One of the most important aspects of David Bowie's work in The Seventies was his creation of stage personas as vehicles for his songs via Alter Ego Acting Type 3 (the persona as a different self of the performer). While he eventually put these behind him in favor of performing "as himself", knowledge of them and their tropes is important to understanding a significant chunk of his career. In addition, other songs and music videos have characters of their own that have proven trope-worthy, and/or are frequently mentioned in pop culture.
For characters from Bowie's dramatic film work (The Man Who Fell to Earth, Labyrinth, etc.), tropers are directed to the individual pages for said films.
The Saga of Major Tom
Bowie's first hit (though not his Breakthrough Hit, which would be 1972's "Starman") was "Space Oddity", a 1969 number that told the sad tale of ill-fated astronaut Major Tom. In 1980, the Scary Monsters song "Ashes to Ashes" would expand upon this story, not only by continuing it but suggesting that it was more complex than originally presented. Finally, the remix of 1. Outside's "Hallo Spaceboy" (1996) featuring the group Pet Shop Boys includes a bridge that mentions Major Tom once more.
Major Tom's story has proven well-known enough to be reinterpreted by other parties, as in Peter Schilling's 1983 song "Major Tom (Coming Home)" and, in a far more irreverent manner, The Venture Bros. Season One episode "Ghosts of the Sargasso". The good Major warrants a page at Wikipedia that runs down the many references to him in pop culture.
An astronaut on a solo mission, he loses contact with Ground Control shortly after asking them to tell his wife he loves her, and drifts off into the depths of space. The song leaves the listener to decide if a simple accident caused this disaster, or if he voluntarily decided to abandon Earth. In "Ashes to Ashes", Ground Control receives word from him again, but the song goes on to suggest that Major Tom is actually a drug addict whose journeys are metaphorical and who is trying to sober up. This could either be read as a suggestion that his space exploration was a hallucination, or perhaps that his junk problem rose from trying to cope with his near-death experience in space.
Contemplate Our Navels: Major Tom does a little of this starting at the first appearance of "For here/Am I sitting in a tin can", and the resultant thoughts may or may not factor into what happens afterward.
Food Pills: Ground Control advises the Major to "Take [his] protein pills" as part of his pre-launch preparation at the beginning.
Offscreen Inertia: It's easy for the listener to assume that after the events of "Space Oddity", he's still floating around in space, with only death to expect/look forward to. His return in later songs suggests he may have survived the ordeal, however.
Space Madness: If the listener decides Major Tom voluntarily cut off contact with Earth, this might be the reason why; alternatively, this is what he'll soon undergo now that he can't make contact with anyone else and is apparently stranded in space. Either way, "Planet Earth is blue/And there's nothing I can do"...
From the album cover of Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps) and the video for "Ashes to Ashes" (1980)
"Space Oddity" is a dialogue between two parties — Ground Control and Major Tom — and "Ashes to Ashes" is also sung by two characters. But while Major Tom is back, this time the other singer is someone who "heard a rumor from Ground Control" about Tom's return. In the music video, a Concept Video with surreal imagery, the unnamed party is visualized as a mysterious Pierrot clown. While not as famous as Major Tom, Pierrot is another Bowie character occasionally invoked in pop culture, such as the TV series named for the song and set in 1980, Ashes to Ashes. A life-sized puppet Pierrot is featured prominently in the 2013 video for "Love Is Lost".
Continuity Nod: This is not the first time Bowie's work involved clown imagery — he studied and performed mime as part of Lindsay Kemp's troupe in The Sixties. One of his early songs, "London Bye Ta-Ta", was rewritten as "Threepenny Pierrot" for their television production Pierrot in Turquoise. A Pierrot also appears in the painting on the back cover of the Self-Titled Album that was subsequently renamed Space Oddity.
Bowie's breakout character — an androgynous, bisexual rock star (either from Mars or an Earthling Touched by Vorlons; Bowie flip-flopped on the plot of this Concept Album) who becomes a universally adored sensation in the final five years of Earth's existence. The adoration goes to his head by the time he dies at the hands of his own fans.
Acquired Situational Narcissism: The song "Ziggy Stardust" itself, which is sung from the point of view of his Spiders from Mars bandmates, claims Ziggy grew egotistical once he became famous. (Two of Bowie's actual bandmates from this period, Trevor Bolder and Woody Woodmansey, claim this actually happened to him — that he spent less and less time offstage with them and other old acquaintances as his star rose.)
