I don’t usually give much thought to celebrities (I only recognize a handful, if we’re being honest), but today marks the second year David Bowie’s been gone, and just a little over a year since Carrie Fisher’s passing, so I’ve been mulling over the concept a bit. It’s an impressive concept, to be so well-known and loved (or hated, in some cases) that your mere existence affects the social landscape, that people who’ve never met you have had their lives changed by your work. I know I cried when Bowie passed, and nearly did again during a certain scene with Fisher in The Last Jedi.
Naturally, I got to thinking: how does the role of a celebrity affect fictional worlds? Of course, there’s the celebrity as a character in their own right, from royalty in need of rescuing, or the childhood hero who doesn’t quite stack up to the legends. Instead, I began thinking of the celebrity as a part of setting; we create the specific royalties and pantheons for the worlds we create, but what about those folks the populace looks up to? Perhaps more importantly, what do your characters think about such celebrities, even if they never chance to meet?
Consider a couple ideas…
First off, what kind of celebrities might exist in your setting? Are they similar to those in our world, such as musicians and actors? Is it a fantasy world where adventurers are praised? A paranormal romance where werewolf wrestling is a key sport in the occult underground? Fans arguing over which of their favorite space diplomats have initiated more successful first contacts? Consider your setting’s culture and values, and use that to determine what its people would be fans of.
Need to showcase the passage of time and its effects? Use news about your celebrity. Say a tyrannical government is cracking down on free speech, so suddenly the concerts of everyone’s favorite musician is being canceled, but those in the gossip chain heard that he can now be found at a hidden speakeasy. Or a politician fell from grace during book one, but a calamity struck in book two and she helped with the reconstruction efforts, so she’s now back in the people’s good graces by book three.
Social events follow celebrities like felines to catnip, and these can be great scenes to showcase a different side of your character. What would force them to end up at a dance, a playwright’s newest show, a high-stakes competition crowded with onlookers—or are these events your characters would visit willingly? A celebrity’s influence can also cause such events to show up suddenly. Imagine a team of crackshot thieves are prepared to hijack a vehicle full of money when it hits a planned route; how do they react when a celebrity suddenly passes, and now the route’s been changed to make way for the funeral procession?
A celebrity’s opinions can have great effect on their fans, for good or ill. Say your characters are trying to enact social change, such as a good ol’ fashioned revolt and overthrow of the fantastical government. What will they do if the local celebrity disapproves and the public turns against them? Or if the celebrity approves, and now the rebellion’s ranks swell with more new members than they know what to do with?
Connected to that last point: consider how fervently devoted some fans are for their celebrities. Simultaneously consider events like pilgrimages made to the home of Elvis Presley, or the artwork of Carrie Fisher as a Saint (may she protect us and remind us to take our meds, amen). What if there is a celebrity who garners as much belief as a god in your setting…and if there are actual gods in this setting, what are their opinions on the matter?
If nothing else, there’s always the celebrity as good old-fashioned metaphor. Is your protagonist’s favorite dancer a beacon of hope, believing that no matter how dark things get, life still goes on so long as the dancer keeps moving? Perhaps the dancer represents a rogue’s lost dreams of what they could’ve been in another life—and if the rogue then realizes they’re still just as dexterous and nimble due to their lifestyle, or that their time adventuring has made them just as famous? Now you’ve got some growth and character development.
I’m sure there are plenty of other uses for famous folks in your fiction, and this isn’t even touching upon them as characters in their own right. That’s part of a celebrity’s allure, I think; the fact that their fame can say so much about a world without them speaking a single word.
Now if you’ll excuse me dearests, I’m going to bury myself in David Bowie’s discography for the rest of the day. Maybe watch The Blues Brothers again so I can see Carrie Fisher wielding a rocket launcher. It’ll be a good day.