What Makes An Iconic Character? (And How Can You Create One?) - A sculptor creates a nondescript statue, transforming it into The Doctor with a fez and bow tie.

What Makes An Iconic Character? (And How Can You Create One?)

We are entirely reader supported. This article may contain affiliate links and we may earn a small commission when you click on the links at no additional cost to you. As an Amazon Affiliate we earn from qualifying purchases.

Iconic characters tower over our pop-cultural landscape. From Dracula to Tarzan, they stand the test of time to become recognizable figures to generation after generation. Sometimes, they kick-start entire genres and subgenres of fiction, and usually, dozens of imitators will follow in their wake, cementing their legacy as the first of their kind. Creating one is no certainly no easy task, but it’s doable if you understand what the ingredients are and how to use them effectively.

What is an iconic character?

A lot of people confuse ‘iconic’ with ‘popular.’ It’s an easy mistake to make, because iconic characters do have to be popular, but their popularity has to be durable. For instance, Games of ThronesJon Snow is a popular and internationally recognizable character today, but will he still be in ten, twenty, or fifty years’ time? Only time will tell.

An iconic character is often larger than any one story they appear in. Click To Tweet

An iconic character is essentially someone whose presence is so desirable that it independently elevates their story. Someone who you want to spend time with and go on any adventure with. They don’t always have to be relatable, or even heroic – just really interesting, and by extension, probably really cool. They might not even be your main character. Han Solo is a far more compelling character than Luke Skywalker, even without a lightsaber and magical space powers.

The originator factor

It’s hard not to think about superheroes when discussing iconic characters, especially given their current resurgence in popularity. As characters of a visual medium, they quite literally come with iconography that makes them easily memorable. But, not all of them achieve that status. It’s still all down to whether or not they possess the right qualities as characters and resonate with new generations.

As with most icons, a lot of this boils down to the ‘originator’ factor. Batman and Superman set the precedent as the first of their kind, with virtually every superhero since having to measure up to either one. Though consistent reinvention and good storytelling has maintained their status, their place in history is assured. You could say the same thing about Sherlock Holmes, Mr. Darcy, and Frankenstein’s monster.

So, what can you learn from this? Well, it may seem obvious, but uniqueness – as tricky as it is to pull off these days – is a good place to start. Harness the power of the ‘originator’ and your character could really stand the test of time. Having said that, even Bats and Supes didn’t come out of nowhere. Superman is a modern-day god from ancient mythology – Hercules with an alien twist and an undercurrent of Jewish diaspora. Batman, on the other hand, is far more modern – a cocktail of Zorro, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula. Though they’re as different as day and night, the key thing to draw from both is that an eclectic mix of ingredients can taste really good together, and produce something that seems brand new.

The copycat test

The real test is then to see how ripe for copying your character is. An originator is only an originator if there can be copycat versions. Hence why we have an entire superhero genre, rather than just two comic book characters who happen to have a penchant for capes and justice. Simplicity is usually the key to this. Batman and Superman can be boiled down to pretty basic elements and still be recognizable in personality, motives, and appearance.

Think about whether or not you think your character is ripe for imitation. Have you created a unique (as possible) formula that others will wish they’d thought up?

Iconic characters need to be simple, timeless, and memorable.Click To Tweet

The copycat test is also about flexibility. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is a mysterious, immortal man who longs for human blood and human company. Stoker’s haunting characterization remains powerful to this day.

The last I saw of Count Dracula was his kissing his hand to me, with a red light of triumph in his eyes, and with a smile that Judas in hell might be proud of.

– Bram Stoker, Dracula

The vampire myth he helped establish survives to this day, because it only needs a couple of characteristics to be recognizable, leaving lots of space for constant reinterpretation. Dracula himself – the originator – remains relevant because of the pretenders to his throne.

Reinventing an archetype

The task of creating a brand new archetype is of course a daunting and difficult one. So, how about taking a well-known one and reinventing it, instead? By this, I don’t just mean taking a stock character type and giving them a unique quirk. She’s a forensic pathologist, but she solves cases using only her sense of smell! Premises like that may be fun, but not usually enough to cement a lasting legacy (though it can happen).

