Stranger Than Fiction: Iconic Characters Inspired by Real People

There’s a secret when it comes to writing fiction. The truth is, it’s usually less fictional than we think. Behind nearly every stealth secret agent or foul cartoon bartender, you’ll find a real person who inspired these characters. Because what’s a better source of inspiration than real life? It’s like they say, truth is stranger than fiction.

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While discovering your favorite author or film director isn’t 100 percent original can be a bit disappointing, it’s pretty cool to realize that some of your favorite characters did, in fact, exist. It’s kind of like discovering that magic is real. From Ursula to Olivia Pope and James Bond, there are plenty of fictional characters who are based on very real people.

Let’s check out our list of 30 iconic fiction characters who were based on real people!

Ursula Was Inspired by a Drag Queen

Believe it or not, this evil sea witch was based on an actual person. Disney animators were inspired by the fabulous drag performer Divine. Ursula’s appearance and her larger-than-life personality were all drawn from this legendary performer. Divine, whose real name was Glenn Milstead, was known for her signature pointed eyebrows and starred in many John Waters films (the two became friends when they were teenagers).

Ursula in The Little Mermaid / Divine in Pink Flamingos posing with her large orange hair and eyebrows that go up her forehead
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Although Milstead passed away one year before the 1989 release of the film, his friends agree that he would have loved the character. Jeffrey Schwarz, the film director who chronicled Milstead’s life, said that had he known about Ursula, “he would have wanted to play the part himself.”

And Ariel by Alyssa Milano

Actress Alyssa Milano had no idea that she was the inspiration behind the iconic movie character Ariel until The Little Mermaid was already released. “I didn’t know that when it was going on, but they asked me to host the making of The Little Mermaid, and it came out there that the drawing and likeness of The Little Mermaid were based on pictures of me from when I was younger, which is so cool,” Milano said while on The Wendy Williams Show.

Ariel in The Little Mermaid sitting on a rock with a yellow and blue fish behind her / Alyssa Milano posing on the red carpet at a post-Grammy’s party
Photo by Snap, Shutterstock / Matt Baron, BEI, Shutterstock

During the time that animators were working on the Disney classic, Milano was a rising star on the ‘80s sitcom Who’s the Boss. Animators liked her look and copied her face structure, but decided to replace her brown hair with red hair.

Hazel Was Inspired by a Vlogger Living with Cancer

Everyone who’s read the book or seen the film The Fault in Our Stars has fallen in love with Hazel Lancaster, who is slowly dying of Stage IV thyroid cancer. The story is a real tear-jerker, but what makes it even sadder is that Hazel is actually based on a real person.

Shailene Woodley as Hazel Grace Lancaster in the film The Fault in Our Stars / A photograph of Esther Earl sitting on her bed with her laptop next to her
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The book’s author, John Green, was at a Harry Potter conference back in 2009 when he first met Esther Earl, who was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. After Earl lost her battle to cancer the following year, Green was inspired to write a book dedicated to her memory. The book was released in 2012 and eventually made into a movie, with Shailene Woodley starring Hazel.

Delphine LaLaurie Was a Real, Murderous Socialite

Ryan Murphy’s hit show American Horror Story is known to be scary, but Kathy Bates’ season four episode might just be one of the scariest yet. Delphine LaLaurie was based on a real-life socialite from the 1830s. Her love for hosting elegant parties at her mansion in New Orleans was matched only by her taste for her violent acts towards slaves.

Kathy Bates in American Horror Story / A portrait of Delphine LaLaurie from the 1800s
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After her house caught on fire, police discovered what she did in her free time. Townspeople quickly caught wind of LaLaurie’s serial killer tendencies, and they attacked her house. LaLaurie’s life after the fire is not well documented, but it is known that she escaped to Paris.

And Marie Laveau Was a Voodoo Queen

American Horror Story’s Marie Laveau, played by actress Angela Bassett, was quite the multitasker. She ran a luxury hairdressing business in the French Quarter in New Orleans while practicing voodoo magic in the community. Laveau was a free person of color, a trailblazer for women, and her strong convictions have kept her a mysterious legend for centuries.

