Self-Made Man

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Young Scrooge McDuck sets the record straight with Flintheart Glomgold.
"A self-made man, who worships his creator."
John Bright on Benjamin Disraeli (and many other people on many other people)

This person, frequently but not always a business-person, owes no one for what they have save themselves, except for those who created them or gave them birth -- usually. Be it through hard work, keen business acumen, sheer determination and/or a dollop of serendipity, they have gone from unimportant to important. This is who you get at the end of Rags to Riches, but this is not that trope because the Self-Made Man is often there right at the start of the story, whereas Rags to Riches follows the course that leads a character here.

Rarely a protagonist; their interesting plot is mostly over.

How others view them varies; typically, in works set further back in history, they are looked down on as upstarts, a reflection of the dislike a lot of the nobility had for the power shift following the Industrial Revolution. In more modern settings they are often the most respected people in business because they had to climb the ladder from the bottom.

Expect them to show fewer social graces but often more political savvy than the more traditionally wealthy. Except when he is feverishly trying to imitiate and become socially accepted by the Blue Bloods, when he generally comes off the worse. The Arranged Marriage for the Impoverished Patrician is often to a Self-Made Man, or his daughter. In Passed Over Inheritance, the will-making character is often this trope, because refusing your children the inheritance you got comes across as petty.

A common variant on this is to have heroes start wealthy, but forsake their wealth (or have it stripped from them) so they can remake themselves from scratch; often this is done with characters that canonically inherited their wealth in order to show that they really 'earned' it. Note that Fridge Logic reveals that this isn't really the same thing as making yourself up from absolutely nothing—as with Real Life examples such as Donald Trump, even losing all of your wealth and status doesn't strip you of vital things like wealthy upper-class contacts, a famous name, a high profile, and other things that can be used to gather capital and acquire wealth in the real world.

An evil or Jerkass version of this trope is the Nouveau Riche. As this character tends to Default to Good, it can be seen as an inversion of Ambition Is Evil.

(Not to be confused for the book by Norah Vincent, a chronicle of immersive journalism in which she passes for a man for more than a year.)

A second variant of this trope is that of a character who, for whatever reason, chooses to change their basic nature in defiance of normal expectations of what they are "meant" to be or are likely to become- a naturally selfish or evil-inclined character, for example, forcing himself moment-to-moment to act generous or good because he has decided to make himself that way.

Compare Never a Self-Made Woman, which explains how a successful female always has a man who made it possible for her.

Examples of Self-Made Man include:

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Anime and Manga[edit | hide]

  • Seto Kaiba from Yu-Gi-Oh!. He did inherit the company, but only through his own intelligence and reformed it completely afterwards.
    • His GX Expy Jun Manjyome comes from an incredibly rich family but decides he wants to be this character instead and resolves to achieve success via his own merits and not his brothers' money or fame.
  • Jack Rakan of Mahou Sensei Negima; the reason that he's a beloved invincible war hero is because he literally fought his way to the top despite starting out at rock bottom as a gladiatorial slave.
  • As part of his being the poster boy for Eagle Land (both versions), G Gundam's Chibodee Crocket was an orphan who built himself up from street urchin to the Heavyweight Boxing Champ as well as America's representative in the 13th Gundam Fight. This is the reason why he believes so fiercely in the concept of the American Dream - he's living proof that it's possible.
  • Marianne from Code Geass can be seen as this. In a society where you only matter if you're from a noble lineage, she manages to get into the most elite knight order of the empire and eventually becomes a consort to the Emperor. A position usually reserved for daughters of important noble families.
    • Her son Lelouch may also count. He obtained half the world on his own, without relying on his royal lineage.
  • In The Secret Agreement, Yuuichi is an orphaned Street Urchin who eventually builds his own business. Even when he found out he had an uncle he didn't go to him for anything he needed.
  • Franky of One Piece is a Self-Made Man in a... different sense, still related to making himself by himself, but in a more literal manner. The original definition could still apply to him - despite being the son of a pirate, he managed to be one of the few apprentices of Tom, the closest person to an ultimate shipwright there was, by proving his skill to him, then managed to gather a sizable gang, becoming just about the most infamous person of the city - certainly not helped by anyone in the endeavour.
  • Fujioka Yukari, the female protagonist of Billionaire Girl, amassed a fortune of 170 billion yen working as a day trader. And she's just 18.
  • Fujitaka Kinomoto from Cardcaptor Sakura. He was orphaned at a young age, pursued a schoolteaching career on his own, fell in love with an Uptown Girl and was accused of being a Gold Digger, married her anyway despite her disownment, worked hard alongside his wife to make a living for themselves and their children, and by the time we meet him he's a rather succesful archeologist and uni professor. In his mid to late 30's.

