What Makes Iconic Characters Unforgettable?

iconic characters

Why are iconic characters so memorable?

Luke Skywalker was the obvious hero of Star Wars: A New Hope so why did Han, Leia, and Darth Vader get all the attention?

When I think about the characters from Star Wars, Luke is often the last one who comes to mind. It’s not that he’s utterly forgettable, but he doesn’t stand out from the crowd of characters who surround him, despite the fact that the story centers on him. The other characters overshadow him, even the characters whose roles are not as critical to the story.

All the characters from Star Wars are iconic, but some are more memorable than others. What can we learn from iconic characters, and how can we create unforgettable characters in our own stories?

Plot vs. Characters

Not all stories call for an iconic character. The Da Vinci Code has been criticized for its relatively uninteresting characters, but the story is not about the characters; it’s about an ancient conspiracy, a puzzle. The characters are supposed to take a backseat to the plot, and an iconic character might have distracted readers from the story.

We can compare The Da Vinci Code and its protagonist, Robert Langdon, to Indiana Jones, whose quests are fun but not nearly as deep or complex as Robert Langdon’s. We want to go on Indiana Jones’s adventure because we want to hang out with Indiana Jones — he’s an iconic character! We take the Da Vinci Code adventure for the sake of the quest itself; any character could serve as a guide.

If you’re thinking about developing an iconic character, first ask whether it’s appropriate for your story. For example, skilled detectives might be interesting and likable, but they’re rarely iconic, because in the mystery genre we’re reading to solve the mystery more than we’re reading to spend time with a particular character. For example, I like Harry Bosch just fine, but I didn’t read Michael Connelly’s books so I could spend time with Harry. I read to find out who did it.

That doesn’t mean big, riveting, plot-driven tales can’t include iconic characters. But it’s worth considering whether you want your character to overshadow your plot or vice versa. Sometimes the best stories are a good balance of compelling characters and plot. They may not be what we’d consider iconic, but they’re riveting enough.

Studying Iconic Characters

In film and literature, certain characters have captured people’s imaginations and won their hearts — characters from Peter Pan to Katniss Everdeen became more famous than the authors who created them. So what is it that makes some characters unforgettable? Let’s do a brief study of a few iconic and popular characters from film and literature:

Peter Pan (Peter Pan): Everything about Peter Pan is iconic from his personality to the way he looks and the way he lives. Peter Pan is the boy who never grows up. He’s all about fun and adventure. He lives on an otherworldly island with his friends, the Lost Boys. But consider Peter Pan’s image, particularly the one popularized by the Disney movie: he wears a green cap with a red feather in it, a green tunic and leggings. He’s got a knife on his belt and brown, pointy shoes. This ensemble is distinct and immediately recognizable.

Scarlett O’Hara (Gone with the Wind): People keep telling me she’s an anti-hero, that she’s wicked and unlikeable, but I adore Scarlett O’Hara. Remember, she’s only sixteen years old when the story starts. Keeping her age in mind, her envious, arrogant nature is more understandable. She goes on to do whatever she must to survive, take care of her family, and maintain her material comfort. Surrounded by war and famine, Scarlett doesn’t have much of a chance to mature, but eventually she thrives. She becomes an aggressive, independent woman who takes charge of her own destiny in a time and place when women were generally submissive, passive, and dependent on men. What makes her iconic is that she goes against the grain, and in the film, she boasts a striking wardrobe and memorable catch-phrases (fiddle-dee-dee, I’ll think about it tomorrow).

Dorothy (The Wonderful Wizard of Oz): Dorothy is one of the most iconic characters of all time, thanks to the 1929 film based on L. Frank Baum’s books. Let’s look at the movie for this one. Dorothy is a teenager but decidedly girly with her blue frock and braids. She carries her little dog Toto around in a basket. And she’s wearing those sparkling red slippers! Dorothy’s ensemble is one of the most recognizable in popular culture. But despite her girlish appearance, Dorothy displays the kind of heroism that was rare to see in female characters back in those days. She liberates almost everyone she meets, kills the villain (the Wicked Witch of the West), unmasks the corrupt leader (the wizard himself), and in the end, learns that she’s had everything she needs to find her way home all along. Not only does this story feature an iconic character — it’s got adventure, iconic sidekicks, and was way ahead of its time.

Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark): I already mentioned Indie, so let’s look at what makes him so iconic. Like many other iconic characters, he goes against the grain. By day, he’s a handsome, refined professor in a tweed suit and spectacles. The rest of the time, he’s a daring adventurer who risks life and limb for ancient archaeological artifacts. His iconic status gets a lot of help from his banged-up brown fedora and trusty whip as well his trademark wisecracks.

Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games Trilogy): Everyone else depends on a corrupt government system for sustenance, but Katniss jumps the fence (figuratively and literally) to hunt and gather for her family’s survival. Her iconic status is boosted by the mockingjay symbol she wears and the bow and arrow she carries. Her status as an icon is cemented when she plays the hunger games in a way that fits her moral standards rather than playing it to pacify the government.

Iconic Characters Share Similarities

I once heard that the best stories are either about extraordinary characters in ordinary situations or ordinary characters in extraordinary situations. I’d say that most iconic characters break the mold; they are extraordinary and so are their situations.

We can observe similarities that make these iconic characters memorable. They all deviate from social norms and expectations. Most of them have distinct clothing or accessories and memorable catch-phrases.

We can learn even more about iconic characters by asking questions and further studying them:

  • Why is Batman more iconic than, say, Aquaman? Why is Catwoman more iconic than Poison Ivy? Come up with a list of super iconic characters and characters who are well known but not as iconic, yet comparable. Compare and contrast!
  • Who is your favorite character (iconic or not) in film or literature? What was it that made the character so compelling to you? Was it the character’s looks? Attitude? Backstory?
  • There are popular characters, like Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird), and then there are truly iconic characters like Batman, Harry Potter, and Mary Poppins. What’s the difference between a popular character and an iconic character? What makes one character popular while another becomes iconic?

Do you prefer larger-than-life, iconic characters or do you like characters that are subtler and more nuanced? Are your favorite stories plot-driven or character-driven? Can you think of any other iconic characters? What other similarities do iconic or popular characters have in common? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.

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About Melissa Donovan
Melissa Donovan is a website designer and copywriter. She writes fiction and poetry and is the founder and editor of Writing Forward, a blog packed with creative writing tips and ideas.


29 Responses to “What Makes Iconic Characters Unforgettable?”

  1. Kelvin Kao says:

    The first question that popped into my mind was “am I reading Sherlock Holmes because of the character or the plot?” It is clear that I am reading it because he’s Sherlock Holmes, not just some random detective. However, he’s also someone that has a very specific process and methodology.

    In the end, it’s probably still the character that made me want to read it. If I ask myself, would I rather be reading a Sherlock Holmes story that’s written by an author that’s not Doyle, or a detective story where the author is Doyle but the detective isn’t Sherlock Holmes? The answer is the former.

    • When I wrote the paragraph about mystery stories, Sherlock Holmes came to mind and I thought about mentioning him as an exception because he’s definitely an iconic character. I usually read stories because of the characters too, but not all of them are iconic. Holden Caulfield (protagonist from Catcher in the Rye) is one of my favorite characters because he’s so realistic. He’s certainly a popular character but not iconic at all. There’s really nothing remarkable about him except his realism. And there have been many wonderful books and movies with characters I found compelling but months or years later, I can’t remember much about them. With iconic characters, I can’t forget them.

  2. It’s going to sound silly and perhaps it is. I love Sookie Stackhouse. Not that the series of books has been on the level of Margaret Mitchell, or Dan Brown, but Charlaine Harris has created a character that stands out from the crowd. She’s tough, she’s pragmatic, she’s humble, she fights the good fight and though she’s been wronged she remains loyal to those closest to her. Now that the “Final Sookie Stackhouse” book has been released, I’m going to miss her misadventures.

    For the life of me, I can’t figure out why readers remember the character of Tommy from my book more than the main character of Marvin but comments are running in his direction.

    I wonder if authors don’t necessarily set out to create an iconic character but it’s just the way things fall out. “I’m not really bad, I’m just drawn that way” – Jessica Rabbit, ‘Who Killed Roger Rabbit?’ comes to mind…

    • I suspect when secondary characters turn out to be more memorable than the protagonist, it was not (in most cases) the author’s intention. Protagonists are difficult to create and write. I’ve been working on a project for over three years now and it was just in the last couple of weeks that I figured out how to make my protagonist memorable and vivid. I knew there was something missing but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. Sometimes, I think we craft the character as a plot guide, so our focus is on creating a character who can take the reader through the events that will unfold. Focusing on that, we forget to give the character those extra quirks and traits that make them memorable. Or we get attached to a particular character concept even if it doesn’t work that well for the story. In my case, I just wasn’t thinking outside the box as much as I needed to. But I did know that my protagonist lacked the pizazz she needed. I will say this: the moment I realized how I needed to change her character was electric. I love those moments when you strike the chord you’ve been looking for and everything syncs. That is the magic of being a writer.

  3. Karoline Kingley says:

    I wonder if Katniss Everdeen will still be remembered one hundred years from now. To me, she seemed dull and unlikable, which may have been the point.

