In this exclusive, we reveals the secrets behind the best movie characters of all time, and why you love those movie characters so damn much.
Han Solo. Harry Potter. Sarah Connor. Simba. These amazing characters know how to grab you by the hand and whisk you away on a journey through an alternative reality. And, if you’re a writer like me, they’re also truly inspirational while you sit there (or here) waiting for the agent to call you to tell you your years of hard work have paid off (come on phone, ring already, give me the good news!… *silence).
The best movie characters of all time grab you by the hand and lead you on a journey.
You watch their stories, you get sucked into their narrative, you cheer for them, you cry for them (“It’ll be okay, Bambi, I’m sorry a human shot your mum. I wish it were illegal to harm animals too!)… you love characters, sometimes you hate them, but you will always remember them. We’ve come to love movie characters so much that many of us (a-hem… this author included) cosplay as them when we go to see their flicks—I’m sure I wasn’t the only Wookie roaring out loud in anticipation as the Lucasfilm logo showed on the opening night of The Force Awakens.
The best movie characters grasp at your mind, at your imagination, and at your heart, and make you fall head over heels in love with them. How?
Ever since Aristotle wrote The Poetic (available on Amazon) s—the single most important book on storytelling—writers have argued, debated, and theorised what it takes to make a damn good character. And through reading over 100 books on the subject I’ve written my own guide to writing amazing characters too (it’s the guide I use to create my own characters).
Sitting there at the cinema with your popcorn in hand, watching those movie characters up on the big screen, you might think that movie characters are just pure inspiration, or that they’re simply representations of real world people. In truth, characters represent that magical space where inspiration, reality, and fantasy collide into one body: the protagonist.
In his ground-breaking book Writing 21st Century Fiction Writing 21st Century Fiction: High Impact Techniques for Exceptional Storytelling, literary agent Donald Maas says, “Standout main characters are the tent-poles that hold up high impact fiction”.
But just what exactly makes a standout character? What makes one of the best movie characters of all time? Let’s investigate that timeless question as we dive into this list of the best movie characters of all time.
All right, character lovers, lets dive right into it. Let’s get into the list of the best movie characters of all time. But rather than just counting them down like any old blog, let’s look behind the scenes at the secrets that go into making the best movie characters of all time.
Tony Montana from Scarface
If you ever sit down for a pint or a lovely Cherry Coke with a film school student, acting student, or any kind of writer, ask them what makes a great character. They’ll explode into a mass exegesis on the theory of character design. You’ll hear all sorts of wonderful ideas.
“Self sacrifice is a must,” the fantasy author will tell you.
“A unique voice is imperative,” says the dramatist.
“No character should be without a core set of personal beliefs and principles,” says the literati.
The one thing all these people will agree on is this: the protagonist must be very highly energised and must act in unpredictable ways that constantly surprise people.
While you’re sitting there having this conversation with your writing friend, take a look around. And if there are tons of strangers listening in on you, say, “You all a bunch of focking assholes. You know why? You don’t have the guts to be what you wanna be. You need people like me. You need people like me so you can point your focking fingers and say ‘that the bad guy.’”
Why would you say that? Because the restaurant scene from Scarface is one of the best moments of spontaneity in film. It’s that kind of moment that makes Tony Montana one of the best movie characters of all time.
Why is Tony Montana one of the best movie characters of all time? Because you never know what he’s going to do next. You perch on the edge of your seat, wide eyes staring at the screen, wondering, “My god what’s this Tony Montana dude gonna do next?” And you simply have to keep watching Scarface because you’re so intrigued to see Tony Montana’s next action.
And that is just one way how good movie characters are written. They’re written with spontaneity so you never know what’s going to happen next.
So, who’s next in our list of the best movie characters ever?
Tony Montana. Simba. What the hell do they both have in common? Other than being two of the best movie characters of all time?
Actually, a lot.
Both Tony Montana and Simba illustrate two more essentials of great characters. Great movie characters must have firm principles and they must develop, going from point A to point B.
Tony Montana had his principles (he refuses to assassinate his target when he’s in the car, because doing so would kill a woman and two kids too).
Simba? Simba’s principles all revolve around The Circle Of Life. In the first act he’s eagerly listening to his father and learning all about the order of life. Then when he feels responsible for his father’s untimely death (which represents disorder in the circle of life) he flees because he considers himself unworthy to be part of Pride Rock. And he only returns when he learns that the Circle of Life has been led to ruin by Scar. And at isn’t until the very end of the movie (which makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck every time) that Simba ascends Pride Rock, takes his natural place in the Circle Of Life, and becomes the lion he was born to be. Simba’s principles guide him in everything.
And as for Simba’s character development. It’s sublime—not surprisingly, given that the story is based on Hamlet, the greatest play every written.
Simba’s character development leads him from a young prince cub to a homeless and starving lion to a vagabond and back to Pride Rock to become king. That’s a “circle of life” in itself.
By having a firm set of principles and a fantastic character development, Simba becomes another of the best movie characters of all time.