If we stick with superheroes as examples, Alan Moore’s masked detective, Rorschach from Watchmen pushes the Batman archetype to its logical extreme to produce a really compelling narrator. More specifically, Rorschach’s character was directly lifted from another DC comics detective, The Question, who Moore sought to originally use for the story, but was denied. The Question himself is already a pretty hardcore superhero detective in the Batman mold, so Rorschach’s lineage is clear. You can hear echoes of the Caped Crusader at his most vengeful in his diary entries.

Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout “Save us!”… and I’ll look down, and whisper “No.”

Rorshach’s journal, October 12th, 1985

– Alan Moore, Watchmen

All the right elements are there. He has a distinctive way of speaking, a distinctive costume, and simple motives without being a simple character. You instantly get a good idea of who he is from that one excerpt alone, yet there are more layers to discover that make him captivating.

Despite fitting comfortably into a well-established ‘type’, Rorschach manages to stick in the reader’s mind by smashing the perceived limits of that type, behaving in ways that marked him out as more ideologically and practically extreme than his forebears.

Extremity isn’t the only way to go, but in this instance it offered a fresh approach. It’s also worth noting that Rorschach is heavily bound up in objectivism and examines the Batman archetype through that lens. This is a tried and tested way of creating an iconic character – using an established philosophical discipline to explore a familiar character ‘type’ – and something that works especially well with pulp characters, who tend to make complex systems of belief more heightened and engaging.

Marrying a pulp archetype to an unusual philosophy can produce an iconic character.Click To Tweet

Many readers, for example, can’t quite let go of Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently, a ‘holistic’ detective who claims he simply allows the fundamental forces of the universe to play out and ‘solve’ any given situation. Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter, in contrast, is a serial killer raised with a strict set of rules that only allow him to prey on other killers, without necessarily imbuing him with actual empathy.

Both characters represent a reliable recipe for an icon – a character dedicated to an easily understandable goal but motivated to go about it according to unusual (but consistent) logic. As a fictional vigilante, Batman was nothing new, but a fictional vigilante who did it all dressed as a bat was something special. Likewise, Rorschach broke from the idea of vigilante superheroes as moral, balanced, and just, instead representing an unhinged, unilateral aggressor whose ideas of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ didn’t necessarily correlate with those of the reader.

Memorable versus iconic

That being said, as memorable as Rorschach is, he obviously hasn’t managed to reach the same status as Batman. Certainly not yet, anyway. The hard truth is, creating new iconic characters today is a very difficult task. Creating cult characters like Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Katniss Everdeen is possible, but those that we can truly call iconic – ones that defy medium and genre to be universally recognizable and influential – are pushing their 50th, 75th and even 100th anniversaries. Arguably, the only iconic character to have been created relatively recently is Harry Potter. Before that, characters like James Bond and Indiana Jones fit the description comfortably.

So, what does Harry Potter have that a character like Rorscach doesn’t? Other than, you know, using wands instead of toilet seats to beat their enemies. The things they share are tragic origin stories, unique physical traits (Harry has the lightning-bolt scar, Rorschach has the ink-blot mask) and the grit to push them to achieve insurmountable odds, despite significant flaws. But, what pushes Harry up a tier is probably accessibility.

Moore’s Watchmen is a cynical meta-commentary on both the superhero genre and the cultural climate of the 1980s. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is an unironic, ‘good vs. evil’ fantasy world of pure escapism. With barely any references to pop culture or technology, the wizarding world isn’t tied to a specific time or place, and Harry is distinct enough to be unforgettable while flexible enough to have cross-generation appeal. Harry is therefore immediately accessible to any given audience at any given time, presenting no barriers to the reader’s appreciation of the emotions and ideas he embodies.

