Interesting fictional characters have desires. They want to be someone. They will fight to remain a ‘someone’, and for the most part they’re afraid of becoming ‘no one’, although there are characters who actively embrace being ‘a no one’. A ‘someone’ is a person of significance and importance. They’re usually powerful and influential, and slightly feared—historical figures like Antony and Cleopatra, Alexander the Great, business people like Gordon Gekko, Policemen, people with vision doing things, rebellious, anti-establishment figures like Bonnie and Clyde, or mysterious operatives so self-confident or enlightened that they reject the need to be ‘someone’, like the classic hero with no name in Pale Rider.
Young upstarts rely on fresh thinking, ingenuity and an eagerness to break the rules to beat ‘the system’. Then, at the other end of the scale, there are the established players, working within or controlling ‘the system’, people of considerable experience who enjoy the power and prestige of being at the top. They are commonly depicted as corporate CEOs, a Mafia boss, a tribal leader, the King or Queen. These entrenched power players must defend themselves against the competition, especially the young upstarts who want to take over. Those in power in fiction know that once they fall from power they will be at the mercy of a pack of wolves, so they must cling to power using every means available.
In fictional worlds where the characters are defined by their desperation to be ‘a someone’—a star, to be rich and famous beyond expectation, they are also horrified at the prospect of being ‘a nobody’, or even ‘an anybody’ (just another person in ‘the crowd’, a ‘Mr or Mrs Average’). The more a character wants to be ‘a someone’, the higher the stakes become in their all-out quest to succeed. This is often the motivating factor behind a tragedy or the villain in any number of action stories who is willing to accept any ‘collateral damage’ to get ahead. People lie and cheat the system to win (Wall Street, The Wolf of Wall Street, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), rob banks (Bonnie and Clyde, The Italian Job, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, League of Gentlemen, Charley Varrick), and sell drugs (Scarface, Breaking Bad, City of God, Layer Cake, We’re the Millers).
But let’s not forget the honest characters whose bravery, hard work, morality, and talent make them a someone (top ranking scientists, priests working for the poor, transformational business leaders, reforming politicians, explorers, test pilots) who are marked out by their achievements. In addition, there are characters whose sense of being someone is defined by their individuality and comic observation, like Withnail in Withnail and I; their rediscovered humanity, like Lester Burnham in American Beauty; or their enduring friendship like Ferris in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Then there’re the characters who seek the anonymity of being ‘a nobody’, wishing to be invisible, perhaps assuming the persona of the common man, hiding from dark forces, or operating as ‘the hero with no name’ (Pale Rider, High Plains Drifter, V For Vendetta, Drive, The Prisoner). Some characters have a death wish (Death Wish, Cliffhanger, It’s a Wonderful Life, Thelma and Louise, The Punisher), a desire to complete the story arc in the shortest time—and sacrifice their life in the process—transcending the body and physicality to become the ultimate ‘non-person’.
A character’s story arc is all about being ‘a somebody’ and a ‘no one’. Bilbo Baggins, in The Hobbit, is something of a joke in his community. He becomes a someone by leading an expedition to thwart Smaug’s evil, and returns home a respected hero, reluctantly blessed with enough of Smaug’s treasure to keep him financially secure for life. In Trading Places a successful financial trader (a ‘somebody’) swaps places with a street con-artist (a ‘nobody’). In the Robin Hood story, Robin is a somebody (a member of the landed gentry) who is unjustly ousted from his family’s home and land. He is forced to flee to the forest (becoming ‘a no one’) and make ends meet as a lowly bandit. He turns his misfortune around by working with other victims of injustice, banding together to fight the vain, corrupt, power hungry local sheriff, and in the process winning the King’s gratitude (becoming ‘a someone’ again).
Dramatic reversals of fortune, that hook audiences, are frequently about power and control—earning or winning the title of ‘the someone’ or the tragedy of turning into ‘a nobody’.