Rags to Riches
Continuing my way through Christopher Booker's excellent tome on storytelling The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories, we have reached the second of the seven master plots (You can find my post on the first master plot, Overcoming the Monster, and an introduction to The Seven Basic Plots - Why We Tell Stories, here.):
This is clearly a type of story, which appeals immensely to the human psyche. Think of the massive inclination to root for underdogs and the wishful feelings people have, wanting to trade places with celebrities. As the title indicates this is a plot where the hero starts out ordinary, insignificant and unappreciated, but then suddenly steps to the centre of the stage, and is revealed to be someone quite exceptional. The Rags to Riches plot usually follows these 5 stages:
1. Initial Wretchedness at Home and the 'Call'
We are introduced to our hero, or heroine, in a lowly and unhappy state at home. The hero is usually young in age, or has not yet ventured out in the world. Obviously this is a plot, which is concerned with the process of growing up. The hero starts the journey of a human being from unformed childhood and needs to reach the state of complete personal maturity.
To start with, the hero is overshadowed by malevolent dark figures, which come in two distinct varieties: Adults acting in the place of a parent or figures closers to the hero's age and status (evil stepsisters, for example). Something happens to either call or send the hero out into the world.
2. Out into the World with Initial Success
The hero is now out in the world away from the original home, or starting point. New ordeals await, but these are also rewarded with the first limited success, which is also a prevision of the eventual glory, which the hero will find. The hero is thus lifted out of his original state of misery. However at this point the hero is not ready yet for the complete fulfilment.
3. The Central Crisis
Everything suddenly goes wrong. The shadows of dark figures return. The hero is separated from his greatest treasure/friend/love. The hero is overwhelmed with despair at this. Because of the earlier lift in the hero's fortunes and because the hero is so powerless, this is the absolute low point of the story, where it all seems lost again.
4. Independence and the Final Ordeal
The hero gradually emerges from the crisis and is shown in a new light. The hero discovers in himself a new independent strength. This new strength is put to the final test, against a dark and powerful figure, which stands between the hero and his final goal. This dark figure is characterised by egocentricity and incapacity for true, selfless love. Basically the same characteristics as the monster from the Overcoming the Monster plot.
5. Final Union, Completion and Fulfilment
The hero is rewarded with a complete, loving union. The hero succeeds to a "kingdom"; a domain over which they will rule wisely and well. By the end of the story no one ever doubts that the originally derided and humble little hero should be worthy of their final glorious destiny, however improbable it looked at the beginning, since they have along the way revealed such admirable qualities which show their true inner worth. And thus the hero has deserved that mysterious central goal in storytelling, where everything at last is perfect and complete.
The Dark Version
The Rags to Riches plot can also be told in a 'dark' variation. The hero will attempt to do the same climb from rags to riches, but in some ways fails to reach the fully rewarding conclusion. The heroes in these stories are not the selfless and goodhearted ones we are used to. In fact they react to any kind of opposition with egotism. Instead of being the victim, it is their surroundings who fall victim to the hero's actions. Although the ultimate symbolic goal of the hero is remarkably similar to the original Rags to Riches plot, the hero in the dark version really is a monster. His ambition is only a means to egotistical gratification and a desire to dominate others. Of course the attempts to reach such a goal will always be frustrated, and surely it brings about his complete destruction.
This plot is very richly represented in stories through the ages and continues to be very popular. Just think of the Hollywood cliché moment where the ever handsome hero removes the spectacles from the plain girl, lets down her hair and gazes at her in awe, "... but you are beautiful!"
Of the more well-known examples we find: My Fair Lady, Superman (and similar heroes, who go from weedy bespectacled kids to all-powerful superhero), the biblical story of Joseph, Cinderella, Aladdin, Puss in Boots, David Copperfield, The Ugly Duckling, Charlie Chaplin's The Gold Rush, Jane Eyre, Moll Flanders, Great Expectations and many, many more.
The next of the seven basic plots is instantly recognizable, and even more so than any of the other six plots. We'll look at The Quest next.
Questions and comments are welcome.