It’s worth noting how often iconic characters are written for younger readers. This isn’t because they’re merely ‘simpler’, but because they’re more likely to be larger than life, connect directly with big, relatable ideas, and be available to the widest possible readership. Even those iconic characters who aren’t meant for younger readers – such as Dracula and Hannibal Lecter – cut through reader maturity to a potent vein of fear or triumph that makes them particularly vivid on an emotional level.

Not every story needs an iconic character

This is something important to consider. Books like The Da Vinci Code arguably have a compelling plot led by a not-so-compelling hero. You want to go on the journey, but you’re not really bothered whether it’s Dr. Robert Langdon or SpongeBob SquarePants who goes on it with you. (Scratch that: I definitely have a preference.)

Not every story is begging for an iconic hero, and some are better without.Click To Tweet

In that kind of story, the plot is the star, the characters take a backseat, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

True icons stand alone

Iconic characters should be accessible to a wide readership, with simple goals and a definable philosophy guiding their actions. If they can be visually unique, that’s useful, but it’s far more important that they have immediate presence and import. The more context and foreknowledge a reader needs to appreciate your character, the less likely you’re writing an icon. The same isn’t necessarily true of the story they appear in – these can be far more complex than the iconic hero who inhabits them – but will help create an iconic hero who ‘works’ even if they’re dropped into a different story.

Because of an iconic character’s unique relationship with story, it’s often a good idea to avoid arcs that resolve what makes them special. Check out Does Every Story Need A Character Arc? for advice on this (and another appearance from Rorschach). For more helpful advice, you can also try This Is The Blueprint For A Perfect Cast Of Characters, for advice on the type of cast that suits an icon, and Understanding Cultural Trends Can Help You Write A Bestseller, for advice on the types of ideas that society is always looking for in its art.

Is there an iconic character that you think defines what makes icons work, or a ‘famous’ character that stops short of being an icon? Let me know in the comments.

104 Shares

6 thoughts on “What Makes An Iconic Character? (And How Can You Create One?)”

  1. I wanted to ask you this question about successful story writing.

    Do you find that the most popular bestsellers follow simple themes or complex ones?
    For example Harry Potter followed a relatively simple theme. Following a young wizard through school. We were constantly met with familiar relatable experiences such as falling in love, rejection, bullying, and success.

    Now lets say Harry Potter was introduced as a 30 yr old man. And the novels took on a more complex plot structure, do you think the book would be as popular? The reason I ask this is because I’m trying to find the balance between simple and complex in my writing.

    I am based in the USA and a lot of my fantasy/fiction writing tends to reflect my personal critiques of the USA system. But I am wondering if the trick to successful writing is in opinionated journey. I don’t remember there being specific political undertones in Harry Potter.

    So in conclusion I would be delighted to see you comment on my question. Or write a blog post about it.

    1. Hi James,

      Thanks for such a good question! It’s tricky to give a definitive answer, so perhaps you’re right in that it really deserves a whole blog post rather than just a reply in the comment section.

      Sticking with Harry Potter, I feel that it works so well because it’s a complex world with a simple theme. It really is just good vs. evil when you break it down, which kids can easily understand. For adults though, the political undertones are very strong: Voldemort’s quest for purity in the Wizarding world parallels Nazi ideals, and the resistance movement to stop him once he grabs power mirrors resistance movements that happened from within and outside of Germany at the time. Subliminally, this gives younger readers some understanding of a horrific political movement from the real world in a fantastical setting.

      I think the recipe for success to learn from this particular example is how effective it can be to reach audiences of so many different ages by distilling something complex down into something simple. A relatively simple and universal theme can be furnished by intricate world-building, complex characters and as you mentioned – all the intricacies of seeing Harry navigate through his difficult teenage years.

      Hope that helps!

      – Hannah

  2. “Is there an iconic character that you think defines what makes icons work, or a ‘famous’ character that stops short of being an icon?”

    Yes. Gandalf the Gray (from Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT & THE LORD OF THE RINGS books) has become THE iconic “Good Wizard”: An ancient yet stout man with a long, long beard, smoking a long pipe, always wearing a high hat, always hiding his full nature, yet always being a benevolent force And always refusing to use his considerable power to solve the protagonist’s problems, even though he easily could!