    • I can see where Katniss would be dull or unlikeable to some readers although I adored her. It’s hard to say whether she’ll be remembered a hundred years from now. That depends on whether readers pass the story on to future generations and what happens with the franchise. I also think one of the reasons Katniss was so immensely popular is because there aren’t enough strong female protagonists in film or literature. I think girls and women (as well as many boys and men) are hungry for strong, powerful female characters, so in a way, I felt like Katniss filled a void (especially after Twilight). I think this is particularly applicable in the speculative fiction genres, which are heavily marketed toward male readers even though there are swarms of underrepresented female fans.

  4. Annika says:

    My favorite character is Severus Snape of Harry Potter. His backstory is heart-wrenching, and helps to explain his bitter and harsh behavior throughout the series. To add to it, you are never sure just whose side he is on, making him a mystery. And the fact that he is still in love with Lily right up to his death makes feel so much sympathy for him, just because he lost the one thing he held dear in his life, even if she didn’t feel the same way about him.

    • Severus Snape was a great character. I kind of wanted his character arc to go another way, but he was deliciously malicious and one of the best mysteries in the entire series. When the reader isn’t sure whether a character is good or bad, the author is doing something right. I love that.

  5. Geoff Morton says:

    Having not seen The Hunger Games, I can’t really comment on how memorable Katniss actually was. However, I never got the impression that she permeated pop culture the way, say, Robert Downey Jr’s Tony Stark did. Even if The Hunger Games made more money than the first two Iron Man movies, everyone talked about Downey’s performance and how cool Tony Stark was (and how memorable)… but Katniss… just never got that impression that she’s up there in the pantheon.

    I understand you probably wanted to include a more recent example of memorable characters… Finch being ancient, Indy being old, Katniss being new… I just think there are better examples of recent memorable characters than her – like, say, Shrek, for one.

    • I definitely recommend reading the Hunger Games books rather than watching the movies, or at least read the books first. I know everyone loves the movie but I thought it absolutely paled in comparison to the books. Actually, I found the movie sort of disappointing.

      Superheros are kind of automatically iconic. They are built to be icons. It’s in their nature. I did mention a few superheros at the end of the post but I felt like they’re just too obvious. Of course Iron Man is iconic. I really wanted to explore less obvious icons and I wanted to cover a range of genres.

      I didn’t choose Hunger Games just to include a contemporary story. There are plenty of other recent iconic characters I could have chosen. Hunger Games is talked about rampantly and the book was generating ridiculous buzz long before the movie came out. The actress who portrayed Katniss has catapulted to super-stardom, which is a pretty good indicator that the character was iconic.

      You’re basically saying you haven’t read the book or seen the movie but you “think there are better examples of recent memorable characters than her.” You might want to check the story out before you develop an opinion on it, otherwise — and I mean no offense by this — your opinion holds no weight. You may not like the story or the character at all but I find it strange that you don’t think it qualifies when it’s one of the most talked about stories in the past ten years, especially the books.

      • Geoff Morton says:

        Melissa, I believe you completely misinterpreted what I actually said. I never said that she wasn’t memorable or a well written character. I simply stated that as far as iconic characters go, she has not so far permeated the popular consciousness in ways that the classic characters have – Indiana Jones, Han Solo, Captain Jack Sparrow, Hannibal Lector, Dirty Harry. Those are characters that are identifiable at a glance, endlessly quotable and became the focal point of their respective movies.

        I’m interested in pop culture, and I can honestly say that I’ve never seen Katniss quoted, imitated or even just talked about as a reason why you had to go see The Hunger Games. And that’s fine, the kind of lightning in a bottle that makes a character capture the imagination of the world is a mysterious thing. You never know when it’ll strike – you just recognize it when it does.

        As for not seeing the movie or reading the books, that doesn’t disqualify me from the points that I made about the character’s impact in popular consciousness. Sure, I’d have no call to talk about whether or not she’s actually interesting, which I don’t. My only thoughts were questioning whether she’s truly as iconic within the general consciousness as you might believe she is.

        In hindsight, I could have phrased my post better.

        As a screenwriter myself, I struggle with that challenge of exactly how to make my protagonists interesting and hopefully memorable, without throwing in oddball characteristics just for the sake of it.

        Differences of opinion aside, I did really enjoy your post and I look forward to seeing what else you’ve out on the site.

        • Sorry if I misunderstood. We’ll have to agree to disagree on Katniss’s status, and that’s what the comments are for — to express different thoughts and opinions.

