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Luke Skywalker was the obvious hero of Star Wars: A New Hope, so why does it seem like Han, Leia, and Darth Vader got 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 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 characters whose roles are not as critical to the story.
This can be a good thing for a story’s hero (or protagonist). If the hero is too iconic, they can veer off into becoming unrelatable. Make the hero someone that anyone can relate to (like Harry Potter, for example), and then surround the hero with unforgettable iconic dynamos.
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 was 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 back seat 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 committed the crime and how this mystery would be solved.
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.
And sometimes, the iconic nature of a character isn’t evident until some time has passed. Certainly, Star Wars swept the globe when it hit theaters, and many of the characters were immediately embraced. But sometimes movies that surge in popularity immediately after release simply cannot withstand the test of time. A decade later, the film and its characters have faded. In other cases, a story or character that didn’t immediately enjoy widespread popularity will slowly permeate into the culture, rising slowly to iconic status, and that too is a mark of an unforgettable character.
Studying Iconic Characters
In film and literature, certain characters have captured people’s imaginations and won their hearts, often becoming 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.
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 and 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 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.
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. Plus, all of them end up in unusual circumstances: Peter Pan living in the magical world of Neverland; Dorothy is swept into the fantastical land of Oz; and Indie finds himself crossing the globe to chase after ancient artifacts with a dangerous enemy on his heels.
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.
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.
Good point, Kelvin. Your answer makes it clear that Holmes is iconic. I must try to answer that question myself.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
That’s so true!
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.
Those are all awesome characters that are iconic and unforgettable. Good choices!
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!
I like both character-driven and plot-driven.
I hadn’t really considered it until I read this, but I think when it comes down to it, I will look for a book / film with a particular character, my favourite being Roland, The Gunslinger, in The Dark Tower books. If Roland cropped up in something now, I’d read it.
I have spent a lot of time thinking about why I’m drawn to certain stories and characters. It’s a useful exercise!
Much food for thought here. I’m thinking of rewriting my first book, The Wolf Pack, and will consider my protagonist and what I can do to make him more iconic.
I am fond of iconic characters, and many of the accoutrements mentioned here are useful in making characters more iconic. I would only add that it’s important to also consider the character’s arc. Good luck to you!
Extraordinary character in extraordinary situation:
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.
Iconic visage, character, supernal intelligence, mode of attire, and outrageous situations.
In fact; I argue that the eponymous character comes off as more of a super-heroine than a relatable person because of her over-the-top way of dealing with transgressions and her mental abilities. IMHO I think Larsson made a point of making her unrelatable in order to underscore societal treatment of “misfits”.
But those things do make her iconic.
Yes! Lisbeth Salandar is absolutely one of the most iconic characters in fiction. One of my favorites!