A great character can come out of nowhere. It can come from a comic book, a movie, a book, or a TV show. But what unites all of the characters on this list is that you’ll never forget any of them. They might be menacing, or inspirational, or a stinker, but they’re all imprinted on your brain forever.
Of course, there are plenty of iconic characters that couldn’t be included here. Still, these iconic characters represent the best of what fiction can do. These characters are exciting, emblematic, and totemic, and they also had an enormous influence on all the fiction that comes after. No characters are wholly original, but these are the characters that transformed what we thought fiction could be.
1. Darth Vader
The helmet, the breathing, the choking: Every element of Darth Vader made him iconic the instant he showed up on screen. We eventually learn much more about who Vader is and where he’s come from, but even when he’s pure evil, it’s hard to imagine a character more intimidating. So much of what makes Vader iconic comes from his look, but his voice, which is courtesy of James Earl Jones, is also essential to making him the ultimate villain that he eventually becomes.
As the first superhero in the history of comics, it feels hard to overstate the impact that Superman has had on modern culture. He’s become a symbol of American ideals, but also for what heroes should really represent, which is a belief that the world of tomorrow can be better than today. Superman may feel a little corny to modern audiences, but that’s only because so many other heroes have come along to poke fun at the pure ideals that he so often espouses.
3. James Bond
If the British have their own Superman, it might as well be James Bond. Bond is a sexy, smooth-talking, hard-drinking spy who always manages to win the day. Much like Superman, Bond has had to evolve to exist in a wide variety of different eras, but through it all, he’s remained a consistent fascination for his many fans in the U.K. and around the world. After all, not many fictional characters would get to escort the queen to the London Olympics.
4. Bugs Bunny
The stinker to end all stinkers, Bugs Bunny is the most iconic of the Loony Tunes, who are all icons in their own ways. Disney gave us plenty of earnest animation, but Bugs Bunny is much more devious and an outright whackadoo. You root for him in part because you want to see what kind of trouble he’s going to cause next, even as you know that he’s a fundamentally good guy. Several core elements of his character were actually based on Clark Gable It Happened One Night, and that comic energy has kept him relevant for decades.
5. The Joker
The Joker edges onto this list ahead of the caped crusader himself in part because the character has come to mean so much to our culture today. He’s appeared on screen in several films without his nemesis, and the utter chaos that he represents has only become more and more relevant as each year has passed. There are plenty of people who just want to blow it all up, and in the Joker, those people have found the closest thing they’re going to get to a fictional avatar.
6. Mickey Mouse
Walt Disney’s defining creation is iconic in part because he’s come to represent the Disney brand more generally, but he also works in perfect contrast to a character like Bugs Bunny. Mickey is much more wholesome and plucky, which is very much indicative of what Disney’s overall aesthetic is. There is no chaos or coyness in Mickey. What you see is what you get, and what you see is wholesome, sweet, and entirely safe for kids. Disney has grown into one of the biggest entertainment conglomerates on the planet, but Mickey still sits at the center of it all, assuring everyone that dreams do occasionally come true.
One of the first great mythic villains, Dracula, and vampires more generally, have remained an object of fascination in pop culture for decades. He’s seductive, sexy, mysterious, and he definitely just wants to suck you dry. It’s easy to parody the Transylvania accent, but Dracula has endured in part because there’s a real sense of intrigue hidden behind all the broadest aspects of the character.
8. Dorothy Gale
The woman who taught us there’s no place like home, Dorothy Gale is the protagonist at the heart of one of the most important movies ever made, and a truly wondrous and imaginative story. Judy Garland’s performance as Dorothy, her wholesome yearning to be somewhere else, and her realization that her home is better than she thought it was, make the movie sing, and that’s before she breaks into literal song and belts one of the most iconic songs ever written. It may have been a book first, but the movie version of Dorothy is the one that’s stuck.
9. Robin Hood
The mythic figure who stole from the rich to give to the poor, Robin Hood was among the first action heroes ever invented. He’s also a great emblem of all those who know that what is right and what is lawful aren’t always the same thing. Robin Hood is the definition of a lovable scamp; someone who defies those in authority but fights for the little guy. He’s a figure we’ve often tried to find in our politics and in other stories, but Robin Hood was the first, and he remains one of the best.
10. Romeo and Juliet
The fair lovers of Verona are probably the most famous romantic pairing in the history of fiction. These two characters have so thoroughly ingratiated themselves into our culture that we see regular adaptations of Shakespeare’s most famous play on the big and small screen, as well as strange adaptations like Gnomeo & Juliet. Shakespeare is supposed to be for the snobby amongst us, but Romeo and Juliet is a play for the people, and its two lead characters are undeniably relatable.