10 True Historical Figures Who Inspired the World’s Favorite Fictional Characters

10 True Historical Figures Who Inspired the World’s Favorite Fictional Characters

Larry Holzwarth - December 14, 2017

Some fictional characters take on a life of their own to the point that they become almost real. After visiting the museum in his honor at 221B Baker Street in London, one could easily believe that Sherlock Holmes was a living, breathing, man who roamed fog bound streets, rather than the creation of Conan Doyle’s imagination. Some characters of fiction are based on real persons, their histories and personalities intertwined until they can barely be separated. The events of one’s life become the events of the other. And some iconic characters of fiction are based on earlier, lesser known characters of fiction with their creator borrowing from the earlier to form the latter.

It can make for an interesting study in lineage when a fictional character is based on an earlier fictional character itself based on a real person. Nearly everyone knows that Tony, the star crossed lover in West Side Story, is based on Shakespeare’s Romeo. Few are aware that the Bard borrowed Romeo from previous works, basing his character and story largely on Mariotto in Il Novollino, a work which its author claimed to be based on historical fact. Here are ten iconic fictional characters, based on real persons, preceding fictional characters, or a combination of both in the minds of their creators.

10 True Historical Figures Who Inspired the World’s Favorite Fictional Characters
Items which purportedly belonged to Sherlock Holmes on display at the Sherlock Holmes Museum 221B Baker Street London. The Sherlock Holmes Museum
10 True Historical Figures Who Inspired the World’s Favorite Fictional Characters
Captain James T. Kirk was inspired by Royal Navy Captains James Cook (real) and Horatio Hornblower (fictional). Wikipedia

James Tiberius Kirk

James T. Kirk won’t be born for another two centuries so a discussion of his history seems somewhat premature. When his creator envisioned the character he wanted a young, dynamic, and less than perfect officer, willing to travel distances previously inconceivable. The idea of a character traveling “…where no man has gone before…” was clearly a man of the future, rather than one found in the past. But his inspiration was from the past.

Gene Roddenberry’s inspiration for James T. Kirk was James Cook, the English sailor and explorer who in his day boldly explored areas of the globe previously uncharted, on extended voyages of discovery. The title of the pilot episode for the Star Trek series, Where No Man Has Gone Before (ordered when NBC rejected the initial pilot) was itself inspired from an entry in Captain Cook’s diary, where Cook spoke of his ambition leading him, “…farther than any other man has been before me.”

But Cook, a noted disciplinarian and quick tempered man, was not the inspiration for the personality with which Kirk was fleshed out. His creator and the series’ writers were inspired there by another Captain of fiction, then somewhat obscure, having appeared but once in film. That character was C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower.

Like Kirk, Hornblower frequently operated on missions entirely independent of higher authority, forced into world changing decisions and actions. The Hornblower of the novels was not particularly athletic, and William Shatner imbued the character of Kirk with attributes of Alexander the Great to supplement the reasoning and leadership of the fictional Hornblower.

Parts of the fictional Hornblower were also adopted by the character of Spock, in particular the ability to analyze a situation using pure logic. In the Hornblower series, the character is plagued throughout with self-doubt and emotion, the appearance of which he is constantly forced to suppress, presenting instead the appearance of decision to the men he leads. Thus Hornblower inspired the relationship of the two main characters on the original Star Trek series, the interaction between them reflecting the aspects of his fictional character.

10 True Historical Figures Who Inspired the World’s Favorite Fictional Characters
Holmes and Watson in an illustration for the short story which appeared in Strand Magazine. Wikipedia

Sherlock Holmes

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was so beset by the character he created, fictional detective Sherlock Holmes, that he attempted to kill the character only to find the public demand for further adventures of the hero so great that he had to restore him to life. There are many different versions of Sherlock Holmes, in the original stories he possesses great physical strength (sufficient to straighten a bent fireplace poker) and is capable with his fists and several weapons. As portrayed for years by Basil Rathbone these attributes are marginalized.

