Harry Potter, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, Aang, Charlie from the Chocolate Factory, Spider-man, Chihiro, Katniss Everdeen, Vin, Hiccup, Edward and Alphonse Elric—all these characters are so compelling, at least in part, because they are underdogs in some way.
They have a disadvantage. Sometimes it’s that they’re children in an adult’s world, smaller and less experienced, like Charlie or Aang. Sometimes it’s that they face overwhelming odds, like Frodo or Katniss; it’s not likely they will win. Sometimes they are perfectly fine as far as having needs met, but they are socially out of place—like Bilbo’s “odd” Tookish streak, Chihiro’s recent move, or Spider-man’s high school geekiness. And sometimes—and in most of the above cases—they have significant tragic backstory bringing them down, as well. Poverty, abuse, lost parents—the weak and downtrodden are perfect underdogs.
There is something in us that loves to root for the underdog, to see a come-from-behind win. I think we find inspiration in an underdog overcoming the odds because, to some degree, we all see ourselves as underdogs: no one is more aware of my disadvantages than I am, in part because I’m likely to obsess unhealthily over them. But if Vin can overcome, I can too! (I may not think this outright, but in theory, that’s the subconscious effect underdogs have.)
CASE STUDY: SATAN AND THE POWER OF THE UNDERDOG
Do you know that many people consider Satan to be the hero of Paradise Lost? In a poem about the Fall of Man, how could this be? Well, part of the answer is that he says things like this:
What though the field be lost?
All is not Lost; the unconquerable will,
And study of revenge, immortal hate,
And the courage never to submit or yield.
And also this:
Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.
Satan has been defeated and begins the epic in the worst spot imaginable (Hell), he faces an omnipotent enemy whom he knows he cannot beat, and he struggles with sadness (admittedly brought upon himself by himself, but it so often is, isn’t it?). Intellectual and moral fashions of the times aside, a person up against an unbeatable foe is actually really hard for us not to root for. Milton had his work cut out for him, making such a character the villain. And depending on whom you ask, he achieved varying degrees of success.
THE DOGGED UNDERDOG
If Satan himself can enjoy our sympathies with the power of underdoggery, then underdoggery is a powerful force indeed. I submit to you, though, that simply being an underdog is not enough to win readers’ sympathy and pin their hopes on a protagonist.
One reason, as I discussed last week, is that if your underdog protagonist is only ever a victim, she will not display the agency that we want our protagonists to demonstrate. So even if their lives are relentlessly miserable, we still need to give them opportunities for action.
Another reason is that the protagonist actually needs to have something likable about them. So often (and I’ve seen this mainly in YA novels), authors rely so much on the misery of these characters’ lives to make us root for them that they forget to make them… you know, good people, or profoundly flawed people with something about them that you root for anyway.
I once read a YA novel in which “underdog” was the only reason the author gave me for liking the main character. Granted, this character did have a tough life. But all he did was whine about how tough his life was. Even when people tried to help him, if they didn’t do it in the exact right way he thought he needed, he complained about how no one understood him. Every page was socking me in the face with “He’s an underdog! (You like those, right?)” But with the constant self-pity, the lack of any admirable qualities, and the rotten attitude toward well-meaning people who, yes, didn’t understand him well—the book was a chore for me to get through. I hated this dude through and through by the end, and I didn’t care about his eventual victory.
So, making your character’s life miserable is not enough. Let that orphan with a room under the stairs look outside his own misery and see a snake, or a redheaded kid, who needs a friend. Give that poor District 12 kid a little sister to look after. Make them brave, make them competent, make them a friend.
And… If we are all underdogs in some form or fashion, let us be the kind who don’t only wallow—let us look outside our disadvantages and strive for better. As this song by Sara Beth Geoghegan pleads,
Grant that I may seek to comfort rather than be comforted by others;
Grant that I may understand and love more than be understood and loved well.
Let’s be brave! Let’s be competent. Let’s make some friends. (Your own characters don’t count.) 😉