10 Real People Who Inspired Famous Fictional Characters

by |June 11, 2014

Gustave von Ashcenbach

Thomas Mann’s hero from Death in Venice was based on the composer Gustav Mahler, one of the world’s foremost composers at the turn of the 20th century.

Uncle Tom

The prototype for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s black slave in Uncle Tom’s Cabin was Josiah Henson, who achieved fame as a Methodist preacher after escaping from the South.


Shakespeare’s penny-pinching debt collector from The Merchant of Venice was based on the doctor Roderigo Lopez, who was hanged for conspiring to kill one of his patients who owed him money.

Buck Mulligan

The outrageously laddish character from Ulysses was based on Joyce’s surgeon friend Oliver St. John Gogarty. Gogarty was an author in his own right but, to his annoyance, garnered more publicity from the Mulligan portrait than from his own works.

the-adventures-of-sherlock-holmesSherlock Holmes

Sherlock Holmes had his origins in a surgeon friend of Arthur Conan Doyle called Joseph Bell. He had uncanny powers of observation and diagnosis, which intrigued Conan Doyle.

Captain Ahab

The tortured protagonist of Moby Dick was based on Owen Chase, the first mate of a ship sunk by a sperm whale. He spent ninety-one days adrift on a small boat afterward, having to eat the corpse of one of his dead friends to survive.

Jay Gatsby

F. Scott Fitzgerald modeled his most famous creation from The Great Gatsby partly on himself, but mostly on a Long Island bootlegger called Max Gerlach.


Bram Stoker’s Transylvanian vampire Dracula was based partly on Turkish tyrant Vlad the Impaler, whose reign of terror ran from 1456 to 1462, and partly on actor Henry Irving, whom he managed for many years.

Clifford Chatterley

Lady Chatterley’s husband was based on the textile manufacturer William Arkwright, who was rendered impotent after a horse-riding accident in the late 1870s.

robinson-crusoeRobinson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe based Crusoe on the seafarer Alexander Selkirk, who objected to the conditions on a ship on which he was employed in 1704 and asked to be put ashore on a tiny desert island in the Pacific Ocean off South America. He lived alone there for four year and four months, and Defoe used his experiences as the basis for Crusoe.

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About the Contributor

Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.

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