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Lesson Plan Booster: Is Truth Stranger Than Fiction?

Literature is alive with iconic characters known around the world for their incredible exploits and heroic actions. James Bond and Sherlock Holmes are such characters. Less well known are the life stories of some of the authors of famous fiction. Many of these authors had real-life adventures that rivaled those of the fictional characters they created. Use the following discussion guide to explore with students how biographical information can influence fiction.

Grade Level:         9-12

Student learning objectives:  Students will be able to see how real-life experiences help an author to shape a fictional character he or she is creating. These experiences often form the basis for many of the plots involving these characters.


  • Review writers’ thoughts on whether authors truly “write what they know.” See articles by Marg Gilks and Jenna Glatzer.
  • For useful do's and don’ts regarding the use of biographical material in writing, see Writing the Autobiographical Novel: Joys and Pitfalls.
  • Familiarize yourself with some of the authors who have led amazing lives before settling down to a life of fiction writing. Any credible biography on the men listed below will contain a sampling of their amazing exploits.
  • You may also want to refresh your knowledge of literary works by the four authors highlighted below. For the purposes of this discussion, the Cliff’s Notes version of the selected titles would be sufficient.

Some of the more amazing authors known for writing about incredible characters include:

Sir Ian Fleming

Bond is arguably the most famous fictional spy ever created.

Most Famous Character – James Bond, Secret Agent 007

While just about everyone in the Western Hemisphere knows of James Bond, for this discussion we must separate the film character from his literary counterpart. The affable big-screen rogue who sipped martinis (when he was not delivering campy one-liners or windsurfing down the side of an iceberg) in no way represents the character Fleming created.

The Bond of the books was hardcore, more hardcore than even Daniel Craig’s more accurate, gritty turn as the spy on film. For example, after the finale of the book version of Casino Royale, 007’s only reaction to the death of his one love, who he only recently learned was a double agent, is “Yep. She’s dead.”

How the Author Is Even More Interesting

Ian Flemming was Bond, before he created him
Fleming didn't need the gun, but it does add to his menace.

Before inventing Bond, Fleming essentially lived the character. He was recruited by the Director of Naval Intelligence to work as a spy during World War II. It was during this time that he rose to the position of Commander while working in the Naval Intelligence Division (NID 17). He was responsible for creating plans such as Operation Ruthless which involved British service men dressing up as injured Nazis. When other Nazis would attempt to rescue them, the Brits-in-disguise would kill them. He also was behind Operation Goldeneye, named after an area of his beloved Jamaica which kept a close eye on Spain, since it was thought to sympathize with Germany.

After the war and his success as an author, Fleming was able to influence world politics, even winning the ear of U.S. President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy was a fan of the Bond books and invited Fleming to dinner. While discussing the politics of the day, the author suggested a way for the President to eliminate Fidel Castro as a threat. He suggested getting the dictator to shave his beard, since it was Castro’s signature look and without it, he would look like an ordinary man. To convince the despot to do this, Fleming said the U.S. should claim that beards attract radioactivity and cause one to become sterile. This offbeat suggestion made it all the way to the desk of CIA head Allen Dulles.

Thomas Malory

king arthur was tough
Despite being a bit ostentatious, Arthur certainly could handle his business.

Most Famous Character – King Arthur

After pulling the sword Excalibur from the stone, Arthur is crowned King of England, organizes the Knights of the Round Table, kicks the Roman Empire out of the country, finds the Holy Grail and defeats a giant. He also has a scabbard of invulnerability that protects him from injury.

How the Author Is Even More Interesting

Thomas Malory was not a hero in any sense of the word. He was, however, a serious adventurer who rivaled Arthur’s courage and machismo. A brief rundown of Malory’s exploits:

Thomas Mallory wrote King Arthur
Prison isn't really conducive to writing, making his work even more impressive.
  • He organized an attack on the Duke of Buckingham and stole all of his possessions.
  • He seduced another man’s wife twice and robbed the unfortunate husband after the second transgression.
  • He was jailed four times. He broke out three times, once by getting a royal pardon, once by swimming across a moat at night and once by swashbuckling his way out with swords and daggers.

He actually wrote the Arthurian legend during his final stint in prison.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Surprisingly, this is the most accurate portrayal of
Holmes to date.

