Books

9 Best Characters in Literature Inspired by Real People

Robert Downey Jr. in Sherlock Holmes (2009) © Warner Bros.

These fictional characters are some of the best, and they’re all based on real people.

Sometimes it can be difficult to pin down where inspiration comes from. While it’s no secret that authors glean inspiration for their literary endeavors from a number of sources, such as research, personal experience, and pure imagination, it is not at all uncommon to discover that some of our favorite characters take their cues from real-life figures. It can be something as simple as a few character traits or the whole-sale xeroxing of a actual person to the page. Regardless, it’s fascinating to find out that beloved characters are based on people who actually existed. On a few rare occasions, it turns out that the real world inspiration is more unbelievable than their literary counterpart. Here are some of the best fictional characters in literature inspired by very real people.

  • The cover of the book Becoming Belle

    Becoming Belle

    Isabel Bilton

    Nuala O’Connor’s latest novel draws on a sensational 19th century court case, a tangled romance, and more than a little bohemian night-life. O’Connor makes the most of her larger-than-life setting to tell the story of the actual Bilton Sisters, Belle and Flo, and Belle’s increasingly torrid and complex love life.

     
  • The cover of the book Sherlock Holmes

    Sherlock Holmes

    Sherlock Holmes

    Sherlock Holmes is, without a doubt, the most famous literary detective ever conceived (apologies to Mrs. Poirot and Spade, as well as the inimitable Miss Marple). The inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant, mercurial, misanthropic detective is less so: Dr. Joseph Bell. Conan Doyle met Bell in 1877 at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and was immediately amazed by Bell’s hyper observant nature and deductive abilities. The rest, my dear Watson, was elementary.

     
  • The cover of the book The Ghost Writer

    The Ghost Writer

    Nathan Zuckerman

    Philip Roth was somewhat notorious for using various thinly veiled versions of himself as protagonists for his fiction, which, admittedly, is not an uncommon tact for great fiction writers. In Roth’s case, none came closer to the mark of the actual man than Nathan Zuckerman. Over the course of the four acclaimed novels, Roth used Zuckerman to grapple with his literary success, creative process, and the tensions between literature and life.

     
  • The cover of the book To Kill a Mockingbird

    To Kill a Mockingbird

    Dill Harris

    Harper Lee was famously a childhood friend and lifelong confidant of Truman Capote, even accompanying Capote and assisting in interviews and research for In Cold Blood. Lee actually based the character of Dill Harris on Capote. Given Dill’s eccentricities, extraordinary eloquence, and penchant for storytelling, spotting the inspiration isn’t particularly difficult.

     
  • The cover of the book The Scarlet Letter

    The Scarlet Letter

    Hester Prynne

    While this one is not quite as clear cut as some of the others, there are plenty of indications that Nathaniel Hawthorne drew inspiration for Hester Prynne and The Scarlet Letter from real-life events. Prynne, in fact, was likely inspired in part by a real person named Elizabeth Pain. Pain had a child out of wedlock – a child she was later accused of murdering. Despite being found not guilty of the murder, the accusation followed her. Her tombstone in Boston is virtually identical to the one described as Hester Prynne’s at the end of the novel.

     
  • The cover of the book On the Road

    On the Road

    (Penguin Orange Collection)

    Dean Moriarty

    It’s no secret that Jack Kerouac based the character of Dean Moriarty on Neal Cassady, an real-life counter-culture icon who actually appears in a few other books including Ken Kesey’s Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. In an early draft of On the Road, the character was actually named Neal Cassady. Cassady was a larger-than-life character who met a tragic end – he died from exposure after passing out outdoors.

     
  • The cover of the book Beloved

    Beloved

    Sethe

    Beloved is a shattering and horrifying novel lifted by Toni Morrison’s incredible storytelling ability. The entire novel centers on the revelation of Sethe’s devastating backstory (SPOILER ALERT: major spoilers for Beloved follow). Sethe was an escaped slave who murdered her two-year old daughter because she believed it was better than her being taken back to the plantation. Morrison based this brutal moment on an actual event – A runaway slave named Margaret Garner, while surrounded by slave-catchers, was caught in the act of killing her own children to spare them a life of slavery.

     
  • The cover of the book Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

    Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

    Alice

    Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a surreal children’s classic and Lewis Carroll based the character of Alice on an actual girl: Alice Liddell. Carroll, whose real name was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, was close with Liddell’s family and wrote the original version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for the girl.

     
  • The cover of the book Primary Colors

    Primary Colors

    A Novel of Politics

    Jack Stanton

    Jack Stanton is one of the more thinly disguised literary stand-ins in recent memory. As a charismatic Southern governor running a presidential campaign that is nearly derailed when word of his extra-marital affairs comes to light, it didn’t take any particular insider knowledge to realize Stanton was a caricatured version of Bill Clinton. While certainly a satirical farce, Primary Colors nonetheless proved a fascinating, over-the-top view behind the curtain of a presidential campaign.