All writers, whether they're but a humble scribbler of the internet (such as myself) or a legendary novelist (such as...not myself), get the ideas for their stories from somewhere. Behind every great story are the seeds of inspiration, and this is never more true than when creating characters.
Even so, it's pretty cool to learn of the real people that helped inspire (at least in part) some of the famous characters that we know and love...or that terrify us. io9 put together a cool piece speculating about some of the real people who inspired fictional monsters, and I thought I'd add to the list. Keep in mind, I don't just mean "monster" in the inhuman creature sense of the word, but also in the monstrous human being way.
A Scottish military surgeon was the inspiration for Dr. Victor Frankenstein
Most people know the famous story of how 18-year-old Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus one summer when Lord Byron challenged Mary, her then-lover Percy Shelley, and James Polidori to see who could come up with the best ghost story.
But what you might not know is that the character of Dr. Victor Frankenstein, the OG "mad scientist" who brought Frankenstein's monster to life, was actually based on a real person: Dr. James Lind. Lind was Percy Shelley's mentor when he attended Eton, and he would often speak at length to Mary about how much he had learned from the brilliant physician.
As this was a time when physicians were as much research scientists as they were doctors, Lind was utterly fascinated by the field of galvanism. Quite possibly the first person in all of England to regularly study the effect of passing electrical currents through muscles, he experimented by running electrical impulses through the legs of dead frogs. Sound familiar?
But lest you get the wrong idea that he was simply a madman obsessed with bringing corpses to life, it might surprise you to learn that we have Dr. Lind to thank for many medical advances today. The eradication of scurvy and typhus are two of them. Oh, and our knowledge that you can boil water to distill it and get rid of harmful bacteria? That was all Lind, too.
An arrogant actor was the inspiration for Count Dracula
Yes, the historical basis for Dracula's background and bloodthirsty nature was Prince Vlad III the Impaler, but Irish author Bram Stoker actually drew upon a person far closer to him as inspiration for Count Dracula's mesmerizing, haughty ways and unsettling nature.
Sir Henry Irving was a well-known English stage actor whom Stoker befriended after he wrote a generous review of Irving's performance in a staging of Hamlet. Stoker was so taken with Irving's utterly magnetic personality that he joined the theater as the stage manager.
Stoker himself soon seemed to fall under Irving's spell, working long hours and catering to Irving's whims, neglecting his family in favor of the highly arrogant but compelling actor. Many people who met Irving remarked that they didn't exactly like him, but still, he had a mesmerizing quality that nonetheless kept attracting those people to him again and again. This trait was later turned into Dracula's ability to hypnotize people, along with his aristocratic mannerisms.
Lord Voldemort was based on Hitler
Lord Voldemort was one mean, mean monster of a man, but he was undeniably brilliant and talented. His actions were horrific, but perhaps his greatest skill, even moreso than his wizarding talents, was his ability to rally people to his cause, to use his words to brainwash his followers into doing his bidding...even when they knew deep down that bidding was evil.
Which is why it shouldn't surprise anyone to learn that J.K. Rowling once told Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant that she made a deliberate decision to model the rise of Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters on the rise of Nazism, and that Voldemort was indeed based on Adolph Hitler.
Both were ruthless, addicted to power, and had a completely warped world view that embraced the idea of ethnic cleansing. Whereas Hitler wanted to wipe out the Jewish people, whom he saw as unpure, Voldemort wanted to establish a race of pureblood wizards and eradicate all half-blood wizards, or "Mudbloods". Oh, and both were way, way into the darker side of the occult world. Give Hitler a wand and a flat nose instead of a tiny moustache, and you have Voldemort.
Sauron was based on a serial killer...of children
So this one has a bit of a twist. Scholars believe that J.R.R. Tolkien's inspiration for Sauron was an evil fictional character based on an evil real-life character, both with similar names. Let's call the game "2 Degrees of Gilles de Rais."
Gilles de Montmorency-Laval, Baron de Rais (try saying that five times fast) was a monster in every sense of the word. On one hand, he was a respected commander in the French Royal Army, fighting alongside Joan of Arc in the Hundred Years War. On the other, he was a predator who dabbled in alchemy and sinister occult practices...and also kidnapped, tortured, and murdered dozens (possibly hundreds) of children. The serial killer was finally caught and charged for his crimes and hanged in 1440.
Centuries later, in 1899, Scottish author S.R. Crocket used the Baron de Rais as a model for a character in his novel The Black Douglas, giving his character the straightforward moniker of Gilles de Retz. The novel's version of the madman contained a few changes, such as being a practicing Satanist instead of dabbling in the occult. He also created an alliance with a werewolf-witch and her pack of werewolves, and kept the bodies of the children he murdered in his home.
Tolkien definitely read The Black Douglas as a child and the memory of Retz stuck in his subconscious throughout his life. In a letter, he admitted that the novel and the character of Gilles de Retz almost certainly influenced him as he was writing Lord of the Rings, with the werewolves of The Black Douglas turning into Tolkien's wargs. Retz's (and Rais's) penchant for torturing victims in the towers of his home, much like Sauron's modus operandi, was almost certainly an influence on Tolkien's creation of Sauron, as well.
Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde was based on a cabinet-maker with a double life
Scottish novelist and poet Robert Louis Stevenson was fascinated with the idea of the duality of good and evil that exists in every human being, two sides of the same coin. A woman, could commit a heinous crime, and then turn around and donate a large sum of money to a charity, or a man might tenderly nurse his ill wife back to health while simultaneously being cruel and physically abusive to his children.
So it was no surprise that the strange story of Deacon William Brodie captured Stevenson's imagination and was later turned into his novel, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Brodie led a double life that would have put most spies to shame.
By day, Brodie was a skilled cabinet-maker and member of the Edinburgh city council, and outwardly he was as respectable as could be. But by night, he was a cat burglar who used copies he made of his clients' keys to rob them blind, all in order to fund his gambling addiction, mistresses, and multiple illegitimate children. In 1788 he was caught after a failed burglary attempt and was tried and hanged for his crimes.
Young Robert was captivated by stories of the man with the double life, told to him by his father, who owned a few pieces of Brodie's furniture and explained to his son the history behind the pieces. Seven years before publishing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson co-wrote a play about Brodie, who had throughout his life been the real-life embodiment of the author's fascination with the struggle between good and evil in every man.
Dorian Gray was based on a young poet who later betrayed Oscar Wilde
The last two entries aren't traditional monsters, but rather, men who grew to be monstrous, such as Dorian Gray. Oscar Wilde is one of the brightest wits to exist in history, unabashedly flamboyant with questionable scruples that belied his deeply romantic streak. It was this romantic streak that he cultivated in the form of his most famous novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, meant as an act of courtship to one John Gray, a young poet with whom Wilde was fascinated.
If there were one thing Wilde loved in life, it was beauty. Specifically, male beauty. And Gray was admittedly beautiful, with a bevy of admirers, male and female alike, who were all enamored with the youthful poet. Wilde was equally taken with Gray (or at least his youth and good looks), and immortalized him forever in the eternally young, eternally beautiful, but corrupt character of Dorian Gray.
Members of their inner circle of aesthetes often referred to John as "Dorian" and John himself was known to playfully sign off on letters to Wilde with the moniker. The relationship between the two was the basis of the relationship between Dorian and Basil, and it was framed very similarly to how they interacted in real life (which was, ultimately...not very flattering to either of them).
Unfortunately, at a time in which homosexuality and sin were still heavily condemned, Gray grew uncomfortable with the comparisons and claimed the depraved, debauched character of Dorian Gray had nothing to do with him. Wilde even lied in a public letter and said he had met John Gray well after the novel had been written. Even so, the two fell out completely, with Gray refusing to support Wilde at the author's trial for homosexuality, instead choosing to shun him completely and become an ordained Roman Catholic priest. Harsh.
Professor Moriarty was based on "the Napoleon of the criminal world"
Sherlock Holmes has always been regarded as one of literature's most genius minds, but even he met his match in the equally-brilliant master criminal, Professor Moriarty. And just as Sherlock Holmes himself was based on a real person, or in this case, people (Joseph Bell and Sir Henry Littlejohn), so was his nemesis.
Born to a poverty-stricken Jewish family in Germany, Adam Worth eventually grew up to not just do crime - he was crime. So legendary was his infamy that it prompted a Scotland Yard detective to nickname him "the Napoleon of the criminal world."
When Worth was 5, his family moved to the United States. After the Civil War, Worth became a bounty jumper, then moved to New York City where he started a widespread network of pickpockets like he was the Artful Dodger of Manhattan. From there, he graduated to elaborate bank heists and jailbreaking his associates, and just as the Pinkerton Detective Agency was about to close in on him, he gave them the slip, fleeing to Europe.
Worth and his partner in crime, Charley Bullard, first settled in Liverpool, where Worth got back into robbery as a trade. Soon after, he moved to Paris, where he took advantage of the disorganized police department by opening up the American Bar, which was a legitimate business on the first floor and hid a secret gambling operation on the second, complete with tables that could be folded and hidden in the walls and an alarm system to alert them to unwanted visitors.
After that, Worth moved to London, joined high society, and completely dropped all pretenses that he was not born to be a criminal mastermind. He quickly formed a vast criminal network, none of whom ever knew his real name, address, or identity, and insisted his employees never use violence. Through a series of false fronts and intermediaries, Worth's organization pulled off multiple major robberies and heists throughout London.
Just to change things up, Worth once stole an extremely expensive painting by famed painter Thomas Gainsborough right out from under the nose of the Thomas Agnew & Sons gallery in London. A few years later, he traveled to South Africa where he stole $500,000 worth of raw diamonds, then smuggled them back to London where he started a fake company to sell the diamonds at low prices to undercut his competition. Along the way, he married and had two children, and to this day, scholars still aren't sure that even his own wife knew his real identity.
Basically, if there were degrees given for crime, Worth would have had a double doctorate from Criminal U. And then probably robbed them.