Comic Books[edit | hide]

  • Ozymandias from Watchmen gave away all his money at a young age to prove that he could get to the top without any help. Being the smartest man on Earth with a drive to match, he pulled it off, becoming both a superhero and super-wealthy.
  • Lex Luthor (DC Comics) and The Kingpin (Marvel) are sometimes shown as coming from poor families in rough neighbourhoods; the Kingpin especially, though that fits for a career criminal.
  • Scrooge McDuck rose from shoe-shiner to the richest duck/man in the world. That's how he became Mr. Vice Guy instead of a Corrupt Corporate Executive (although this wasn't true of his earlier appearances).
    • Scrooge's Evil Counterpart Flintheart Glomgold also apparently started from humble beginnings, although in his case he didn't make his fortune square.
    • Don Rosa portrays John Rockerduck's father, Howard Rockerduck, as someone who became rich from a gold rush.
      • Rosa also depicted Theodore Roosevelt as a man who aspired to make his own career, despite being from a wealthy family. His words inspired a young Scrooge in Buckaroo of the Badlands: "Being born wealthy is no accomplishment! That's why I became a cowboy! To find the life I missed by not being born poor like you!"
    • The Carl Barks one-shot Somethin' Fishy Here (remade as Something Fishy) has him start over and rebuild a small fortune in a single day.
  • An interesting variation occurs with the Green Goblin, Spider-Man's archenemy. While Norman Osborn's family was initially very wealthy, Norman's incompetent, abusive father nearly wiped out the family fortune, until Norman founded Osborn Industries and rebuilt the family wealth from the ground up.
  • In Judge Dredd, Martin Sinfield is proud of the fact that he wasn't cloned or fast-tracked to the top, but instead worked his way up from the bottom. The fraud, bribery, and criminality were completely for the good of the city. Absolutely.
  • Though Tony Stark was born into wealth, it's been taken from him multiple times, causing him to build it back up by himself every time, the most notable being when Stane took his entire company from him and Stark built a new one from the ground up.

Film[edit | hide]

  • Gordon Gekko in Wall Street.
  • Thornton Melon (Rodney Dangerfield) from Back To School is a man with little education and class (well, it's Rodney!), but possesses uncanny financial skills. He built his fortune selling a plus-sized line of clothing to obese men. But seems to make the real money with his ability to invest his assets to maximize profits. In this regard, he is better suited to teach economics then the snobbish instructor whose classes Melon attends.
  • George Kittridge in The Philadelphia Story
  • The eponymous serial killer in Mr. Brooks founded, owns and runs a successful box-making company.
  • Nick Vanderpark, the character portrayed by Jack Black in Envy, used to be the average working man until he invested four thousand dollars on the development of a spray that vaporizes dog poop. The investment made himself wealthy. The film never stated how much Dmitrioff, who invented the spray, got from the deal or how it changed his life.
  • Roger Calloway in It Takes Two.
  • Biff Tannen sort of became one in Back to The Future II. His self from 2015 traveled in time to give his 1955 self an almanac with sports results from 1950 to 2000 so past Biff would become wealthy from gambling. Sure, it ended up being for naught, since Marty and Doc undid the damages to the timeline but, he was quite wealthy in 1985 until then.
  • Rudolf Smuntz in Mousehunt.

