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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 once admitted that he wasn’t terribly creative in creating Huckleberry Finn - he based the character almost precisely on his childhood friend 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 posthumous autobiography, Blankenship was repeatedly arrested for theft and died just five years after Huckleberry Finn was published.

2. When Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road, he was really writing about his own cross-country exploits with his Beat Generation buddies. 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 Cassady.

The real Neal died at the age of 41 after being found comatose by a railroad track in Guanajunto, Mexico, in 1968.

3. Even as 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 lover 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. It’s almost hard to imagine that the furious and completely insane jilted bride of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations has a flesh-and-blood counterpart. But she does - in fact, there are at least three that might fit the bill.

Real-life Miss Havisham #1: Eliza Emily Donnithorne, 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.

Potential Havisham #2: Elizabeth Parker. This Shropshire, England, woman was also jilted on her wedding day and became quite reclusive afterward. Dickins was known to visit Shropshire, and the fact that Miss Parker’s house was called Havisham Court seems like it must be more than coincidence.

Havisham the Third: Madame Eliza Jumel, Aaron Burr’s second wife. It’s said that Jumel 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. The wealthy Philomena Guinea of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar was based on Plath’s own rich benefactor, Olive Higgins Prouty. Prouty was a novelist probably best known now for Now, Voyager.

6. 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, but received the punishment anyway - even in death. The damning mark may have served as inspiration for The Scarlet Letter author Nathaniel Hawthorne. 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. As a neighbor of the Alcott family in Concord, Mass., 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. The character of Ford Prefect isn’t based on a real-life person, exactly, but 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 1938-1961.

9. Yes, Virginia, there really was a Severus Snape, and his name was almost as wizardy: John Nettleship. Nettleship was J.K. Rowling’s own teacher, perhaps one she didn’t enjoy 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 who has had a younger sibling they considered evil can probably relate to Eoin Colfer’s inspiration for Artemis Fowl. His 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.

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15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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18 Tea Infusers to Make Teatime More Exciting
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Make steeping tea more fun with these quirky tea infusers.

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

1. SOAKING IT UP; $7.49

man-shaped tea infuser
Amazon

That mug of hot water might eventually be a drink for you, but first it’s a hot bath for your new friend, who has special pants filled with tea.

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2. A FLYING TEA BOX; $25.98

There’s no superlaser on this Death Star, just tea.

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3. SPACE STATION; $9.99

astronaut tea infuser
ThinkGeek

This astronaut's mission? Orbit the rim of your mug until you're ready to pull the space station diffuser out.

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4. BE REFINED; $12.99

This pipe works best with Earl Grey.

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5. A RIBBITING OPTION; $10.93

This frog hangs on to the side of your mug with a retractable tongue. When the tea is ready, you can put him back on his lily pad.

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6. ‘TEA’ ALL LIVE IN A YELLOW SUBMARINE; $5.95

It’s just like the movie, only with tea instead of Beatles.

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7. SHARK ATTACK; $6.99

shark tea infuser
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This fearsome shark patrols the bottom of your mug waiting for prey. For extra fun, use red tea to look like the end of a feeding frenzy.

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8. PERFECT FOR A RAINY DAY; $12.40

This umbrella’s handle conveniently hooks to the side of your mug.

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9. AN EGGCELLENT INFUSER; $5.75

cracked egg tea infuser
Amazon

Sometimes infusers are called tea eggs, and this one takes the term to a new, literal level.

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10. FOR SQUIRRELY DRINKERS; $8.95

If you’re all right with a rodent dunking its tail into your drink, this is the infuser for you.

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11. HANGING OUT; $12.85

This pug is happy to hang onto your mug and keep you company while you wait for the tea to be ready.

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12. ANOTHER SHARK OPTION; $5.99

If you thought letting that other shark infuser swim around in the deep water of your glass was too scary, this one perches on the edge, too busy comping on your mug to worry about humans.

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13. RUBBER DUCKIE, YOU’RE THE ONE; $8.95

Let this rubber duckie peacefully float in your cup and make teatime lots of fun.

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14. DIVING DEEP; $8.25

This old-timey deep-sea diver comes with an oxygen tank that you can use to pull it out.

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15. MAKE SWEET TEA; $10

This lollipop won't actually make your tea any sweeter, but you can always add some sugar after.

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16. A SEASONAL FAVORITE; $7.67

When Santa comes, give him some tea to go with the cookies.

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17. FLORAL TEA; $14.99

Liven up any cup of tea with this charming flower. When you’re done, you can pop it right back into its pot.

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18. KEEP IT TRADITIONAL; $7.97

If you’re nostalgic for the regular kind of tea bag, you can get reusable silicon ones that look almost the same.

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