What Makes Iconic or Popular Characters Unforgettable?

Posted: July 22, 2013 in Publishing
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Why are iconic characters so memorable?

Luke Skywalker is the obvious hero of Star Wars, so why do 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 easily overshadow him, even the characters whose roles are not as critical to the story.

All of 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 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’ adventure because we want to go with him. 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. Great detectives, for example, may be interesting and likeable 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 Boschjust 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 Popular Characters

In film and literature, certain characters have captured people’s imaginations and won their hearts–characters like Scarlett O’Hara, Indiana Jones, and 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:

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 keep her land. 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).

Atticus Finch (To Kill a Mockingbird): I’m not sure Atticus Finch is iconic but he’s definitely one of the most popular characters in literature. He’s a man who stands up against racism in a time and place where racism is the acceptable and preferable norm. Yet he’s admired and respected in his community despite the fact that he opposes their outdated, bigoted ways, which is not an easy thing to pull off. Like Scarlett, he goes against the grain, which is a trait we’ll see in many iconic characters.

Indiana Jones (Raiders of the Lost Ark): I already mentioned Indie so let’s look at what makes him so iconic. Like the others, 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 archeological 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 and her bow and arrow and her status as an icon is cemented when she plays the game 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. I would say 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?
  • 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, and then there are truly iconic characters like Batman, Indiana Jones, and Katniss Everdeen. What’s the difference between a popular character and an iconic character? What makes one character popular while another becomes iconic?

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