Literature[edit | hide]

  • Perhaps the most famous example in western canon is Jay Gatsby of The Great Gatsby. Born poor, he falls in love with a girl above his station and dedicates himself to making money to win her back. He's fantastically wealthy by the time the story starts, and is famous for the lavish parties he constantly throws in his opulent mansion. Alas, his true love still rejects him.
  • Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. After feeling betrayed by Cathy and leaving the Heights as a teenager, the gypsy foundling returns... somewhat mysteriously wealthy three years later. Hmm.
    • He then proceeds to swindle both Hindley and Edgar out of their respective properties.
  • Discworld has a few.
    • Harry King (AKA Piss Harry, The King of the Golden River) went from gutter-born mud lark to one of the richest men in the city by realising there is nothing so foul that someone doesn't want it—and what's more, you can usually get people who don't want it to pay you to take it away. Not liked, and even disrespected, by most of the traditional power players in the city, the protagonists and most other characters the reader is meant to sympathize with tend to have at least a grudgingly positive opinion of him.
    • Vimes is a peripheral example, in that the Watch ended up in its modern place of power because of his hard work, but in his personal life he married way, way up.
      • It's worth noting that he's far happier about being married to Sybil Ramkin than he is about the fact that it meant marrying a noble in the bargain. In spite of (or perhaps because of) now being a member of the gentry, his disdain for them is stronger than ever.
    • C.M.O.T. Dibbler is not an example, despite all his best efforts.
    • Mr Bucket in Maskerade, whom Salzella contemptuously thinks of as "a self-made man who's proud of his handiwork".
    • Willie Hobson, of Hobson's Livery Stable, another businessman in the mold of Harry King who had 'found a niche, occupied it, then forced it open so wide a lot of money dropped in'.
  • Sir Willoughby Parfitt in Sharpe's Justice.
  • Hagbard Celine in The Illuminatus! Trilogy quit his job as a lawyer, sold his property, gave half of it to the poorest people he could find, and the other half to the richest people he could found, hitched a ride to Europe to start fresh. A few years later, he's the leading private importer of contraband after the mafia. Off course, it could all be a great big lie, he could be working for the mafia or might not even exist.
    • He certainly isn't working for the Mafia - that's explicitly a lie that he initiated to make his followers doubt his integrity.
  • Johann Sebastian Bach Smith from Robert A. Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil is a rare protagonist example, who serves as a perfect illustration of why protagonist examples of this trope are a bad idea.
  • Hank Rearden and John Galt from Atlas Shrugged. Francisco d'Anconia managed this despite being the heir to a fortune: He snuck out to work at a copper foundry, and managed to earn enough money on his own to purchase the foundry himself, while learning the family business firsthand.
    • Howard Roark from The Fountainhead also qualifies.
  • Honor Harrington is a moderate example. Her parents were always well-off, a pair of respected and successful doctors who were themselves descended from successful professionals, but they were solidly in the yeoman social class and never had the money to really be "rich." Honor herself earned her first several million dollars with prize money from ships she seized for smuggling during her stationing in the Basilisk system, then reinvested the modest fortune into numerous investment opportunities around Manticore; the proceeds from her investments turned her from millionaire into a billionaire. She then founded