My Top 10 Fictional Characters
What makes a great character? Strengths such as intelligence, physical prowess, morals, and bravery are qualities every memorable character should have. But just as important are shortcomings, vulnerabilities, and how they change over the course of the story.
Everyone has their own reasons for why they love certain characters, whether it's their strengths, relatability, humor, or even how attractive they are (let's be honest).
My list includes characters from literature, movies, comics, and TV. These are my own opinions, and if you have a list you want to share, comment below!
Here we go:
10. Jamal Malik - Slumdog Millionaire
Talk about a character who went through it all. 18-year-old Jamal is competing on a game show, and suspicions rise about how he is getting all the answers correct. It turns out Jamal had a childhood full of crazy, tragic, and dangerous events that led to him gaining all that knowledge at such a young age. We see a series of flashbacks showing his past.
After his mother died, the only people in his life were his brother Salim and his friend (and later love interest) Latika. Desperate to survive, the three kids get mixed up with dangerous gangsters and criminals. The strong-willed Salim thrives in this environment. He keeps Latika with him and pushes the passive Jamal out of their lives.
Years later, Jamal reunites with Salim and, despite his anger toward his brother, expresses forgiveness. Jamal realizes that Latika was forced to marry Salim's crime boss, and is determined see her again. As it turns out, the reason Jamal was on the game show wasn't for money, but because he knew Latika would be watching.
All great characters need to have struggles, and boy does Jamal check that box. He is mild-mannered and passive as a kid, but becomes a survivor and grows into a driven and assertive young man. Unlike Salim, who believed joining gangs and waving guns around equaled strength, Jamal stayed true to his values, and did everything in his power to reunite with his beloved Latika. This makes him a worthy character to kick off my list.
9. Andy Dufresne - The Shawshank Redemption
Like Jamal, Andy Dufresne is a character who was dealt a terrible hand. His wife cheats on him and is then killed, he's sentenced to two life sentences for a crime he didn't commit, he ends up in the most brutal prison in the nation, and is repeatedly targeted by a gang of rapists.
Dufresne is the main character in Stephen King's novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, but is primarily known thanks to Tim Robbins's powerhouse performance in the 1994 film.
He is immediately sympathetic due to the deck being stacked so heavily against him. What makes him such an iconic character is his determination, patience, wit, and ability to keep his cool in any situation. He could have easily had a mental breakdown (like the unfortunate and frantic prisoner killed by Captain Byron Hadley) or simply given up on life (like Brooks Hatlen during his parole). But Dufresne decides to get busy living rather than get busy dying. He uses his intelligence, financial knowledge, and connections among the prison to conduct a 19-year scheme that would earn him freedom.
I don't want to say any more, because this masterpiece needs to be seen to be believed.
8. Fa Mulan - Mulan (1998)
There's a reason I singled out the 1998 version of the movie, and I'll get to that in a bit.
Mulan is expected to bring her family honor by becoming a child-bearing bride, just like every other woman in their society. But when her injured father is recruited for battle, she disguises herself as a man and takes his place, knowing she will receive a death sentence if she's found out.
While she knows nothing about fighting and realizes she will probably die, she still dives headfirst into this adventure to protect her father. This immediately makes her character easy to root for.
Despite initially being the worst soldier in training camp, Mulan gives it her all, learns how to fight, and proves that strategy and intelligence can be just as important in battle as brute strength. This proves to be valuable in the end, where Mulan uses her quick-thinking ability to fend off the Hun army.
This is a stark contrast to the 2020 live-action movie, where Mulan is almost instantly one of the top soldiers in camp. In this version, she possesses an extraordinary amount of chi, which essentially give her Jedi powers. There's no struggle and no need for training, she's just naturally strong. The makers of the 2020 movie tried way too hard to make Mulan an empowering character, but failed to realize that it had already been done much better over 20 years ago.
7. Rocky Balboa - Rocky
Seriously, who doesn't love Rocky? Everybody loves Rocky. He's humble, hard-working, sensitive, tough when he needs to be, and has some of the funniest one-liners of all time ("I feel like a Kentucky-fried idiot!")
Rocky Balboa was a washed-up boxer just trying to get by. He's also an enforcer for a local loan shark, but we see that he tries to avoid hurting anybody if he can. He falls in love with Adrian, a pet store clerk to whom no one else gives a second look, and sees her inner-beauty.
