10 Famous Literary Characters Based on Real People
“Write what you know,” they say, so it makes sense that many authors take a good look at friends and family when creating characters for their books.
1. Mark Twain based Huckleberry Finn on his childhood friend.
Mark Twain once admitted that he wasn’t terribly creative in creating Huckleberry Finn—he shaped the character almost precisely on his buddy Tom Blankenship. From his autobiography:
"In Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had. His liberties were totally unrestricted. He was the only really independent person—boy or man—in the community, and by consequence he was tranquilly and continuously happy and envied by the rest of us. And as his society was forbidden us by our parents the prohibition trebled and quadrupled its value, and therefore we sought and got more of his society than any other boy's."
Sadly, according to the editor’s notes in Twain’s posthumously published autobiography, Blankenship was repeatedly arrested for theft and died just five years after Huckleberry Finn was published.
2. Jack Kerouac recreated his travel buddies in On the Road.
When Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road, he was really writing about his own cross-country exploits with his Beat Generation colleagues. For example, the selfish Dean Moriarty represents Neal Cassady, close pal of Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Ken Kesey, and the Grateful Dead (among others). In fact, the character’s name is Neal in the original On the Road scroll. But that’s not the only character Cassady inspired: Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tom Wolfe all took inspiration from him.
The real Neal died at the age of 41 after being found comatose by a railroad track in Guanajunto, Mexico, in 1968.
3. Dashiell Hammett based The Thin Man's heroine on his girlfriend.
One of the wittiest female characters in literary history, Nora Charles from The Thin Man, doesn’t hold a candle to her inspiration, Lillian Hellman. Lillian was author Dashiell Hammett’s significant other for 30 years, but she was also a respected playwright, screenwriter, author, and outspoken political activist. Hammett apparently told Hellman that she was the inspiration for his female villains as well.
4. One of three women might have inspired Charles Dickens's Miss Havisham.
It’s almost hard to imagine that the furious and completely insane jilted bride of Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations has a flesh-and-blood counterpart. But she does—in fact, there are at least three that might fit the bill.
The first, Eliza Emily Donnithorne, was an Australian woman who thought she was getting married in 1856. When she was stood up by the groom, she refused to change anything about the house; the wedding feast even sat out until it rotted into non-existence. Legend has it that Donnithorne never left the house again.
Another possible inspiration was Elizabeth Parker. This Shropshire, England, woman was also jilted on her wedding day and became quite reclusive afterward. Dickens was known to visit Shropshire, and the fact that Parker’s house was called Havisham Court seems like it must be more than coincidence.
Finally, Madame Eliza Jumel, Aaron Burr’s second wife, may have gone a little crazy in her desperate attempts to break into New York high society; after finally throwing a successful dinner party for Joseph Bonaparte, she supposedly left the banquet and place settings out for decades to commemorate her social acceptance.
5. Sylvia Plath's rich protagonist was modeled on her own patron.
6. A gravestone may have inspired Nathaniel Hawthorne' Hester Prynne.
The modest grave of Elizabeth Pain in Boston’s King’s Chapel Burying Ground holds a secret if you look at it closely. Some believe the A inscribed on the stone shows that she was “whipt with twenty stripes,” though it was for the murder of her child, not for adultery (she was found innocent, by the way). The damning mark may have served as Nathaniel Hawthorne's inspiration for Hester Prynne in The Scarlet Letter. There’s also a record of one Hester Craford who was severely flogged for “fornication” with a man named John Wedg in 1669. At the very least, Hawthorne may have borrowed her name.
7. Louisa May Alcott's neighbor was the model for one of the Little Women.
As a neighbor of the Alcott family in Concord, Massachusetts, Elizabeth Hoar served as the model for Beth March in Little Women. Hoar was also good friends with Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson, who liked to call her “Elizabeth the wise.”
8. Douglas Adams's character Ford Prefect is based on a real-life object.
Douglas Adams once explained that his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy alien had “skimped a bit on his preparatory research" of Earth and thought he was choosing an inconspicuous name for himself. Adams later explained further, saying that Prefect saw vehicles swarming the streets of our little planet and “had simply mistaken the dominant life form.” The Ford Prefect, by the way, was a British car produced from 1938 to 1961.
9. JK Rowling's teacher was the basis for Severus Snape.
His name was almost as wizardy: John Nettleship. Rowling may not have enjoyed his classes very much, based on this description of Snape:
“Snape is the very sadistic teacher loosely based on a teacher I myself had, I have to say. Children are very aware and we're kidding ourselves if we don't think that they are—that teachers do sometimes abuse their power and this particular teacher does abuse his power. He is not a particularly pleasant person at all.”
Nettleship wasn’t thrilled with the comparison when he found out about it, saying, “I knew I was a strict teacher but I didn't think I was that bad." He later came to terms with it enough to write a book called Harry Potter's Chepstow about various locations from Rowling's school days that may have inspired people and places from her successful series. Nettleship died of cancer in 2011.
10. Anyone with a younger sibling can probably relate to Eoin Colfer’s inspiration for his character Artemis Fowl.
Colfer's little brother, Donal, was "a mischievous mastermind who could get out of any trouble he got into,” and seeing a picture of Donal in a dapper first communion suit reminded Colfer of a tiny James Bond villain.
This post originally appeared in 2012.