Angela Bassett as Marie Laveau in American Horror Story / A portrait of Marie Laveau
Photo by 20th Century Fox Television, Kobal, Shutterstock / Source: YouTube

Little is known about her voodoo career, including whether she had a snake named after an African god or whether her prophecies were supported by a network of informants she had made while working as a hairdresser. Rumors about her magical abilities still run rampant, and visitors to the city still visit her grave to leave tokens in exchange for small favors.

There’s a Real-Life Olivia Pope

Scandal creator Shonda Rhimes became fascinated with the world of law while interning at a law firm in the nation’s capital. Fast forward several years, and Rhimes’ fascination has become a Thursday night favorite. It all started when Rhimes met with Washington D.C. crisis manager Judy Smith. The meeting, which was supposed to last for only 15 minutes, lasted more than two hours.

Kerry Washington in the show Scandal / Judy Smith posing in a pin-striped suit and a pink button-down shirt
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It was then that Rhimes told Smith that she wanted to do a show about her life. Rhimes and Smith remained close throughout writing and production, with Smith coming up with crisis ideas and sending them to Rhimes. “I read every script, and I send them notes, and sometimes I am on the set. It’s fun,” Smith said.

Catch Me If You Can’s Frank Was a Real Conman

Just like Leonardo’s character, the real Frank Abagnale Jr. was one of the most notorious con men and imposters of the century. He had at least eight different identities, including a pilot, a physician, and a lawyer. Abagnale also escaped the FBI twice before turning 22 years old. The conman served nearly five years before he started working for the federal government.

Leonardo DiCaprio as Frank Abagnale in the film Catch Me If You Can / Frank Abagnale sitting at a bar table in 1982.
Photo by Moviestore Collection, Shutterstock / Associated Newspapers, Shutterstock

Abagnale currently works as a lecturer and consultant for the FBI field offices and academy. He also runs his own financial fraud consulting company, Abagnale and Associates. The conman’s story inspired the 2002 film Catch Me If You Can as well as a Broadway musical, both of which are based on the book of the same name.

Piper Really Did Serve Time in Jail

Piper Kerman, the author of Orange Is the New Black, spent 13 months in prison after smuggling drugs for a drug trafficking ring with her ex-girlfriend Cleary Wolters (who is the inspiration for Alex Vause). It all started back in 1993 when Piper was 24 years old. She fell in love with Wolters, who was involved in a drug trafficking ring.

Taylor Schilling as Piper Chapman in the TV show Orange Is the New Black / Piper Kerman posing on the red carpet
Photo by Jojo Whilden, Netflix / Mediapunch, Shutterstock

Seduced by Wolters’ lifestyle, Piper soon found herself smuggling drugs, carrying a total of $10,000 from Chicago to Brussels. Piper thought she got away scot-free, but the Feds caught up with her ten years later, while she was happily living in New York with her boyfriend. Piper then had to wait for six years to find out if she was going to prison.

Yes, Twisty the Killer Clown Is Real

One of American Horror Story’s scariest characters was actually based on the notorious serial killer John Wayne Gacy. There have been a few killer clowns throughout history, but none as scary as Gacy. Gacy, who was dubbed the “Killer Clown,” would regularly perform at children’s hospitals and charity events as “Pogo the Clown” or “Patches the Clown.”

John Carroll Lynch as Mr. Jingles in American Horror Story / John Wayne Gacy
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Between 1972 and 1978, the serial killer murdered at least 33 people, which, at the time, was the largest number of murders by one individual in United States history. Although Gacy was diagnosed as schizophrenic and pleaded not guilty because of insanity, the jury still found him capable of standing trial. He was found guilty on all 33 accounts and was eventually executed in 1994.

There Was a Real-Life Indiana Jones Explorer

George Lucas created Indiana Jones as a tribute to his favorite 1930s action heroes, but he also looked towards real 20th century archeologists, including Hiram Bingham III. Hiram was a professor at Yale, and an explorer who was most famous for finding the Machu Picchu ruins with the help of local indigenous farmers.

Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones in the Temple of Doom / Hiram Bingham at the Machu Picchu camp for his expedition of 1911
Photo by Moviestore Collection, Shutterstock / Granger, Shutterstock

There are plenty of similarities between him and Indiana Jones. Lucas’s biggest nod is the opening scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is a hop, skip, and a jump away from Machu Picchu. After coming across the ruins in 1911, he served as the Governor of Connecticut (but just for one day) and then as a member of the US Senate.

Pocahontas Actually Saved John Smith

You probably already know that Pocahontas was a real person, but what you might not know is that she actually saved John Smith from execution. Born in 1596, her real name was Amonute, and she was later given the nickname Pocahontas which means “playful one.”

Pocahontas with her hair blowing in the wind in the animated film Pocahontas / A drawing of Amonute with a large hat
Photo by Moviestore Collection, Shutterstock / Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to Smithsonian Magazine, she was the favorite daughter of Powhatan, who ruled more than 30 Algonquian tribes near Jamestown, Virginia. Years later, John Smith wrote about how the beautiful daughter of a powerful native leader rescued him from being killed by her father by placing her head on his own. Since no one has disputed John’s story, it is still considered to be true.

Kramer Was Inspired by Larry David’s Neighbor

The eccentric and quirky Kramer from Seinfeld was loosely based on Larry David’s neighbor, Kenny Kramer. However, actor Michael Richards has gone on record to say that his performance was in no shape or form based on the real Kramer. Richards even refused to meet the man.

Michael Richards as Cosmo Kramer standing around an office on the show Seinfeld / Kenny Kramer posing in front of the diner from the show Seinfeld
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When writing the character of Kramer, David was hesitant to use his real name because he feared that his former neighbor would take advantage of the show’s fame. Well, David was right. The real Kramer created the “Kramer Reality Tour,” a bus tour that drives around NYC, pointing out all of the locations featured on the show. The bus tour is actually spoofed on the show, in eighth season episode, “The Muffin Tops”

Zorro Was Based on the Real Robin Hood of El Dorado

The masked vigilante was inspired by Joaquin Murrieta, also known as the Robin Hood of El Dorado. Joaquin was a famous bandit during the California Gold Rush of the 1850s, but documented evidence of the outlaw is scarce. According to popular legend, Joaquin was a gold miner and peace-loving man who was driven to seek revenge after he and his brother were accused of stealing a mule.

Tyrone Power as the masked vigilante in The Mark of Zorro / A drawing of Joaquin Murrieta
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In another version of his story, Joaquin vowed revenge after his young wife died in his arms after being attacked. The state of California eventually put up a $5,000 reward for Joaquin “dead or alive.” He was reportedly killed in 1853, but legend has it that he escaped his captors.

Lucious Lyon Was Inspired by Jay-Z

Often described as “hip-hop Shakespeare,” Empire is a definite fan favorite. While it does have a sort of a primetime soap opera feel, some of the characters and storylines aren’t all fiction. According to the hit show’s creator, Danny Strong, Lucious Lyon is loosely based on Jay-Z.

Terrence Howard as Lucious Lyon / Jay Z posing outside of a concert
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The show’s writers pulled from the music mogul’s criminal past and his rise to stardom in the hip hop industry. Like Jay-Z, Lucious represents music’s one percent: someone who’s on a first-name basis with the president and throws lavish parties. His night club is also similar to Jay-Z’s 40/40 Club, where the likes of Warren Buffett have come for a drink.

Molly Brown Really Was Unsinkable

The Unsinkable Molly Brown was an actual person, and, just like in the movie, she survived the sinking of the Titanic. Brown was in France visiting her daughter when she received word that her eldest grandchild was sick. She immediately booked a first-class ticket to New York on the Titanic. After the ship struck an iceberg in the late hours of April 14, 1912, Brown helped evacuate passengers.

Kathy Bates sitting in the boats dining room in the film Titanic / Margaret ‘Molly’ Brown posing for an old photograph
Photo by 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Kobal, Shutterstock / Granger, Shutterstock

While sitting in her lifeboat with other survivors, Brown urged that they go back and save more people. However, the crewman in charge of the boat refused, and Brown threatened to throw him overboard. While the stories about this incident vary, it’s safe to say that her efforts secured her a place in history.

