“…history is filled with fictional people. We have all been fooled into believing in people who are entirely imaginary – made-up prisoners in a hypothetical panopticon. But the point isn’t whether or not you believe in imaginary people; it’s whether or not you want to.”
― Robyn Schneider, The Beginning of Everything
From comic books to books to movies, the writers of these stories have given the world some of the most iconic characters in history. What people don’t often realize is that many of these characters are based on or inspired by a real-life human being. Below are 45 characters that were based on real people.
45. An Eccentric Billionaire
Tony Stark (AKA Iron Man)- a popular member of Marvel’s Avengers- is based on Howard Hughes. Back in the 60s when Iron Man was introduced, Hughes was an eccentric billionaire who invented technologies in a variety of fields. Iron Man’s alter ego is a playboy, billionaire, genius, philanthropist, who also invents a variety of technologies.
44. The Real Alice
Lewis Carrol based the character of Alice from Alice in Wonderland on a little girl named Alice Liddell. Alice was 10-years old when she met Carrol who was friends with her family. He took numerous photographs of her, and wrote the original story for her.
43. Spawned Iconic Killers
Ed Gein was a murderer who would keep the skin and bones of his victims and even dig up fresh graves for the same purpose. Famous movie killers Norman Bates (Psycho), Leatherface (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Buffalo Bill (Silence of the Lambs) were all inspired by his crimes.
42. A Poet Immortalized
John Gray was an English poet who worked closely with Oscar Wilde, and was reportedly the inspiration for the title character in Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray. The description of Dorian Gray matches with a contemporary photograph of the poet, and people in Wilde’s circle began referring to the real Gray as Dorian.
41. Mexican Robin Hood
During the California Gold Rush, Joaquin Murieta was known as the Mexican Robin Hood, and depending on who you asked, he was either a bandit or a Patriot. Johnston McCulley, the creator of the famous character Zorro, reportedly got the inspiration for the character from an 1854 novel that fictionalized Murieta’s life.
40. An Actual Creature
Moby Dick is a popular title for study in English courses everywhere, but few people know that Melville took his inspiration from a real white whale. Mocha Dick, named after the Mocha islands he was sighted near, was famous for being a ferocious fighter and a particularly large and aggressive sperm whale. Mocha Dick was supposedly killed in 1838, but there continued to be reports of sightings well after.
39. A Fun-Loving Boy
The inspiration for the character of Christopher Robin in the Winnie the Pooh stories was Milne’s own son Christopher Robin. Christopher Robin was described as a fun-loving boy who wore uneven socks.
38. A Short-Tempered Bar Owner
On the animated series The Simpsons, Moe Szyslak is the owner of “Moe’s Tavern” and is known to be short-tempered and to totally lose it whenever he receives a prank call. The character was based on Louis Deutsch- a former heavyweight boxer and owner of the Tube Bar, who would fly into a rage when receiving prank phone calls at his bar.
37. Reclusive Newspaper Man
The Primary character in the movie Citizen Kane is the reclusive newspaper man Charles Foster Kane. The biography of real-life newspaper man William Randolph Hearst was the chief influence for Kane’s storyline in the film.
36. An Intelligent Explorer
The beloved character Indiana Jones was inspired by Hiram Bingham III who was an academic explorer turned politician. He bears a striking resemblance to Indy who is an intelligent explorer with a strong sense of adventure. Creator George Lucas has also cited Sean Connery’s portrayal of James Bond as a primary influence for the character.
35. Not going back
Sethe, the central character from Tony Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Beloved, was based on a slave named Margaret Garner who fled Kentucky to Ohio when the Ohio river froze solid. Just like in the book, slave owners surrounded the house where she barricaded herself, and she killed her daughter and other children to keep them from being slaves.
34. The Soup Nazi
Another real-life inspiration for an iconic Seinfeld character came from restauranteur Ali (“Al”) Yeganeh. Yeganeh ran an actual Soup Kitchen restaurant in New York, and garnered a reputation as a mean, nasty, and unsympathetic man. He had formal rules of standing talking, requesting, paying, and waiting for the soup, and failure to obey them resulted in the customer being told to get out and their money refused. 2 years before the episode aired, Meg Ryan referenced “The Soup Nazi” in the hit movie Sleepless in Seattle.
33. Funky Flashman
Funky Flashman is a character who appears in several comics written by Jack Kirby. He’s portrayed as a charismatic businessman with no special powers. Stan Lee and Kirby co-created several iconic Marvel characters, but had a falling out, inspiring Kirby to create this less-than-flattering version of Lee.
32. An Astute Observer
Dr. Joseph Bell was a surgeon who used his astute powers of observation to diagnose his patients. Sherlock Holmes creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle specifically referenced Bell as an inspiration behind Holmes, who used logic and reason to solve crimes.
31. The Boop-Boop-a-Doop Girl
Helen Kane was an actress/singer who rose to fame in the late 1920s as the “Boop-Boop-a-Doop Girl”, a star of recordings and movies for Paramount Studios. In 1930, the iconic cartoon sex-symbol Betty Boop made her first appearance and she began as a caricature of Kane. In 1932 Kane filed a lawsuit against the creators for exploiting her personality and image, but it was proven that her appearance and voice were not unique at the time.
