Jan
19
2015

Underdog Characters — The Intersection of Ideal and Real

I read and write fiction because I believe that the practice equips me to be a better person. As I walk hundreds of miles in the wake of characters representing the spectrum of human experience, I learn from their triumphs and mistakes, becoming stronger and wiser for the shared experiences. As struggle is a fundamental aspect of any dramatic structure, writers often ensure that their protagonists are at a disadvantage up until the moment of their climactic victory. Taken to an extreme of imbalance and prejudice, the character becomes an Underdog, an archetype that is extremely popular because of how easily it fits into other story frameworks and its effectiveness in garnering reader sympathy.

As the Underdog Story relies on character struggle, a fundamental aspect of story structure, the archetype can find a place in any genre. One of the most common examples is the Underdog Sports Story. No one believes that the beleaguered team will win against their rivals, but through hard work and determination, they are able to pull it off. Likewise, the archetype can be seen in a SF&F Rebellion Story or even an Unattainable Love Romance Story. It doesn’t really matter what story is being told, so long as the odds are stacked so strongly against the sympathetic character that their failure seems inevitable. As readers, we know that the Underdog will eventually win, so cheering for them appeals to our desires to be contrary and the human need for hope.

I have found that readers empathize with characters for two major reasons. The first is that they perceive some similarity or parallelism between themselves and the character. Secondly, the character represents some ideal that the reader either aspires to personally, or seeks out in the people they surround themselves with. Underdog characters can easily appeal to both of these aspects at different points in the story. With knowledge of the target audience, the savvy writer can establish the character as a representative of that group and in so doing gain narrative transparency and reader immersion. By forcing the character to struggle for their goals against impossible odds, the writer then elevates the character from normality to representing an ideal. The journey itself makes the character doubly sympathetic. In addition, moving the character from normal and outmatched to ideal and victorious gives the reader hope for the struggles they are facing. In so doing, the fiction serves its emotional purpose.

Writers working with Underdog Characters walk two fine lines. The first is the difference between nearly impossible and truly impossible odds. Characters must struggle, but they must also win without resorting to Deus Ex Machina. The second is the difference between drama and melodrama. The later usually stresses the reader’s suspension of disbelief, and so I avoid it as much as possible. However, with careful plotting and honest beta readers both risks can be either avoided entirely or fixed in editing.

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