Characters Who Are More Famous Than the Authors Who Created Them

Mary Poppins author P.L. Travers (right) with Mary Poppins actress Julie Andrews and Walt Disney.

A prime goal of most novelists is to create memorable characters. Sometimes, those characters become more famous than the novelists — often with the help of movie adaptations of their books.

I got the idea for today’s post from a reader who comments on this blog as “Anonymous.” That person and I were having a conversation a week or so ago under an old 2016 piece of mine when the subject arose of protagonists who outstripped their creators in renown. I’ll name some of the characters we came up with in that thread, and also mention several others.

In some cases, the characters are way more famous than the authors. In other cases, it’s a closer call.

One example in the first category is Forrest Gump, who skyrocketed to fame in the 1994 movie starring Tom Hanks. Who’s the novelist who first featured Forrest in a 1986 book? The nowhere-near-as-well-known Winston Groom.

A film released 30 years earlier — in 1964 — skyrocketed another book character into wider fame. That character was Mary Poppins, whose creator, P.L. Travers, is not a household name like the magical nanny she thought up.

The kind-of-magical Peter Pan is also much better known than his creator, J.M. Barrie.

Several characters in L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz became more famous than the author, in large part due to 1939’s The Wizard of Oz film. They of course include The Wizard himself, The Wicked Witch, Dorothy, Toto, The Scarecrow, The Tin Man, and The Cowardly Lion.

Toto reminds me that Lassie the dog originated in a 1940 novel by someone whose name is barely remembered today — Eric Knight.

Also, James Bond is a bigger celebrity than spy novelist Ian Fleming, as is Dracula compared to author Bram Stoker. And Lorna Doone, with an assist from her becoming the name of a cookie, is more known than novelist R.D. Blackmore. The girl Heidi, too, is higher on the recognition scale than her creator, Johanna Spyri.

Some examples of characters and authors being closer in fame, with the characters perhaps a little more famous:

There’s of course Sherlock Holmes, the detective who’s so iconic he has a somewhat higher profile than much-remembered author Arthur Conan Doyle.

Also, Gigi — the fictional figure from the 1944 novel that spawned the 1958 movie starring Leslie Caron — might be a tad better known than her creator, Colette.

A few other cases where the character might be slightly more famous than the author include Jane Eyre (Charlotte Bronte), Doctor Zhivago (Boris Pasternak), Tom Jones (Henry Fielding), Jo March (from Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women), Anne Shirley (from L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables), and Scarlett O’Hara (from Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind).

Anything you’d like to say about this topic, including more examples?

My literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com every Thursday. The latest piece — a fantasy about my town getting duped by a neighboring town for eons — is here.

196 thoughts on “Characters Who Are More Famous Than the Authors Who Created Them

  1. Dave, quick personal message, do you know anything about syndicating cartoons? I read an online article that said you were an expert, maybe different Dave Astor? But anyway, can syndicates steal your ideas? Do I need a lawyer? I have no idea, looking for help.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bio Chem Pro! It can indeed be hard to believe when a fictional person becomes more famous than the real person who created her or him. Annoying for the author, yet flattering in a way to that author for being so skillful.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Nancy Drew. Her author, Mildred Wirt Benson, is known under the name Carolyn Keene. Later in the series, after she retired, other people starting writing under the name Carolyn Keene. By then the books were not nearly as good as when they started. Also, I believe Robinson Crusoe is slightly more famous the Daniel Defoe, the person who thought him up.

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  3. Dave, you mentioned many I would have cited.
    I said to myself “don’t mention Scarlet O’Hara”!
    I’m always using that book. Dave will start to think it’s the only book I’ve ever read. LOL Glad you did.

    How about Sam Spade & Nick and Nora? Daschel Hammit is a close second, but I saw the “Maltese Falcon” with Bogart before I read any of Hammit’s books, or knew his name.
    On this theme I mention Philip Marlowe. Lol, I had to google to be reminded that the author is Raymond Chandler.
    What about Perry Mason? Author Erle Stanley Gardner.

