Fiction tends to pull inspiration from something far stranger – reality. In fact, even the most famous fictional characters were cobbled together from relative nobodies. Elementary, innit.
They say that truth is stranger than fiction, so why not put that truth to work – in fiction?
We know that some of the most famous characters in fiction are based on real people; Alice Liddell springing to mind, the little girl who inspired Lewis Carroll’s intrepid adventurer Alice in Wonderland; and Christopher Robin, the real-life son of the author of the Winnie-the-Pooh books. But there are others, many others – here are two very famous ones.
Robinson Crusoe/Alexander Selkirk
The 1719 work from English author Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, tells the tale of a castaway sailor who survives on a desert island thanks to his own resourcefulness and later the assistance of his man Friday. Defoe was inspired by the real-life adventure of Alexander Selkirk (1686-1721), a Scottish sailor and privateer who fought so heatedly with his ship’s captain about the vessel’s seaworthiness that in 1704, he demanded to be put ashore on an island in the Juan Fernández Archipelago 650 kilometres off the coast of Chile. That island is now named Robinson Crusoe Island. Another nearby island is called Alejandro Selkirk Island after the Scottish adventurer.
Selkirk had taken some supplies with him, including a musket and a few tools, but not much food. He spent over four years alone on that remote rugged island hunting and foraging and living a reasonably healthy life, having access to feral goats, wild herbs and vegetables, plenty of fish and a freshwater stream. He built shelter and fashioned tools from materials washed up on the island. It was an exceedingly lonely time and he was on the lookout every day for a rescue ship.
In 1709, reduced to wearing goatskins, he was finally rescued by Woodes Rogers, captain of the Duke. Rogers later wrote that Selkirk had eventually “conquered his melancholy… he came to conquer all the inconveniences of his solitude, and to be very easy.”
Selkirk’s extraordinary story was the talk of England, and a number of articles were written about the castaway. Daniel Defoe took the tale and made it his own. Robinson Crusoe was a new type of writing dealing with factual events but fictionalised and embellished. For example, Crusoe spends 28 years on his island, as opposed to Selkirk’s four. He meets Friday 24 years later. The term “Man Friday”, derived from the character of the indigenous man rescued from cannibals by Crusoe, has also entered our lexicon and denotes a faithful assistant.
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Robinson Crusoe was an adventure novel (often called the first English novel) with themes of survival, self-reliance, belief in God, friendship and loyalty. It was a best seller at the time and remains a classic of English literature.
Two years after the publication of Robinson Crusoe, Selkirk died of a fever contracted while on board a ship to Africa. He was 44.
Sherlock Holmes/Dr Joseph Bell
The greatest fictional detective ever – nothing escaped the notice of Sherlock Holmes, easily the most famous detective in literature. When Arthur Conan Doyle published his first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet, in 1886, he had no idea that his creation would come to epitomise penetrating observational skills, acute intelligence and a gift for inferring from clues the solution to a crime. Across 60 adventures – four novels and 56 short stories – Sherlock Holmes constantly astounds us with his enormous brainpower.
Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh. One of his professors was Dr Joseph Bell (1837-1911), a highly respected surgeon and pathologist who at one time was Queen Victoria’s personal physician. An excellent educator, he was an absolute stickler for correct diagnosis of patient maladies, achieved through meticulous observation coupled with logic and deduction. He told his students that to become good doctors they needed to quickly and accurately notice the small ways in which a sick person differed from a healthy person. Attentive observation was the key.
The stories go that Bell could look at someone’s hand or how they walked and know what profession that person had; that he knew what places sailors had visited by examining their tattoos. He could identify where someone was from by listening carefully to their accents and intonations, which gave him clues about their environment, a possible factor in someone’s medical condition.
Conan Doyle worked as for Bell as a clerk for a time and had ample opportunity to observe him in action. This not only provided inspiration for Holmes, but also for Dr Watson – the trusty offsider who assiduously records the cases solved by the exceptional detective.
The stories go that Bell could look at someone’s hand or how they walked and know what profession that person had; that he knew what places sailors had visited by examining their tattoos.
Joseph Bell graduated as a doctor at 21 and became a member of the Royal Medical Society of Edinburgh shortly after. He had a long and stellar medical career, not just as a physician, surgeon and teaching professor, but also as the author of a number of definitive texts on various aspects of medicine.
Many of Bell’s qualities informed the character of Conan Doyle’s greatest creation, but Sherlock Holmes was not a carbon copy of the brilliant surgeon. From Bell, Holmes was given a sharp eye for detail, a logical approach, a consummate deductive talent and an authoritative manner. Bell also reportedly wore a deerstalker hat, quickly appropriated for Holmes.
But there are differences. Bell was a happily married father of three. Holmes is a largely a loner, his friendship with Watson notwithstanding. He has no romance, no sex drive to speak of, his work absorbs him and he has a cocaine addiction, a characteristic apparently based on Conan Doyle’s own alcoholic father.
Bell was analytical, deeply intellectual and his scientific technique has been credited with influencing the development of forensic medicine. In giving Holmes the same broad qualities to solve his cases, Conan Doyle created one of the most enduring characters in all of literature.
“Excellent!” I cried. “Elementary,” said he.