21 characters that were inspired by real-life people

Art is one of the best things in life. It allows us to express our innermost thoughts, ideas, and social commentary on things happening today. But creating art, no matter the form, requires inspiration. And as people, we usually draw this inspiration from our real lives. Whether it’s our own selves, something we’ve witnessed, an old movie, or other people we know – we can’t seem to separate art from reality.

Even the most imaginative pieces of fiction are drawn from past experiences, from thoughts and philosophies we carry of the world, and characters are made of human emotions we’ve come to experience. But some characters aren’t just based on things that we’ve experienced, but based on a particular person. It can be someone we know personally, a celebrity drawing attention to their lives or their work, or someone who became famous because of something that happened to them. Either way, stories are much better when they’re based on real-life events, and if the viewers know the story, it’s even better. They say reality can exceed all imagination, and we agree. These characters were loosely based or inspired by real-life people – their appearance, their personality, their job, or their story. It makes for great TV shows and films, but not all of them take it very well. Read on to see which of your favorite characters is actually more reality than fiction.


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Roxy Hart (Chicago)

Renée Zellweger, Catherine Zeta Jones, Richard Gere, and the rest of the cast wowed us with their incredible performances, in the 2002 musical film Chicago. The icnonic Broadway musical was based on the 1926 satirical play of the same name, and they were all based on the story of Beulah Annan, who was suspected of killing her lover, Harry Kalstedt. As she was tried for the alleged crime, Annan apparently changed her version of the story several times. Her final version concluded that she had told Kalstedt she was expecting a child, the two struggled, and as the famous Chicago song goes – they had “both reached for the gun.”

Don Draper (Mad Men)

AMC’s drama Mad Men became highly successful when it first aired in 2007, and audiences couldn’t help but be captivated by its main character, advertising man Don Draper. The character was based on several people, and while its name was drawn from the real-life advertiser Draper Daniels, he was mainly based on another ad man named George Lois. The two even bare a striking resemblance to one another, but apparently Lois doesn’t like the comparison, as he called Draper a “talentless bum.”

The Countess (AHS: Hotel)

American Horror Story has been giving us terrifying nightmares since it first aired on FX. The anthology series’ season titled “Hotel” was actually inspired by real-life hotels with a horrorsome reputation. Lady Gaga’s character, Countess Elizabeth, who had a particular affection to blood, is also based on a real person. This would be the Hungarian nobelwoman Countess Elizabeth Bathory, who’s allegedly responsible for killing hundreds of young women during the 1500s. She wasn’t only labeled The Blood Countess, but also holds the Guinness World Record for most prolific female killer.

Temperance Brennan (Bones)

Temperance Brennan, mostly known by her nickname “Bones” on the show Bones, is based on the novels (and real life) of Kathy Reichs, a forensic anthropologist. The Fox series’ main character, Dr. Brennan (played by Emily Deschanel), solves criminal cases by examining bones, and many of these cases were inspired by real-life cases Reichs had worked on. However, the rest of the characters are totally fictional, and do not appear in Kathy Reichs’ original novels.

Betty Boop

Betty Boop was originally meant to be a French poodle (strange, isn’t it?), but has been rumored to have been based on several celebrities of the 1920s, like actress Clara Bow, and singers Esther Jones and Helen Kane. Helen Kane not only looked a lot like the character, but was also known for adding “boop-boop-a-doop” to songs while performing on Broadway. Although the singer filed a lawsuit on the matter, the court ruled against her.

Lady Grantham (Downton Abbey)

We all loved watching Downton Abbey, which gave us a glimpse at the glamorous lives of the British high society in the early 1900s. But did you know Lady Grantham was actually based on a real-life person called Lady Almina? She was the fifth countess of Carnarvon and an American heiress. Lady Almina was actually an illegitimate child of the famous Rothschild family, and just like on the popular show, her marriage to her husband weren’t all about the money, but were also about real love.

The Joker (Batman)

Famous Batman villain The Joker was introduced in the 1940 debut issue of the DC Comics comicbook, and while he was initially meant to be killed off, he was simply too good. He became the archenemy of the superhero, later to be brilliantly portrayed by actors like Jack Nicholson and the late Heath Ledger. The character’s creators had the idea of basing his look on Gwynplaine – a character from the silent film The Man Who Laughs played by Conrad Veidt – and you can certainly see the resemblance.

Iron Man

Iron Man, also known by his civilian name Tony Stark, is a comic book superhero created by the legendary Stan Lee. The former Marvel editor-in-chief has admitted that the character was actually based on Howard Hughes, who like Tony Stark was extremely wealthy, an inventor, as well as a ladies’ man. He referred to him as “one of the most colorful men of our time,” which is definitely something that can be said of the charismatic superhero.

Olivia Pope (Scandal)

The ABC political thriller Scandal was created by Grey’s Anatomy creator Shonda Rhimes, and it revolves around political crisis manager Olivia pope (played by the talented Kerry Washington). This character was also partially based on a real-life person, crisis manager Judy Smith, who has worked in politics and handled major presidential affairs. Like the woman herself is said to be, Olivia Pope is wonderfully depicted as willful and strong, both emotionally as well as professionally.