Conan Doyle based the character on a Scottish surgeon at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh named Joseph Bell. As a young man Doyle clerked for Bell, and the two maintained a correspondence throughout the remainder of Bell’s life. Holmes’s ability to draw conclusions from the observation of what most would consider to be minutiae, if they were noticed at all, was one practiced and often demonstrated by Bell.

Bell was a noted physician in his day, serving as the personal physician to Queen Victoria whenever Her Majesty was in Scotland. In his lectures to students and in personal training while making rounds of the hospital he stressed the importance of observation prior to making a diagnosis, a trait reflected in Holmes analysis of crime scenes or reports.

Bell was a pioneer of forensics and was occasionally consulted by the local police in Edinburgh on criminal investigations. Bell often worked with Henry Littlejohn, a Professor of Forensics at the University of Edinburgh. Doyle used aspects of Littlejohn’s work in Holmes’ character and cases, citing him as a partial inspiration for the detective. At the request of Scotland Yard, Bell prepared a briefing paper covering the Jack the Ripper murders.

Although Doyle stressed that Bell was the inspiration for Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Bell himself disagreed. Having read the stories as avidly as any fan, Dr. Bell once wrote to Doyle, “You are yourself Sherlock Holmes, and you know it.” Interestingly, Doyle wrote sixty stories featuring Sherlock Holmes, the character which he created. Not once in any of them does the great detective state, “Elementary, my dear Watson.”

10 True Historical Figures Who Inspired the World’s Favorite Fictional Characters
Gert Frobe portrayed Goldfinger in the film but his accent was so heavy that his speech was dubbed by another actor. Wikipedia

Auric Goldfinger

The James Bond series is liberally peopled with out of this world characters, although the lead character itself is based on real people known by the author, Ian Fleming. The antagonist in the novel Goldfinger, and in the film of the same name starring Sean Connery, is also based on a real person, and named for another.

According to a possibly apocryphal story, Fleming disliked the architectural style of Erno Goldfinger so much that he opted to commemorate the name by assigning it to a loathsome villain in one of his novels. It is more likely that when the architect built his home near Fleming’s that the author simply made note of the name. The character was not based on the architect however.

Goldfinger was based on Charles W. Engelhard Jr. Engelhard was an American gold and metals titan, who also owned several thoroughbred race horses. Engelhard had homes in the United States, England, and South Africa, where his businesses played a leading role in developing the nation’s economy. Engelhard inherited multiple companies from his German American father, and eventually combined many of them into the Engelhard Corporation.

Ian Fleming met Engelhard in 1949, through Engelhard’s use of a London bank which had been established by the author’s grandfather. Engelhard was using the bank in an attempt to get around some of South Africa’s export rules involving bullion. Fleming was fascinated with the gold magnate’s lifestyle and wealth, and used much of what he observed when he created Auric Goldfinger in the 1959 novel.

Engelhard was reportedly thrilled to be the source of the character, especially after it was portrayed by Gert Frobe in the motion picture (although Goldfinger’s speech was dubbed by another actor). Engelhard began calling the stewardesses on his private plane Pussy Galore, and often mentioned his relationship to the character. Fleming died before the film version was released, but confirmed that Engelhard had been the basis of the character in the novel.

10 True Historical Figures Who Inspired the World’s Favorite Fictional Characters
Musician Henry Nemo was the inspiration for the iconic Charley the Tuna. Discogs

Charley the Tuna

Charley the Tuna is the mascot of the Starkist brand of tuna products, serving as its spokesfish since he was created by the Leo Burnet advertising company in 1961. Originally voiced by actor Herschel Bernardi, Charlie was used to market Starkist products until he was retired in the 1980s after appearing in more than eighty advertisements. He was revived in 1999 and is still being used as the primary advertising vehicle today.

Charley was created by Burnet advertising executive Tom Rogers, who used his friend Henry Nemo as the inspiration for Charley’s manner and style of speech. Nemo was a songwriter, musician, and occasional film actor who has been referred to as the creator of jive. In the 1947 film Song of the Thin Man Nemo performed a scene in which he demonstrated this style.