Grayson Skydomes, Ltd. on the planet Grayson, bankrolled by her offworld fortune, the proceeds of which made her the wealthiest individual on Grayson and in shouting distance of the wealthy on Manticore. Throughout the novels her fortune continued to expand through regular reinvestment in the many financial opportunities a sustained war provides anybody with capial and resources, along the way also earning a knighthood, a Duchy on Gryphon and investment as a Steadholder on Grayson. The later books have her as one of the most important figures, exonomically, politically and militarily, in the entire galaxy. However, all along the way Honor is quick to point out that her financial success is primarily the doing of her hired financial consultant, and she was always quick to deflect any praise or reward from her personal actions.
    • Klaus Hauptmann is another, albeit antagonistic, example and bears a hidden distaste for old money.
  • The benefactor in Charles Dickens's Great Expectations is a ringing example. From escaped convict to Wealthy Australian.
  • Dr. Bledsoe in Invisible Man is almost a deconstruction of this type—he seems at first to have earned his way to the top honestly, but it becomes clear just how much he lied and schemed.
  • Well before the time of The Thrawn Trilogy, Thrawn had made Grand Admiral despite literally being an alien who had been picked up off of a distant planet. He'd been a Commander among his people, but had been exiled to an unpopulated world. The Empire was quite biased against nonhumans and he started with no rank among them, but he was a strategic and tactical genius the likes of which the galaxy had rarely if ever seen, so despite his many oddities he was able to pull himself up into a position that let him command the Empire itself, in that trilogy.
  • Wang Lung, the hard-working Chinese farmer from The Good Earth.
  • Captain Frederick Wentworth of Jane Austen's Persuasion: "I have been used to the gratification of believing myself to earn every blessing that I enjoyed. I have valued myself on honourable toils and just rewards."
  • In Robert E Howard's "The Scarlet Citadel", Conan the Barbarian brags that his Rags to Royalty climb was all his own, and that he had shed blood himself as well as shedding that of others.
    • Conan is not kidding on that score either; he attained the throne of Aquilonia by leading a rebellion against its last king, a Caligula by the name of Numedides, who he personally slew by his own hand.
    • In "The Shadow Kingdom", Kull.
  • Alexandria's Character Arc in the Emperor books consists of becoming one of these; she starts off as a slave, but manages to earn her freedom in the first book and goes on to become a successful jeweller.
  • James T. Sedgwick, maternal uncle of the protagonist of Brewster's Millions, built his fortune in Montana, where he arrived with just a few thousands of dollars on his name and ended up owning some ranches and gold mines.
  • Rourke, from the In Death series, starts out as a poor Irish street brat and becomes an obscenely wealthy member of the Fiction 500 through a combination of illegal and legal business ventures.
  • In L. M. Montgomery's The Blue Castle, Dr. Redfern.
  • In Jane Austen's Persuasion, Sir Walter's objection to the navy is that it faciliates this.
  • During one of Isaac Asimov's "Black Widowers" mysteries, some of the characters were discussing this concept. Then one of them raised the possibility that Asimov was a self-made man, and another character who knew Asimov invoked the "worships his creator" line from the page quote.
    • Their dinner guest that night was a self-made man, who told them how he solved a riddle posed in a would-be benefactor's will. Deducing the answer won him a valuable rare book, which financed the start of what he built into a nationwide bookstore chain.

