Prince Charming is a stock character who originates in a number of fairy tales. He is the prince who comes to the rescue of the damsel in distress, and typically must engage in a quest to liberate her from an evil spell. The name has been given to the heroes of a number of traditional folk tales, including Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella.
These characters are often handsome and romantic, a foil to the heroine, and are seldom deeply characterized, or even distinguishable from other such men who marry the heroine. In many variants, they can be viewed more as rewards for the heroine rather than characters.
Although neither one was a prince and the first was not royal, this may have been the original use of "Charming."
Then, Oscar Wilde's 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray refers ironically to "Prince Charming," perhaps the earliest use of the exact term. The main character, Dorian, is supposed to be a young actress's "Prince Charming," but he abandons her and in despair she commits suicide.
The Walt Disney animated version of Cinderella that appeared in 1950 further popularized the name in English. In the Charles Perrault version of Cinderella, and in most pre-Disney versions, the prince is not specifically identified as Prince Charming. Nor is the character of the Prince named Prince Charming - or for that matter anything else - in the earlier Disney animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). Since that film appeared, the name has been bestowed upon the highly similar characters who appear in Snow White and Sleeping Beauty. In fact, the princely status of Prince Charming is more important to the plot of this latter tale, since it is his royal status that enables Prince Charming to break the curse that keeps Sleeping Beauty in her supernatural sleep. In Disney's "Sleeping Beauty" (1959) the Prince is named Phillip and never referred to as "Prince Charming".
The character of Prince Charming is deconstructed in the 2004 movie Shrek 2 (wherein he is a Bad Fiancé, he has a personality not unlike that of Gaston in Disney's Beauty and the Beast, although he is rather more metrosexual) and also in the comic Fables. "Prince Charming" is the title of a 1981 album and song by Adam and the Ants. Prince Charming is also the title of a 1999 movie starring Andy Lau and Michelle Reis. Meet Prince Charming is the title of a 1999 movie starring Tia Carrere and David Charvet.
Prince Charming is a prominent character in the Fables comic book; in that version, he successively married Snow White, Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella, each marriage ending in divorce due to his compulsive womanizing. He himself comments: "I always truly love a woman when I first pursue her...I'm just no good at the happily-ever-after part." He parlays his charm into election as the mayor of Fabletown, the underground "Fable" community, and finds the job more difficult than he had anticipated.
This aspect of his character is also explored in the Broadway musical Into the Woods, where there are not one but two prince Charmings, brothers going after Cinderella and Rapunzel, then, later, Sleeping Beauty and Snow White after they marry their first loves. Cinderella's Prince even has an affair with the Baker's Wife, and when confronted about his womanizing, states "I was raised to be charming, not sincere."
The concept of the Prince Charming is also parodied in Enchanted when Prince Edward looking for Princess Giselle in New York. While knocking the doors he finds a pregnant housewife holding 3 kids, who tells him, in a scoffing voice, "You're too late."