Nemo performed at New York’s famous Cotton Club in the 1930s, working with others including Duke Ellington. Ellington once sent Nemo a telegram written in jive, which is preserved as part of Nemo’s extensive collection of recordings, sheet music, and other memorabilia from the era. Nemo also composed with Ellington.

In the course of his career of more than sixty years, Nemo worked with luminaries such as Frank Sinatra, Tommy Dorsey, and Artie Shaw. He contributed songs and/or lyrics films and Broadway shows, and also wrote incidental (background) music for some productions.

In the early 1940s Nemo formed a 19 piece band featuring four singers, all of whom were Chinese. In advertising for appearances with this ensemble Nemo used his nickname, “the Neme” in the slogan “Hit the beam with the Neme.” Video of some of his performances is available today, and his composition, Tis Autumn, has become a standard. Lena Horne had a major hit with his song Don’t Take Your Love From Me when she recorded it with Artie Shaw in 1941.

10 True Historical Figures Who Inspired the World’s Favorite Fictional Characters
Convicted murderer Dr. Alfredo Trevino was the inspiration for Hannibal Lecter. Wikipedia

Hannibal Lecter

Since he was introduced in the novel Red Dragon in 1981, speculation has existed over the basis of the character Hannibal Lecter. Various writers have tried to link the character with real life serial killers such as Albert Fish or Andrei Chikatilo. The character’s creator, Thomas Harris, revealed the real life source in the summer of 2013 although he did not then reveal the man’s real name, referring to him as a Dr. Salazar.

Harris revealed that while working as a reporter he visited the Nuevo Leon State Prison in Monterrey, Mexico to interview an inmate there, when he learned that the inmate, Dykes Simmons, had been shot during an escape attempt about one year previously. Simmons life had been saved by another inmate, whom Harris called Dr. Salazar. Introduced to the doctor by the warden, Harris became intrigued by the prisoner’s questions regarding Simmons’s disfigurement, asking for details of Simmons’s victims, and how they had suffered.

Harris later learned from the warden that Dr. Salazar was himself imprisoned for murder and that he was jailed for life, criminally insane. The warden informed Harris that the doctor would never be released from custody.

Armed with Harris’ story reporters traced the Mexican prison records and discovered that Dr. Salazar was in fact Alfredo Trevino, a physician from a wealthy Monterrey family. While practicing medicine there Trevino killed his lover and mutilated his body, a crime for which he was convicted and sentenced to death. Trevino was suspected of several additional murders which occurred in the area but there was not enough evidence to charge him.

After his sentence was commuted, Trevino served 20 years in prison and was released in 1981 – coincidentally the same year Hannibal Lecter appeared. He returned to the practice of medicine in Mexico and died there in 2009.

10 True Historical Figures Who Inspired the World’s Favorite Fictional Characters
Robert Mitchum’s character in The Night of the Hunter – Harry Powell – was based on real life serial killer Harry Powers. UCLA

Reverend Harry Powell

Reverend Harry Powell appears in two films, 1955’s The Night of the Hunter, portrayed by Robert Mitchum, and in a 1991 made for television remake of the same name, where he was played by Richard Chamberlain. Both are based on the 1953 novel The Night of the Hunter by Davis Grubb. Powell is a con artist and serial killer, masquerading as a preacher, in pursuit of wealthy widows whom he marries for their money before killing them. Imprisoned for car theft he learns of a stash of stolen money from another prisoner about to be executed and on his release he sets out to find it by seducing the dead man’s widow.

The character was based on real life serial killer Harry Powers, who lured widows through lonely hearts advertisements and then killed them for their money. Powers used multiple aliases, including Harry Powers, he was born as Herman Drenth in the Netherlands, moving to the United States in 1910, and eventually settling in West Virginia.

After meeting his wife by responding to a lonely hearts ad, he placed ads of his own, despite being married. He received a great many responses, and constructed a room over the garage at his home which he then used as the scene for some of his murders. Powers lured and murdered Asta Eicher and her three children in the summer of 1931, after which he told concerned neighbors that they were on a trip to Europe. Later that summer he lured a widow named Dorothy Lemke in a similar manner, also killing her.