      • I read the books in four days. Devoured them may be the better phrase. I thought Katniss to be a character who’s time had come for the same reasons you espouse. (Jennifer Lawrence is a fine actress, which she proved in Silver Linings Playbook.) But the very ending of the final book left me utterly disappointed! We follow this strong girl-woman, learn to love her for her strength of character as well as her physical prowess, for her determination, and then flash forward to find she has capitulated to marriage and children. That is not the character we’ve come to know and we don’t get to see her transformation or the reasons for it. Unless I missed something, somewhere. 🙂

        • I devoured them too, over a weekend. I agree with everything you said about the ending. It’s my biggest gripe about the Hunger Games, and I felt like it closed off the story to any future Katniss adventures.

        • Dee Vaal says:

          I’m surprised by these words. Katniss was just like any other young woman. All she wanted was a life where she could love and care for her family. She was pushed into the world of the hunger games. In the end, she found what she always wanted -isn’t that what we all work for?

          I think there is much left in Katniss for many more books -but each of them would stem from her need to protect, not because she is mesmerized by the fight.

        • In the end, Katniss did not find what she always wanted. What she gets at the end is the thing she kept telling us she did not want. Either she was unreliable as a narrator or she changed her mind about what she wanted. However, the story never showed her changing her mind or explained why, so I thought that was a weakness in the character arc. Also, I wouldn’t say Katniss was just like any other young woman. She held herself to high moral standards while all the other characters succumbed to the Hunger Games and engaged in killing. For her, it was always a balance between her ethics and her survival. Most of the other Hunger Games players were interested in survival and winning, ethics be damned.

  6. To a large, (though not universal) extent, i tend to think a popular character is just that: one that many people have come to enjoy and talk about. Iconic, I think, is a character which when taken out of their time and setting remains fascinating, frightening, or admirable, regardless of time and location.

    • That’s a great description of the difference between popular and iconic. I would also say that when a character reaches iconic status, they have permeated culture. For example, everyone knows Darth Vader, even people who’ve never seen the Star Wars movies. He’s iconic. Also: easily recognizable.

  7. Logan says:

    As a reader, the thing that draws me most into a character is their flaws and social quirks, which essentially distinguishes them from all the other characters out there in the fiction world. Take Indiana Jones; let’s face it, the guy is an obsessive compulsive thrill seeker and borderline kleptomaniac. Batman is a sociopath who’s parents death possess him into a state of compulsiveness. Darth Vader is a man who’s made too many mistakes and is too far down the rabbit hole to claw his way back into the throes of humanity (though he does successfully at the end of Return of the Jedi).

    Great post!

    • Whoa-whoa-whoa–wait a minute. Batman is a sociopath? No, I don’t think so. Not unless it’s some version of Batman I’ve never seen. Sorry, I have to strongly disagree with that one! A sociopath is someone who doesn’t care about other people — someone who literally does not have the capacity to care about another human being. That is definitely not Batman.

  8. Fiona Ingram says:

    I think when people start using quotes from books and movies, even as funny memes (“Luke, I am your father…”), it indicates how that book/movie has impacted on popular culture. It’s interesting how sometimes people can’t remember the name of an actor, but remember the character he/she plays – e.g.: Aragorn, Voldemort, Langdon et al.

  9. Dee Vaal says:

    Great article! I am a combo -although I love just about any iconic character. Mostly, I love Tarzan, Harry Potter, and Mary Poppins.

    Tarzan had freedom, strength, and was wild enough to make you feel safe and in danger, all at the same time.

    Harry Potter is the nerd in all of us -with the power to break himself free and become a hero.

    Mary Poppins was able to bring color, imagination and life into the dreary.

  10. lovessiamese says:

    I love this post and the comments. I loved the Hunger Games books and movies, and the Indiana Jones ones, and my favorites: The Lord of the Rings Series (including The Hobbit). My favorite characters were Bilbo Baggins and Gollum. I didn’t like Gollum’s character but he was so unique and well-developed. I can’t hear someone say the word “precious” without hearing him hiss the word in his demented envious state. I loved Bilbo because he is reluctant to join the quest in the first place. He gets forced out of his comfort zone and learns things about himself he would never have known had he not gone. But, referring to the post subsequent to this one, how do I create such a character? I’m still working on it.
    My other favorite character (don’t know if you’d call her iconic or not) is Miss Congeniality. Her character is so likable. She starts out as a masculine-type feminist and becomes a feminine feminist. What a treat! Yet, she doesn’t lose her toughness.

    • I think Gollum is one of the best characters in literary history, and he was especially compelling in the films. I saw Miss Congeniality a long time ago. I can’t say the character or movie was particularly iconic or memorable but sometimes our favorites aren’t the most iconic!

  11. I like both character-driven and plot-driven.