30. The Gloomy Professor
Professor Severus Snape from the Harry Potter series is one of the most interesting and complex characters in literature, and happens to be inspired by a real-life person. John Nettleship was one of J.K. Rowling’s teachers, and he was a strict, short-tempered chemistry teacher with long hair. Nettlesnip was quoted as saying he was ‘horrified’ when he learned of the connection.
29. Dual Inspiration
Jean Valjean and his antagonist Inspector Javert from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables were based on the same person-Eugene Francois Vidocq. Vidocq was an ex-con who became a successful businessman noted for his philanthropy. Vidocq was a personal friend of Victor Hugo, and eventually became the head of the Sûreté Nationale (Civil Police) and the first recorded private detective. He may also have been an inspiration for Sherlock Holmes.
28. Greedy Gangster
Sydney Greenstreet was famous for playing greedy gangsters in films like Casaablanca and The Maltese Falcon. When George Lucas was giving instruction to his design team about the appearance of Jabba the Hutt for Return of the Jedi, he told them to make him “alien and grotesque just like Sydney Greenstreet”.
Eric Stough, a producer on South Park, is often teased by the other producers for his nice-guy attitude about the show’s sometimes brutal and targeted satire. They started calling him “Buddy” which became “Little Buddy”, and eventually morphed into “Butters”, which is the nickname of the Leopold Scotch in the series.
26. The Dude
In the film The Big Lebowski, Jeff Bridge’s portrays a pot-smoking, bowling enthusiast named Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski. The Cohen Brothers, the creators of The Big Lebowski met producer and political activist Jeff Dowd when they were promoting their first film, and they were so inspired by him that they based the character “The Dude” on his personality.
25. The Star That Went Out
Fans of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars fell in love with Hazel. Hazel was inspired by a girl named Esther Earl, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer at age 13. John Green met Earl online and they began a correspondence. They later met in person at a convention. While the character isn’t literally Esther, she is the basis for her, and Esther’s YouTube channel remains online and accessible after her death. Esther’s writings were also collected into a book, and published posthumously as This Star Won’t Go Out in 2014.
24. The Real Rocky
Chuck Wepner was an unknown club fighter who became famous for fighting Muhammed Ali in 1975, and knocking him down with a blow to the chest. The fight continued into the 15th round when Wepner was finally knocked out. The character Rocky from the famous boxing movies was based on Wepner.
23. Father Nacho Libre
Mexican priest Sergio Gutierrez Benitez fought as a mysterious masked wrestler named “Fray Tormenta”, and used his winnings to buy food for orphans. This character was hilariously recreated by Jack Black in the movie “Nacho Libre”.
22. The Disfigured Man
When Wes Craven was 11, he saw a disfigured homeless man staring at him when he looked out the window. Craven ducked into the shadows and waited for the man to leave, but when he looked again, the man was still there staring at him. Craven described the man as looking ‘very much like Freddy.” Craven was also bullied by a kid with a competing paper route by the name of “Fred Krueger”.
21. A Former Inspector
David Toschi is a former Inspector at the San Francisco Police Department who investigated the Zodiac Killer case in the late 60s and early 70s. The movie Dirty Harry and the title character were loosely based on the people and events involved with that case.
20. Counterculture Icon
The character of Dean Moriarty from Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was based on real-life counterculture icon Neal Cassidy. In the first draft of the novel, Kerouac called the character Neal Cassidy, and just like his real life counterpart, Cassidy was larger-than-life.
19. The Real Fontane
In Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather, Johnny Fontane is a singer and actor who is supported by the Corleone family. Frank Sinatra, who was always rumoured to have ties to the Mafia is believed to be the real-life basis of the character.
Fictional character Sally Bowles first appeared in Christopher Isherwood’s 1937 novella Sally Bowles. She is also a central character in the stage play and film I am a Camera, and in the 1966 stage musical (and subsequent film adaptation in 1972) Cabaret. The character is based on Jean Ross- a British cabaret singer, fashion model, and political activist who Isherwood knew when he lived in Berlin between the World Wars.
17. The “Divine” Sea Witch
Divine was a Transvestite performer and icon of “bad taste cinema” in the 70s and early 80s. Divine later served as the inspiration for Ursula the Sea Witch in the 1989 Disney film The Little Mermaid.
16. A Real Nut Job
In the movie Taxi Driver, Robert DeNiro played nut-job Travis Bickle. Bickle was based on real-life loose cannon Arthur Bremer. Both Bickle and his rea life counterpart were lonely and awkward men, both ruined relationships with porn, both shaved their heads, and both decided to assassinate a politician. Unlike Bickle, Bremer got arrested, while Bickle was declared a hero.
15. The True Adulteress
The character of Hester Prynne from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter is likely based on a real person. Elizabeth Pain was a woman who had a child out of marriage and was accused of murdering the child. She was convicted of negligence and was sentenced to pay a fine and receive a flogging. The connection becomes apparent if you read the ending of the novel and then visit her tombstone in Boston.
