Reality is stranger than fiction...yes, I know, a horribly clichéd way to start an introduction, yet, it seems rather appropriate considering some of history's best known fictional figures owe their existence to real-world people. Writers are mostly inspired by the people around them. They observe behavior, study physiognomy, and make their own imaginative assumptions.
Stephen King once said that literature is about putting extraordinary people in ordinary situations, but horror is the exact opposite.
For many fictional characters we have come to love (or hate), the journey must have been a similar one - imagination putting ordinary or extraordinary people in a variety of situations. There is a mixture of both types here, from spies to cold-blooded killers, from hawk-eyed physicians to shipwrecked sailors.
There are some here that you may know, and there are others you may not. It's interesting to see though, that writers, filmmakers, and artists, throughout history have juxtaposed their experiences onto their works, quite literally.
Created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
, Sherlock Holmes is unarguably the greatest fictional detective of all time. There have been others over the years that have aspired to his greatness. Hercule Poirot
and Miss Marple
from the little gray cells
of Dame Agatha Christie do make a notable mention, however, they stand firmly in the shadow of the Baker Street detective. His eccentric habits, genius level intellect, and the sheer devilish insight into the minds of criminals, not to mention the bizarre nature of his cases, are all woven together by the intricate prose of his partner, Dr. John Watson. Sir Arthur couldn't have left us a greater legacy.
Dr. Joseph Bell
(December 2, 1837 - October 4, 1911)
Doyle based his consulting detective
on a famous doctor and lecturer Dr. Joseph Bell. He had been a clerk to Dr. Bell while working at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh, and observed how intuitive his mentor was. Dr. Bell was known for making striking deductions about strangers purely from their appearance. A la
Holmes, he also assisted the Scottish police on some occasions, and was even called as an expert witness
for the Ardlamont murder
trail, a sensational case of his time.
Cranky, miserly, and spewing venom. Charles Dickens
created the perfect gnarly old man who gets on everybody's nerves. 'A Christmas Carol' is the story of how the millionaire but tight-fisted Scrooge realizes what he's been missing out on - which is mostly everything. From viewing the poor as surplus population in the beginning of the novel, Scrooge transforms to a generous and giving old fella, after the Three Ghosts of Christmas scare the living daylights out of him. A classic tale, the staple of Christmas nights and forgotten in the glut of presents the next morning. But wait...
(April 7, 1714 - November 26, 1789)
What have we here? A British Member of Parliament, rich beyond measure, and still hoarding the pennies away? John Elwes was rather well-known it seems, even in his lifetime, as a miser and oddball. Once when he was injured on both legs, Elwes only let the physician treat one leg so as to save the cost of medicines for the other. However, unlike Scrooge, Elwes lent money freely (never asking for interest or principal), and was known to have never hurt anyone. As MP, he also financed several construction projects. He was estimated to be worth £500,000 when he died. Charles Dickens mentions him in some of his letters as the inspiration behind the character of Scrooge.
Like Holmes, Ian Fleming's
James Bond too is at the top of the food chain in his trade. Spying, taking death-defying risks, and swooning beautiful women, are but the highlights of his deadly talents. First introduced in the novel Casino Royale
in 1953, James Bond has fought, charmed, and drank martinis through 12 novels and 2 short story collections. Not to mention, the dozens of movies he has starred in.
Well, several actually
Ian Fleming, by his own admission, created the character of Bond as a composite of the many soldiers, commandos, and spies he had met during World War II. Being a commander with the Naval Intelligence Division during the war, he gave Bond most of his own quirks and habits. Fleming wanted his hero to have a common, yet powerful male name, and decided to use the name of famous ornithologist and author James Bondi
. The other notables who may have served inspiration for Bond's character are Wilfred Dunderdale
, and Ian Fleming's own brother Peter Fleming
. Dunderdale was the station chief of the MI6 in Paris, and had a penchant for fast cars and slippery women, while Peter was an intelligence expert (read spy) in his own right, having served across the world in the Great War.
Dirty Harry and the Scorpio
One of the defining roles of Clint Eastwood's career, the movie Dirty Harry released in 1971. A genre defining crime thriller, it follows Dirty
Harry Callahan, an inspector in the San Francisco Police Department, as he tries to bring a ruthless serial killer named Scorpio to justice. The film was well received both critically and commercially, and made Eastwood a superstar. It also paved the way for later hard-boiled detective cinema, and is now preserved in the National Film Registry for being a smashing entertainer (it's actually there for being culturally significant - boring!).
Inspector Dave Toschi and the Zodiac Killer
This is a double whammy. The characters of both the hero and his nemesis were molded from real-life people who were very much active at that time. Dave Toschi was the inspector responsible for tracking the Zodiac killer, an unidentified serial killer who murdered 5 people (maybe more), and terrorized the San Francisco Bay Area in the late '60s and early '70s.
Toschi spent several years investigating the case and following leads, though the killer remained out of his reach and has eluded identification ever since. The Zodiac also taunted the police and public with letters and souvenirs from his victims, and had once threatened to shoot out the tires of a school bus and - pick off the kiddies as they come bouncing out
. Scorpio takes a school bus hostage in the movie. Reel life clearly imitating the real one.
When Alfred Hitchcock's
Psycho hit the screens in 1960, people were shocked at the level of violence and madness portrayed in it, which made it a huge hit though. Norman Bates is the character of the murderous young man who runs the Bates Motel
and looks after his deranged mother (who is already dead). The infamous shower scene where he murders a young woman is considered one of the scariest in modern cinema. The character of Norman Bates suffers from a severe personality disorder, resulting from child abuse at the hands of his mother. He is sick and he is a killer.
