dodo Bird

Many people know that Alice from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland was based on a real little girl. But did you know that the Dodo Bird is based on author Lewis Carroll himself? Carroll's real last name was Dodgson, but with his stutter, he pronounced it "Do-dogson," inspiring him to poke fun at himself with the character.

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Kilgore Trout

Kurt Vonnegut's fictional sci-fi author, Kilgore Trout, was based on Vonnegut's friend and fellow sci-fi writer, Theodore Sturgeon. Vonnegut apparently thought that fish-based last names were hilarious, and both Sturgeon and Vonnegut were struggling authors when they met. Lucky for Sturgeon, he ended up much more successful than his fictional alter-ego.

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Everyone's favorite boy reporter may have been partially based on Palle Huld, a red-haired, freckled, 15-year-old boy who circumnavigated the globe alone, without using planes, as part of a contest in 1928. (Apparently parents were way more chill in 1928.)

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Get ready to feel sad forever, because Sethe from Beloved is based on a real woman. Margaret Garner fled slavery with her children in 1856, escaping across the frozen Ohio River. She reached Cincinnati, but the house she was hiding in was stormed by Federal marshals. Rather than have her children return to slavery, Garner actually did slit her infant daughter's throat.

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Artemis Fowl

Anyone with a younger sibling can probably relate to Eoin Colfer, who regarded his little brother Donal as a "mastermind," or possibly a small James Bond villain. Donal might not have been quite evil as a kid, but he did serve for the inspiration for nefarious boy genius, Artemis Fowl.

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Moby Dick

OK, fine, so technically Moby Dick was not based on a real person. But he was based on a real whale: Mocha Dick. Mocha was a huge, albino sperm whale who reportedly destroyed over 20 whaling ships, and survived attacks from another 80. His weird name came from the fact that he was first spotted on the coast of the island of Mocha (and "Dick" was just a generic male name, like calling him "Hawaii Joe"). Mocha Dick finally met his downfall while trying to defend a mother whale, whose calf had just been killed by whalers.

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James Bond

The real man behind agent 007 went by the code name White Rabbit, which is objectively much cooler. Wing Commander Forest “Tommy” Yeo-Thomas was a top British secret agent during WWII, was parachuted into France to complete special missions three times, and inspired author Ian Fleming to write the famous James Bond (although to be fair, Fleming himself had also worked as a spy).



L. Frank Baum was heavily influenced by his wife's family when it came to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Dorothy Gale was named after little Dorothy Gage, who passed away as an infant. And suffragette Matilda Joslyn Gage, Baum's mother-in-law, inspired him to populate Oz with powerful, good, female witches, like Glinda.

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Sherlock Holmes

Dr. Joseph Bell, a Sottish physician, had the incredible ability to guess his patients' occupations and life stories at a glance. A young man named Arthur Conan Doyle, who worked as a hospital clerk, thought this was super cool. Dr. Bell's charisma and keen skills of observation gave Doyle the idea for a detective story starring one Sherlock Holmes, and the rest is history.

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