Bridging real and fictional worlds

Wikidata has many, many statements about the real world, but also describes worlds of fiction or myth. Fictional entities can have almost all the same properties as real ones, but have at least one property that marks them as fictional. They should have instance of fictional character, or a subset such as fictional human, or even fictional pig. Wikidata presently has more than 40,000 fictional entities and this query gives an overview of their types.

There are also properties for present in work…

Prospero → present in work → The Tempest

…and from fictional universe

Hermione Granger → from fictional universe → Harry Potter universe

If you are only interested in real entities, fictional characters are superfluous results to be filtered out. One of my first queries was for people who had studied at Oxford University. Several fictional entities came up, including Dorothy L. Sayers’ character Lord Peter Wimsey, whose alma mater is listed as Balliol College. (Here’s the query code.)

It’s interesting to explore connections between the real and fictional worlds, for example with the named after property. We can ask Wikidata for things after which substellar objects (planets, moons, and asteroids) are named. (Here’s the query code). Jupiter’s moons are named after lovers or descendants of the Roman/Greek god Jupiter/Zeus. Saturn’s moons have Norse, Greek and Inuit inspirations, while Uranus’ moons are named after characters from Shakespeare.

Titania, Moon of Uranus, photographed by NASA, and Shakespeare’s Titania, as imagined by British artist Henry Meynell Rheam. Public domain images via Wikimedia Commons

Looking outside the solar system, to stars, nebulae and galaxies, I was surprised how few, according to Wikidata, are named after fictional or mythical entities — only 45 results for this query. (Here’s the code.)

Rather than fictional entities that connect to an aspect of the real world, we can ask for real things linked to a given fictional world. A query for things named after Shakespeare’s characters, returns 22 astronomical objects and seven other entities. (Here’s the code.)

I learned recently that the James Bond character Pussy Galore is widely regarded as inspired by Blanche Blackwell, the mistress of author Ian Fleming (thanks Melissa Highton). This set me thinking about other links between real and fictional people.

Wikidata has properties for based on and inspired by. These are easily confused (at least given their English labels) and, looking at the data, some users have added the wrong property for the fact they are trying to express. Based on is a property of works: for example a film that is based on a novel. Inspired by is a property of works of fiction or of fictional entities. They can be inspired by a specific real entity; for instance Charles Foster Kane in “Citizen Kane” was inspired by William Randolph Hearst. Alternatively, a character or fictional world can be inspired by a set of works. The Matrix is inspired by Alice in Wonderland but is not based on it.

A caveat about fictional entities in Wikidata: not every character in a book, film, or play will have a Wikidata representation. Characters need to be notable independently of a work they appear in, and this usually means that they appear in multiple notable works. Bilbo Baggins appears in multiple books and films, not to mention the Leonard Nimoy song. Sally Bowles, portrayed by Liza Minnelli in Cabaret, also appears in some other plays, films, and novels.

Let’s ask Wikidata for fictional characters that are based on real people, with descriptions of each. (Here’s the query code)

Fictional Alice and her inspiration, Alice Liddell. Public domain images via Wikimedia Commons

There are multiple ways in which a fictional character can be inspired by a real person. A character in a novel might combine characteristics and life events of multiple real people. When that character is portrayed on stage, or animated, other people might inspire the actors or artists. Disney’s animators used many different models and actresses as reference for the appearances and movements of Pocahontas and of Belle. This explains the initially bizarre Wikidata claims that Pocahontas was inspired by, among others, Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell.

I’ve added about twenty connections to the 180 or so that I found. This is an interesting list, and an educational object in its own right, but it is crying out for more relations for a more literary, less Western, and specifically less Disney-centric overview of fictional characters.

Appendix: a couple of things I learned from reading about the inspirations for fictional characters.

I thought that Captain Jack Sparrow was based on a real, historical pirate. There are certainly lots of web pages saying so, but a rumour spread by a lot of people is still a rumour. No one connected to the films backs it up. Obviously there are similarities between Sparrow and some actual pirates, but nothing to suggest that one person inspired the character, although Johnny Depp’s portrayal was inspired by Keith Richards.

Another thing “everybody knows” is that Dracula was based on Vlad the Impaler, also known as Vlad Dracula. While there are scholarly sources that say this historical Dracula inspired Bram Stoker’s creation, I heard of the book Dracula: Sense and Nonsense by Elizabeth Miller which, based on Stoker’s own notes, explains that Stoker was likely not even aware of Vlad the Impaler, and chose the word Dracula because it meant “Devil”. This is a case of a consensus of experts that has been overturned by more recent research, so should be treated as controversial at best, if not disproven.