Actor IS The Title Character: The album was promoted with an ad proclaiming "David Bowie is Ziggy Stardust"; at the bottom, in smaller type, it read "Ziggy Stardust is David Bowie".
According to Lou Reed, Bowie apparently did start to think he was Ziggy after a few drinks.
Costume Porn: Bowie usually had several costume changes at each concert during this period, and said costumes became more elaborate as his star rose.
Dude Looks Like a Lady: "Lady Stardust" is effectively about an early Ziggy gig. Due to his long hair and makeup, he's initially laughed at for being this, but he charms everyone of both genders by the end of the show.
Face of the Band: Invoked in-story. According to the song "Ziggy Stardust", he became "the special man" of the Spiders from Mars, with his once-equal bandmates becoming jealous and resentful of him as a result. (Lyrics from this song provide the trope's header quote.)
Fluffy Fashion Feathers: Ziggy Stardust occasionally donned a feather boa; according to Word of God in the retrospective book Moonage Daydream, this was "a rather feeble visual pun" on Alice Cooper's use of boa constrictors in his stage shows.
Impractically Fancy Outfit: He had a few; for example, one of them had long strings of heavy glass beads cascading from its sleeves.
Messianic Archetype: Part of his problem is that he comes to believe the hype about being this.
Redheaded Hero: Bowie's first; notably, he didn't dye and style his locks into the iconic Ziggy look until after the album's artwork had been created, so he's still blonde on the cover.
Shout-Out: At least one in the name. Though Bowie's denied it, Ziggy is commonly assumed to be a reference to Iggy Pop. Word of God confirms that Stardust refers to the eccentric musician known as The Legendary Stardust Cowboy, who was a Mercury Records labelmate of Bowie's at the turn of The Seventies. Bowie eventually covered one of his songs, "I Took a Trip on a Gemini Spaceship", on his 2002 album Heathen.
Unusual Eyebrows: He lacks them! Bowie shaved off his eyebrows one grumpy, drunken night in '72 and liked the result so much that he didn't grow them back until Young Americans arrived in '75.
From Aladdin Sane (1973)
Bowie's follow-up to Ziggy Stardust was a Spiritual Successor. Owing to Bowie's concern that the character of Ziggy was overwhelming him, Aladdin Sane is a Concept Album focusing on the fall of a faux-Ziggy as he travels through America, reflecting the fact that Bowie wrote the bulk of the songs during a tour of the U.S. The album was released prior to Bowie returning to the U.K. for the final leg of touring as Ziggy.
Expy: Of Ziggy Stardust. The look is identical save for (on the album cover and inner sleeve) a dramatic make-up lightning bolt that's become an Iconic Outfit for Bowie.
A character mentioned in the title track of Diamond Dogs as "a real cool cat/[who] lives on top of Manhattan Chase" in an After the EndDystopia, his name is generally used to describe the persona Bowie assumed for the followup tour, which was set in the album's "Hunger City". Bowie doesn't seem to have regarded it as a true persona, however.
The Thin White Duke
From Station to Station and the subsequent Isolar tour (1976)
After Bowie played the Alien Among Us Thomas Jerome Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth, he took the look and stoic nature of Newton and merged it with Fascist, Nazi, and occult ideologies to create the darkest of his stage personas: a heartless, decadent, cocaine-addicted European who is struggling to understand concepts such as love and God. So much of this character reflected Bowie's real problems (particularly with drugs) at the time that as he struggled to address them afterward, he realized he could no longer practice Alter Ego Acting as a musician. Ironically, given the character's dark nature, "The Thin White Duke" is often used as a simple nickname for Bowie now; more appropriately, this look is the primary reference for how Bowie is portrayed in The Venture Bros.. In 2013, a life-sized puppet version of the Duke appeared in Bowie's Surreal Music Video "Love Is Lost".
Aristocrats Are Evil: To quote the opening lines of "Station to Station", "The return of The Thin White Duke/Throwing darts in lovers' eyes..."
Darker and Edgier: Previous personas may or may not have been living in crapsack worlds, but they were usually good-natured and/or lost souls as opposed to the Duke, whom Bowie once described as "a very nasty character indeed."
Evil Redhead: Notable as the last of Bowie's red-haired characters.
Expy: For Thomas Jerome Newton; the photo on the cover of the album is taken from the movie. Although Newton actually had more in common with Ziggy, being an essentially good-hearted extraterrestrial who fell victim to a substance problem.
