Writing Wednesday: The Real-Life Inspiration Behind 5 Infamous Characters

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Just because a character appears in a work of fiction, it doesn’t necessarily mean he or she doesn’t exist (to some extent) in the real world. Some of the most famous, or in these cases infamous, literary characters are actually based on real world subjects – human or otherwise. So fear not if you are having trouble pulling a fantastic, memorable character out of thin air. Perhaps you just need to take a look at the people in your life as the authors below did.

1) Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

This famous novella by Robert Louis Stevenson began as a psychiatric study on split personality, though it fast became the stuff of horror legends. The real-life inspiration, Deacon William Brodie, is said to have fallen in love with the darker side of life after watching a play called The Beggar’s Opera and decided to pursue that lifestyle when not working at his family’s cabinetry business. He used his connections to make wax keys to the homes of the Scottish elite, took an accomplice known as the “demon grocer” and fathered illegitimate children around town, all the while playing the part of the respectable gentleman in his everyday life. Of course, this all eventually caught up with him and he was executed for his crimes. Stevenson grew up in a home with furniture built by Brodie, and it was his fascination with the notorious carpenter that led him to take the idea of dual personalities to the terrifying extremes that he did.

2) Ebenezer Scrooge

There’s a good reason why the name Scrooge has become an epithet in our society: His level of greed can, unfortunately, be applied to a wide variety of modern-day capitalists. To find the original Scrooge, however, one need look no further than the 18th-century miser John Elwes. This British politician was a noted eccentric and actually known as “Elwes the Miser,” so it likely came as no surprise when Charles Dickens created the character of Ebenezer Scrooge in his likeness. Not convinced that this legendarily stingy Member of Parliament was the original Ebenezer? Check out his Scrooge-like features below:

Scrooge
Image Source: http://www.listal.com/viewimage/8100209

3) Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill

What awful creature could have inspired both Psycho’s Norman Bates and Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs? Well, the real-life person behind these terrifying characters was possibly even creepier than the two men for whom he provided the inspiration. His exploits may be a bit too graphic to get into detail on a friendly writing blog, but if you’ve got a strong stomach try Googling “Ed Gein” to get the awful reality behind the notorious murderer, body snatcher and “skin lamp” creator. And yes, the Norman Bates mother issues were real.

4) Doctor Frankenstein

Thankfully, the real-life version of Dr. Frankenstein never actually succeeded in raising the dead, but that wasn’t for a lack of trying. Italian physicist Giovanni Aldini was obsessed with the idea that he could bring the dead back to life through the power of electricity. His experiments began with small animals, possibly inspired by his uncle’s success in making frogs’ legs twitch with electrical currents. However, electrocuting dead animals soon proved not satisfying enough for Aldini and he tracked down the body of executed murder George Foster to test his theories. Though he didn’t succeed in bringing Foster back to life (thank goodness), he did get a pretty gruesome story out of it – a story he regaled his guests with, including the family of William Godwin and his daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft. Of course, this young lady would grow up to be known as Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein.

5) Moby Dick

As we mentioned, not all famous characters are human. Mocha Dick was an actual albino sperm whale from the 1830s that was known and feared for attacking ships and living to tell the tale. He survived numerous harpoon injuries before being killed in 1838 and made a name for himself as an enormous, terrifying sea monster, the perfect type of legend to inspire Herman Melville in his fictionalised account of his time aboard a whaling ship.

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Mocha Dick 1870 UK reprint“. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikipedia.

 

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