Rocky gets a one-in-a-million shot to face heavyweight champ Apollo Creed, and he makes the most of it, earning himself fame, fortune, and eventually, a heavyweight title. Although Rocky makes plenty of mistakes throughout his six-movie journey (not counting the Creed movies), he still remains the grounded, easy-to-love guy from the original film. He loves feeding his pet turtles, but he can also knock out a Russian man twice his size. There's not much more I can say that hasn't already been said. Rocky's the man.
6. Luke Skywalker - Star Wars
Nooooo, not that one!
That's better. Luke Skywalker embodies the "hero's journey" in a way no other character has. He's stuck in a "comfort zone" while desiring more in life, a dangerous threat changes his world and sends him on a quest, he gains new abilities through training, and he uses those abilities to defeat the threat.
What makes Luke such an iconic protagonist is the growth we see throughout the course of the original three movies. He's a confident but naïve farm boy in the first film, a student of the Force who learns a disturbing truth in the second film, and a Jedi master who confronts that truth in the third film.
One of the first memories I have in a movie theatre was watching the original Star Wars in 1997 (it was the re-release). I distinctly remember the scene where Luke and Leia swing across a giant chasm within the Death Star while the Stormtroopers shoot at them and the John Williams score blares. As a six-year-old kid, that was a moment that screamed "hero."
Seeing Luke do everything in his power to resist the Emperor and bring the good back in his father during Return of the Jedi is enough to give anyone goosebumps.
5. Natasha Romanoff - Marvel Cinematic Universe
Anyone who knows me knew this was coming. While I haven't yet seen Black Widow, I can say that Romanoff has some of the best character development I've ever seen.
In Iron Man 2, she has some cool fight scenes, but seemed to be there mainly as eye-candy and to help promote the first Avengers movie. We learn a decent more about her in The Avengers, but it's Winter Soldier and Age of Ultron where she really becomes a layered and complex character.
Romanoff's traumatic past included recruitment into the KGB at a young age, forced sterilization, and having to kill a defenseless man as "initiation." She was a killing machine who hid her emotions, but the more we see her friendships with the Avengers develop, the more we see just how much pain and regret she holds.
She mentions in the original Avengers that she has "red in her ledger," which seems to be a comment about the blood that she believes she may never get off her hands. This follows her all the way to Endgame years later, where she considers the Avengers to be her true family (eat your heart out, Vin Diesel).
She gives her life to save the universe in Endgame and ensured the survival of her best friend Clint Barton. With one sacrificial leap, she cleared the red from her ledger and made sure Clint went home to his family. From a tacked-on side character in Iron Man 2 to a key member in the Avengers movies, Natasha Romanoff earns her spot in the top 5.
4. Michael Corleone - The Godfather
Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone is usually what comes to mind when The Godfather is brought up. But, in both Mario Puzo's novel and Francis Ford Coppola's film series, it's Michael Corleone who is the main focus of the story.
Michael wanted nothing to do with the Corleone family business, and joined the Marine Corps following the attack on Pearl Harbor. He returns home and, when his father Vito is wounded by the Sollozzo crime family, he finally agrees to get his hands dirty. The scene where he kills Virgil Sollozzo (and the corrupt police captain on his payroll) in the restaurant is tense, and we can sense how difficult it is for Michael to pull off.
From here, Michael continues to transform from reluctant outsider to the head of the family business. His initial goal was to protect his father and siblings, but he becomes more cunning, calculating, and ruthless than anyone expected. The scene in the third act where he stands as godfather to his nephew while simultaneously executing several hits is bone-chilling.
Some call him a villain, others call him an anti-hero. Either way, Michael Corleone is one of the most memorable characters in both literature and film.
3. Walter White - Breaking Bad
Walter White (aka Heisenberg) is similar to Michael Corleone in a lot of ways. He is a man who reluctantly enters the crime world to help his family, and ends up becoming one of the most notorious and dangerous men on the planet.
He starts the show as a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who is pushed around by his wife, teased by his students, and belittled by his brother-in-law. Once he is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, his entire outlook on life changes. We find out that he is actually a chemistry genius who missed out on a massive career opportunity years ago. He finally decides to put his intellect to full use....by cooking the purest meth the world has ever seen.
