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Literary Characters Inspired by Real People

By July 10, 2015September 20th, 2015Literature

It’s a question all authors are asked at some point during their careers; where did you get the idea for so and so from? Who is such and such based on? Is there a real life blah de blah?
Apparently, often there is a real person who inspires our favourite characters and our favourite villains.
Here are some of the more popular character inspirations.

Severus Snape

It is no secret to Potter fans that JK Rowling took inspiration for the dastardly yet divine Severus Snape from her Chemistry Teacher John Nettleship. His hair worn in the distinctive centre parted, jet black style (made so iconic by Alan Rickman), back in 1976 he cut rather a formidable figure and admits he was strict and “wouldn’t suffer fools” and who described himself in hindsight as “a short-tempered chemistry teacher with long hair and gloomy, malodorous laboratory..”.

When first interviewed about his links to Rowling’s character  Snape by journalists, he responded saying: “I was horrified when I first found out. I knew I was a strict teacher but I didn’t think I was that bad.”


Harry Potter UK
Harry Potter US


Lewis Carroll’s indomitable heroine Alice came about during a boat trip when 10 year old Alice Liddell requested that Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) entertain her and her sisters; and so Alice in Wonderland was born. Much has since been made of Dodgson’s relationship with the young Alice, claiming him to be a paedophile; however there is no real evidence and it is far more likely that they just enjoyed a close, platonic friendship.

Alice in Wonderland US
Alice in Wonderland UK

Dorian Gray

In this, truth may be stranger than fiction; John Gray, a young homosexual poet and an extraordinarily beautiful man was part of Oscar Wilde’s literary circle in the early 1890s. Decadent and daring, the young working class poet was corrupted by Wilde and his coterie and in turn became a corrupter of other innocents. In a flash of conscience, Gray fled his bohemian lifestyle and traveled to Rome, studying to become a priest and ending his life a revered canon.


The Picture of Dorian Gray US
The Picture of Dorian Gray UK

Sherlock Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle met Dr Joseph Bell in 1877 where he served as Bell’s clerk at Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. He was taken by Bell’s observational skills and his attention to detail in all he did and never hid the fact that Holmes was loosely based on the doctor’s mannerisms. Dr Bell was fully aware of the link between himself and Holmes and even expressed pride that he’d been the inspiration for such a character.

The Complete Sherlock Holmes US
The Complete Sherlock Holmes UK

Moby Dick

In researching this tale, the first words I saw were “Mocha Dick was a notorious sperm whale” I’m not sure there’s much more that needs to be said! But I shall try..

An Albino, Mocha lived in the Pacific Ocean in the early 19th century and soon got a bit of a reputation amongst the sailors there. He survived upwards of 100 attempts to capture him by whalers, often wrecking small boats with his flukes. Sadly his is not a tale of victory and he was killed in 1838 after apparently coming to the aid of a distraught cow whose calf had just been killed by whalers. Upon his death it was noted that he was over 70 feet long, yielded 100 barrels of oil and also some ambergris (very valuable and used in perfume making); he also had 19 harpoons in his body.

Moby Dick US
Moby Dick UK

Jekyll and Hyde

William Brodie, or rather Deacon William Brodie was a respectable tradesman by day and a scoundrel and thief by night. As the foremost Wright of Edinburgh, he was often called to attend the richest patrons of the city and would use his legitimate attendance to make wax copies of keys and familiarise himself with the various security mechanisms employed by his clients. Eventually caught, it was revealed he led a duplicitous life, a heavy gambler and a father of 5 illegitimate offspring to two mistresses, neither of whom knew about the other.

Robert Louis Stevenson, whose father owned furniture made by Brodie was fascinated by the dichotomy between Brodie’s daylight respectability and his night-time escapades. Recounting them as a more literal splitting of the self in Doctor Jekyll’s opposing and monstrous Mr Hyde.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde US
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde UK

Robinson Crusoe

Alexander Selkirk was an experienced privateer and in February of 1704 was serving under Captain Thomas Stradling on the Cinque Ports. After fierce fighting with the Spanish and a stormy passage round  Cape Horn Selkirk demanded to be put aground on Juan Fernandez rather than risk sailing on the dangerously leaking ship. Although he immediately regretted his decision, Captain Stradling refused him passage and abandoned him on the Island. Selkirk was to remain on the island for four years and four months, despite two ships anchoring at the island in the intervening years ( unfortunately both were Spanish and Selkirk would have been not so swiftly despatched had he made himself known to them).

Upon his return his story roused great interest across England, with an account of his ordeal being published in The Englishman newspaper by Richard Steele. It is no surprise then, that Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe is widely believed to be based on Selkirk’s adventures.

Robinson Crusoe US
Robinson Crusoe UK

Ebeneezer Scrooge

John Elwes a.k.a.  Elwes the Miser was the MP for Berkshire in the late 18th century. He was an eccentric and well known for being miser.  Despite being the recipient of a vast amount of money through inheritances (roughly £30 million in today’s money) he became more miserly as he became wealthier. He would go to bed as soon as darkness fell in order to save on candles, he once famously wore a wig for two weeks that he’d found in a hedge; he is reputed to have eaten both moorhen that had been killed by a river rat. His clothing and his home fell into disrepair and would complain of the theft of his hay by birds, so they could build nests.

He is reputed to have been the inspiration for both Dickens’ Ebeneezer Scrooge and William Ainsworth’s John Scarfe.

Christmas Carol US               Miser’s Daughter US
Christmas Carol UK              Miser’s Daughter UK

These are only a few of the characters that have been inspired by real life people throughout the ages. Other notables include Long John Silver, perhaps based on the poet William Henley; or Thomas Alexandre de la Pailleterie (Dumas), an amazing man in his own right and the basis for The Count of Monte Cristo. 

There are many more out there, feel free to leave your favourite in our comments.

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