Sherlock Holmes

Created by British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes is a fictional detective who solves cases and mysteries by using his keen observasional skills and logical deduction. This character is so iconic, there are endless of on-screen versions of the famous detective – perhaps the most notable one is Benedict Cumberbatch’s depiction in the British series Sherlock. The character is, in fact, somewhat based on real-life Scottish surgeon Joseph Bell, who had been invovled in several investigations and had the same observational ways as the highly intelligent character.

Jack Sparrow (Pirates of the Caribbean)

Pirates of the Caribbean wouldn’t be the same without its wacky anti-hero, Captain Jack Sparrow. Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the character in the adventure film franchise is hilarious as it is outrageous, but it isn’t a mere figment of his imagination. The actor admitted to basing the character on rock star Keith Richards’ mannerisms. Richards, in turn, went on to playing Jack Sparrow’s father in two of the franchise’s films – which couldn’t have been more fitting.

Edna Mode (The Incredibles)

Pixar’s 2004 animated film The Incredibles tells the story of a family of superheroes, who all have special powers they are forced to conceal – until their drawn to battle with a vengeful villain. You may remember Edna Mode, the eccentric fashion designer of the superheroes, but did you know she was based on a real-life person? She’s mostly believed to have been based on the Oscar-winning costume designer Edith Head, who very much resembles the character, but some speculate she was actually based on Vogue’s legendary editor-in-chief Anna Wintour.

Holly Golightly (Breakfast at Tiffany)

Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Truman Capote’s famous novella, depicted the friendship between an unnamed narrator and a glamorous New York socialite, Holly Golightly, who lives off the money of rich men. In the 1961 movie version, Golightly is played by the iconic actress Audrey Hepburn. Many socialites have claimed the character was based on them, but the truth is it was probably inspired by several socialite friends of Capote, like Gloria Vanderbilt, Oona O’Neil, and the actress Carol Grace.

Cosmo Kramer (Seinfeld)

Seinfeld was and still remains one of the funniest sitcoms ever made, focusing on the lives of comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his three friends – George, Elaine, and the quirky neighbor Kramer. The world gasped as Kramer’s first name was finally revealed to be Cosmo. But this character was actually based on creator Larry David’s real-life neighbor, Kenny Kramer. The real Kramer apparently used this fact to make money in quite a few ways, including giving “reality bus tours” of his life, which were later spoofed on the show.

Juliette Barnes (Nashville)

The ABC (and later CMT) musical drama Nashville premiered in 2012, and revolves around fictitious country singers in Nashville, Tennessee. Hayden Panettiere plays the rising young star, Juliette Barnes, and while it’s commonly believed her character was based on music artist Taylor Swift, Panettiere had said her portrayal was “more inspired by Carrie Underwood.” However, the latter has denied the drama-stirring character carries any similarities to her. She says while it is juicy, Nashville isn’t quite as drama-filled in real life as it is on the show.

Lucious Lyon (Empire)

Fox’s 2015 musical drama Empire centers around the hip hop music scene in New York, and specifically the fictional music and entertainment company “Empire Entertainment”. Lucious Lyon, founder and CEO of the company, is said to be inspired by several famous rappers, like Sean Combs, Dr. Dre, and 50 Cent. But the show’s co-creator, Danny Strong, has said in an interview that the character is mostly inspired by Jay Z’s rise to becoming a rapper and the head of a music label.

Vincent Chase (Entourage)

The HBO dramedy Entourage followed the Hollywood life of Vincent Chase, his close friends, and his agent, as Vince becomes a famous actor and gets used to living the glamorous life of a celebrity, while still keeping sight of his origins in Queens, New York. The series was loosely based on the life of its co-producer, Mark Wahlberg, as an up-and-coming movie star. It also featured a wide array of celebrities who guest starred as some version of themselves.

Chrissy Snow (Three’s Company)

Three’s Company was a hit show in the ’70s and ’80s, which made viewers everywhere fall in love with its three stars. Janet (Joyce DeWitt), Chrissy (Suzanne Somers), and Jack (John Ritter) were three roommates living together in a Santa Monica apartment complex. Somers’ Chrissy Snow was bubbly and lovable, and was actually based on a real person. She was based on Dick Clark’ third wife, a production assistant named Kari Clark – who was apparently just as peppy as Chrissy.

Ariel (The Little Mermaid)

Alyssa Milano became famous as a child star on the sitcom Who’s the Boss?, and later starred on shows like Melrose Place, Charmed, and Mistresses. But the actress has an even more iconic role based on herself – Ariel of Disney’s The Little Mermaid. While Alyssa wasn’t initially aware of this, Disney came forward to say the curious mermaid was designed after the star’s appearance as a young girl. The star found it incredibly flattering, saying it was “so cool” – and we can definitely see the likeness between the two.

Alex Vause (Orange Is the New Black)

Most people are aware of the fact that the successful Netflix series OITNB is based on the memoir of Piper Kerman, who was put in a women’s prison for smuggling illegal substances. While we know Piper Chapman is based on Kerman, not many people know the real Alex Vause – Piper’s ex-girlfriend and fellow prisoner on the show, played by Laura Prepon. Alex is based on Catherine Cleary Wolters, who spoke up about the dissimilarities between the show and what really happened. Wolters alleges they had already committed crimes together before ever becoming an item, and had nothing resembling Piper and Alex’s will-they-or-won’t-they dynamics in prison.

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