When police investigated the missing persons, they found love letters which, although signed with aliases, they were able to trace back to Powers, living at home with his wife in Quiet Dell, West Virginia. A search of the garage revealed evidence of murders occurring there and ultimately the police found the bodies of the five victims on Powers’ property.

Police also found a trunkful of letters from other women in response to Powers’ ads, and correspondence indicating the planning stages for several more murders to obtain the women’s money. Powers was hanged at Moundsville, West Virginia, in 1932.

10 True Historical Figures Who Inspired the World’s Favorite Fictional Characters
Gregory Peck portrayed Captain Horatio Hornblower in the 1951 film of that name. Pinterest

Horatio Hornblower

Horatio Hornblower is a fictional character created by C. S. Forester in a series of novels set during the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath. The character has been used as the basis for other fictional characters which have followed. Star Trek Captains James Kirk and Jean-Luc Picard both draw elements from Hornblower, as do several other characters in science fiction. In Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Hornblower has his own column in London, similar to Nelson’s.

Hornblower himself was based on a real person, with aspects of other real persons, thus their character traits are shared through him with the characters drawn from him. In creating Hornblower, Forester had him interact with both fictional and real personages of the day. For example the Marquess Wellesley, a real British politician of the Napoleonic era, is Hornblower’s brother in law through the latter’s marriage to the fictional Barbara Wellesley.

Hornblower was based largely on Sir Sydney Smith, who performed many detached duties during the Napoleonic wars which can be compared to those of Forester’s hero. Throughout the novels, Hornblower, without a great fleet at his disposal, manages to act as a major irritant to Napoleon. In Russia Hornblower supports a siege on land using his small squadron, Smyth performed a similar action in the Mediterranean. Both Hornblower and Smyth spent time imprisoned by their enemies, Hornblower in Spain and later in France from where he escaped. Smyth too escaped French custody with the assistance of friendly French royalists.

As with Sherlock Holmes, with whom Hornblower shares a fondness for mathematics, many fans are surprised to learn that the character is entirely fictional. In Hornblower’s case this is compounded by a fictional biography of the character written by C. Northcote Parkinson in 1970. A noted naval historian, Parkinson presented Hornblower’s career and that of his descendants.

Parkinson included in his biography a family tree which linked to real persons of the name of Hornblower, living in the late eighteenth century in Cornwall, England. Parkinson’s status as a naval historian lends the book an air of credibility which some have found to be convincing.

10 True Historical Figures Who Inspired the World’s Favorite Fictional Characters
A print of miser John Elwes, MP and inspiration for Ebenezer Scrooge, moneybag in hand. Wikipedia

Ebenezer Scrooge

Scrooge has become a synonym for miser. Since he first appeared in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1843, possibly no other character has exceeded his reputation for cold-blooded miserly meanness. He has appeared in countless plays, films, cartoons, Christmas specials, radio broadcasts, recordings, and more. Seemingly a creation of Dickens’ imagination, many are surprised to learn that he was based on a real person of British history, and that person was even more miserly than Scrooge.

In letters late in life Dickens noted that the famed Christmas character was loosely based on John Elwes, a one-time Member of Parliament, who died in 1789. Elwes inherited a considerable fortune from his father upon the death of his mother, and an even larger fortune upon the death of his uncle. He invested considerable funds to the construction of many of the Georgian buildings in London still standing, including parts of Oxford Circus and Marylebone.

As a Member of Parliament Elwes was known to wear the same suit every day, despite his considerable wealth, and opposed expenses of any kind. He refused to travel in a coach, preferring to walk and when soaked by the rain he refused to take on the expense of a fire in his lodgings to dry his clothes. He ate seldom and when he did he ate alone. Travel on his parliamentary duties was by whatever route had the least amount of tolls.

Elwes hated the idea of waste and would not dispose of rotted food other than by eating it, and he made a habit of going to bed as it grew dark rather than pay for candles. His home was filled with expensive furniture which he had inherited, both the furniture and the home soon became decrepit because he would not pay for maintenance nor repairs.

