The Real People Behind Famous Fictional Characters


What, you thought Lolita and Norman Bates came out of thin air?

Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps the most famous literary muse in history, Alice Liddell was a child when she first charmed family friend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and inspired him to tell – and then write – his classic story of a little girl’s adventures in Wonderland. Although the relationship is steeped in controversy, it’s thought that Liddell’s parents put the kibbosh on a friendship that seemed to be getting questionable; there’s also some evidence that Dodson proposed to the adult Alice. As an older woman, Liddell (whose married name was Alice Hargreaves) enjoyed the association and accepted several medals in commemoration of her role.

Dolores Haze, Lolita While it’s by no means certain (Nabokov had been playing with the idea of a pedophiliac subject for some years) some critics – most notably, Alexander Dolinin – have argued that Nabokov derived inspiration for his iconic nymphet from the case of Sally Horner, a twelve-year-old New Jersey girl who was abducted by “a middle-aged morals offender” and kept for 21 months as his “cross-country slave.” Like Humbert Humbert – who references the case in his narrative – Horner’s captor posed as her father. And like Lolita, Horner came to a tragic and premature end: she died in a car accident in 1952, aged only fifteen.

Lady Macbeth, Macbeth. The actual wife of Macbeth was one Gruoch of Scotland, but in crafting his villainous helpmate, Shakespeare is believed to have drawn on another queen found in the 1587 book Holinshed’s Chronicles. The wife of King Duff is said to have exhorted her husband to regicide. “Specially his wife lay sore upon him to attempt the thing, as she was very ambitious, burning with an unquenchable desire to bear the name of a queen.”

Dill, To Kill a Mockingbird. While Harper Lee has stated that her classic novel is not autobiographical, she admitted that the character of Dill, the Finches’ imaginative, “little but old” neighbor was based on childhood friend Truman Capote, who spent time with his aunts in Monroeville, Alabama. Their friendship continued into adulthood.

Molly Bloom, Ulysses. Leopold Bloom’s unfaithful wife, Molly, was based partially on the Odyssey‘s Penelope, but more directly on Joyce’s own wife, Nora Barnacle (the novel takes place on the date of the couple’s first outing – now known as Bloomsday.) Others point to a student of Joyce’s, Amalia Popper (pictured), with whom the author had an affair: like Molly, Popper was Jewish, and corresponds more closely to physical descriptions of the character.

Norman Bates, Psycho AND Buffalo Bill, Silence of the Lambs Robert Bloch based his 1959 novel – later immortalized by Hitchcock – on the crimes of Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein. Gein, who lived in isolation with a domineering mother until her death, was accused of the muder of two women in Wisconsin; later, he was also discovered to have robbed numerous graves – including those of women he felt resembled his dead mother – and made objects from their skin and bones. Gein said he desired a sex-change operation and had made the “hides” of his murder victims into a “woman suit.” Gein died of cancer in a Wisconsin mental institution in 1984.

Sethe, Beloved. Toni Morrison based her fifth novel on the famous case of Margaret Garner, an escaped slave who in 1856 stabbed her two-year-old daughter to death rather than allow her to be returned to slavery. The case was a sensational one that engaged the abolitionist cause, but Garner and her husband were ultimately returned to slavery. Margaret Garner died in 1858, of typhoid. Garner was a popular subject of sentimental poetry and paintings after her death; Morrison was inspired not only to base her character of Sethe on Garner, but wrote the libretto for the opera Margaret Garner.

Dollanganger Family, Flowers in the Attic. While many assume that V.C. Andrews’ tale of incest and captivity is simply too lurid to have any basis in fact, the V.C. Andrews website states otherwise: first, there’s the author’s (pictured) original pitch letter, in which she describes the novel as the fictionalized version of a true story.” Then, the webmaster claims that an Andrews relative wrote her, “Flowers in the Attic WAS based on a true story. Virginia [V.C.] was a young lady when my dad made arrangements to take Virginia to the University of Virginia hospital for treatment. While she was there, she developed a crush on her young doctor. He and his siblings had been locked away in the attic for over 6 years to preserve the family wealth. Obviously she cut the time back [in her novel] to be more believable. That area of the country has a lot of very wealthy people. I do not know who they were…Virginia herself told me that her story was based on a true one from UVA Hospital.”

Works Cited:
Bjork, Cristina. The Other Alice: The Story of Alice Liddell and Alice in Wonderland
Cohen, Morton. Lewis Carroll: A Biography
Ckarke, Gerald. Too Brief a Treat: The Letters of Truman Capote
Maddox, Brenda. NORA: The Real Life of Molly Bloom

What Happened To Sally Horner?: A Real-Life Source Of Nabokov’s Lolita
Florence Sally Horner [Wikipedia]
Holinshed’s Chronicles []
Will The Real Lady Macbeth Please Stand Up [Word Wenches]
Truman Capote [BNet]
Truman Capote Is Dead at 59; Novelist of Style and Clarity [NYT]
The Blooming Of Molly []
Ed Gein: The Inspiration For Buffalo Bill And Psycho [Crime Library]
A Historical Margaret Garner [MOTOPERA]

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