The Ensemble Characters Of Star Wars
It’s one thing when you’ve got a great lead character. A gripping lead can carry a movie all by themselves. Just think about slick Brit James Bond, a man so stylish he makes even crappy movies seem fun (Quantum Of Solace and License To Kill are truly bland flicks rendered somewhat credible by James Bond’s character).
Having a fantastic lead is one thing. But it’s always better to have a contrast of characters that come together to create a fantastic ensemble.
Star Wars is a shining example.
Luke Skywalker isn’t exactly the most fascinating character in the world. Isolate Luke from the other characters and he’s a very typical hero figure with a very typical narrative. It’s only when he’s partnered with Leia, Han, Chewie, the droids, Obi Wan, Darth Vader, and Yoda that he really shines.
Creating the right ensemble of characters is an art all in itself. As John Truby says in The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller, “To create great characters, [writers] think of all their characters as being part of a web, with each character helping to serve the others.”
Luke is a basic hero character, but all the other characters add additional elements to Luke’s character.
When you realise that he could become like Darth Vader he also becomes dangerous. And when he meets Yoda and connects to the philosophical side of the Force, he becomes a spiritual figure. The droids meanwhile help to highlight Luke’s boyish, childlike innocence, while Han Solo, by contrast, makes it clear that Luke isn’t yet a fully matured man, he’s not as confident, as independent, or as self reliant as Han.
A great ensemble of characters is like the notes music. It’s only when they’re played together that you get the full tune.
That’s why Star Wars’ characters are so memorable, because they feed off of each other to become a team that’s stronger than the sum of its parts.
You know a character is truly captivating when they’re able to carry a series into double figures. And the fact that style books and dating books have continuously referenced James Bond as an icon of how to be cool simply shows how damn slick 007 is.
James Bond represents yet another technique that writers use to make great characters: escalating one positive trait.
Most iconic characters in movies have one or two core strengths. Katniss Everdeen is brave and courageous. Frodo is humble and has more self control than a nun. Sarah Connor is fearless and rebellious. By taking those core strengths and amplifying them to superhuman levels, writers create breathtaking characters.
James Bond’s strength is his swagger and his calm-under-pressure mentality. No man on God’s green Earth would really be that damn cool. But by taking those strengths and amplifying them to near deafening levels of slickness, Ian Flemming created the ultimate man, the guy men want to be and women want to be with. And it’s all because of those two core strengths of style and cool.
Ellen Ripley from Alien(s)
Picking the ultimate female character is no mean feat. Ever since Hollywood (thank God) got over their sexism and started to show women as equal (and in many cases better than) men, movies have produced scintillating female characters. Hermione Granger, Holly Goliighly, Clarice Starling…there are so many strong female characters that picking the absolute best of them is a real challenge.
But it’s hard to find any female movie character better than Ellen Ripley.
What makes Ellen Ripley one of the best movie characters of all time isn’t that she blows the limbs of aliens, or that she’s beautiful yet powerful at the same time. It’s the fact that she so perfectly shows the strength of women, the strength to have the courage and resilience of a soldier while also being a caring, compassionate mother-figure.
Screenwriter Dan O’Bannon and Ridley Scott clearly knew what it takes to produce a great female character. Because while Ripley is blowing grenades into Alien chests she’s also constantly showing both her leadership skills (leadership skills that are better than any of the male characters) and her care and compassion in looking after the crew and Newt.
By matching Ripley’s feminine strength with her masculine strength O’Bannon and Ridley Scott created arguably the best female movie character of all time.
Captain Jack Sparrow
The majority of character work is done at the writing stage before the actors get onboard. By then the character has been fully formed in the writer and director’s imaginations and all that’s missing is an actor to fill in the gaps.
But brilliant actors do so much more than just filling in the gaps. I was made aware of that working with some truly sublime actors on stage through the years. And it’s true for both theatre and film. A great actor won’t just do their job, they won’t just play the role they’re given, they’ll also inject their own personality and their own imagination into that role.
Johnny Depp is one of the best character actors of all time. Give Jonny Depp a role and he won’t just make it believable he’ll take the character and inject his own creativity into it, often making the character far more magical than they ever were in the writer and director’s minds.
That’s precisely what happened with Captain Jack Sparrow. Johnny Depp jumped on the opportunity to play a character who could be done like Keith Richards. His enthusiasm ignited the words of the Pirate Of The Caribbean’s screenplay and turned Jack Sparrow from yet another pirate character into one of the best movie characters of all time.
Tigger (Winnie The Poo And The Blustery Day)
What an actor does in front of the camera an artist can do at the sketchpad or on the computer, taking the writer’s words and turning them into beautiful animated creations that seem to come to life right in front of your eyes. Tigger is one such creation.
But you’re probably wondering, “Tigger? What’s the wonderful thing about Tigger?”
Thanks for asking!
“The wonderful thing about tiggers. Is tiggers are wonderful things! Their tops are made out of rubber. Their bottoms are made out of springs! They’re bouncy, trouncy, flouncy, pouncy. Fun, fun, fun, fun, fun! But the most wonderful thing about tiggers is I’m the only one.”
