1) Damon Salvatore -- It's no surprise that Damon is my favorite character. Based on press and online commentary, I'd imagine this is the popular choice. For me, I do tend to gravitate towards the bad boys and Damon is definitely a bad boy. However, there is so much more to him than that, which we get courtesy of great acting and writing.
Partly it is because of how well Ian Somerhalder plays the role, and upon rewatch, it's evident just how much the awesome of Damon is because of how fantastically Somerhalder plays him. Delivery of those snarky lines reveal (often enough that it's clearly not a fluke) that as great as the dialogue for Damon is, a good number of his lines aren't actually brilliant bon mots of snark, but rather given that zing due to the style with which Somerhalder delivers them. And it's not just the vocal delivery, his body language, facial expressions, over-the-top eyebrow usage -- which is so deliberately Damon putting on a show -- is just fantastic.
And then he turns around and goes all subtle on us. It hasn't happened often, but every now and then, we get scenes that show us the softer, more sensitive Damon, and those moments are just as real as the dastardly Damon at play. Heck, even in the midst of some of those over-the-top scenes, there are flashes and glimpses of the humanity and heart, the conflict and the confusion lying underneath the surface. That is due to both the actor, and the fantastic writing. Yup, as awesome as Somerhalder is, I don't want to discount the writing because the writers have managed to create a fully three-dimensional character, one who has gone through the gamut of every emotion, more than any other character on the show. We've literally seen every emotional side in this character, and -- back to the actor -- Somerhalder has brilliantly, and seamlessly, shown us every side with believability.
So how can I not adore this character? He's witty, emotional, bitter, bruising, hilarious, serious, snarky, sexy, caring, ambivalent, scary, in love, in lust, in like, filled with brotherly love and sibling rivalry. You name it, Damon is it and there is simply never a dull moment. Even with the woobier Damon that we saw in the finale, which worries some, I know, including Ian Somerhalder. In interviews, he's shown a bit of reticence over Damon's more sensitive side coming to the fore towards the end of the season, but I'm not worried that we'll be stuck with woobie-Damon from here on out. Most of that woobie-fying was with Elena (or who he thought was Elena). Yes, he had his nice moments with Bonnie and Jeremy, but they were due to the extreme circumstances of (a) the situation, and (b) the fact that Damon was fully turning that humanity switch on for the first time since we've met him. I'm pretty durn positive that come next season we'll mostly see woobie-Damon with Elena only. There may be smidges of moments here and there with (possibly) Jeremy and Alaric, but I expect 99% of such moments to be with Elena ... and they will be paired with the snarky, sarcastic, funny, awesome, still somewhat scary/psychotic Damon that we all know, and many of us -- including me! -- absolutely adore.
2) Elena Gilbert -- I knew I loved Elena in episode four, "Family Ties." I didn't dislike her by any means prior to that episode, but when Stefan told her that she had to trust him, in the space of her response, I mentally rolled my eyes, knowing she would fall into his arms and assure him that, of course, she trusted him. She did not. She told him that trust had to be earned. I literally sat up straighter, eyes wide and shouted, "You go, Elena!" And that was the moment when Elena and The Vampire Diaries completely transcended the CW teenage-swill it so very easily could have become. That also was not the only time I "You go'd!" Elena. Because Elena pulled off many such moments that had me cheering.
I love her warmth and empathy, her snark and the bitterness that comes out now and then. I love how she (mostly) uses her brains and tries to get out of situations, and doesn't just wait for the guy to come and get her. She fights back. I love how she says that she's not going to be the girl who makes her whole life about the guy, and stays true to her word. While she does spend a lot of time dealing with her boyfriend's issues, it's definitely not the typical stuff, and literally is about life and death. Yet she still manages to try and find time for her friends and family. And through all of the murder and mayhem, vampires and violence, BFFs and boyfriends -- past (Matt), present (Stefan) and future (Damon, hehehe!), Nina Dobrev beautifully grounds Elena so that I buy everything she says and does. I do not understand the number of comments I've read here and there that call her a weak actress, or in any way denigrate her talent. This girl has the goods, and she delivers them damn well.
Elena is real, and one of the most interesting "good girls" that the small screen has ever introduced. And, to be fair, she's definitely high up on the list (as is Damon) because of how fantastically written the slow-burning relationship between Damon and Elena is. With Damon, we see so many sides to Elena and, again, Dobrev does a sensational job selling each and every one of them.
3) Alaric Saltzman -- I will be completely honest here and admit that if it were not for the Alaric-Damon budding BFF-ness (it's happening, don't tell me otherwise!), Alaric would likely be lower on the list. He'd still be top ten material, but not top five, I don't think. However, he does have that relationship with Damon, and so he's this high up because, dangit, if I don't enjoy the hell out of his scenes with Damon so much ... and it ain't just because of Damon! It's the give and take between the two. What Matt Davis brings to the role, including that tit for tat with Damon, is what makes Alaric so friggin' awesome.
And it's not *just* the Alaric/Damon stuff that I enjoy. I also love his backstory with Isobel, and his interactions with Jeremy and Tyler, his showdowns with the Mayor where Alaric always put him in his place because he's so awesome like that. In fact, the only time I don't find Alaric awesome onscreen is with Jenna, and that's because while I like her, Jenna is probably the least interesting of all the characters for me. However, I don't dislike their scenes, I just don't find them awesome. But everything else with Alaric is just fantastic. And going back to the Damon/Alaric scenes, it really takes two to tango. For example: While Damon's "we were bad-ass!" was completely fabulous, it was Alaric's stoic facial expression as he punched him in response that elevated the scene to ... yup, you guessed it! ... pure awesome.
