1 COOKIE LYON
With her high-drama scheming and higher-drama wardrobe, the Lyon family matriarch (played by Taraji P. Henson) was the biggest draw on TV’s most popular new show, Empire, luring more than 13 million viewers a week. In addition to spawning countless memes and catchphrases, she also helped inspire a clothing line at Saks Fifth Avenue.
2 THE MINIONS
The cutesy yellow sidekicks–first introduced in 2010’s Despicable Me–took center stage this year, netting $1.1 billion at the global box office. Universal also licensed the brand to some 850 companies, including McDonald’s and Crayola.
3 HILLARY CLINTON
Kate McKinnon’s power-hungry SNL character became so closely tied to the candidate that some pundits suggested it might destroy her image. But Clinton didn’t seem to mind: “A vote for Hillary is a vote for four more years of Kate McKinnon’s impression,” she tweeted in October.
4 ATTICUS FINCH
As revealed in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the beloved patriarch of To Kill a Mockingbird (played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 movie version) harbored racist views. The news drove stellar book sales and fueled debates about bigotry and literary ethics.
5 IMPERATOR FURIOSA
In a landmark year for heroines, this vigilante (played by Charlize Theron) out-fierced them all, stealing Mad Max: Fury Road out from under Mad Max himself and proving that smash-hit action films can be unapologetically feminist.
6 JON SNOW
After Game of Thrones’ reigning heartthrob (played by Kit Harington) was apparently stabbed to death in the Season 5 finale, fans–and hundreds of media outlets–rallied around him, parsing photos, news reports and script leaks for clues about his fate.
The breakout star of Pixar’s Inside Out (voiced by Phyllis Smith) brought millions of viewers to tears; she’s now being used as a teaching tool to help kids get in touch with their emotions.
8 ALEXANDER HAMILTON
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s vision of the first U.S. Treasury Secretary as a scrappily ambitious fellow with a flair for rhyming anchored one of Broadway’s biggest hits in years, luring fans like Katy Perry and President Obama.
9 MARK WATNEY
The Martian’s charmingly resourceful botanist (played by Matt Damon) became a role model for future scientists and refocused media attention on the Red Planet–helped, naturally, by the news that NASA found flowing water on the real-life Mars, which broke the same week Watney’s fictional exploits hit theaters.
The “Bad Blood” video protagonist (played by Taylor Swift, of course) and her all-female squad of assassins set the bar for music-video spectacle in the Internet age, logging 20.1 million views in a single day.
This appears in the December 21, 2015 issue of TIME.
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