    On another note, I’m reading an interview with John Irving. in “Toronto Life” magazine.
    3 banned books, and he says “The United States is in danger of becoming – or already is- a theocracy.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Atticus Finch from “To Kill a Mockingbird” is probably better know than Harper Lee partly due to his portrayal by Gregory Peck. Another thing, some characters from popular or pulp fiction tend to be better known than their authors, One that hasn’t been mentioned yet is Zorro.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you. Excellent point about characters from popular and pulp fiction.

      The level of “celebrity” of Atticus Finch vs. Harper Lee seems kind of a toss-up to me. Ms. Lee was hugely famous despite — and perhaps partly because of — her decades of reclusiveness. Then there was the compelling fact of her having written such a blockbuster book, and never writing another novel. (“Go Set a Watchman” is considered by most to be an early draft of “To Kill a Mockingbird” rather than a separate work.)

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    • I looked up Nancy Drew on Wikipedia. The books were written by various authors between 1930 and 2003 under the pen name Carolyn Keene following plot outlines set by the Stratemeyer Syndicate. Publisher Edward Stratemeyer, who died in 1930, was credited with thinking up the character but he did not actually write any of the books.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. ETA Hoffman’s story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King” is the basis of Alexandre Dumas’ adaptation, which in turn inspired Tchaikovsky’s ballet. Each successive permutation was made by a man now more famous than the last. As the ballet is more famous than the original story, and its author.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Dave, I was thinking of Dame Judith Olivia Dench the well known English Actress .
    She is regarded as one of Britain’s best actressess and noted for her versatile work in various films and television programmes , for several generations.
    She was also in several Bond Movies

    Take a look at her as Lady Catherine de Bourg , in Pride and Predidice which is an 1813 novel by Jane Austen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Bebe! That’s some great dialogue and great acting! I don’t think any of Jane Austen’s characters are as famous as Austen herself, though some — including Elizabeth Bennet –are pretty well-known. πŸ™‚

      Liked by 1 person

        • Ah, I see what you’re saying, Bebe. Some actresses and actors can indeed be more famous than many authors. I imagine there are more watchers of movies than readers of novels, and of course cinema is so visual and celebrity-infused that quite a few performers become VERY high-profile.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. There are fictional literary characters who are just as but probably not better known than their famous authors. Some examples include Rip Van Winkle (Washington Irving), Ivanhoe (Sir Walter Scott), Moby Dick (Herman Melville), and Long John Silver (Robert Louis Stevenson).

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  8. Besides characters, there are also novels, short stories, novellas, and plays that are better known than their authors. Some that I can think of offhand include works as varied as “The Prisoner of Zenda”, “The Scarlet Pimpernel”, “Catch 22”, “The Snow Goose”, “The Lady or The Tiger”, “The Monkey’s Paw,” “Arsenic and Old Lace” and maybe “Our Town”.

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  9. As you point out in your introduction and with Forest Gump, in most cases characters who are more famous that their creators happen also to be movie characters who are more famous that their book characters and authors, hence films that are more famous than the novels they are based on. Mrs. Doubtfire is a good example. She is almost exclusively known as a film character, and not a book character, let alone the name of her creator Anne Fine. Shrek is another example. That happens to be William Steig’s children book.

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    • Thank you, Diana! Those are two terrific examples! When there are hit movies and many people don’t know that books inspired those films, the characters have definitely outshone their author creators. One feels bad for the authors (if they’re still alive), but hopefully they or their estates receive plenty of residuals.

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  10. Pingback: Book characters who are more famous than their creators

  11. As a former librarian, I agree with you. Readers would ask for “the green bookcover” or “the one about a murder” not the author’s name. However, there are pockets in the world where authors are still remembered and their memories kept alive. Your photo of Walt, Julie and Pamela prompted me to reply because P L Traver’s memory is alive and well in Maryborough Queensland where she grew up. Every year a festival celebrates her books, stories and the legacies she left behind. Her family home, originally a bank because her father was the bank manager, is open to the public and houses extensive memorabilia. Personally, I think times change and publishers drive the need for new authors. Blog link to my Maryborough visit:

    Mary Poppins and Folks Boppin’ at Maryborough Festival

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, ThoughtsBecomeWords! I love the post of yours you linked to and the many great photos in it!

      I’m glad P.L. Travers is much-remembered in that one place (and I assume in some other places, too). It’s nice to know that authors who create characters who become more famous than them can still be as famous as their characters in some necks of the woods.

