Creating characters is arguably the single-most important part of novel writing. And can be one of the most difficult part. So, it’s quite surprising to actually see writers brilliantly brought to life some of the most interesting, bizarre, and impossible characters that have ever graced the silver screen. The real surprise here, however, is to find out that these strange, iconic characters in literary history are more grounded in reality than we realize. Here are ten famous characters inspired by real-people you’d never expect.
Ah, Popeye. If you’re a true 90s kid, then, you’ll remember him. Introduced by Elzie Segar in a 1929 comic strip, Popeye became everyone’s favorite one eyed spinach-eating sailor man. But one thing many people probably don’t know is that Popeye is based on a real-life person named Frank ‘Rocky’ Fiegal—the one-eyed bachelor from his creator’s hometown in Chester, Illinois. Called Rocky for his chiseled physique, Fiegal worked at a local saloon. He was a local legend, feared for his ability to render a good butt whooping even when attacked by several adversaries at once. After work and a few beers, he would take a nap in the sun on a chair with a corncob pipe in his mouth. He went to many fights and had no teeth like Popeye. Also, he had a picture of Popeye’s face carved down to his gravestone.
Severus Snape is likely the most widely recognized character from the Harry Potter universe. Not only was he described unpleasant, cold and morally ambiguous, he was sadistic too. He is almost immediately an enemy of Harry and his friends. But don’t you know that Rowling modelled this shorttempered potion teacher to the teacher she had in high school whose name was almost as wizardry? John Nettleship. He was Rowling’s former chemistry teacher at Wyedean School. So, we cannot help but wonder what did this man ever do to inspire such a loathsome sounding character. Nettleship did not know he was the man behind the character until the films came out and his students, along with his wife, pieced things together. Not thrilled with the comparison, he said “I was horrified when I first found out. I knew I was a strict teacher but I didn’t think I was that bad.” In retrospect, however, he admitted that he was “a shorttempered chemistry teacher with long hair…”
The typical Psycho in the classic Alfred Hitchcock Film, Norman Bates, is also an inspiration taken from the Wisconsin’s most notorious killer and body snatcher in 1950’s. His name is Ed Gein. After his mother’s death, Ed had taken up a new pastime, digging up graves of recently buried middle-aged women. The disappearance of local hardware store owner Bernice Worden on 1957, led authorities to Gein’s farmhouse where they recovered a ghastly collection of Gein’s paraphernalia including a chair upholstered in human skin, a suit made from the skin of a female torso, a belt made of nipples, numerous skulls and shrunken heads made into soup bowls, a shade pull made of lips, a box of vulvas (salted for preservation) and masks made from faces. However, it was for these ghastly deeds that Gein became the model for many of the greatest villains to ever ravage across the silver screen. Aside from Norman Bates, there was Leatherface and the crazed killer, Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs, and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Hiram Bingham III led one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century: the discovery of Machu Picchu. He was professor at the Yale University and allegedly inspired Indiana Jones, the famous archeologist and famed adventurer who is one of the most loved character in the history of cinema.
Sherlock Holmes, perhaps, is one of the greatest fictional detective of all time. But this character too is an inspiration. The character of Sherlock Holmes is based on Dr. Joseph Bell who was a doctor by profession. Arthur Conan Doyle met Bell in 1877, and served as his clerk at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Doyle later went on writing popular stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, who Doyle stated was loosely based on Bell and his observant ways. Bell, like Homes, was involved in several police investigations, mostly in Scotland, such as the Ardlamont Mystery of 1893, usually with forensic expert Professor Henry Littlejohn. He also gave his analysis of the Ripper murders to Scotland Yard.
Pixar’s The Incredibles Edna Mode is the diminutive stylist of the superhero family, meaning she never actually learned how underpants work, despite being a self-described fashion expert. But you probably don’t know that Mode’s personality and character design is modelled on Edith Head, the legendary movie costume designer who, in the course of her career, was nominated for a whopping 35 Academy Awards, taking eight of them home including All About Eve, Roman Holiday, and the Sting.
There was, perhaps, nothing more arousing for people in the ‘30s than the head of a baby surgically attached to the body of a woman, Betty Boop. She is considered one of the earliest sex symbols in pop culture defined by her innocent sexiness, squeaky singing voice, and liberal use of made-up words ending in “oop.” Betty was created as a parody of Helen Kane, a popular actress and singer from the ‘20s who pretty much invented the whole “I’m a sexy baby” persona. However, the audiences fell in love with Kane’s silly parody version more than the actress. Disappointed with the trade-off, Kane sued Betty’s creator Max Fleischer and Paramount Pictures, but a judge ruled against her when it was proven that someone else had said “Boopoop-adoop” before.
Jean Valjean and Inspector Javert (Les Miserables)
Jean Valjean is a thief who is relentlessly pursued by Inspector Javert for over 20 years for stealing some bread. You probably assumed he sprouted from the vivid imagination of Victor Hugo, he is actually based on a single dude. Eugene Francois Vidocq. Eugene Francois Vidocq, like Jean Valjean, ended up in prison in his youth, he managed to escape and was on the run for years, posing as different people. He was a successful businessman and factory owner who was haunted by his past. He also saved a sailor by lifting a cart off him and was eventually allowed by the authorities to become a law enforcer, using his experience as a criminal to catch his former kind. On the other hand, Inspector Javert, who in the novel is also a reformed criminal is also basically inspired by Vidocq. Remember how Javert would use clever disguises in order to catch criminals?
You never thought maybe even in your wildest dreams that Shrek is actually based on a real person. Well, he is. Shrek is inspired by the French Angel Wrestler born in Russia, Maurice Tillet. Maurice had a condition called acromegaly—a condition usually caused by a benign tumor on the pituitary gland, resulting in bone overgrowth and thickening. When Dreamworks was asked if they use him for inspiration, they didn’t really say anything about it. But, c’mon, do we really have to say much more?
You may have assumed that Aladdin was just another comical Disney creation. Truth was, when Disney animators sought for an inspiration for Princess Jasmine’s love interest, they thought Tom Cruise was the natural choice. Aladdin was originally modelled on Michael J Fox, but he was dismissed as “too cutesy.” Along with the facial features, Aladdin also began taking on certain characteristics and mannerisms of Cruise and the characters for which he was known.