Later in life he did not maintain a fixed address, choosing instead when in London to spend the night at properties he owned which sat empty because of lack of tenants. Although he did maintain some servants at his country estates he was not known to be generous to them and he took his meals with them in the kitchen in order to ensure no food was stolen or wasted, and to save the expense of another fire in the dining room to keep him warm. Unlike Scrooge, Elwes did not receive spiritual intervention. He left behind a fortune of five hundred thousand pounds when he died, about 28 million pounds today, having lived most of his life spending less than fifty pounds per year.

10 True Historical Figures Who Inspired the World’s Favorite Fictional Characters
Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl. The Popeye characters were based on real people in the town of Chester, Illinois, by the creator. Pinterest

Popeye the Sailor

Popeye the Sailor began as a cartoon character in Thimble Theatre, a King Features Syndicate Daily strip, in 1929. He was enormously popular prior to and during World War II, and throughout the 1950s and 60s. Popeye has appeared in all sorts of merchandising, video games, comic books, cartoons, films, advertising, and his name is indelibly linked with that of Olive Oyl. The character was created by Elzie Crisler Segar, and was based – as were all of the regular characters in the strip – on a real person.

Segar was from Chester, Illinois and he based Popeye on a local man he remembered from his youth there. The man’s name was Frank Fiegel, known locally as Rocky. As a boy Rocky developed a reputation for toughness. He lived with his mother and was known to never back down from a fight, once taking on five local boys at once, beating three of them and chasing off the other two.

According to local lore, Rocky later worked at a saloon owned by a man named George Gozney. Following his shift and one or two glasses of beer, Rocky would sleep outside in a chair, soaking up the sunshine with his pipe in his mouth. This made him a tempting target for local children passing by, who would wait until they were close before screaming loudly, startling the dozing man, who would leap to his feet, somewhat befuddled, before returning to his chair, muttering to himself.

Whether Rocky possessed the voluminous forearms of his later alter ego is unknown, but given the descriptions of his toughness and willingness to accept combat at all times it is likely he did. There is little to link Rocky with spinach either, but spinach didn’t really have much of a presence with Popeye until he began to appear in animated cartoons.

Rocky Fiegler apparently spent his whole life in Chester, and his corn cob pipe and frequent demonstrations of his physical strength were built into the character created by Segar. Fiegler died in 1947 at the age of 79. His gravestone contains an image of the original Popeye, said by many to have strongly resembled him.

10 True Historical Figures Who Inspired the World’s Favorite Fictional Characters
James Bond’s creator, author Ian Fleming, described 007 as resembling American musician Hoagy Carmichael. Wikipedia

James Bond

James Bond of the Ian Fleming novels no longer resembles the James Bond of film, and the public perception of the character created by Fleming is far removed from that of the 1950s. Fleming did not have one person in mind when he created Bond, calling the fictional agent “…a compound of all the secret agents and commando types I met during the war.” Fleming’s brother Peter was one of the commandos Bond was modeled upon, as were several others with none of them being more influential than another, according to Fleming.

Fleming was an avid amateur ornithologist and among the various birdwatcher’s guides in his possession was one written by a noted American birdwatcher named James Bond. Fleming appropriated the name and later explained that he had intended his character to be “dull” and the name appeared to him to be “…the dullest name I ever heard.”

Much of Bond’s behavior and habits were a reflection of Fleming’s own, including the brands of various products Bond used in the novels, his fondness for the game of golf (Fleming assigned his agent the same handicap which he held) and his predilection for gambling. Both Fleming and Bond had a taste for caviar with their vodka martinis.

In describing what James Bond looked like Fleming was quite specific, and his agent did not in the least resemble either Sean Connery or Daniel Craig. Fleming pictured Bond as looking like Hoagy Carmichael, an American musician and composer who wrote many famous songs, including Heart and Soul and Stardust. Fleming even had another character in Casino Royale, Vesper Lynd, describe Bond as looking like Carmichael.

The James Bond created by Fleming and the James Bond of today are two entirely different characters, living in different times, and fighting different enemies, but it is clear that they are an amalgamation of many sources of inspiration. Fleming imbued the character with so much of his own behavior and attitudes that it could easily be said to have been based on himself, enhanced by those around him.