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So in today's world, you have a bunch of people that many people have heard about. People that, if you mention their name, only a few people you know will go "who?". To name a few categories:

  1. High-ranking government officials, like prime ministers or presidents of developed countries (Cameron, Bush, Tusk);
  2. Criminals with highly publicized criminal actions, like serial killers, skilled con artists or master thieves (Jack the Ripper, Madoff, Jesse James);
  3. People with a certain talent for creativity or something else, like artists, scientists or athletes (Picasso, Einstein, Bolt);
  4. People who had a historical impact, like explorers, great military leaders, people who donated a lot of money to charity (Magellan, Eisenhower, Gates);
  5. People who have run a very successfully company (Jobs, Page, Branson) and became rich through it;

However, is it possible for a person to become notable on a national or even global scale without anyone knowing the reason they're notable?

The situation I'm trying to create is that the story has a notable person in the current time, but noone can adequately explain why they are notable. Trying to figure out what that person did is a subplot of the story.

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closed as off-topic by enkryptor, XandarTheZenon, Frostfyre, Wrzlprmft, Mason Wheeler Mar 7 at 18:03

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Humm... Kardashian? – jamesqf Mar 5 at 17:46
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Trump is well known for his small hands. – emory Mar 5 at 20:56
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People standing next to notable people: Kato Kaelin, Monica Lewinsky, Mary Magdalene – Robert Mar 5 at 21:10
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How is it related to worldbuilding? – enkryptor Mar 5 at 21:15
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There's always this guy. – MichaelS Mar 6 at 8:53

18 Answers 18

up vote 36 down vote accepted

Yes, it's called Famous for being Famous.

The Kardashians being a notable example. I know the name and have no clue why and neither does anyone else.

My best-guess at the cause would be the children of other famous people who actually did something, whereas the kids just end up in the news because their parents are famous, but never achieve anything noteworthy themselves. Then they have kids. This third generation would be the generation that is famous for no reason anyone can discern.

If the original notable event was not significant at the time other than to put a spotlight on the person (fanfare being given to hoping they so something else); that is, the person is remembered more than the event (typically the reverse happens), then you could end up with the situation I think you're looking for.

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Oh wow, this was literally what I was thinking including the Kardashians and everything xD . – David Mulder Mar 6 at 11:57
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P. Hilton anyone? – dom0 Mar 6 at 17:32
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I thought the Kardashians were the bad guys in Deep Space 9 <grin> – Sherwood Botsford Mar 6 at 21:28
    
@dom0: At least with her people recognize her name from the hotel and figure there must be some relation. For the Kardashians nobody has any idea why they're famous. – R.. Mar 7 at 1:51
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This would work particularly well if the grandchild of the famous person did not share the same surname as their famous relative, whether because that parent uses a stage name and the grandchild uses their given surname, or there has been a marriage so that the surname was changed somewhere along the line. Then after the initial headlines of "X, grandchild of Y, in surprising story", they would be famous in their own right and no one would connect them to their grandparent. – Mike.C.Ford Mar 7 at 15:21

Mind control/subliminal messaging

There's a pretty great example from Doctor Who, of all places. During series 3 of the reboot (David Tennant's second season as The Doctor), there's a man named Harold Saxon who is very popular in Britain, and has overwhelming support for him being elected Prime Minister. However, nobody really knows why they like him; they just think he's a good guy.

During the series finale, it's revealed that Saxon had been mind-controlling the entire British population to like and trust him through their mobile phones, and that he was actually The Master, The Doctor's arch-enemy.

In short: if everybody is told to trust a guy through mind control/subliminal messaging, they're going to trust him, and he's going to be very notable, though nobody will know why he's notable.

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5  
Donald Trump was Prime Minister? – Obie 2.0 Mar 6 at 11:38

That's a tough one since you have eliminated most of the reasons people CAN be notable, but I will take a shot.

How about heroics? Maybe your character jumps on a bomb. It doesn't change history but the video goes viral.

How about being the victim of a crime, like Lorena Bobbitt. She was famous for having cut her husband's schmeckel off. People have mostly forgotten her name now but Kitty Genovese was brutally stabbed on a crowded street. No one helped and she was pretty well known for a long time and probably still is within the field of psychology.

This isn't a person, but a ship called the Mary Celeste was found floating unmanned and in serviceable shape for unknown reasons. The mystery surrounding it made it well known for a long time. Perhaps there could be a mystery around your character.