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  12. Wow you covered a lot of ground with this one – a lot of the thoughts that popped into my head have been said already! πŸ™‚ And you know I always love it when Anne (with an e) Shirley gets mentioned in any post hahaha πŸ™‚ I actually only recently found out that Forrest Gump was a novel before it was a movie – so that goes to show just how obscure the author has remained in light of the film!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I have the feeling that Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle (George Bernard Shaw) and Zorba the Greek (Kazantzakis) are better known than their authors mainly due to Hollywood movies.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. HI Dave, there are so many characters from books that are better known than their creators. I am sure that Charlie from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Mr Fox and Matilda are all more famous than Roald Dahl. The Lorax and the Grinch are more famous than Dr. Seuss and Scrooge is more famous than Charles Dickens (maybe). Some like Shakespeare are perhaps more famous than their works but I’m not sure. Romeo and Juliet must be very famous as well as Macbeth.

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  15. Often the characters are equal to the authors especially if the books are autobiographical!
    Talking of rare autobiographical series do try reading Beyond Enkription, the first spy thriller in the autobiographical Burlington Files series.

    Beyond Enkription (intentionally misspelt) is a must read for espionage cognoscenti and the first stand-alone spy thriller in The Burlington Files autobiographical series by Bill Fairclough (MI6 codename JJ, aka Edward Burlington). It’s a raw and noir matter of fact pacy novel that Len Deighton and Mick Herron could be forgiven for thinking they co-wrote it. Coincidentally, a few critics have nicknamed its protagonist β€œa posh Harry Palmer.”

    This elusive and enigmatic novel is a true story about a maverick accountant (Edward Burlington in Porter Williams International aka Bill Fairclough in Coopers & Lybrand now PwC in real life). In 1974 in London he began infiltrating organised crime gangs, unwittingly working for MI6. After some frenetic attempts on his life he was relocated to the Caribbean where, β€œeyes wide open” he’s recruited by the CIA and is soon headed for shark infested waters off Haiti.

    If you’re an espionage cognoscente you’ll love this monumental book but just because you think you know it all don’t surf through the prologue: you may miss some disinformation. After all, in real life Fairclough worked with Pemberton’s People in MI6 and Colonel Alan Pemberton’s People even included Roy Richards OBE (Winston Churchill’s bodyguard) and an eccentric British Brigadier (Peter ‘Scrubber’ Stewart-Richardson) who was once refused permission to join the Afghan Mujahideen.

    If you felt squeamish when watching Jaws, you may find the savagery of the opening chapter upsetting, but it soon passes. This epic is so real it made us wonder why bother reading espionage fiction when facts are so much more exhilarating. Atmospherically it’s reminiscent of Ted Lewis’ Get Carter of Michael Caine fame. If anyone ever makes a film based on Beyond Enkription they’ll only have themselves to blame if it doesn’t go down in history as a classic thriller … it’s the stuff memorable films are made of.

    Whether you’re a le CarrΓ© connoisseur, a Deighton disciple, a Fleming fanatic, a Herron hireling or a Macintyre marauder, odds on once you are immersed in it you’ll read this titanic production twice.

    For more detailed reviews visit the Reviews page on TheBurlingtonFiles.org website or see other independent reviews on your local Amazon website and check out Bill Fairclough’s background on the web.

    Do look up the authors or books mentioned on Amazon, Google The Burlington Files or visit theburlingtonfiles website and read Beyond Enkription.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Don Quixote is probably better known than his author Miguel de Cervantes (partly due to the Broadway musical), from people who do not come from an Hispanic cultural background.

    Liked by 2 people

  17. I can’t let a mention of Doyle and his cash cow/albatross Sherlock Holmes pass without mentioning that not only did Holmes overshadow his creator, his creator resented it in a most elementary way. (Readers wanted more Holmes, which Doyle felt took time away from his George Challenger stories and his real-world investigations of photographing fairies in the garden).
    That’s why Doyle tried to kill Holmes (and brought him back with great reluctance).
    —–
    And of course I can’t think of that without thinking of the Bernard Partridge cartoon in Punch (“Mr. Punch’s Personalities” feature in 1926) of Doyle sitting in agony, his head encircled by a cloud of smoke from the pipe of Sherlock Holmes, to whom Doyle is shackled.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Don! I enjoyed your comment! Arthur Conan Doyle did indeed have some strong resentment toward his Sherlock Holmes character. Partly a didn’t-want-to-be-typecast-as-just-a-detective author thing, too. Also happened to other writers — including L.M. Montgomery, who grew kind of tired doing her many “Anne of Green Gables” sequels. Fortunately, both Doyle and Montgomery wrote other great works in addition to the ones they’re most known for.

