10 Famous Literary Characters and the Real People Who Inspired Them
When you connect with a literary character or get lost in a story, you’re reading in a truly fulfilling way. And when you realize that some of your fictional friends are actually based on real people, it brings the story to life even more.
Take this quiz to test your knowledge on the real lives of people who have inspired some of the most iconic works of fiction in literary history. You might be surprised to discover that some of your favorite characters had lives beyond the page.
- Robert Louis Stevenson’s Long John Silver is a complex character who has been portrayed in Disney films, book adaptations, TV movies and more. But the famous peg-legged pirate is partially based on an English-born poet. Which one?
- Many of Charles Dickens’ characters are loosely based on his own life and personal qualities. But which young character — forced to live as a beggar — is supposedly based on Dickens’ sister-in-law?
- Jane Austen’s classic novel Pride and Prejudice has been reinvented many times, including in a partially fictionalized biographical film of her own life, Becoming Jane, in which Jane falls in love with a real-life judge Tom Lefroy, and who is intended to portray Mr. Darcy. In fact, a more exact model for Elizabeth Bennett’s (and Jane Austen’s) love interest is probably based on a summer romance with which of the following men?
- The famous dancer and dance and fashion critic Kitty Cannell lived in Paris in the 1920s with famous expats and artists like Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley. Cannell was a dynamic woman and is said to have inspired two of Hemingway’s strong, though complex, female characters. Which ones?
- Twentieth-century writer Thomas Wolfe was known for writing autobiographical fiction like Of Time and the River, but he himself was the inspiration for which novel about a troubled writer?
- Which cult classic novel about a modern American social revolution is based on the lives, philosophies and influences of several famous writers, poets, artists and musicians?
- Many authors like Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy and Proust used their own lives as inspiration for some of their most famous works, but which author created a recurring character based on two famous writers, including himself/herself?
- Fantastical children’s books often include magic, talking animals and parallel worlds, but which iconic story was named after a real-life family friend? The child could also claim responsibility for making the author write down and publish the story.
- Muses are immortalized in fiction in all kinds of ways, including as over-romanticized and even harsh, abusive characters. Which controversial writer used his own wife as a model for the cheating spouse of one of his most famous characters?
- Another famous work of fiction follows the troubled marriage of a couple living in Europe, and is loosely based on the author’s own temperamental relationship with his mentally unstable wife. Who is the author, and what is the novel?
a. Samuel Coleridge
b. William Ernest Henley
c. John Keats
d. John Milton
a. The Marchioness, The Old Curiosity Shop
b. Little Em’ly, David Copperfield
c. Lucie Manette, A Tale of Two Cities
d. Little Nell, The Old Curiosity Shop
a. Dr. Samuel Blackall
b. Jonathan Swift
c. Edmund Burke
d. Horace Walpole
a. Lady Brett Ashley and Catherine Barkley
b. Frances Clyne and Helen Ferguson
c. Margot Macomber and Catherine Barkley
d. Helen Ferguson and Pilar
a. Youngblood Hawke, by Herman Wouk
b. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov
c. The Finishing School, Muriel Spark
d. Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust
a. The Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
b. The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
c. On the Road, Jack Kerouac
d. Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann
a. F. Scott Fitzgerald
b. Ayn Rand
c. Jack London
d. Kurt Vonnegut
a. Peter Pan
b. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
a. D.H. Lawrence
b. Aldous Huxley
c. James Joyce
d. George Orwell
a. Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina
b. Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises
c. Alexandre Dumas, The Count of Monte Cristo
d. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night
- b. William Ernest Henley: Invictus writer Henley — whose leg was amputated when he was 12 — was friends with Robert Louis Stevenson and Rudyard Kipling, whom he met while editing the Scots Observer, today known as the National Observer.
- d. Little Nell: Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop is said to be modeled after Dickens’ beloved sister-in-law Mary Hogarth. Hogarth died when she was just 17.
- a. Dr. Samuel Blackall: Called "the real-life Mr. Darcy" by The Daily Mail, Dr. Samuel Blackall was a theology student and fellow at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, who met Austen when he summered with family friends in Hampshire. After Austen felt that Blackall had snubbed her, the two met again years later, when literary historians believe she fell in love with the clergyman. Blackall, however, ultimately married someone else.
- b. Frances Clyne and Helen Ferguson: Frances Clyne from The Sun Also Rises and Helen Ferguson from A Farewell to Arms — two of Hemingway’s greatest novels — are said to be based on the personality of Kitty Cannell, though Cannell denied any similarities between herself and Clyne.
- a. Youngblood Hawke, by Herman Wouk: Wouk’s novel was controversial when it was published in the 1960s because his use of Wolfe as a model for his main character, Arthur Youngblood Hawke is historically inaccurate.
- c. On the Road, Jack Kerouac: One of the most famous works of modern American literature, On the Road only vaguely disguises the real-life personalities of Alan Ansen, Neal and Carolyn Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, Frank Jeffries and even the writer himself behind memorable characters.
- d. Kurt Vonnegut: Kurt Vonnegut’s character Kilgore Trout appears in several major works, including Slaughterhouse-Five, Jailbird and Breakfast of Champions. Vonnegut admitted after his friend Theodore Sturgeon’s death that Sturgeon was the initial inspiration for Trout, but many critics and readers believe that Vonnegut began adding more of his own qualities to the character as time passed.
- b. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: Lewis Carroll — whose real name was Charles Dodgson — was a family friend to the Liddell family, which included a girl named Alice. Dodgson often made up stories for Alice and her sisters, who convinced him to write down his first version of Wonderland. Much of the fictional Alice is made up, but she and Liddell do share the same birthday (and half-birthday.)
- c. James Joyce: James Joyce’s Ulysses tells the story of Leopold Bloom and his dynamic wife Molly, who is partially based on Joyce’s own wife Nora Barnacle. While Nora never cheated on James as Molly is unfaithful to Leopold, Bloomsday takes place on the day of Nora and James’ first date.
- d. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night: Tender is the Night tells the story of Dick and Nicole Diver, an American couple living in the south of France. Nicole struggles with anxiety and a form of depression, and Fitzgerald’s wife Zelda — with whom he moved to Paris during the 1920s — was eventually diagnosed with schizophrenia.
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