Universal Plots: Rags to Riches

The hero fallen on hard times rises to fame or fortune through luck or determination.

Why do we like reality television so much? Maybe it’s the lure of the rags to riches story — someone rising from obscurity to fame and/or fortune. Whether it’s for singing, cooking, designing, modeling or just being a loud-mouthed pain in the butt, audiences can’t seem to get enough of these stories of ordinary people making it big through sheer talent and tenacity.

Pretty Woman

Of course, the popularity of the rags-to-riches story is nothing new. In ancient times the true story of Diocletian who rose to be emperor though his father was born a slave amazed the Romans. The tales of Cinderella and Aladdin have entertained children for centuries. Nineteenth-century literature is full of rags-to-riches plots. Charles Dickens was so fond of it that he used it in several novels, for example, ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘Little Dorrit’. As I wrote in an earlier post, Emily Bronte included it as a sub-plot in ‘Wuthering Heights’ and George Bernard Shaw’s play ‘Pygmalion’ (on which the musical ‘My Fair Lady is based) is a rags-to-riches story in the Cinderella mode. More contemporary rags-to-riches plots include the movies ‘Pretty Woman’ (another Cinderella story), ‘Mr Deeds’, ‘Trading Places’, ‘The Pursuit of Happyness’, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (based upon the book ‘Q & A’ by Vikam Swarup) and ‘The Blind Side’. I’m sure you can think of others.

Why is this plot so popular? Perhaps it’s because it gives us hope. It shows us that it is possible to escape poverty, obscurity and just plain ordinariness. It gives us a reason to strive and helps us pick ourselves up when life deals us a blow.

The rags-to-riches plot has many variations. Often the hero’s riches come to him through luck as in the anonymous bequest Pip receives in ‘Great Expectations’ or Mr Deed’s unexpected inheritance. This luck sometimes takes the form of a fairy godmother figure as in ‘Cinderella’ or Henry Higgins in ‘Pygmalion’. In other stories the hero gains his riches through his or her own hard work, talent or determination such as Emperor Diocletian, or Jamal in ‘Slumdog Millionaire/Q&A’ who must use the knowledge gained through his life of hard knocks in the slums of India to answer the quiz questions which will win him the riches. The Blind Side’s hero wins his way to fame and fortune aided by a fairy godmother figure played by Sandra Bullock and through hard work and determination on and off the football field.

There must be setbacks along the way which may come in the form of a betrayal (Mr Deeds, Pygmalion/My Fair Lady), self doubt (The Blind Side),  persecution or prejudice (Slumdog Millionaire/Q&A, Wuthering Heights, Pretty Woman). In the end the hero will find happiness and self-knowledge though they may not remain rich or famous. And in some cases the author will provide a moral lesson along the lines that love, loyalty and good conscience are more important than wealth and fame.

Slumdog Millionaire

Rags to riches is universal plot that you could easily borrow and make your own in a short story. It is easily adapted to a contemporary story for young adults. In a sense, many teen movies and stories have elements of rags to riches when they have the geeky/loner hero or heroine joining the popular clique (fame and fortune) before realising that true friendship isn’t about being popular or successful.

About Carol Jones

Carol Jones is the author of 'The Concubine's Child', set in 1930s Malaya and The Boy With Blue Trousers set in 1850s China and Australia. Born in Brisbane, Australia, she taught English and Drama at secondary schools before working as an editor of children's magazines. She is also the author of several young adult novels as well as children's non-fiction.
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1 Response to Universal Plots: Rags to Riches

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