14. French Angel
French wrestler Maurice Tillet was known as the “French Angel” in the 1940s. He suffered from a condition known as ‘acromegaly’, which is a thickening of the bones, and gave him an ogre-like appearance. When the movie Shrek came out, people commented on how much Shrek looked like Tillet, and evidence suggests that the character’s appearance was at least in part modeled after the wrestler.
13. Mad Man
Draper “Dan” Daniels was the head of the Leo Burnett Agency in the 1960s, and was the creator of the Marlboro Man. While he served as inspiration for the character of Don Draper on Mad Men, Daniels’ wife insists that they were hardly alike at all. The ‘real’ Draper didn’t drink, was monogamous, and was really quite honest.
12. Crazy Kenny
On the popular 90s sitcom Seinfeld, Cosmo Kramer was Jerry’s wacky, scheming neighbour. Seinfeld co-creator Larry David lived across the hall from a stand-up comedian named Kenny Kramer, and David used his neighbour as inspiration for the character.
11. World Traveler
The Adventures of Tintin was one of the most beloved European comics of the 20th century. The character Tintin was inspired by Palle Huld, an actor and writer who travelled the world at the age of 15 after winning a Jules Verne-inspired contest.
10. A Fighter with a Pipe and a Jaunty Hat
Popeye the Sailor Man is cartoon sailor, and it turns out that in the town where the creator of Popeye lived, there was a man named Frank “Rocky” Fiegel who chomped on a pipe, wore a jaunty hat, and fought anyone who looked at him wrong. Fiegel is believed to be the inspiration for Popeye, and his grave bears an image of the character.
9. The Infamous Miser
The character of the miser Scrooge from Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol is not only infamous, but is also based on a real person. John Elwes was an 18th century politician and penny pincher who by all accounts lived like a homeless hermit. He was born into money, but chose to eat rotten food and live in abandoned houses to save his fortune.
8. Scout or Boo?
Harper Lee, the author of To Kill a Mockingbird was always believed to be the basis for Scout, but in a special Bloom County cartoon, author Berkeley Breathed suggested that she was actually the basis for Boo Radley. It seems more likely that she put herself in Scout, as Scout’s best friend Dill was based on her real-life best friend Truman Capote.
7. Exactly as He Was
The famous Mark Twain character Huckleberry Finn was based on Twain’s childhood best friend Tom Blankenship. In his autobiography he said: “Huckleberry Finn I have drawn Tom Blankenship exactly as he was. He was ignorant, unwashed, insufficiently fed; but he had as good a heart as ever any boy had.”
6. A Witty Inspiration
Nora Charles from the Thin Man novels is one of the wittiest female characters in literary history, but she doesn’t hold a candle to her real-life inspiration Lillian Hellman. Hellman was Dashiell Hammett’s lover for 30 years, as well as being a respected playwright, screenwriter, author and activist. Hammett later told Hellman that she was also the inspiration for his female villains.
5. Who Are You Again?
In the movie 50 First Dates, Drew Barrymore plays a character who suffers from short-term memory loss, and lives the same day every day. As far-fetched as it seemed, the character was inspired by Michelle Philpots- a British woman who lost her short-term memory in a pair of car accidents, and relies on post-it-notes and photos to tell her what to expect when she wakes up each morning.
4. Locked Away
The tale of incest and captivity that V.C. Andrews tells in Flowers in the Attic is, as Andrews described in her original pitch letter, a “fictionalized version of a true story”. A relative of Andrews confirmed the story, explaining that when V.C. Andrews was receiving treatment at the University of Virginia, she developed a crush on her doctor, who had been locked away with his siblings for 6 years to preserve the family wealth.
3. The Jilted Bride
In Charles Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, Miss Havisham is the wealthy spinster who insists on wearing her wedding dress for the rest of her life after being jilted at the altar. Scholars have found several possible models for the character, but the most likely is the Australian woman Eliza Emily Donnithorne. Jilted by her groom on her wedding day, she spent the rest of her life in a darkened house with her wedding cake rotting on the table, and the front door left permanently open in case he returned.
2. Night and Day
William Deacon Brodie’s double life was the real-life inspiration for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Brodie was a cabinet maker by trade, deacon of the Incorporation of Wrights, and member of the town council. The seemingly upstanding citizen was leading a double life, and he would copy the keys of his wealthy clientele, and burgle their homes at night. He was eventually caught and sentenced to hang.
1. White Rabbit
James Bond creator Ian Flemming stated that Bond was based on a ‘compound of all of the secret agents and commando types’ he met during the war, but one in particular is said to have been the inspiration for Bond. Wing Commander Forest “Tommy” Yeo-Thomas went by the code name “White Rabbit” and was one of Britain’s greatest secret agents of WWII. Historians have found several parallels between Yeo-Thomas’ war record and sequences in the Bond novels, and like Bond, he was dashing and surrounded himself with women.