Tigger is the most fun, adorable character in the whole of ever. Why? There are a lot of reasons, and it all comes down to visual design. For starters, his round corners make him appear friendly (take a look at the logo of any “friendly” brad and you’ll find they all have round edges). Then there’s the fact that he’s constantly bouncing. A bounce in your steps is actually body language for “I’m really, really happy.”. And then there’s the fact that he’s orange (which is psychologically the most joyous colour of all).
Put all that together and you’ve got the most fun character ever, and one of the best animated movie characters of all time.
Previously we cdiscussed how great secondary characters should bring out other aspects of the lead character.
That’s precisely what Hannibal Lecter does. Every meeting Clarice Starling has with Hannibal Lecter brings out a new aspect of Clarice’s character. Hannibal is constantly attacking Claire psychologically. He makes her look at herself in the mirror and he brings out the deepest secrets of Clarice’s character.
Take this scene.
Hannibal Lecter: I will listen now. After your father’s murder, you were orphaned. You were ten years old. You went to live with cousins on a sheep and horse ranch in Montana. And…?
Clarice Starling: [tears begin forming in her eyes] And one morning, I just ran away.
Hannibal Lecter: No “just”, Clarice. What set you off? You started at what time?
Clarice Starling: Early, still dark.
Hannibal Lecter: Then something woke you, didn’t it? Was it a dream? What was it?
Clarice Starling: I heard a strange noise.
Hannibal Lecter: What was it?
Clarice Starling: It was… screaming. Some kind of screaming, like a child’s voice.
Hannibal Lecter: What did you do?
Clarice Starling: I went downstairs, outside. I crept up into the barn. I was so scared to look inside, but I had to.
Hannibal Lecter: And what did you see, Clarice? What did you see?
Clarice Starling: Lambs. The lambs were screaming.
Hannibal Lecter: They were slaughtering the spring lambs?
Clarice Starling: And they were screaming.
Hannibal Lecter: And you ran away?
Clarice Starling: No. First I tried to free them. I… I opened the gate to their pen, but they wouldn’t run. They just stood there, confused. They wouldn’t run.
Hannibal Lecter: But you could and you did, didn’t you?
Clarice Starling: Yes. I took one lamb, and I ran away as fast as I could.
Hannibal Lecter: Where were you going, Clarice?
Clarice Starling: I don’t know. I didn’t have any food, any water and it was very cold, very cold. I thought, I thought if I could save just one, but… he was so heavy. So heavy. I didn’t get more than a few miles when the sheriff’s car picked me up. The rancher was so angry he sent me to live at the Lutheran orphanage in Bozeman. I never saw the ranch again.
Hannibal Lecter: What became of your lamb, Clarice?
Clarice Starling: They killed him.
It’s only because of Hannibal Lecter that we get to see the depth of Clarice Starling’s character. Hannibal Lecter is the absolute best secondary character in the history of the movies.
Have you ever shared a drink with a screenwriter or author? If you do, ask them what has to happen for a character to truly work. Then sit back and watch as that writer launches into a lecture on the theory of characterisation. And then say, “But what is the one thing every character must go through?”
The answer is hell.
No matter who you are, what stories you like, what your favourite genre is…regardless of everything, I bet your favourite characters went through absolute hell before the end of the story. Why is that?
Simple. It’s human psychology. We hate the idea of other people being given something for nothing. That’s why so many people dislike silverspoons—people who were born with silver spoons in their mouths.
Incidentally, that’s also why so many celebrities try to make you believe they “started from the bottom no we’re here”—including Drake. Take a look at Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. The Rock constantly tells people about the one time he was “on the street” when he “didn’t have any money”. The Rock is a third generation superstar who was born and groomed for the WWE and was then made WWE champion largely because of familial ties. But he constantly tries to make you believe he went through hell to get where he is.
Why would he do that?
Because people inherently dislike people who were born rich, people who are successful and never even had to try to get there.
You and me, and most people, actually do start with very little. And we actually do have to go through hell to succeed. So celebrities try to convince us that they had it the same way (thankfully you and I know better). And writers do the same thing with characters.
For a character to ever succeed in their mission they absolutely must go through hell first.
And no one went through hell like Maggie Fitzgerald. Her whole life she’s been made to feel isolated, alone, and worthless. Her family abuses her. She has to put up with the sexism of the gym she trains at, even the sexism of her own coach. She ends up in hospital, broken…Maggie Fitzgerald goes through absolute torture. And because of that we, the viewers, sympathise with her. We cheer for her. We care for her. We want her to succeed. And it’s all because we can empathise with the hellacious life she’s been trough.
There are many techniques writers and actors use to create spellbinding characters. We’ve taken a look at 7 of them, and we’ve learnt what made those characters so strong.
In the next part of this series we’ll be looking at some of the potent mind-tricks that writers and actor use to make you fall in love with their characters. And we’ll look at 10 characters you’re going to know and love. See you next time.
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