Miss Piggy Was Inspired by an Iconic Jazz Singer

Temperamental diva and superstar personality Miss Piggy was actually inspired by a real person. Bonnie Erickson, who designed and built Miss Piggy, said that she was inspired by jazz singer Peggy Lee. “My mother used to live in North Dakota where Peggy Lee sang on the local radio station before she became a famous jazz singer. When I first created Miss Piggy, I called her Miss Piggy Lee—as both a joke and an homage,” Erickson said in an interview with Smithsonian Magazine.

Miss Piggy in the Muppet Show / Peggy Lee posing next to a crystal chandelier in a strapless blue dress
Photo by ITV, Shutterstock / Moviestore Collection, Shutterstock

“Peggy Lee was a very independent woman, and Piggy certainly is the same.” But as the Muppet’s fame began to grow, Erickson didn’t want to upset the jazz singer, so she shortened the Muppet’s name to Miss Piggy.

Velma and Roxie Were Modelled on Two Murderers

Velma and Roxie from the Academy and Tony Award-winning musical Chicago were inspired by two suspected killers on Chicago’s “Murderess Row” in the ’20s. The two ladies, Belva Gaertner (Velma) and Beulah Annan (Roxie), clearly did the crimes, but they were acquitted. Gaertner shot her lover during a drunken spat over who was the better shot.

Catherine Zeta-Jones as Velma and Renee Zellweger as Roxie in Chicago / Belva Gaertner and Beulah Annan posing for photographs
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A few weeks later, Annan shot the man she was having an affair with and then waited several hours to call her husband (while the man was dying on her bedroom floor). While Annan never denied killing her lover, that didn’t matter. The press loved her and even went so far as to call her the “prettiest murderess” in jail.

There’s a Real-Life Don Draper

As any fan of Mad Man knows, Don Draper surely is one of a kind. He’s an idea man with a great fashion sense and an infinite number of complexities. While Draper is obviously a standout character in the show, writers didn’t come up with his character out of thin air. Producers of the show have admitted that Draper was based on one of America’s most legendary ad men, Draper Daniels.

Jon Hamm as Don Draper sitting behind a long desk with a pen and notebook in Mad Men / Draper Daniels on the phone sitting at his desk
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Besides having similar names, Daniels was a creative director at a large advertising agency firm in the ’50s and was known to be a heavy smoker and drinker. Daniels worked on many ad campaigns, but he was most famous for his Marlboro Man campaign. And just like Draper, Daniels was known as one of the top idea men in the advertising business.

There Are Three Betty Boops

Betty Boop, everyone’s favorite 1930’s cartoon character, was actually based on the mannerisms and appearance of actress and singer Helen Kane. The performer had a similar “baby” style and even popularized the catchphrase “Boop-oop-a-doop,” which was eventually adopted by Betty Boop. Kane, however, was not pleased with the cartoon.

Betty Boop / Helen Kane dressed up mid-act / Esther Jones dressed up for her act
Source: Pinterest / Flickr / Pinterest

In 1932, she sued the creators of Betty Boop for “exploiting her image” and creating unfair competition, but she ended up losing. During the court proceedings, it was revealed that Kane’s act was not original. She had actually stolen much of her act from Baby Esther, a Black jazz singer and child performer who performed in Harlem. Kane not only mimicked Esther’s dancing style and singing voice but her nonsense catchphrases as well.

Howard Hughes Was the ‘60s Version of Iron Man

Artists frequently look to real life for inspiration, and comic books are no different. Everyone’s favorite playboy-billionaire-superhero Tony Stark is based on Howard Hughes. The connection makes more sense when you think about Iron Man’s debut in 1963. The man behind the character, Stan Lee, told reporters that “Howard Hughes was one of the most colorful men of our time. He was an inventor, an adventurer, a ladies’ man, and finally a nutcase.”

Robert Downey Jr as Tony Stark in Iron Man 2008 / Howard Hughes about to board an airplane in 1947
Photo by Marvel, Paramount, Kobal, Shutterstock / Everett Collection, Shutterstock

Back then, Hughes was an eccentric billionaire who was known for his inventions in various fields, but most prominently aerospace technology. He was even awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in 1939 for his contributions to the field. No one would have been surprised if this eclectic billionaire showed up to a press conference wearing a flying suit of armor.

