Why we love an underdog

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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?

Half man, half tower block, all action.
Half man, half tower block, all action.

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.

17 thoughts on “Why we love an underdog”

  1. This post got me thinking about how the crew of Firefly is like a group of underdogs…and that the tension you are talking about expresses itself between the characters, vs. one character having tension within him or herself. Thanks for an intriguing post!

    1. Good point Sue. In fact, you could argue that in Firefly the external tension, tension within the crew and tensions within the characters all interconnect. Look at Jayne, fighting his own conflicting instincts over whether to do the right thing, and how that plays out with other people.

      Ah Joss, you really do spoil us.

  2. I think you’re right about “underdog stories”, high-stakes drama is woven into the fabric from the outset. As soon as I finished reading this post, I started thinking about the interesting alternatives and I was reminded of two instances of what might be considered the inverse narrative structure. Not the polar opposite story of a successful protagonist whose life spirals downward in an I-Can’t-Tear-My-Eyes-Away fashion, but rather the story of a powerful and capable individual maintaining their dominance. In both of the examples that sprang to my mind, the necessary tension was delivered by wave upon wave of ambitious and dedicated foes trying to bring down the protagonist. This extreme environmental hostility provided the triumph against adversity in spite of the fact that the protagonist was clearly the most powerful character operating in the narrative. Anyway, thanks for the excuse to dwell on some of my favourite games and gamebooks. 🙂

    Example 1: Bullfrog’s Dungeon Keeper games, a third of which has been kickstarted (https://wftogame.com)
    Example 2: The Keeper of the Seven Keys, one of the “Lost Fighting Fantasies” (http://fabledlands.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/the-keeper-of-seven-keys.html)

    1. That’s interesting. I hadn’t thought about narratives where the dominant force maintains their dominance. It’s interesting that the ones you’ve mentioned are ones where the audience is placed in control through the power of game, making them invested in other ways.

  3. As I see it, as a kid you seem to go with the “Might Makes Right” mentality; bigger muscles, bigger guns, greater skills or powers, etc. It’s appealing to be a winner. But as you age – recovering from life’s little set backs (i.e. Groin Kicks) – I feel you tend to see yourself more in the underdog role, and in doing so, tend to side with them more readily. I’m not sure if the underdog archetype is actually more appealing or or we’ve just become more empathetic to their plight.

    On a lighter note, in Kirk versus the Gorn…it’s Kirk all the way!

  4. The problem with the underdog mentality is when you become the, er… the overdog without realizing it. I remember this one commercial of a corporate guy in a suit who was pleased about something he’d done — forget exactly which — but he celebrated by saying he was ‘sticking it to the man’. To which his subordinate said, ‘sir, you are the man’. A lot of protagonists start from an underdog position, but then find themselves on top without really realizing they’re there, or else expending a lot of effort to stay on top of the new underdogs.

    Batman and Iron Man are both characters who have that post-underdog feeling, for me; even though they both struggled up from a bad place, they were always on top in some manner, and stay on top by using their assets to stomp on those who threaten them. (And Gotham, et cetera, but almost as a sidebar.) I believe it was a Batman movie that quoted about dying a hero, or living long enough to see yourself become the villain…

    That’s what happens when you flip from the underdog role to the returning champ.

    1. Good point, and could make for a really interesting villain – the vigilante turned dictator.

      As for Batman, it’s kind of hard to see a million playboy as the underdog, isn’t it?

      1. Especially in the movies, with his massive arsenal and spying-on-the-citizenry ways. Meanwhile, his toughest foes come from the underclass and have to basically go through the police force first, before they get at him…

        1. Oh my, I just realised that one of my favourite heroes is some kind of privacy-invading robber baron fascist nutter. Next time I might cheer for Bane.

    2. I loved Hugh Howey’s Wool Trilogy – in it certain characters move from being only important in their own small field to having the most powerful positions in their very enclosed society. And that is when they discover that being in charge is the start of the really big problems. Underdog (or, indeed, overdog) are relative terms – even those we feel are in control sometimes aren’t. Think of the President of the USA in Independance Day…

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