    As for famous characters that aren’t quite iconic… I think Wonder Woman fits the bill. Her costume is just as idiosyncratic as the costumes of Superman and Batman, her origin is even more mythical and epic than Superman’s or batman’s origins, and her very concept practically oozes “Iconic-ness”, seeing as she basically is both the sworn protector of womankind’s liberty AND the guardian that protects the modern world from mythical menaces (like Zeus running amok, Ares/Mars trying to start WWIII, or Khronos trying to reduce the world to the primordial chaos from which it supposedly sprang) yet she has never become as iconic as Superman or Batman.

    Albeit the feminists adopted her as their “icon”, which, of course, didn’t exactly help the matter at all. Wonder Woman is STILL thought of as a “girl comic” or what I would call “girl fiction”. Even though most of her real fans (not just creeps like the feminists, who only want to exploit Wonder Woman for their political motives anyway) are guys, not gals!

    Another character who is VERY famous, but doesn’t quite register as iconic would be Disney’s Peter Pan. Make no mistake, I love that movie, and whenever I think of Peter Pan, I first think of his Disney incarnation before I think of Barrie’s Peter Pan.

    But Peter Pan (the character himself, not the movie/book that were named after him) nonetheless doesn’t seem to reach QUITE the state of an “iconic” character.

    Whereas his sidekick/girlfriend Tinkerbell certainly HAS become THE iconic “star-fairy” or pixie. Heck, she outclasses even the five other Disney fairies from PINOCCHIO, CINDERELLA & SLEEPING BEAUTY. In fact, I dare claim that Tinkerbell, as a visual creation, is a better character than the other five fairies combined! (Even though PINOCCHIO and SLEEPING BEAUTY are better movies than PETER PAN.)

    So Tinkerbell is basically not only the single most iconic character from PETER PAN (and that movie’s main character is already recognizable enough that most people who saw that character even once will associate him at least with a specific way of imagining Peter Pan to the end of their life), but she is one of the most iconic Disney characters of all time, embodying the magic and wonderment that radiate from the Disney movies. Maybe only Micky Mouse, Donald Duck, Tweety and Bugs Bunny are stronger visual creations. (And the pigs among us could probably make a case that Jessica Rabbit at least rivals Tinkerbell, but I myself never liked Jessica’s obscenely over-sexed conception, not even as a teenager in the mid-eighties. I always found her creepy, not funny.)

    1. Hi Andreas,

      I can see you’ve really put a lot of thought into this – thanks for such a detailed answer! Gandalf the Grey and Peter Pan are really interesting examples and I agree that they qualify as more famous than iconic. Your Tinkerbell point got me thinking about where the line is between an ‘icon’ and a ‘mascot.’ It seems that with enough marketing power, a company like Disney can propel a character into seeming like an icon through sheer ubiquity, and you could say the same for a lot of their other characters like Mickey Mouse.

      I’m not so sure about Wonder Woman though. It may just be a difference of opinion, but I do feel that she’s earned her place alongside Batman and Superman. I’m not sure how many other characters could have qualified as being UN Ambassadors if their status in pop culture wasn’t as significant as hers. As for her being “exploited” by “feminist creeps” (a little unwarranted, don’t you think?) don’t forget that her creator Willam Moulton Marston (who was an ardent supporter of women’s suffrage) explicitly created her as a champion for women. It’s hard to not see the political DNA that went into her creation.

      In answer to your other points: as an avid comic reader myself I can tell you that we female readers actually take up nearly half of comic book readership (http://www.comicsbeat.com/market-research-says-46-female-comic-fans/) so I’m sure her “real fans” include a lot of women like me – particularly the women who have written and drawn her over the years. You seem quite dismissive of the idea of Woman Woman being thought of as a “girl comic,” (which, incidentally, there’s nothing wrong with it being) but to my knowledge warrior princesses always seem to have strong cross-gender appeal, which has surely only helped her continued popularity.

      Thanks for the comment.