With the help of his former student Jesse Pinkman, Walter takes on the name Heisenberg and builds a drug empire. Thanks to a legendary performance by Bryan Cranston, we see just what happens when the timid and dorky Walter takes on the Heisenberg persona. Walter White is reasonable, hesitant, and breaks down into tears when having to kill a dangerous man. But Heisenberg is cold, ruthless, and kills without remorse.
What really sets Walter/Heisenberg apart is just how terrifying his intellect can be. From ridding dead bodies with hydrofluoric acid to cooking up a deadly ricin poison to building wheelchair bombs, he's the most realistic portrayal of a mad scientist I've ever seen. As a shaken Jesse Pinkman puts it when describing him to the DEA agents: "You two guys are just....guys, okay? Mr. White...he's the devil. You know, he is-he is smarter than you, he is luckier than you. Whatever you think is supposed to happen-I'm telling you, the exact reverse opposite of that is gonna happen, okay?"
Like Michael Corleone, he is seen both as a villain and an anti-hero by many fans. It took a cancer diagnosis for him to pursue his desires and feel alive, even at the expense of his relationship with his family. He is a kingpin, he is the one who knocks, and he is one of the most complex characters of all time. Now...say his name.
2. Tony Stark - Marvel Cinematic Universe
Like Romanoff, Tony Stark has the advantage of being able to develop over several years and several movies. And he takes advantage of it in every way possible.
Stark has a tidy character arc in his own Iron Man trilogy, but a much bigger arc that spans from 2008's Iron Man to 2019's Avengers: Endgame.
The self-proclaimed "genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist" starts off as an arrogant womanizer who made a fortune selling weapons after taking over his father's company. When he is kidnapped and held prisoner in the Middle East, he sees what his weapons are truly being used for, and changes his ways. Stark builds the Iron Man suit and acts as a peacekeeper rather than a tool of war. This is a mentality that he carries into the other movies, where his focus gradually shifts from his own well-being to the well-being of others.
Stark does everything he can throughout the movies to be a good man for Pepper, a good mentor for Peter Parker, and a protector of the world.
This culminates into an epic finale in Endgame where Stark goes toe-to-toe with Thanos, and ultimately sacrifices his life to help save the universe. He could have easily ignored the other Avengers's dangerous mission and retired peacefully with Pepper and his daughter, but he chose to do what was best for everyone else, showing just how far his character had come since the original Iron Man.
He is Iron Man, and we love him 3000.
1. Nariyoshi Miyagi - The Karate Kid
Mr. Miyagi is a character who never fails to put a smile on my face. The maintenance man/karate master saves high schooler Daniel LaRusso from a group of bullies, then teaches him how to defend himself and become a champion.
Simple enough premise, but Pat Morita brings a charm and likability to this role that no one else could. Miyagi is a gentle man who loves fishing and trimming bonsai trees, but he can and will knock you out if he has to. This scene from Karate Kid Part III is probably my favorite in the entire trilogy: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hp95hjKmZUU.
Miyagi has an unusual teaching strategy, but he ultimately helps Daniel in both karate and life. He is equipped with many wise and inspirational quotes: https://screenrant.com/karate-kid-mr-miyagi-wise-inspiring-quotes/
He's wise, and also kind of a wise-ass. One of my favorite moments comes before the big tournament.
Daniel: "Don't you know anything you can tell me?"
Miyagi: "Hai. Don't get hit."
Mr. Miyagi is a man who always seems to have every situation under control, almost in a superhuman way, but it's in the first Karate Kid where we see his vulnerability and humanity. On his wedding anniversary, he gets drunk, and we find out that his wife and newborn child died in a concentration camp while he was serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. This was a sad and powerful scene that earned Pat Morita an Oscar nomination.
Due to Pat Morita's death in 2005, Miyagi is not in the Netflix series Cobra Kai, but his presence is certainly felt throughout it. Even in adulthood, Daniel still has his struggles, and it's Mr. Miyagi's old letters and sayings that help him through. Thanks to his wisdom, sense of humor, and martial arts prowess, Mr. Miyagi tops my list. Banzai!!!
Who are your favorite fictional characters? Comment below!