When an author puts pen to paper or fingers to keys, everybody, from their own acquaintances to the public figures we all recognize, has the potential to be reborn within a fictional universe. Would you believe that the world’s most famous detective wouldn’t exist without a humble Scottish doctor you’ve never heard of? Or that two of the most famous foes in all of comics were based on a pair of history’s most revered civil rights activists? Throw in some terrifying serial killers and a dashing vigilante, and you get five famous fictional characters and their equally fascinating real-life inspirations…
Although Bell was a doctor rather than a detective, he excelled at analyzing patient backgrounds and determining the causes of illnesses through focused observation and reasoning. He could even pick a stranger out of a crowd and discern his occupation and recent activities simply via his powers of deduction. Furthermore, like his fictional spawn, he was sometimes known to assist the police as a forensic scientist of sorts, on cases like the high-profile Ardlamont murder.
Whether it be through the countless novels or films, we’ve all heard of Zorro. But as impossibly dashing and stylized as he is, this vigilante of justice known for his skillful swordplay may not be completely a product of author Johnston McCulley’s imagination. In the 1800s, California resident Joaquin Murrieta’s life changed forever when he found out that his wife had been sexually assaulted and his family murdered. This heinous act had been carried out by American miners, most likely resentful of Murrieta’s success in gold mining.
As in all vigilante backstories, the authorities couldn’t–or wouldn’t–provide justice, encouraging this “Mexican Robin Hood” to take the law into his own hands. While he didn’t tote a mask to conceal his identity, Murrieta formed a gang and was ultimately responsible for a string of retaliatory killings and bank robberies. This spree continued until 1853 when the Texas Rangers eventually caught up with Murrieta and killed him.
Heroes aren’t the only fictional archetypes to take inspiration from real-life people. In Robert Bloch’s famous novel (then Alfred Hitchcock’s even more famous film), Psycho, Norman Bates is one of fiction’s greatest villains, albeit one with whom the audience can sympathize. A victim of emotional abuse at the hands of his mother, Nora, Norman eventually turned to murder.
While it’s chilling to remember that an individual as grotesquely disturbed as Norman Bates could indeed exist in real life, it’s even more terrifying to realize that Bates’ real-life inspiration was far more frightening. Bates was directly inspired by a serial killer named Ed Gein. Like Bates, Gein was intensely devoted to and warped by his mother’s frantic religious teachings. His deranged disposition only became more severe after his mother’s death, at which point he began
robbing graves, then butchering and mutilating women, and even creating furniture and clothes from skin and body parts.
In fact, this impossibly disturbed man not only sparked the creation of Norman Bates, but also Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs and Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, among others.
Professor X And Magneto
Regarded as campy, goofy, and colorful, comic books weren’t always given their due as the thoughtful, expressive, politically aware form of literature that they can occasionally be today. That being said, comics legends Stan Lee and Jack Kirby took inspiration for two of their most famous creations from some of the most serious issues of the day.
In the X-Men universe, where “normal” humans are typically fearful, bigoted, and even violent towards mutants, there stand two leaders with wildly opposing views. Professor X fought injustice with kindness and selfless sacrifice, preaching a message of peaceful coexistence. On the other end of the spectrum, Magneto felt he had to fight the hate directed towards his own kind with power, non-conformity, and intimidation. These two characters’ opposing methods were inspired by civil rights leaders Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (the inspiration for Professor X) and Malcolm X (the inspiration for Magneto).
Though Magneto is sometimes portrayed as a force of destructive evil, it is worth noting, in light of his real-life inspiration, that his creators never interpreted him as a villain. They simply saw a man who sought to protect his people from bigotry and violence, albeit through less savory means.