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  18. Frankenstein’s Monster is much better known than Mary Shelley to the general public. However, the Monster in the novel was very different than the character in popular culture in that he was very articulate. Also some of Lewis Carroll’s characters such as Alice, The Mad Hatter, and The Cheshire Cat are arguably better known than the author.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you! I agree on all counts about Mary Shelley’s and Lewis Carroll’s characters being better known to many than the authors. And Shelley’s book “monster” is indeed different than the movie version of that “monster.” I wonder what she would have thought of Boris Karloff’s performance — and the Mel Brooks spoof “Young Frankenstein.” πŸ™‚

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  19. I may have commented twice think I accidentally deleted first one. Both Rosemary and her baby and Ira Levin. Baby Jane and Henry Farrell. Holly Golightly and Capote. Stanley Kowalski and Tennessee Williams. Rebecca and Daphne Du Maurier. The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo and Stieg Larson. Robinson Crusoe and Daniel Defoe. Hope I remembered all of ’em. Great post, Dave. Thanx, Susi

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Susi! Terrific examples of characters much better known than their creators — including Robinson Crusoe. Of course! πŸ™‚

      To me, Stanley Kowalski/Tennessee Williams and a couple others you mentioned are close calls. πŸ™‚ Tennessee’s colorful name and wide renown for a number of plays helps.

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      • True yet you’d be surprised how many people don’t know these authors or their characters unless their characters were featured in a movie based on the book. Sadly the pleasure in reading a book has gone south *sigh* Yeah Kowalski and Williams is a close call. Perhaps I should say that guy who screams Stella or Stella herself, ha. Thank God we still have literary festivals.

        Liked by 1 person

        • LOL, Susi! πŸ™‚ This video is both hilarious and rather disturbing. πŸ™‚ Yes, the phrase Stanley Kowalski uttered might be better known than Stanley himself. Of course, Stanley-in-the-“A Streetcar Named Desire”-film Marlon Brando was VERY famous.

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  20. Sometimes authors are happy enough to create the character that will be better remembered than their own name. Also there’s the likes of hemingway who was every bit as large as his characters. I remember seeing the TV series Fleming, about Ian Fleming-obvi, lol– and it struck me that in his own right (write, oh the puns are flying) he was quite famous and that there may have been a good bit of him in Bond.

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  21. On a related topic the opera “Carmen” is better known than the novella on which it was based. Also some movies such as “101 Dalmatians” and “Forrest Gump” are better known than the books. “Ben-Hur” was the best selling American novel in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries but today it is not as well known as the movie starring Charlton Heston.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s indeed interesting when a screen or stage adaptation of a book becomes more famous than the book. Also the case with the plays inspired by James Michener’s “Tales of the South Pacific” novel and Gregory Maguire’s “Wicked” novel.

      “Ben-Hur” definitely sold tons of copies in the 19th-century, though I’ve heard “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” might have sold more.

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  22. Yeah, Disney has ruined several characters portrayed by their authors. And from what I know of Ian Fleming, I’d say it’s a tie between him and 007 as to who’s more famous. Fleming actually worked in several branches of intelligence for Great Britain. His novels have bases in facts. πŸ™‚

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Mary Jo! I agree about Disney and the way he and his company have…Disney-fied…a number of characters. 😦

      I don’t know much about Ian Fleming. From what you say, he was pretty famous — and not only as an author.

      Liked by 1 person

  23. Dave such an interesting post and not sure if anyone else mentioned Scrooge – but I think many folks now that character and maybe not Dickens
    also – glad you mentioned the cookie Lorna Doone – because I knew of the cookie before the character – hahaha

    Liked by 2 people

  24. Pinocchio is a famous example of a character being more famous than his author. In fact I can’t even name the author without searching the web except it definitely is NOT Walt Disney.

