Who doesn’t love a good underdog story? From Frodo facing terrible evil and fearsome foes, through to John McClane taking on a tower block full of heavily armed criminals, we love to see the little guy stand up to someone stronger. But why is this so appealing?
There are plenty of reasons of course, but one I hadn’t considered was mentioned by Victoria Grefer in Writing For You, and that’s the nature of the conflict. For an underdog, the outcome of the conflict is terribly uncertain. It’s hard for them to win, and our desire for them to succeed creates a tension that keeps us reading.
But I’d go further. I think that what really makes an underdog compelling is that every action implies both internal and external conflict. They can never relax because the enemy could beat them at any moment. Every move becomes a battle of will, pushing their body, their mind, their courage farther than ever before, because that’s the only way they can possibly succeed. Even if we’re not very aware of it, there’s an implicit internal conflict in the background of every externalised action set-piece, as the character grapples with their own weaknesses, forcing themselves to continue when it would be easier to just give up.
Thus, the character’s external tensions, their internal tensions and the reader or viewer’s tension are all neatly tied together. Doing that makes a story more powerful, and an underdog is a good way to make the connections.
Any other views on this? Why do you folks root for underdogs? And which are your favourite ones? Leave a comment, let me know.