I guess we'd have to know HOW LONG this person needs to stay notable and does the person have to be notable to everyone or just a specific crowd. All of my examples have been mostly forgotten now, while yours are still known.

Anyway, I hope this helped.

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I was going to mention the same thing as you, but you stole my hype :p So now you are more notable than me. +rep for cool answer! – Youstay Igo Mar 5 at 18:42
    
+1 Or a person who commits crimes (e.g. Al Capone). Arguably some pop movie and music stars don't have talent (as measured by others) but for some reason their movies (or music sells). Also supermodels (beauty). – Jim2B Mar 5 at 19:35
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@ozone I've somewhat significantly altered the question. You might want to revisit your answer. – Nzall Mar 5 at 22:38
    
YouTube sensations, cute kittens, etc. – Jim2B Mar 6 at 3:06
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@NateKerkhofs You should post a new question rather than make such a significant change after already getting answers. – Matthew Read Mar 6 at 5:56

It might be possible to become famous just by being seen with enough famous people enough times. While at first someone would be unnamed ("a fan", "a white house staffer", etc.) or cropped, once their face became known enough for the photographers and editors to recognize, they could start to become known just for that. Add a few disclaimers once questions start to be asked ('no one important', or 'we don't know who he is'), and their fame could start to snowball. Someone who is seen regularly with multiple famous people could be well-known precisely for being associated with so many famous people. You would also have the intrigue factor because no one knows why they're associated with famous people.

Depending on how it was handled, it could either result in someone becoming famous as a mystery (literally famous because no one knows why the person is famous) or becoming accepted as a well-known 'advisor' or some other generic title because they obviously have some sort of function. This could be influenced by what kind of famous people they are associated with. Their level of fame will also be a result of the people they are seen with. Someone who is associated with top-level politicians is more likely to become internationally known than someone who is associated with the top rock musicians, although YMMV.

The question of how and why they end up so often in the company of the famous is left as an exercise for the reader.

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I would argue that quite a lot of "reality" TV personalities lack genuine creative talent. Their antics get televised by a production company, which may be scripting the "real" events, and pretty soon they are famous for having been on TV.

On a slightly different tack, how about fashion models? Again no acting talent, and the creative part comes from the designers, but at least they are selected for being beautiful.

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That's what I thought too. The TV industry has developed an uncanny skill in the past decades to turn rather ordinary people into celebrities. I believe one reason for this strategy is that people who know they don't actually have anything to deserve the fame they get are easier to control. – Philipp Mar 6 at 0:39
    
Actually there's a lot of work involved in being a model. Certainly more to it than just looking good. – Tim B Mar 6 at 13:21
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While you could quite validly say that these people are famous without deserving it, a lot of people still know why they are famous. – colmde Mar 7 at 14:31

Years ago I read a column where the writer said that it used to be that you had to do something important to become famous -- make a great scientific discovery, lead a major nation, etc. But today, we have "celebrities", people who are famous for being famous.

If you mean, Could someone be famous for no good reason, or without accomplishing anything important, the answer is obviously "yes". There are plenty of people today who are famous singers or actors but who have no particular talent, they just got lucky. There are people who are famous because they were on a reality TV show or made a video on posted it on the Internet. There are people who are famous because their parents are rich and they embarrass the family in public. There are people who are famous for making sex tapes (presumably an accomplishment that almost anyone could duplicate if they have no morals or sense of privacy). Etc.

If you mean, could someone be famous and no one knows how they became famous, I'd think that would be pretty tough. Even when someone is famous for a silly reason -- like reality TV stars and people who post videos of themselves singly badly -- presumably if you cared, you could track down just how they became famous.

For a fiction story, of course you could say that no one knows how he became famous, and every attempt to find out always ends up referring to some other event. Like, He's famous because he was on a dozen TV talk shows. Why was he invited on these talk shows? Because he was famous. So how did he get famous BEFORE he was on the talk shows? Oh, everybody was talking about him on the Internet. But why were people talking about him on the Internet? Etc. The nature of a good mystery story is that it doesn't have to be LIKELY, indeed the most entertaining mystery stories are often the wildest. It doesn't even have to be possible. You just have to make it sound plausible.