Severus Snape Was Based on a Real Teacher

Many people probably don’t know this, but J.K. Rowling actually based everyone’s favorite Hogwarts teacher on one of her former chemistry teachers, John Nettleship. Rowling’s former teacher, who passed away in 2011, was quoted as saying he was “horrified” to hear that he was the inspiration for Severus Snape.

Alan Rickman as Severus Snape in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire / John Nettleship posing in his living room
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He said, “I knew I was a strict teacher, but I didn’t think I was that bad.” Nettleship also admitted that he was “a short-tempered chemistry teacher with long hair [and a] gloomy, malodorous laboratory.” See the connection here? After initially being frustrated with the connection, Nettleship came to terms with it. He even wrote a book titled Harry Potter’s Chepstow, about Rowling’s connection to the small town in Whales (where she went to school).

A Med School Professor Was Behind Sherlock Holmes

While studying medicine at the University of Edinburgh, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle attended classes taught by Dr. Joseph Bell. Little did the two know at the time that the professor and surgeon who would eventually become the inspiration for Doyle’s most prominent creation, Sherlock Holmes.

Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes in the Sherlock Holmes film / Dr. Joseph Bell sitting on an armchair and reading a newspaper
Photo by Granger, Shutterstock / Historia, Shutterstock

While Bell was a doctor and not a detective, he was very good at analyzing patient backgrounds and was even known to help police as a forensic scientist on all sorts of high-profile murders. But it wasn’t just Bell’s deductive skills that inspired Doyle; it was his fashion sense as well. Bell was known to wear a long coat and a Deerstalker hat, just like Sherlock Holmes.

Ari Gold Is Based on a Real Hollywood Agent

Entourage’s Ari Gold is probably the most transparent character on the list, but he is one of our favorites. The brash Hollywood talent agent is actually based on the real-life Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel. Emanuel is actually one of the agents who worked with Mark Whalberg, whose life the show is based on.

Jeremy Piven as Ari Gold sitting on the couch in Entourage. / Ari Emanuel smiling on the red carpet
Photo by Claudette Barius, Warner Brothers, Hbo, Kobal, Shutterstock / Alex Berliner, BEI, Shutterstock

Besides working with Wahlberg, he was roommates with Peter Berg, one of the show’s executive producers, in college. Emanuel created his own agency, Endeavor Talent Agency, which represents stars such as Larry David and Vin Diesel, who are both represented by the fictional Ari Gold on the show. Fun fact: Emanuel once represented Jeremy Pivin himself and demanded that only Pivin be cast as Ari Gold.

Alejandro Sosa Is Inspired by a Ruthless Drug Lord

The Bolivian drug dealer from the classic crime film Scarface is actually based on real-life drug lord Roberto Suárez Gómez. Like Alejandro Sosa, Gómez was a powerful Bolivian businessman with political and military connections and ties with Colombian narcotics dealers. Karma eventually caught up to Goméz when he was arrested in 1988 and thrown into jail for 15 years.

Paul Shenar as Alejandro Sosa standing in a warehouse in Scarface / Roberto Suárez Gómez being escorted through a crowd of people next to an airplane
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Although Gómez was a ruthless drug lord, he expressed remorse in the weeks leading up to his death in 2000. “The worst mistake I ever made in my life was to have gotten involved in cocaine trafficking,” Gómez said in an interview for a local TV station, according to the LA Times. Goméz died of a heart attack at the age of 68.

John Munch Was Inspired by a Real Policeman

Police Officer Jay Landsman is quite the muse for writer David Simon. Simon loved Landsman so much that he created a character based on the police officer for not one, not two, but three different shows. The pair first met while Simon was writing his non-fiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.

Richard Belzer as John Munch in Homicide: Life On The Street / Jay Landsman playing officer Dennis Mello in The Wire
Photo by Chris Haston, NBC Tv, Kobal, Shutterstock / Source: Reddit

The police officer was featured in the book, which was eventually picked up by NBC and turned into a TV series called Homicide: Life on the Street. That’s when the character of John Munch was born. After Homicide’s cancellation in 1999, the cynical detective moved to the Law and Order spin-off, SVU. Landsman was also a source of inspiration for Simon’s later work on HBO’s drama The Wire.

