Would a question that asks for the inspirations for all or any character in a book be considered too broad? There is some precedent for questions that appear to have done that, and have not been closed (eg In Foucault's Pendulum, which names are allusions to the real world, and which are not?, Were other characters apart from Alice inspired by real life people?; as opposed to questions that ask about just one character, like Was Artemis Fowl based on any specific prodigy?).

I'm writing a draft for a question about Atlas Shrugged, which has an extremely large cast of named characters. My initial thought was that I should only specify a few characters, to avoid making the question too broad; however, precedent may indicate that including all characters in a literary work is not too broad. On the other hand, Atlas Shrugged may be a special case due to its large cast of characters.

Are questions that ask for the inspiration for any and all characters in a literary work too broad? Can the answer be different for works with more/fewer characters?

  • If you asked a question along the lines of "what is the meaning of every character's name in Atlas Shrugged", I would downvote it and vote to close it as being too broad. Don't see what's wrong with asking a question about a specific character, or asking a question along the lines of "are the names of any characters in Atlas Shrugged [some specific criteria]"
    – user111
    Feb 12, 2017 at 6:15
  • Update: asked. literature.stackexchange.com/q/1650/481
    – Shokhet
    Feb 13, 2017 at 17:50

2 Answers 2


It depends on whether it makes sense as a single, unified question.

The deciding factor here can't be a number -- "It's OK to ask about the inspiration of five characters, but six is too many." That would be arbitrary.

This rests upon a simple (but subjective) test: is this one single question, that makes sense and will have a single cohesive answer? Or is it lumping many questions together, when they would make more sense on their own?

A hypothetical question "What inspirations are known for characters in Alice in Wonderland" would definitely be too broad; it would be asking for a list of character-inspiration explanations, that have no real relation to each other. Whereas "What characters in Alice in Wonderland are based upon real people" seems like a narrow list, and one based on a very significant common element -- no different from, say, "What mathematical paradoxes are discussed in Alice in Wonderland".

In general, I believe we need to be wary of arbitrary questions - questions that arbitrarily assume that a certain significance, inspiration, meaning, might possibly exist in a piece, and ask that the community prove or disprove this conjecture. It's kind of fishing for a question -- "I don't know if there's anything interesting here, but I'll ask, in case it turns out there is."

Questions like this are extremely easy to ask, are often unanswerable, and produce site content that feels like a list of undercooked stabs in the literary dark.

Broad questions, e.g. requesting inspiration sources for a large number of characters without clear focus and justification, are very likely to be arbitrary fishing questions. I would not want to see future blanket questions justified by "But on Meta we said it's OK to ask about a large number of characters."

On the other hand, some questions quite rightly cast a wide net. Sometimes you're asking about something the repeats broadly, that has many instances, and the entire point is to ask about all of them. This will usually be something very specific, and that's why asking "Tell me about this specific thing across a broad range" can make a lot of sense, and be well scoped.

So, I would say the guideline for whether a question on character inspirations would be something like this:

  1. The OP should explain why it is reasonable to expect to find the kind of character inspiration s/he's looking for.
  2. The OP should be asking for something that makes sense as a single, cohesive answer, rather than a list of unrelated answers, each pertaining to a different character.

If a question satisfies those, then it doesn't matter how many characters the question covers. If it doesn't, it's likely to be a poor question, or too broad, or both.

  • Thank you. This makes a lot of sense to me.
    – Shokhet
    Feb 12, 2017 at 17:59

Looks perfectly fine to ask about all of them at once.

As you mentioned in the question, Were other characters apart from Alice inspired by real life people? talks about a lot of different characters - all of them except for one. So we have precedent. In addition, there is also the chance that the author has made a blanket statement about a whole lot of characters - either that all of them were based on some elephants in the zoo, or her family, or his next door neighbor... You get the point.

As for this being an exception - why should it? Why make an exception for when there are a lot of characters? Should we make such questions about all works with lots of characters split them? Who would decide what the criteria are?

So it seems to me that you should go ahead and ask it! We'll see what the community at large decides - my meta posts haven't been the highest upvoted lately :P

  • Thank you. In case my intent was not so clear from what I wrote in the question, I think there are way more characters in Atlas Shrugged than there are in Alice ...my own mental rule-of-thumb in judging the broadness of questions is the likelihood of my question receiving 50+ equally valid yet distinct answers. I think there's a fair chance of that happening with this question, as each character could conceivably receive an answer of their own....but maybe you're right, and there shouldn't be a difference between larger and smaller works. Let's see what Meta makes of this.
    – Shokhet
    Feb 12, 2017 at 5:52
  • Should I edit that question? To be honest I think its alright because while there are lots of characters, there are actually not many who were inspired by real life people Feb 24, 2017 at 16:59

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