December 10, 2015 7:07 AM EST

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.

7 SADNESS

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.

10 CATASTROPHE

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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