How can fictitious characters influence us? For countless people literary and fictional characters from books, movies and now video games can inspire and move us sometimes more than living people. Many have pointed out that the transporter on the original Star Trek is like the cell phone, invented decades later. Indeed, things like iPhones and laser guns and all sorts of formative technology were imagined, in some form or another, in fiction long before they were invented.
A fictional character imparts wisdom, entertains, can engage our emotions and our loyalty. Indeed, over the course of history, stories have been told and retold and classic tales and tropes have contributed to forming the very fabric of society. The bogeyman, for example, exists in every culture in some variation and has been used to scare children into submission for hundreds or even thousands of years – though the source of the tale is unclear. In the same way, characters invented by authors that take hold of the imagination can spawn other innumerable variations and can profoundly influence cultures.
In 2006 Harper Collins published The 101 Most Influential People Who Never Lived. We have taken a look at which characters they placed at the top 10 and have analysed their places in the history books, introducing you to some of the most important fictitious characters of all time. Writers from all over the world – novelists, screenwriters, playwrights in every country and every era -aspire to create this sort of memorable character whose influence is so strong it jumps off the pages and into reality. What makes a character so powerful that it can be said to influence the world around us? To answer that, have a look at why these 10 characters thrived, survived and continue to spark discussion and cultural influence.
10. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde: Literature
This renowned book by R.L. Stevenson, published in 1886, was the first of its kind and has had a massive influence on “monster” literature since. Dracula was published 11 years after this, and all subsequent heroes and superheroes created by a maker or spurned despite their gentle inner natures owe something to Stevenson. There have been many JekylL and Hyde portrayals and offshoots. Eddie Murphy as the Nutty Professor was none other than Jekyll and Hyde in a modern (and comedic) guise. Although Alice in Wonderland predates Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, transformation is the only thing the books have in common. Stevenson’s book was the beginning of the iconic mad scientist.
9. Romeo and Juliet: Theater
Were there ever such star-crossed lovers? Romeo and Juliet were not the first tragic pair (Tristan and Isolde, Troilus and Cressida), but they were the ones that caught the imagination of generations to follow. There have been many such tragic tales since, but none so noteable as this Shakespearian classic. Actors and actresses who have played the pair on-screen include Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes (1996), and Leonard Whiting and Olivia Hussey (1968). There have also been foreign versions, including Russian and even Bollywood, with a host of other films that are adaptations of the original play by Shakespeare. The play still graces stages the world over every year, and has also been adapted in operas and ballets.
8. Sherlock Holmes: Crime
Sherlock Holmes, like his author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, used drugs recreationally, cocaine and morphine, both legal in Victorian England. Heroin was not, and so the character publicly derided it in the literature. R.L. Stevenson published Treasure Island just four years prior to the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes, but although we still (infrequently) use the expression “Man Friday,” it is Holmes and Watson who have really influenced the sidekick trope in literature, perhaps because of the extreme closeness of the two, or the fact that their appearance was serial. Everyone loves a good story that goes on and on.
7. Siegfried: Theater
This courageous figure is largely known because of the Wagner opera, but he had an earlier incarnation as Sigurd, an 11th Century figure in Norse mythology. His next significant appearance is as Siegfried in the German epic poem the Nibelungenlied in the 13th Century. He’s based on a character from the oral tradition who dates back to the 5th and 6th centuries, and was a dragon-slayer in the Burgundian court. Cyrano de Bergerac has elements of Siegfried’s story in that he helps his lord, Gunther, capture the attention of his beloved. A series of suspicions and violent acts ensue over the years, resulting in almost total obliteration by the end. The poem has been cited as the German Iliad.
6. Dr. Frankenstein’s Monster: Monsters
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was one of the first monsters created by a woman that attained publication. Perhaps she got her idea from da Vinci’s fascination with human anatomy, as it is this type of study and similar drawings that first capture the imagination of Dr. Frankenstein. The monster is one of the first creatures both scary and truly sympathetic, and predates even Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame. There have been a slew of tragic monster stories since, with films such as Edward Scissorhands and characters such as the Hulk inspired by elements of Frankenstein.
5. Hamlet : Theater
“To be, or not to be…” is perhaps Shakespeare’s most famous quote, one which many can identify as being spoken by Hamlet well over 400 years later. As in many Shakespeare plays, almost everyone turns up dead at the end—at least, everyone important. Hamlet is the quintessential sensitive intellectual and nobleman. He must avenge his father’s death, and in so doing kills his uncle and is peripherally responsible for his mother’s death—she drinks from a goblet intended for him. Hamlet is recognized as being among the finest literature ever written and is one of the most oft quoted works. Dickens’ Great Expectations contains many plot elements from the play. Other authors who have borrowed characteristics, quotes or elements of plot include George Eliot, Henry Fielding, Goethe, Margaret Atwood and Lisa Klein.
4. Santa Claus: Folktales
Although no one is challenging the existence of the 4th Century Saint Nicholas, the modern image of Santa Claus as a fat man with cherry-colored cheeks and a long white beard is an Americanism that has enveloped much of the world. How has this non-existent person influenced us? His mark is not hard to see: commercialism, Hallmark cards, children lining up in malls to sit on his lap, and an employment opportunity that opens up once a year to thousands. Along with the jolly guy come his elves, reindeer and a whole host of television shows and films. If you ask most people in Western culture what they think of when they think of Christmas, Santa Claus is one of the first things they might say. The world of fiction is rife with countless stories and films about this character.
3. King Arthur: Legends
King Arthur’s court has been featured in stories since the 5th Century, beginning with the oral tradition and taking root forever with the advent of books. The legend of Arthur is a mystery still, and likely always will be. There are academic and historical opinions as to who he may have been, including the possibility he is based on more than one person. Regardless of how Arthur came about, he has had a massive cultural influence over more than a thousand years. Robin Hood and his band of merry men have a very Arthurian bent, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings has been thought by many to also have been fashioned by the legend, including the forging of an important, named sword.
2. Big Brother: Propaganda
George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four brought the world the ominous image of the oppressive omnipresent dictator with access to unlimited technology. The term “Orwellian” is synonymous with constant monitoring with not quite malevolent, but certainly insidiously controlling intent. Oceania has proved eerily prescient of many cities in the world today; police can intercept people within minutes due to the many cameras we now have monitoring public places, and governments and corporations track us through our computers, cell phones and more, as illustrated by last year’s Edward Snowden scandal. Big Brother is, apparently, alive and well.
1. The Marlboro Man: Commerce
This iconic figure used in advertising for 45 years is perhaps the biggest breakthrough advertising ever had. The original billboard and magazine figurehead, the Marlboro Man was perhaps the first character who was not in TV or film to be played by more than one actor. To this day, the ad campaign that popularized him is said to be one of the greatest of all time. In its day it was more than original—it was unprecedented, and carved a path for thousands of advertising campaigns to come. That spells dollars, and what has more influence than that?
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