Hollywood Thin and Lean and Mean: How thin is the Thin White Duke? Try 90-95 pounds on average, thanks to Bowie's extremely limited diet and drug use at the time! Supposedly, the Duke lived on nothing but red peppers, cocaine, milk, and cigarettes.
Limited Wardrobe: Black trousers, white shirt, black waistcoat, and a packet of Gitanes cigarettes in the pocket of the waistcoat.
Bowie's entry into the long-form Concept Video sweepstakes that followed on from Michael Jackson's "Thriller" was 1984's Jazzin' for Blue Jean, a 20-minute effort that played in U.K. cinemas before The Company of Wolves and on TV and home video elsewhere. The story is a simple farce. Working-class guy Vic, trying to impress the girl of his dreams (referred to as "Dream" in the end credits, as there's No Name Given otherwise), tells a Celebrity Lie to her — namely that he knows the rock star Screamin' Lord Byron, who's about to be making a one-night-only appearance at a London club. Now he has to introduce her to him. The twist in the telling is that Bowie plays both men.
Adorkable: If nothing else, one must admire the poor fool for his tenaciousness.
Amusing Injuries: He smacks into a wall and slides down a ladder (this will leave him wearing a plaster on his nose for the rest of the film), is shoved away by Screamin' Lord Byron's handlers and gets his hand slammed in a chain link fence door, is shoved to the ground by the bouncer at the club door, and crashes through the ceiling of Mr. Screamin's dressing room. Aside from needing the plaster, he brushes all this off immediately.
Bad Liar: Besides his Celebrity Lie, he makes up tons of phony claims in his attempts to get into the club. Those who don't see through them immediately figure things out soon enough. Heck, the door bouncer seems amused by his complete inability to bluff his way inside. The only lie that works for him is that first one. Or so he thinks. Dream tricked him into thinking she needed to be introduced to her former lover!
Establishing Character Moment: When he initially sees Dream, he's atop a ladder and finishing the job of posting an ad for Screamin' Lord Byron's show on a building. To spare her and her friend from having to walk under his ladder, he manages, by hooking his brush to a ledge, to lean it back far enough that they can walk past it. Unfortunately, he's distracted by her thanking him and lets the ladder smack back against the building; he smacks his nose against it before sliding all the way down to the sidewalk. Given how easily he shrugs this off to follow her into a bar, he must be taking his lumps on a constant basis...
Exploding Calendar: It's suggested that he accidentally turned his page-a-day calendar into one with his hair dryer.
Loser Protagonist: He's a clumsy, dateless, working-class bloke with limited funds, and he is no whiz at conversation.
Lovable Nerd: Of a sort; he's pretty dorky but no great intellect. This aside, given that Mr. Screamin' is pretty heavily implied to be a jerk and it turns out Dream already knows Screamin' and is just cruelly stringing Vic along, it's not incredibly hard for Vic to win the audience's sympathy.
Not on the List: When he claims to be several different people on the guest list, they all arrive in turn to be waved through, so the attendant hides the list from him and his ploy falls apart.
Pretty Fly for a White Guy: His attempts to make small talk with the club's black bouncer smack of this. He thinks Malcolm X is a band (and claims he caught their tour) and may be confusing Jesse Jackson with Michael Jackson.
Sharp-Dressed Man: Attempts to be this on his date with Dream, using a suit (and shoes) borrowed from his roommate, who is this.
Straw Loser: Played with; he's this when set against everyone else, but it turns out that Mr. Screamin' isn't as awesome as he appears in public and Dream was cruelly stringing him along; of the two men, he's at least a slightly better one. No wonder that Bowie thinks Dream should repent and go back to Vic rather than the "too obvious" ending of her staying with Mr. Screamin'.
Screamin' Lord Byron
Adam Westing: This character is a goof on Bowie's 1970s stage personas and excesses.
Noodle Incident: "Do you remember Margaret and her yak?" he asks Dream, a former flame of his, at the end. Actually, the animal in question was a llama.
Sex, Drugs and Rock & Roll: Implied to be living this lifestyle, hedonistically. His handlers literally carry him around and he's hooked up to a portable oxygen tank when he's first carried into the backstage area of the club.
Shout-Out: The name is probably a portmenteau of Lord Byron and 1960s rock musician Screaming Lord Sutch, whose horror pastiche stage act was one of the first of its kind in rock.
Uncanny Valley Makeup: On stage, he wears full-face makeup with a metallic sheen and painted on shadows. Beneath the stage lights, particularly in the close-up that opens the song portion of the short, this gives his face a curious "living painting" quality.