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What Makes Iconic or Popular Characters Unforgettable?

22 July 2013

From Writing Forward:

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?

. . . .

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.

. . . .

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).

Link to the rest at Writing Forward

Characters, Writing Advice

9 Comments to “What Makes Iconic or Popular Characters Unforgettable?”

  1. 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.

    HAHAHA!

    Because searching for the Holy Grail through Nazi Germany is just so much simpler than a quest driven by kids’ puzzles.

    Adding this: I get where the author is coming from, but insisting that Katniss Everdeen is a “truly iconic” character of the same magnitude of Batman or Indiana Jones is, to put it as nicely as possible, jumping the gun a bit.

    • I agree completely. Calling a character “iconic” is like calling a book “classic.” You can’t make that judgement until some significant period of time has past. I like the Hunger Games books, and Katniss, a lot, but it’s way too early to say whether she’s going to be iconic. Come back in 50 years and we’ll see.

      Angie

  2. Holy Blood, Holy Grail 1983
    Jes’ sayin’

  3. You know, I think she’s missing the point. Iconic characters don’t stand alone. They need supporting characters who are as strong as they are, who provide memorable conflicts or support.

    Scarlett O’Hara needs Rhett Butler. Luke needs Leia. Indy needs Marion (or his dad, depending on the movie).

    And it’s not a person that can provide support. There’s place. Holmes + Watson = Good. Holmes + Watson + fog-shrouded London = Memorable!

  4. Indiana Jones tends to stay just this side of plausibility, when it comes to real-world exploits of archaeological cowboyism; whereas Da Vinci Code has so many factual errors per page that your eyes have to keep rolling.

    That said, the point of Luke is that Han would be too harsh of a protagonist, Ben too knowing, and the droids too neurotic. Luke is the balance. And he wasn’t bland to me, when I was a little kid. He was awesome and cool.

    There was one brief shining moment at the beginning of the movie when I thought Leia was going to be the protagonist, though. Sigh.

    OTOH, I don’t really remember anything clearly about Atticus, except that he was a lawyer and a dad, and Gregory Peck played him. Don’t remember much about the whole novel, in fact, except the dead bird thing. Didn’t dislike it, but I guess there are so many very special television episodes against prejudice that it didn’t register permanently. I remember the girl was named Scout.

    • Yeah, I don’t think that Finch is an iconic character, either. You could ask ten random people who that is, and you might get three or four who know, maybe. Then ask the same people to complete the name “Darth …”(But if anyone says “Maul” or “Sidious” they should be punched.)

      • That’s because Darth Talon is waaaay cooler than any of the boys.

      • Darth Tyranus? Darth Caedus? Darth Plagueis?

        :-p

        (The first was Count Dooku. The second was Leia’s older son. The third traned Sideous…)

        Anyway, what makes an iconic character depends on the reader/viewer. The audience influences who’s iconic or even memorable.

        And if an author has a solid enough supporting cast, with a variety of personalities, they increase the likelihood that at least one of the characters will “click” with a reader.

        There are a few series I read wherein I hate the narrator—I can’t even always remember the MC’s name—but I keep reading them anyway due to a particular side character or some such thing.

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