If there is any lesson to be learned from the history of literature, it is surely this: never be friends with a writer. At best, they will eat all your snacks and ignore all your texts. At worst, they will write you into one of their stories... as the villain. Yes, some of
the most infamous villains who stalk the shelves of classrooms and libraries were based on real people. And not all bad people, either. These creeps and monsters were inspired by celebrities, historical figures, criminals, former teachers, and even (in at least one case) the author's mother-in-law. Here are a few of the greatest literary villains who were based on real people, because you don't necessarily have to be a villain to inspire villainy.
Of course, at least a few of these real-life influences were not so great as people in the real world. But whether their factual counterparts were sinners or saints, the fictional villains they inspired have stayed in the public imagination. I mean, where would modern vampires be without the dangerously suave Dracula? How could we have a hit Broadway musical about an angsty green lady without the Wicked Witch of the West? And why does everyone know the name "Moby Dick" whether or not they've read the book?
Here are the real people (and whales) reportedly behind those characters:
Bram Stoker famously based his vampiric villain off of the historical Dracula, also known as
Vlad the Impaler. The only problem is that Bram Stoker did basically zero actual research on Vlad. They were both called Dracula and they both had a taste for blood. Vlad was rumored to invite guests over for dinner and impale them on spikes. But the real Dracula might not even have been from Transylvania—and it seems like was Stoker was most drawn to about him was the super cool villain name.
OK so this isn't a
person, but it is a creature that existed. Yes, there was a real white whale of legendary ferocity, and his name was Mocha Dick ("Mocha" because he was discovered near Mocha Island, and "Dick" because it was an average male name at the time). Much like his fictional counterpart, he took down several harpooners in his time, and was really only a "villain" to the whalers trying to kill him. He was finally killed while trying to protect a mother whale and her baby... so maybe Mocha Dick was actually the hero of this one, guys.
Good luck sleeping tonight, because Norman Bates from
Psycho was based on a real person. (Warning, it gets graphic.) Ed Gein was a handyman who spent his free time robbing graves, murdering woman, and making clothing, masks, and furniture out of their skin. He wanted to make a skin suit that looked like his mother so that he could "crawl inside" and "become her." Unsurprisingly, he also inspire the fictional character Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs.
OK let's skip the whole debate over whether
Snape is a hero or a villain and just roll with this for a second. Poor John Nettleship, former teacher of J.K. Rowling, was apparently distressed to learn that the author based her potions master partly on him. He seems to have made his peace with it now, though. As he says, "There are ways of pupils getting their revenge, but this is a much more sophisticated retaliation."
William Ernest Henley was, sadly, not a pirate. But he was a friend of Robert Louis Stevenson, and the real life inspiration for
Long John Silver, a villainous pirate who's a heck of a lot more fun than any of the heroes in Treasure Island. Like Silver, Henley was a large, jovial man with one leg. Unlike Silver, Henley was a poet, and the author of Invictus. And, in a weird turn of events, Henley's daughter was actually the inspiration for the character of Wendy in Peter Pan.
In the original
Sandman series, Lucifer Morningstar is just straight up David Bowie. I mean, yes, he was also based on Milton's Satan. But apparently Neil Gaiman was adamant that Lucifer have David Bowie's devilish good looks, and the artwork reflects that pretty clearly.
Great Expectations, Miss Havisham is a wealthy spinster who was jilted on her wedding day. Instead of moving on, she elected to leave the wedding feast out on the table until it rotted away and stay inside, in her wedding dress, for the rest of her life. In reality, Charles Dickens used to visit a woman named Elizabeth Parker, who became a recluse after being jilted on her own wedding day, and rarely left her home at Havisham Court (there's no sign that she raised orphans to be emotionally manipulative, though).
Scrooge is booth hero and villain in
A Christmas Carol, another classic work from Mr. Dickens. He was also based on the historical John Elwes, the famous miser. Elwes inherited a great fortune from his wealthy relatives, but gradually became more and more obsessed with saving his money—to the point where he dressed in rags, starved himself, and hid coins around his house... despite having the equivalent of over $100 million in the bank. His mother reportedly starved to death trying to avoid spending money on food.
Robert Louis Stevenson strikes again, this time with his classic story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The real-life basis for the doctor and his double life comes from
Deacon William Brodie, a town council member and highly esteemed citizen of Edinburgh. At least, during business hours. Brodie was a fine craftsman and talented locksmith, and made a very comfortable living. But at night, he put his locksmith talents to work going on crime sprees, robbing his own clients, and betting on cock fights. He was eventually caught and executed, after pulling off his double lifestyle for twenty years straight.
The Wicked Witch of the West
When I say that L. Frank Baum
based the Wicked Witch of the West on his own mother-in-law, I mean that in the best way possible. Baum's mother-in-law, Matilda Josyln Gage, was a suffragette, an abolitionist, a Native American rights activist, and a prolific author in her own right. She also referred to herself (and other feminists) as metaphorical "witches" on trial, saying that there was only " when it came to persecution. Apparently, her politics influenced Baum to create a story in which there were goods witches One wizard for every 10,000 witches" and bad witches (and only one wizard).