Alaric's a recurring character who managed to come onboard and steal my heart. His empathy with the students, courtly behavior towards Jenna, love-hate relationship with Damon, heartbreak over Isobel, dry sense of humor, huge heart all wrapped up to create a fantastic character. Love. Him.
4) Stefan Salvatore -- I watched the first 18 episodes over a week in a rush of OMG! without much time to breathe and analyze between episodes, so while I liked all of the characters, beyond the top three (Damon, Elena and Alaric -- the latter mostly because of the awesome with Damon), I didn't quite have a handle on which ones were those that I loved. And then came my first live viewing which was "Miss Mystic Falls." Despite being utterly Team Damon, and die-hard for Damon/Elena, I still liked Stefan and during the dance practice scene of this episode, I found Stefan/Elena cute. That was my first big clue that I really loved Stefan.
And then came his attack of Amber. I was so wrapped up in what he was going through (even amidst the Damon/Elena dance o'squee!), and when Damon, Elena and Bonnie came upon him and he faced them, blood dripping from his fangs, I was so sadly horrified for him. I remember crying, "Oh, Stefan!" and it was at that moment that I knew. Despite my Damon-love, and my Damon/Elena OTP-preference, I loved Stefan. Yes, yes, he's mostly broody and a total downer, but there's a sweet sensitivity to that downer brooding that while I do get annoyed with him at times, overall, I just want to give him a hug.
I definitely recognize his flaws (insecure, prone to quiet melodrama, a bit of coward when it comes to truth-telling, has a tendency to tell stories that paint him in a better light, an assumption that the "right" thing to do is what *he* believes is the right thing to do, period), but I also recognize his awesome. There's the sweet sensitivity, and the sense of humor that comes out now and then. There's the fact that despite it all, he still loves his brother, and that he can laugh at himself (see: agreeing with Matt that being "that guy" is so lame!). Paul Wesley may not be as dynamic or outstanding as Ian Somerhalder, but he's still pretty great. And I love how the show has worked to give him layers. He's not just the brooding do-gooder. He is a vampire; there is darkness in him and the writers, and Wesley, don't shy away from that.
5) Caroline Forbes -- I love Caroline hard. Period. I didn't love her right away, but by the end of the first episode when she told Bonnie with absolute, and heartbreaking, conviction that it was a competition, she won me over. Just like that.
I love that she can be thoughtless and tactless, airheaded and ditzy. She can also be a total bitch (see: treatment of her mother), she can be a coward (see: running away when the witchy stuff got wild), but she also has a HUGE heart and the girl just wants to be loved. Yeah, she's a bitch to her mom, but her mom is clearly married to the job, and not there to the degree that Caroline needs. Yes, she took off on Bonnie, but her reaction to the crazy is closer to how one would think most 17-year-olds would react to such a situation. I also like that she can seem so pathetic. I know that sounds terrible, but we rarely see a teenage girl portrayed as such. Caroline is *not* pathetic, but she believes that she is, and that is the brilliance of the writing and Candice Accola's performance. We can see the awesome even when she doesn't see it, and we understand why she doesn't get it.
She should be the popular girl. As she told Bonnie in that scene referenced above, she tries so hard, and we see proof of that enough to know it's true. Yet, she gets beaten down. Her dad left the family, she's Bonnie's 2nd-choice BFF (well, once upon a time!), guys she likes don't pick her. She throws herself into a sexual relationship with an older guy who (let's take the vampire-bit out of the equation) treats her like crap. And she takes it. Yes, Damon compelled her with regards to the whole vampire stuff, but she was fully aware when he told her to stop talking, told her she was useless, etc. And she took it! Oh, Caroline! You deserve so much better. And sadly, I don't think that Matt is it because at the end of the day, Caroline is right. Elena is still his first choice. Were she to drop the Salvatore brothers and beckon, Matt would go a'running.
But she's still awesome, and I love seeing her mature into that awesome, and begin to recognize it in herself. Caroline winning the Miss Mystic Falls pageant was one of my biggest "yay!" moments of the series. Girl deserved it. You go, Caroline!
Honorable Mentions: Katherine Pierce & Pearl -- Obviously, depending on how much more of Katherine we get in upcoming seasons, she could very well move on up the list (but I honestly can't see her beating out the top three ... unless they kill Ala-- no, will not even go there!). I mean, she's above the rest of the huge cast and way more visible recurring players for me with only four episode appearances and seventeen minutes of screen time (and four or so of those minutes we didn't even know it was Katherine). In other words, Katherine Pierce is awesome. She's sassy, spoiled, manipulative, cruel, playful, passionate and a heckuva lot of fun to watch. Nina Dobrev's eyes merrily dance with unsuppressed glee when playing Katherine and that joyful abandon (even hiding evil psychosis) is irresistible. No wonder the boys (and apparently everyone else who came into contact with her -- Emily, Pearl, the tomb vampires, the guard who helped her escape, etc.) fell head over heels for her.
And then there is Pearl, the magnificent HBIC that is Pearl. Oh, Kelly Hu, you are a goddess, simply put. And I refuse to accept that Pearl is gone. I just can. not. deal. Pearl was just transcendent. She was wise and beautiful, glowing and serene, and then she'd gouge your eyes or stab a wooden kitchen utensil into your stomach because you didn't follow the rules. See? The awesome. And even in her vampire state, she was so human in her love for a man centuries dead who betrayed her. Oh, Pearl. You deserved a better ending, damnit! I loved you so. WAH!
And there you have it! :D