      – Hannah

  3. Hello Hannah,

    aww no. I only notized your response now, after over a month! Too bad…

    About your points:

    I think that Gandalf’s CONCEPT (as I summarized it, an ancient yet stout man etc) is iconic. The CHARACTER Gandalf himself probably isn’t QUITE iconic yet (but very famous!), since you still need to have read either THE HOBBIT or THE LORD OF THE RINGS to know what Gandalf is about.

    But even there, when you DO read either of those two books, Gandalf’s TYPE seems instantly familiar, even though you never encountered somebody like him before! That’s what being an “iconic” character type is all about!

    That said, I’certain that Peter Pan (especially the Disney version, albeit I think it is bady and totally unjustificably maligned, just because it isn’t as dark as as Barrie’s excellent books and play on whom Disney’s movie was based) is ultimately both more famous and less iconic than Gandalf.

    “Your Tinkerbell point got me thinking about where the line is between an ‘icon’ and a ‘mascot.’ It seems that with enough marketing power, a company like Disney can propel a character into seeming like an icon through sheer ubiquity”…

    An excellent question. I think Tinkerbell was already iconic decades before Disney finally decided to MAKE her its mascot when they started to put out their Disney Home Video cassettes. Remember, that happened as late as the mid-eighties, and Tinkerbell had been, even back then, already been iconic for DECADES before the mid-Eighties!

    And there are good reasons for that. Not only is Tinkerbelle probably Disney’s most magnificient visual creation (really, is there any one character that embodies fantasy and the beauty of fantasy better than Tinkerbell?), but she’s also very good at symbolizing the traits that Disney (as a company) wants to be associated with. So it was only natural that Disney decided to “push” her image.

    But make no mistake: Tinkerbell really didn’t need any marketing push or the like to become famous. Because she already was a nearly perfect visual character that instantly won the hearts of almost every child who saw her illustration soon as she was published!

    Honest, it would have been far more difficult and expensive to push somebody else (like, say, Snow White or Bambi, another two favorites of mine) as a mascot for the entirety of what Disney is supposedly about than it would be to merely use a character like Tinkerbell, whose very visual conception already oozes exactly the traits Disney wanted to market for itself.

    About Wonder Woman: Wow, finally somebody who LIKES her! Great!

    But I think you’re mistaken about William Marston. He may have been a supporter of the sufragettes (or at least been paying lip service to them “for the camera” as it were, that is, pretending to be one of their supporters in the public eye).

    But he really did so only because it served his purposes: He wanted multible women he could bed at the same time in his private life while pretending in his”public” life to be the perfect “family man”. But he wanted to bed physically fit women, that is, women who were in the shape of female sportlers.

    THAT’S why he pushed the feminist agenda: Not because he believed the women needed “empowering”. But solely because ultimately, he wanted only one thing from women:

    He wanted women to lose their “inhibitions”. After all, a woman with a broken inhibition will be far more likely to fall victim to the manipulations of a smarter man, will she not? And Marston was a master manipulator. He knew that the easiest way to get a woman into bed is to make a show of “respecting her”, and then slyly manipulate her into “doing what SHE wants”, which, somehow, always seems to end with the woman hopping into bed to the manipulator, because, after all, it’s rellly only a step on the way to the “empowering of woman”, eh?

    And certainly, he didn’t care at ALL whether or not he was “respecting women” when he came home with a lover and gave his own wife with children the following ultimatum: Either his new lover could stay in his house (and his wife had to hush it up of course), or he would take his new lover and LEAVE his former wife with children forever.

    So much for that false “champion of women’s rights”. Marston was a very evil man; He was perverse. Read “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” as a starting point, and you’ll be able to appreciate just what a MONSTER Marston really was. (https://www.amazon.com/Secret-History-Wonder-Woman/dp/0804173400/ref=pd_cp_14_1?_encoding=UTF8&psc=1&refRID=2NBX7SBZACFR56BD5SPS)

    And “Feminism”?

