Movies Reviews

Fictional Movie Characters Based on Real People

They say fiction often inspires real life. Well sometimes, it goes the other way, too. Some of cinema’s most iconic fictional characters were influenced by real people. Some of them you may not recognize, ordinary people whose presence or actions inspired the story’s creator. Others are famous names that you’ve definitely seen before, whose extraordinary lives have helped to shape our society — and also cinematic history. Because of them, these famous characters are now as real to us as the people they’re based on. Here are twelve fictional characters who were inspired by real people and now exist largely thanks to them.

10 Ariel and Ursula – The Little Mermaid (1989)


Who says that animated characters can’t be inspired by real people? Regarded as one of Disney’s best animated films, The Little Mermaid actually has two characters that were inspired by real people. The features of Melrose Place star Alyssa Milano were used to create the film’s main character, Ariel. The only thing that’s really missing is the red hair. And, well, the fishtail.

Ariel’s antagonist, Ursula, was interestingly inspired by a famous drag queen named Divine, whose body type and make-up were clear influences on the character. Despite her wickedness, Ursula has become a LGBTQ+ icon. Members of this community were actually upset when Melissa McCarthy, not a drag queen or gay man, was cast as Ursula in The Little Mermaid live-action adaptation.

9 The Dude – The Big Lebowski (1998)

Gramercy Pictures

The Big Lebowski is the Coen Brothers’ comedy masterpiece. It follows a lackadaisical, bowling-obsessed stoner named Jeffrey Lebowski, who’s known simply as The Dude (Jeff Bridges). As crazy as it sounds, The Dude is actually inspired by a real person. While promoting their first film, Blood Simple, the Coen brothers met film producer Jeff Dowd, who influenced more than the character’s name. He liked to drink White Russians, the milky, alcoholic beverage that we always see Lebowski sipping on throughout the film, and was often called The Dude himself.

8 Travis Bickle – Taxi Driver (1976)

Robert De Niro shirtless and pointing a gun off screen in Taxi Driver
Columbia Pictures

Taxi Driver is a classic film from legendary director Martin Scorsese. It’s known primarily for that iconic improvised line from Robert De Niro. But what most people don’t know is that the film’s main character, the disturbed and homicidal taxi driver Travis Bickle (De Niro), was inspired by a real person. Like Bickle, Arthur Bremer kept a journal of his troubled thoughts, which would come to be called An Assassin’s Diary. Taxi Driver‘s screenwriter, Paul Schrader, used Bremer’s journal entries to craft Bickle’s own writings throughout the movie.

Bremer also had plans to assassinate Richard Nixon but couldn’t get close enough to his target. He did try killing U.S. Democratic presidential candidate George Wallace, which left Wallace paralyzed from the waist down. There are some differences between Bremer and Bickle, though. Bremer worked as a busboy and janitor rather than as a taxi driver, and he was convicted for his assassination attempt on George Wallace rather than glorified as a hero. Creepy, huh?

7 Alice – Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Alice in Wonderland
Walt Disney Feature Animation

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has been adapted countless times. But after 72 years, Disney’s animated classic Alice in Wonderland still tops the list. But how did this famous children’s story come to be? Its author, Lewis Carroll, became close friends with the Liddell family, especially with their children. And of course, one of them was named Alice. Carroll would often take the children on rowing trips and tell them fictional stories. On one particular golden afternoon, he made up a tale about a little girl named Alice, who tumbled down a rabbit hole and into a fantastical world. In love with the story, Alice begged Carroll to write it down so that she may read it. And from there, the rest is history.

Related: 10 Movies Directly Inspired by Alice in Wonderland

6 Miranda Priestly – The Devil Wears Prada (2006)

A scene from The Devil Wears Prada
20th Century Fox

Widely regarded as one of the greatest actresses of all time, Meryl Streep has pumped out some iconic performances during her long career. And her portrayal as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada is one of them. Priestly is a powerful fashion magazine editor who terrifies her employees with her harsh demands and fierce attitude. This character is based on Anna Wintour, who serves as the Editor-in-Chief of Vogue and oversees all Condé Nast magazines worldwide.