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Your remembered column is similar to this quote on Wikipedia: "British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge may have been the first to use the actual phrase [famous for being famous] in the introduction to his book ''Muggeridge Through The Microphone'' (1967) in which he wrote; 'In the past if someone was famous or notorious, it was for something—as a writer or an actor or a criminal; for some talent or distinction or abomination. Today one is famous for being famous. People who come up to one in the street or in public places to claim recognition nearly always say: "I've seen you on the telly!"'" – Mario Carneiro Mar 7 at 1:32
    
I don't think that's the source I'm vaguely remembering, but it's certainly possible that the article I read was quoting or alluding to Muggeridge. – Jay Mar 7 at 14:50

From a worldbuilding standpoint, I think you would need the society to be structured in a way that makes a few people gatekeepers to information received by the masses.

Television is a great example. You could imagine someone's face appearing in the news often enough that people are getting daily updates about their life, but have no idea why that person became relevant enough to receive such media attention (ie. Paris Hilton).

On the other end of that, you'll need a very small group, or even a single person, making the decision to give them this attention. Therefore, in the event that those people pass away, or lose their mind/memory of the event, the reason for their notability would be a complete mystery to everyone. They are notable now, but what they did to impress the gatekeepers is unknown.

This way, there could be a wonderful and impressive reason they became notable, but nobody knows, or perhaps even cares, what it is. You could vary this in a number of ways. Perhaps the media is semi-automated, if the story is set in the future, and an algorithm catches something that no human recognizes. Or in the past, maybe the local gossip chain starts mysteriously spreading stories about a person seemingly without cause. Or perhaps a king simply starts using a phrase that employs an individual's name, "By the honor of Samuel Neeb", and it catches on without anyone knowing what it means.

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Being notable and becoming notable are two different things.

To become notable usually requires some event or action that brings a person to the attention of everyone else. A person being rich gives them lots of opportunities to become notable, because people notice money being thrown around. Being an actor puts your name and face in front of a lot of people. That makes it easy to become notable.

But actually being notable is something else. It means lots of people recognize you and your name. This is the state you want your character in, but with no one remembering how the character became notable.

I can think of a couple ways that could happen. All you need is for your notable person to be introduced to the public discourse by sufficiently effectively means. Here are a few ideas:

  1. At first I thought of a medieval village. Notable Joe walks into town and the mayor greets him by name and introduces him to a few prominent citizens. Joe didn't do anything worthy of making famous, but before the end of the day, everyone will be talking about him.

  2. Mego mentions mind control and subliminal messaging. I'm thinking of advertising. You are trying to build your character's "brand" in an inconspicuous way. Sneak mentions of them into popular media. He could be mentioned in passing during advertisements. "Notable Joe liked our shampoo!" Or during sitcoms: "Hey Marge! Notable Joe is on TV!" Or even more subtle, people could start dreaming about him. That would be creepy!

  3. Make your character a fixture of popular culture. I'm thinking about the presidents faces on US money? I bet most people in the US will recognize the name "Andrew Jackson". A fair percentage will even remember he is on the twenty dollar bill. But I would bet twenty bucks that less than a half of Americans remember what he is famous for, other than being a long dead president.

  4. Give Notable Joe something that instantly draws people attention but is still mysterious. Maybe he wears a congressional medal of honor, and nobody remembers why he got it. His name is carved on a giant monolith that commemorates... something. Maybe the people have an oral tradition that venerates Notable Joe (though no one quite remembers why) and he just shows up one day...

I really like your idea. It's kind of a reverse on the story about a mysterious and powerful person who pulls the strings from the shadows. Here is a mysterious person, yet everyone knows who he is! Can't wait to hear the rest of the story.

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There were people in WWii who were heros but couldn't tell anyone. Some continue to do other work that made them notible, others were turned out to the street and their stories are only now coming to light.

What if someone like Touring or Flowers, while notible in the ranks but secret to the general public, wasn't shued out after the war but continued to have a good working relationship with top government officials.

Like the answer above about the guy whose face gets recognised by journalists and editors from being near so many famous people: here is someone who quitely moves around the top powerful people, obviously known and important to them. Once this was noticed, the story coukd get out and people would wonder "who is this guy?"

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This happens in the movie It Should Happen to You. A woman purchases some billboards purely for the purpose of putting her name on them. Her name becomes recognizable as a result, and then she is asked to appear on television and in magazines due to her famous name, so her face becomes recognizable too. Nobody knows what she is actually famous for. They just know that she is famous.

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Frankly, I think notable on any significant scale entails historical impact. Here's some examples along ozone's famous victim path.

  • Apollo 13 Astronauts
    It could be argued that it had historical impact.
  • Job
    It could be argued he had a talent for faith or perseverance.

It seems for someone to fit your requirements, they can't instigate what they are famous for. Even if they don't instigate it, you may disqualify them for having an aforementioned trait whether or not that trait (indirectly) caused the thing or was utilized in their response to it.