"I couldn't have gotten my start without [the benefactor], so that maybe I'm not a self-made man. And yet, he didn't give me anything. I had to work it out for myself, so maybe I am a self-made man."

Live Action TV[edit | hide]

  • Blackadder the Third parodies the rising industrialists in Regency England with Amy Hardwood's father, a farmer's son who invented the Ravelling Nancy and now owns more mills than the Prince Regent has brain cells (seven). Unfortunately, he seems to have squandered his wealth on god-knows-what and is currently dirt-poor.
  • Tony Curtis' character in The Persuaders is a self-made millionaire who grew up in the Bronx. The contrast between him and Roger Moore's character, a British aristocrat, is frequently played up for humorous effect.
  • Don Draper, casts off his old life (literally) and rebuilds himself as the best ad-man on Madison Avenue after the Korean War.
  • George Jefferson. He's not as rich as the other guys on this list, but he started off as a janitor and with the help of an insurance settlement opened and ran a successful dry cleaning store in Queens, New York. He managed turn one store into a chain and got enough money to "move on up" to the Upper East Side of Manhattan into a deluxe apartment
  • Uncle Phil from Fresh Prince of Bel Air was originally a farmboy from a small rural town who managed to better himself and eventually became a rich and successful lawyer in California. This meant that he usually displayed more common sense than all his children combined -- usually.
  • Nikos Karabastos from Brazilian soap opera Uga Uga was originally employee of a toy factory who, tired of his employers not seeing the merit of his ideas, started his own toy factory.
  • Lionel Luthor in Smallville started his fortune with half the insurance money he collected when he had his parents killed in a fire.
    • It comes from the comics where it is sometimes stated to be the way Lex Luthor got the seed money to start his empire.
  • Stymie Bundy in Married... with Children accumulated half a million dollars.
  • General Martok in Deep Space Nine clawed and hacked( probably literally at times ) his way to flag rank in the Klingon forces despite his poor birth and the opposition from aristocracy. He was a Badass by Klingon standards.
  • Even though Lorelai Gilmore comes from money, she ran away from home as an unwed mother, got her first job basically because the inn's owner took pity on her, lived in a tool shed and less than twenty years later owned her own house and was part owner of her own inn.

Theater[edit | hide]

Video Games[edit | hide]

  • In Dragon Quest VIII, Angelo's half-brother Marcello claims to be self-made, having worked up from being an orphan in an abbey to the leader of the world's religion. You watch his rise to power throughout the game, but he only gets there through tossing around blame to imprison or otherwise dispose of those in his way to the top, and really only gets there by exploiting others, rather than through any earnest effort of his own. Because of that, he loses it all pretty quickly.
  • Geese Howard is called "The Ultimate Self-made bad guy" for a reason.
  • Teryn Loghain in Dragon Age was common-born, but won his title (approximately equivalent to the real-life title of duke), a great deal of money, power, and influence, and got his daughter to marry the King of Ferelden by his sword and his wits fighting off the Orlesian occupation.
  • The Player Character in Neverwinter Nights and the one in the Shadows of Undrentide/Hordes of the Underdark storyline both rise from a position as an apprentice adventurer to stations of great wealth, power, and influence by undertaking a variety of mad quests to save the world.
    • Common in community modules, too. The Player Character in Tales of Arterra is an orphan raised by simple farmers, who wins a title of nobility at the end of the first module and goes on to (depending on your choices) head one of the most powerful churches in the world.
    • The Player Character in Sanctum of the Archmage was the child of poor foresters, who (as the story stands) is presently set to become a close adviser to the next King/Queen at the very least.
  • Robert House of Fallout: New Vegas. While he was born to wealthy parents, he was cheated out of his inheritance upon their death by his half-brother. That didn't stop him from attending MIT, founding RobCo (the company responsible for building most of the robots of the series, including Liberty Prime) and buying out several companies within Vegas, including his brother's. Using his vast resources, he managed to mostly preserve Vegas from the nuclear war, giving the Mojave Wasteland a possible chance for restoration.
  • Fei Long from Street Fighter, according to his backstory. He began training in Kung-Fu as a 6-year-old child, as a teenager he became a stuntman for HK movies and got into informal streetfighting, and from then on he worked hard in minor roles and training to reach the top. An assistant director asked him to show his skills in a single scene take, and the rest is history.
    • All but stated in the case of Sagat, too. The humble Thai village that he visits in Street Fighter IV is strongly hinted to be the "Emperor of Muay Thai"'s hometown, and the elder of said place is one of his relatives (apparently, his eldest brother).

Web Original[edit | hide]

  • Bubs claims to be a self-made man. That's debatable.
  • Phase of the Whateley Universe. After being thrown out of his wealthy family, he used a payoff from his father and his knowledge of Goodkind enterprises to make money using derivatives in the stock market; then he put together a consortium and bought out a series of corporate units that he realized would work better when consolidated. As of spring of his freshman year in high school he's a billionaire.