Considered the most powerful woman in publishing, Wintour has become a significant figure in the fashion world and is known for identifying emerging fashion trends. She’s also known for her demanding and intimidating personality, which earned her the nickname “Nuclear Wintour” among her employees. Interestingly, many fashion designers avoided appearing in The Devil Wears Prada because they were afraid of upsetting the fashion icon. Apparently, Wintour wasn’t pleased with this movie when she first heard about it. But she changed her stance after watching it, claiming that she enjoyed both the film and Streep’s performance.

5 Chuck Wepner – Rocky (1976)

Sylvester Stallone as Rocky Balboa in Rocky
United Artists

Rocky is one of the most famous sports figures ever, fictional or otherwise. Ironically, he’s more famous than the real life, professional boxer he’s based on: Chuck Wepner. Wepner’s claim to fame was nearly going a full fifteen rounds against arguably the greatest boxer in the world, Muhammad Ali. He fell just nineteen seconds short of reaching that milestone. This fight became the basis of the original Rocky. Stallone actually offered the boxer a role in Rocky II as a sparring partner, but due to his severe drug addiction at the time, Wepner tanked the audition.

4 Norman Bates – Psycho (1960)

Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho 1960
Paramount Pictures

Psycho, Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller masterpiece, was based on the novel of the same name. But the story of Norman Bates, cinema’s most iconic murderer, is actually based on a terrifyingly real person. Ed Gein is one of the most infamous serial killers in American history. Like Bates, he had an unhealthy obsession with his mother, and his victims were mostly women.

At Gein’s home, police found skulls and women’s clothing made from human body parts, such as leggings and face masks. The shocking and disturbing nature of these crimes swept through America, inspiring Robert Bloch to pen the novel that would become Psycho. Ed Gein also inspired other infamous horror villains, such as Buffalo Bill from The Silence of the Lambs and Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre franchise.

Related: 20 Behind-the-Scenes Facts About Our Favorite Horror Movies

3 Vito Corleone and Johnny Fontane – The Godfather (1972)

Vito and Johnny - The Godfather 1972

Few movie characters are as legendary as Vito Corleone from The Godfather. He’s one of those characters that audiences love, even though he’s a really, really bad person. And that’s partially because Vito is based on a real-life bad person. Carlo Gambino was the most powerful Mafia boss of the five New York crime families. Much like Vito, he was a soft-spoken person who commanded much respect and admiration from those around him. He also lived to be an old man and died from natural causes, unlike most gangsters. He was even referred to as The Godfather throughout his life.

Who was Gambino’s godson, you ask? Why, it was the iconic singer Frank Sinatra, who inspired the creation of Vito’s godson, Johnny Fontaine, in The Godfather. Remember when Fontane begs his godfather to help him land a movie role that would revitalize his floundering career? Supposedly, this happened in real life with Gambino and Sinatra. The actual film was From Here to Eternity, a war movie that won Sinatra the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and put him back on top.

2 Indiana Jones – Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

Raiders of the Lost Ark
Paramount Pictures

Indiana Jones is the most iconic adventurer of any genre in cinema. He wields a whip, has the most bad*ss name ever, and travels around the world, fighting bad guys and uncovering historical treasure. The only person that’s more bad*ss than Indiana Jones might be the real life person he’s based on: Hiram Bingham III. Although Bingham was not a trained archaeologist like Indiana, he was a lecturer at Yale University and an explorer. He never found the lost ark like Jones did in Raiders of the Lost Ark, but he did rediscover the largely forgotten Inca city of Machu Picchu, which was a remarkable feat in the early 1900s.

1 Charles Foster Kane – Citizen Kane (1940)

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane
RKO Radio Pictures

Citizen Kane covers the life of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), a publishing tycoon and multi-millionaire with political aspirations. Kane’s character was based on a few people. But the primary inspiration was real-life publishing tycoon, multi-millionaire, and politician William Randolph Hearst, whose newspaper empire dominated media in the early 1900s.

Even Kane’s sprawling mansion Xanadu was inspired by the lavish Hearst Castle, which was filled with exotic animals and art pieces, just like in the movie. Hearst famously tried to shut down the production of Citizen Kane and prevent the film from ever seeing the light of day. He even refused to mention the film in his newspapers. Fortunately for us, Hearst’s efforts failed. Citizen Kane isnow widely regarded as the greatest film of all time.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Back to top button