    Liked by 2 people

  25. Characters who are better known than their authors are not common in serious fiction but they occur quite frequently in children’s books. One recent example is Fancy Nancy from the picture books.

    Liked by 2 people

    • There are definitely some children’s-book characters who are more famous than their creators. Not in any by Dr. Seuss, though. πŸ™‚ He’s as famous as even his most famous characters. πŸ™‚

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  26. Oh Dave, this is another one of your posts that had my mind humming. I am going back to my early days of reading for these three:

    Remember Bambi (another famous Walt Disney rewrite)? Felix Salten

    Tarzan by Edgar Rice Burroughs

    Willy Wonka by Roald Dahl

    Don reminded me of β€œMan with no Name” created by Sergio Leone for A Fistful of Dollars, but was in fact adapted by a ronin character in Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. (I would never have thought to mention this one on my own.)

    And here is another famous character (another suggestion by Don because he read the book as a child) Robin Hood. The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire is an 1883 novel by the American illustrator and writer Howard Pyle

    And because I have been following your posts and throwback photos, I just had to add β€œSuperman” created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster from comic fame. (I believe they were the foreshadowing giants of graphic novels) And Spider-Man created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

    I must leave you with a quote that everyone who reads late into the night would understand completely:

    β€œSleep is good, he said, and books are better.” George R.R. Martin

    Liked by 5 people

  27. How about Black Beauty, Ben-Hur, Phillip Marlowe, Perry Mason, and Nancy Drew, I know that these characters are not from classic novels. I’ve only read Ben-Hur but I’ve heard of all these other names. Also I believe that Jay Gatsby is just as well known as F. Scott Fitzgerald due to several movies.

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    • Thank you for those additional names! I agree with most — great mentions! I do think author Raymond Chandler is pretty close to Philip Marlowe in name recognition, as is F. Scott Fitzgerald vis-Γ -vis Jay Gatsby. Fitzgerald is one of those authors who’s as much of a “character” as any character he created.

      Liked by 1 person

  28. What I find interesting about this question is that the characters who eclipse their authors are primarily in movie adaptations of novels–and in some cases, the movie version of the character is not, in fact, the character that the book author created. Mary Poppins and Forrest Gump immediately come to mind. The Mary Poppins of the novel is not the cotton candy version Disney created for the movie, nor is the Forrest Gump of the novel the endearing fellow Tom Hanks played on-screen.

    Liked by 7 people

    • Thank you, Rosaliene! Yes, it IS amazing when one thinks about — a character conjured up in an author’s imagination becoming more famous than the flesh-and-blood author.

      Harry Potter did occur to me as I was writing the post, but, as you note, J.K. Rowling is pretty much equally famous.

      Liked by 2 people

  29. Well, I had to think a while about this one. I finally came up with the character of Cinderella, whose story by Charles Perrault precedes that of the Grimm brothers. However, I think today Walt Disney is the author most commonly associated with the character.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you, vanaltman! Great point about Cinderella! She and other stars of “fairy tales” are in many cases much better known than the people who dreamed them up. Sometimes those people are no longer known at all. But, yes, Walt Disney, is certainly a VERY high-profile name — even as many at his company who did the actual animation work were and are usually pretty low-profile.

      Liked by 3 people

    • What a delightful post/list/question! And, yes, there are quite a few characters that are more famous than their authors and more commonly associated with Walt Disney… Here’s another one to add to the list: Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie.

      And there are others, outside Disney’s long reach, that qualify for this excellent list you’ve compiled: The Godfather (Vito Corleone) by Mario Puzo, and Dracula, by Bram Stoker, and, of course, Frankenstein (who gets confused for his creation more often than not), by Mary Shelley.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Thank you, Endless Weekend, for those great additional mentions! Yes, characters such as The Godfather and Frankenstein (who’s the creator not the creation, as you noted) are better known to many people than Mario Puzo and Mary Shelley.

        Disney’s reach is indeed long. Too long…

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    • Thank you, Bridget! That’s a great example of this phenomenon in the nonfiction realm. Meryl Streep is such a stellar actress that her star power can dwarf the subject she plays. Also in “Silkwood,” etc.

      (I do happen to remember photos of Karen Blixen sitting at a 1959 party that another writer, Carson McCullers, held for her. Guests included Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller!)

      Liked by 5 people

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