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The comments mentioned the Kardashians, for good reason. Some people are notable for being notable. Now this may seem like a "known reason why they are notable," but many people do not consider it a valid reason, so to them it would seem a mystery why said person is notable.

This path usually comes not by doing one amazing thing, but by a long string of actions, each one doing just enough to increase one's notability. Often this isn't actually so much an action, as it is not impeding the foolish beliefs of others about your abilities and notoriety. It's impossible to tell just what made them notable, because it was not one thing. It a was a bushel of things, no one of which was enough.

Related, one might consider Jaberwocky, from Better Off Ted. It's a "product," not a person, but it certainly built up notability without actually doing anything notable.

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A person could gain fame (or infamy) by being part of a major scientific discovery, even unintentionally. For example, Typhoid Mary became a household name through the misfortune of being "the first person in the United States identified as an asymptomatic carrier of the pathogen associated with typhoid fever".

Similarly, an individual can gain recognition by being a part of a significant tragedy... Alfred Packer and Sharon Tate come to mind.

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So how is that unknown? – JDługosz Mar 6 at 15:14
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@JDługosz: The original question asked how a person could "become notable" in a non-traditional way... This answer was actually valid for how the question was originally posed. Unfortunately, the question has since been changed. :( – Lindsey D Mar 7 at 1:26

Fame usually comes through a memorable event. Additional similar events reinforce the fame of the person and people associate the event, or string of events, with the person. However, a string of disparate events, where a particular person is associated to each of the events but is not the central person in any of them, can undermine the associations without undermining the developing fame.

For example, someone says "I recognize that face. Wasn't s/he the one that..."

"No, s/he was involved with..."

"You're both wrong..."

This lack of clarity reinforces the personal fame but generates confusion about the cause.

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One possibility would be just living a long time. You can find articles on the world's oldest people. Most of them have never done anything particularly notable other than just continuing to be alive. They're not exactly A-list celebrities, but some of them might be known internationally solely for their longevity.

(The movie "Children of Men" turned this idea on its head by having someone who was famous for being the world's youngest man, due to some unknown cause preventing everyone in the world from successfully giving birth for many years.)

On a related note would be people who survive a very difficult injury or illness despite all odds. E.g. Stephen Hawking is of course famous for being a brilliant astrophysicist, but even if he weren't, he'd probably still be at least somewhat well known as someone who's lived as long as he has with his condition.

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Yes, you can be famous and even recognizable for no particular reason

  • Somehow you did something which gave you much attention
  • or if you pop up consistently on notable events
  • or you are involved in an exceptional event
  • or you are becoming a symbol for something.

Symbols

enter image description here

You know what they stand for, but do you have any clue what happened to them or who they are?

People involved in exceptional events.

For a specific reason the person became involved in an exceptional event. It also means that these pictures allow people to recognize the person without knowing who they are ("Somehow is know this... person).

You know this little boy while his real identity is still unknown? enter image description here

The following images have copyright, so I only link to them.

You know who this little girl is, do you?

Do you know this unknown man?

You know this woman and what triggered her grief?

People who popped up repeatedly and gained reputation.

If you are a bit older, you may recognize this man....

Rollen Stewart

What has he done? He simply popped up at sports events, trying to get attention and placing himself strategically. It did not end well. You can generalize that every person which is able to put himself near celebrities or get somehow attention may be able to get famous.

And then the ones who for any reason get blessed or cursed being famous...

enter image description here

Enough said. 32 million views in Youtube.

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Yes it is possible.

Real life example from the upcoming US elections:

http://trumpdonald.org

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A lot of the answers concentrate on people (like the Kardashians or reality TV stars) who may have no talent and didn't do anything to deserve to be famous but the thing is, people still know why they are notable (even if they don't agree with the notability.)

However, with the cooperation of a Rupert Murdoch type or someone in charge of a large section of the media, you could become famous and leave nobody knowing why you're famous.

Have the tabloids follow you around in a way similar to how they do to real celebrities, with paparazzi photos taken of you, images of you "showing off" some latest fashion, print gossip columns about you, photos of you doing something shocking ("Mohammed Chang spotted shopping in CheapCo Discount Shop!"), sexy photos of you, "Day in the life" interviews with you, scandals, ads with you endorsing various beauty products, basically acting as if you are already famous.

Don't bother with claims that you "broke the Internet" by the way, it seems everyone is breaking the Internet nowadays...

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