Western Animation[edit | hide]

  • The Simpsons: Frank Grimes. A ridiculously exaggerated example: he was abandoned by his parents, worked delivering toys for rich kids which he would never get himself while studying in his free time, then was caught in a silo explosion, after which he had to rehabilitate himself, teaching himself to feel pain and hear again. His story touched Mr. Burns (another "self-made man"), who summoned him to work as Executive Vice President, only to give the job to a heroic dog at the last minute and send Grimes to sector 7G. Having to work with Homer (who, to put it mildly, doesn't share his work ethic) unhinges him, particularly once he learns of all the amazing things Homer had accomplished despite his laziness (having a big house, hanging out with Presidents, going on tour with the Smashing Pumpkins, going into Outer Space- would you like to see his Grammy? And the episode only begins to cover it.)
    • Parodied with Mr. Burns, who declares himself a Self-Made Man, but Mr. Smithers responds by pointing out that Monty inherited his money. When Burns glares at him, he hastily adds, "Not That There's Anything Wrong with That."
    • Of course, since Burns wrote on a medical form that the "Cause of Parents' Deaths" was "Got in my way", he still counts.
    • And he apparently had many older siblings who all died under "unfortunate" circumstances, mostly poisoned potatoes, leaving him the sole heir.
    • He did, however, gain his entire fortune back in the course of one episode after it was taken away from him. He did this, of course, by recycling, which he still managed to make evil.
    • Herb Powell, Homer's illegitimate half-brother, grew up in Shelbyville Orphanage, washed cars for his college classmates to pay for his education and became a car manufacturer, with said classmates being now his board of directors. Homer ruined this, sending Herb to the poorhouse until he invented a device that translated baby talk. Despite the invention being a success back when it was made and the Simpsons having a baby, the device was never seen in any other episode.
  • Xanatos in Gargoyles likes to call himself a self-made man, but does abusing a time trip and leaving himself a note really count as "self-made?" That's just a simple causality loop, right?
    • A self made causality loop. Anyway, he still turned $20,000 into a multi-billion dollar company all on his own.
      • In retrospect, it would be even better if he sent back future financial information on stock, commodity, real estate, and currency markets, but that would be too easy. Note: Xanatos sent himself a coin that he earned for services rendered in the past, maximizing his bragging rights.
        • Besides, it's Xanatos. He gets a pass.
    • He drags his father into the loop specifically because he wants to prove to him that he's a Self Made Man. His dad isn't impressed.
  • Long Feng from Avatar: The Last Airbender. It's mentioned briefly that he worked his way up to head of the Earth Kingdom's Secret Police from a lower-class childhood. Part of Azula's Hannibal Lecture is insisting that he could never match her "divine right".
  • Hiroshi Sato from The Legend of Korra started out as a penniless kid in the slums of Republic City and became a millionaire by his twenties, all due to hard work and the foresight to see the then-untapped potential in consumer automobiles.
  • Cornelius Robinson, brilliant inventor and industrialist in Meet the Robinsons who is responsible for just about all the amazing futuristic technology found in the year 2037. He is the future self of Lewis, the main character.
  • Mr. Ridgemount in Stoked.
  • Virginia's father in Lola and Virginia.

Real Life[edit | hide]

  • 'Too many examples to list (so please don't bother to try').
  • That said, it's worth explaining the page quote a little. Benjamin Disraeli wanted to go into politics. This was expensive. So he became a bestselling novelist, just to pay for his political career. He ended up as Prime Minister of the UK. Twice.
  • U.S. patriots owe a lot and pay homage to Benjamin Franklin. According to The Other Wiki "he exemplified the emerging American nation. Franklin was foundational in defining the American ethos as a marriage of the practical and democratic values of thrift, hard work, education, community spirit, self-governing institutions, and opposition to authoritarianism both political and religious, with the scientific and tolerant values of the Enlightenment."