    Feminism is just as bad as Marston EVER was. Feminism was a political movement created and funded by a male (and financially very wealthy and very powerful) elite to create women who could both physically work just as hard as men (you can’t send a “lady” into the factory or the mines, at least not without having a violent mutinity of all your male workers on your head; But a “gal” who’s “just like the guys” is something else altogether, isn’t it?), yet who could also be easily exploited as “sex slaves”, which is, of course, far easier once you have removed their inhibitions and planted some daft ideas about “female empowerment”, the “female journey” etc in their pretty little heads.

    And yes, Wonder Woman was PART of that agenda. She was specifically developed as an instrument for helping create, in time, over the course of several generations, a new “breed” of women who would be less “inhibited” and hence, could be far easier exploited for the purposes of jerks/monsters like Marston.

    When I found out about it, I was rather devastated: Wonder Woman was the reason I had originally (in first quarter of 1980) become a life-long super-hero fan. So, as you can imagine, it was rather painful for me when many years later by 1994, I started to realize that Wonder Woman’s origins were motivated in some satanic political cabal.

    But then again, it certainly explains why I have always hated the original (Golden Age) version of Wonder Woman: I never liked that particular character, and even though her Golden Age stories are just about the most imaginative the comics medium has EVER produced (with the possible exception of LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND, and even THAT exception is questionable at best), I always felt dirtie and depressed after reading stories with her.

    No wonder in retrospect, because those stories not only show the world through the filthy lense of William Marston’s perverted psyche, but those stories also were specifically created as a sort of both obvious and subliminal propaganda for pushing the agenda of “the empowered woman”, which always implicitly (never obviously) includes the ideology that men (as a gender) are (on principle) inferior and evil, and the world will be a far better place soon as women are in charge or better yet, “males” will be abolished altogether. Those stories were specifically written to erode both the morality of women and the resistance of men. Not over the course of one reading, of course; But over the course of several generations.

    As to Wonder Woman being just as iconic as Superman and Batman, I have to disagree: As a German, I can tell you that Wonder Woman is only STARTING to get famous in Germany now, and that’s even though the first Wonder Woman translation was already published in Germany at least as far back as 1976. Certainly in 1981, I was lucky if Wonder Woman made at least a CAMEO in one of the German JLA books!

    Whereas Superman and Batman ARE the superhero genre. THEY are the standards, with everything else – including Spider-Man – just being a fad.

    And Superman, in particular, CREATED the superhero genre. You know, the genre that went on to utterly dominate the comic book medium, before it became the ONLY genre in the comic book medium.

    Wonder Woman, meanwhile, has done nothing important. Sure, she was a cog in the machinery of feminsm. But neither did she create a whole genre (like Superman did), nor is she DC’s most beloved character (like Batman is), nor is she the first superheroine: That distinction goes to Fantomah.

    But again, I strongly urge you to examine the dark, hell-spawned origins of Wonder Woman. Unless you are a fan of specifically the ORIGINAL Wonder Woman (whose stories played out troughout the 1940ies to 1951), your love for Wonder Woman will probably endure. Especially if you happen to be a fan of one of the Wonder Women who originated in 1973 or later.

    But I think you need to realize the true motivations behind both Feminism and one of feminism’s minor tools, the Marston(original) Wonder Woman. It ain’t pretty, but VERY enlightening. (And interesting, too!)

    “You seem quite dismissive of the idea of Woman Woman being thought of as a “girl comic,” (which, incidentally, there’s nothing wrong with it being)”

    I am sorry that I sound dismisive about girl comics. That wasn’t my intention.

    You’re right: there’s nothing wrong with girl comics per se. But most guys won’t touch them with a pole, which always made it a lonely reading when I was reading WONDER WOMAN in the eighties, and i had NOBODY I could discuss her stories with.

    On the other hand: Would YOU read a comic series that always depict your gender as inferior at best, outright evil at worst, and depicted a male main character in a very skimpy costume that laid bare at least a quarter of his genitals?

  4. Hello Hannah.

    What an interesting read. thank you. 🙂
    What do you mean by ‘established philosophical discipline’

    Thank you so much,

    Sofia

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.