Most Famous Character – Sherlock Holmes

Thanks to filmmaker Guy Ritchie, the image of Sherlock Holmes is no longer that of actor Basil Rathbone in the signature “deerstalker” hat, but is instead the eccentric, slovenly genius played by Robert Downey, Jr. The Holmes of the novels was a bohemian in every sense of the word. While the literary character was capable of making incredible deductions from the smallest of details through the power of logic, he was also a formidable pugilist and expert in the martial art of Bartitsu. In short, Holmes was blowing minds and cracking skulls.

How the Author Is Even More Interesting

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s early life revolved around ships and sea. He accompanied a whaling expedition to the Arctic before attending medical school.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was a war hero
The author strikes an
old-timey pose.

Upon graduation he spent several years as a ship’s physician. It was after his time on the high seas that he settled down to a life of literature.

When the Boer War began, he enlisted as a medical officer. Playing the role of a real-life Dr. Watson, he trolled around Africa mending wounded soldiers and combating typhoid fever. It was his exploits during the war that resulted in him being made a Knight of the Realm.

Following the war, he retired to a life of action. He spent his days bodybuilding, racing cars, flying in early airplanes and making predictions about the future. Among his non-literary writings are essays on the importance of submarine warfare and aerial combat. He also came up with ideas for lifejackets and body armor. All of this pre-dated World War I.

Ernest Hemingway

Jordan was tough
Apparently Robert Jordan dressed like Indiana Jones and had a thing
for Ingrid Bergman.

Most Famous Character – Robert Jordan

Robert Jordan is a guerrilla fighter behind enemy lines during the Spanish Civil War. His main task is blow up an enemy bridge that is vital to their cause. While planning his attack, his group is infiltrated by an enemy spy. Not losing his cool, Jordan shoots the spy immediately and steals his horse. Unsure of how much the enemy knows, Jordan takes the stolen horse and rides to the bridge in question, killing all of the guards and detonating the structure.

With his missions accomplished, Jordan hightails it out of there, only to fall victim to his stolen horse. The steed falls on him, fatally wounding him. He fights death, remaining conscious long enough to kill the enemy troops who are tailing his friends.

How the Author is Even More Interesting

Hemingway never went anywhere without a firearm.

Ernest Hemingway was the epitome of manliness. Among his hobbies were debate, track, football, boxing, water polo, big game hunting and deep sea fishing.

He was an ambulance driver in France during World War I. He was the first American ever to be awarded the Italian Silver Medal of Bravery for carrying an Italian soldier to safety after he, himself was injured by mortar fire.

After the war, he spent time in the Caribbean and hung out with James Joyce in Key West, where he is still the face of local watering hole Sloppy Joe’s.

War was never too far from Hemingway, and he later became a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. When World War II started, he served the Navy, destroying enemy submarines near the Cuban coast.

His last years were spent defying the odds as he survived a massive brushfire, temporary paralysis, a concussion and two plane crashes. He was so often injured that several newspapers ran his obituary before he actually died.


Introducing discussion to students: Inspiration comes in many forms. Let’s talk about how some well-known authors were able to take from their life experiences and create characters and stories that are enjoyed to this day.


Options for student discussion questions:

  1. What are some of your favorite book or movie characters? Do you know where the ideas for these characters originated?
  2. Have you ever been inspired to write a work of fiction based on something you’ve seen or done?
  3. Is it possible for a true story to be more unbelievable than fiction? (Explore the famous Mark Twain quote: “Truth is stranger than fiction, but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn't.”)
  4. What do you think about this advice commonly given to writers: “write what you know.” Is this, as writer Marg Gilks believes, misleading advice? Also read Jenna Glatzer’s advice for moving beyond what you know.
  5. Why do you think these characters (James Bond, King Arthur, Sherlock Holmes, Robert Jordan) are held in such high esteem in the literary world? Why do readers connect with them? How do they represent the classic protagonist character? What kind of values and traits do they represent? What can they teach us about the human condition?

Optional extension activity:

Have students read Writing the Autobiographical Novel: Joys and Pitfalls and then write an essay or short story that’s either biographical (about someone they know) or autobiographical (about themselves). Ask students to answer questions (orally or in written form) about their essay/story based on some of the points raised in the Joys and Pitfalls article. A sample question might be: “Did you revise the outcome, such that what happened in real life is different from what happened in the story? Why did you choose to do this, and how did you go about choosing a new outcome?”

Article by Jason Tomaszewski, EducationWorld Associate Editor
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