Tanned human skin suits, lampshades covered in skin, skulls decorating bedposts, and a host of other grisly paraphernalia. This was but a fraction of the horrors that police encountered when they searched the home of Ed Gein, a lonely, unemployed man living on a farm in Plainfield, Wisconsin. He later confessed to having murdered two women and robbed several graves of those who looked like his mother
. There are clear parallels between Gein and the character of Norman Bates in Psycho.
"You can act like a man!" explodes Don Vito Corleone in The Godfather (1975), as he slaps a slim handsome man crying in front of him. The whimpering fellow is Johnny Fontane , his Godson, and a popular singer and actor who's down on his luck and asking the Don for help. The Don promises to help him bag a lucrative acting contract, which soon leads to the famous scene with the decapitated horse in the producer's bed. The Godfather is undoubtedly one of the greatest movies of all time. Based on Mario Puzo's
book of the same name, it chronicles the path of a Sicilian mafia family in America after the Second World War. Puzo based several characters in the book on real persons. Johnny Fontane was no exception.
(December 12, 1915 - May 14, 1998)
There are several similarities between Johnny Fontane and his real life counterpart, the famous jazz and pop singer Frank Sinatra. Sinatra also acted in several hit movies, one of these being From Here to Eternity (1953)
. The movie came at a time when Sinatra was practically out of the music and film industry, with no notable releases in over 6 years. From Here to Eternity won 8 Oscars, Sinatra won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and became a superstar. Sounds like Puzo's crooner in The Godfather? The writer has never denied the affiliation.
The swashbuckling pirate and hero of the Pirates of the Caribbean
films, Jack Sparrow is one of the most recognizable fictional figures today. His lanky dreadlocks, red bandanna, and Kohl-lined eyes, combined with a dark wit and ambiguous conscience, make him a true pirate. Johnny Depp, the actor who plays Sparrow in the movies, compares the pirates of the 18th century to modern-day rock stars, which leads us to...
(December 18, 1943 - Still Rocking!)
The inspiration behind Captain Jack Sparrow is just as famous as the character, if not more. Keith Richards is the lead guitarist of one of the greatest rock bands of all time - Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stone magazine considers him to be the 4th greatest guitarist of all time. For Johnny Depp, however, it was Richards' style of dress that fit perfectly with the character of Jack Sparrow. Richards wears his hair long, ties colorful bandannas, and wears objects in his hair and on his person, souvenirs of his worldwide journey. He also played Captain Teague in Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End, and is revealed to be Jack Sparrow's father in Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
Michael Richards plays Cosmo Kramer, the hilarious neighbor of Jerry Sienfeld, in the super hit television comedy Sienfeld. He is unemployed (or visibly so), loves Cuban cigars, crashing through Jerry's door, and is an eccentric but lovable character. His strange gyrations and noises, not to mention the crazy ideas that he comes up with, are an integral part of the sitcom. It's no secret that Kramer is based on a real-life neighbor of Larry David
, one of the co-creators of the show.
(May 1943 - Still Kramer!)
A popular stand-up comedian and doer of many things weird
, Kenny Kramer's love of golf, fresh fruits, and eccentric inventions, were the inspiration behind the character of Kramer on the show. Kenny Kramer has managed a reggae band, sold a range of electronic jewelry, and ran for Mayor of New York in 1997. Enough said, I think.
Charles Foster Kane (Citizen Kane)
Charles Foster Kane is the protagonist of Citizen Kane, a movie widely regarded by critics and viewers alike, to be the greatest ever made. Kane is the embodiment of power and success. Played by Orson Welles, the movie was also directed by the legendary actor and producer. The movie follows the journey of Kane as he goes from a small town boy to a wealthy newspaper magnate, and how his ego eventually leads him to despair.
William Randolph Hearst
(April 29, 1863 - August 14, 1951)
If there is a real-life parallel for the character of Citizen Kane, then it must surely be the early 20th century newspaper Tsar William Randolph Hearst. Hearst controlled 30 American papers at the height of his power, and was responsible for introducing sensationalist reporting. Like his movie counterpart, he too had a huge luxurious ranch, today known as the Hearst Castle (Xanadu in the movie). In the movie, Kane divorces his first wife, marries his mistress, and tries to turn her into an opera sensation, without success. Ditto Mr. Hearst, who also divorced his first wife, had an affair with a leading comedienne, and tried to get her serious roles in films. William Randolph Hearst even went to the extent of expunging every reference to Citizen Kane from his newspapers. It must have felt like looking into a mirror.
A classic survivor saga, Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
has remained one of the best-loved stories even to the present day. Although the story is long and winding, and involves more than one shipwreck, Robinson Crusoe eventually finds himself alone on an island where he must survive by instinct (or die horribly). There is lots of action in the book, including, but not limited to - learning to live without tools, fighting off cannibals, fighting a mutiny, teaching English to a native, and fighting more cannibals. Oh, and there are wolves too.
(1676 - December 13, 1721)
Alexander Selkirk is widely believed to have been the inspiration behind Defoe's Crusoe. Selkirk spent 4 years marooned on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific, until he was rescued by famous seaman Woodes Rogers on February 2, 1709. He had lived on the island goats, wild turnips, and other stuff that he grew, once he realized it was going to be a long haul. Unlike Crusoe, he did not encounter any cannibals though.
This list is by no means exhaustive, and there are scores of popular fictional figures out there who have been adapted from real people. Often, the writers or artists pay homage to the real person by creating their fictional persona, at other times, it may be purely inspirational. The similarities, in many cases, may be unintentional too. Whatever may be the background to them, the fact remains that their creators had fun making them up, and we have fun reading, watching, or just knowing about them.