A ‘70s Bartender Inspired the Creation of Moe Szyslak

The Simpson’s creator Matt Groening has said that the sad-sack bartender is actually based on Louis “Red” Deutsch, a New Jersey bartender from the ‘70s. Red became famous after he was the target of several phone pranks by two young men, John Elmo and Jim Davidson, who called themselves The BBB. The pranksters would call up Red and ask if they could speak to various non-existent customers, infuriating the bartender.

Moe from The Simpsons talking on the phone / Louis “Red” Deutsch posing for a photograph
Source: YouTube / Instagram

Recordings of these hilarious calls were recorded on cassette tapes (remember those?) and were widely distributed around the country. Red’s angry reactions and threats inspired the humorous dynamic between Moe and Bart Simpson, who is frequently threatened by Moe for prank calling him all of the time.

Aspects of Archvillain Auric Goldfinger Were Real

Auric Goldfinger, the gold-smuggling villain from the James Bond book (and movie adaptation), is said to have been based on Charles Engelhard, Jr., the American gold mining titan. The businessman owned several thoroughbred racehorses and inherited several companies from his German American father. Engelhard was reportedly friends with author Ian Fleming, after meeting him in South Africa.

Gert Frobe as Auric Goldfinger in the film Goldfinger /
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While the persona is based on Engelhard, the character’s name was taken from author Ian Fleming’s neighbor, architect Ernő Goldfinger. Even the character bears some resemblance to the architect. In 2003, the American Film Institute named Auric Goldfinger as the 49th greatest villain in the past 100 years of film. On a poll on IMDb, Goldfinger was voted the most sinister James Bond villain.

Norman Bates Was Based on a Real Serial Killer

Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a nightmare-inducing psychological thriller, but the fact that the film is based on the crimes committed by Ed Gein makes it that much more terrifying. Gein was a gravedigger and murderer who, just like Norman, had a strange and unhealthy obsession with his mother.

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho / Ed Gein posing for a photograph
Photo by Paramount, Kobal, Shutterstock / Source: Wikimedia Commons

Gein’s horrific crimes have also been the inspiration behind many other horror films, like The Silence of the Lambs and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. The murderous mama’s boy was diagnosed with schizophrenia and found “not guilty by reason of insanity.” Gein spent the rest of his life at a mental hospital. Norman is definitely one character you wish was not based on a real person, but, alas, he was.

There Was a Real James Bond

The famous Agent 007 was inspired by real-life British secret agent, Forest Fredrick Edward Yeo-Thomas (aka White Rabbit). This stealth agent was known for his daring escapes from a Russian prison and the Gestapo during World War II. He was dropped in occupied France to contact and report back to London.

Daniel Craig as James Bond sitting on a bench in a museum in ‘Skyfall’ / A portrait of Commander Forest Yeo Thomas I the army holding a pipe
Photo by Danjaq, Eon Productions, Kobal, Shutterstock / Steve Back, Shutterstock

He even managed to escape Klaus Barbie (a vengeful Gestapo agent nicknamed the “Butcher of Lyon”) while the two were riding the same train, by hiding in a hearse, according to The Guardian. His heroic actions earned him the title of being one of the most highly decorated agents during the war. In his memoirs, James Bond author Ian Fleming wrote of his fascination with Yeo-Thomas’ military career and how he inspired the creation of his James Bond character.

Dill Was Based on a Famous Crime Writer

Many people don’t know this, but the dorky kid next door in To Kill a Mockingbird was, in fact, based on infamous crime writer Truman Capote. Author Harper Lee and Capote were next-door neighbors growing up and remained close friends well into adulthood. The pair even traveled around the United States together.

John Megna as Dill in To Kill a Mockingbird / Truman Capote sitting in a large wicker chair lounging
Source: YouTube / Photo by Everett Collection, Shutterstock

When Lee wrote her famous novel, she added a sweet nod to her childhood friend by adding the character of Dill, who was best friends with Jem and Scout. It was clear that Lee looked up to her longtime friend. In one of her last interviews, Lee was asked to name the writers she most admired. She only had one name on her list: Truman Capote.