In books, it seems like there is always one guarantee. The underdog of the tale will always win.
These underdogs are normal people who are buried under outside forces working to bring them down- a bigger opposing sports team, a teacher out to get them, an amputee running a race, a family racing against a tornado trying to destroy their home and livelihood.
Somehow, I always find stories like this addictive. It feels so relatable to read about a character going through tough times, because everyone has experience some kind of hardship or struggle in their life at some point. Some of us more than others, admittedly, but still everyone has experienced it. And so it’s so magnetic to read about a character who is feeling some of our same emotions and dealing with some of our same problems.
In real life, we know, it isn’t always so easy to win. In real life sometimes insurmountable things conspire against us, and sometimes the bed guy or the big guy or the harsh forces of nature or whatever it might be wins. But we love that in books and stories, we see characters win against their problems. It helps us to think about how we might win against our own demons, gives us courage to fight the skeletons in our own closets.
First, let’s Break Down Where we Meet Underdogs
An underdog is a word used to describe stories, real or fictional, where the people who have everything to lose still make it in the end. These are the rags-to-riches stories, Remembering the Titans, The Karate Kid, and the Rocky of the world. Yes, a lot of the most famous underdog movies are sports themed. No, I don’t know why that is, but people who watch sports more than I do (I still call the thingie on the field in American Football the yellow fork, and I forget what people correct me to every time. I feel no shame in that.)
Besides the strange connection these stories seem to have with the sports fiction genre, they are also all united by following the same basic plot. The characters, the locations, the jokes, everything is unique about each of them, but even so every story with a beginning and end made since the dawn of humanity can be boiled down to just three basic plot types.
In books we call this the archplot. Every book, movie, and any other kind of story that has a beginning, middle, and end out there in the world is one of three basic plots: arch plot, mini plot, and anti plot. The majority of novels follow the arch plot, the classic plot where the characters begin one way and something about them changes by the end.
Mini plot is completely different from archplot, because the characters are struggling with internal forces and their own heart. The best example I can think of is It’s a Wonderful Life. There is the archplot element, still, in that George Bailey is fighting against the evil bank that stole George’s bank’s money and is trying to own all the town. That is definitely archplot. But the majority of the movie is spent by George questioning himself and going through his dark night of the soul. He questions why he was even born, and thinks that no one’s life would be changed if he hadn’t been. It’s a good movie to watch when you are struggling with your own dark night of the soul, but it’s also a good illustration of that international struggle that characterizes mini plot.
Anti Plot is complicated, and the stories written for it tend to be either confusing, depressing, or both. The point of Anti Plot is that the characters don’t change. The characters start the story with some inner problem and outer problem conspiring against them, and by the end those forces are either still conspiring. The characters don’t win or change. I’m not personally a fan, though I will reexamine that in the future and try books in this style again someday.
The Magic of Underdogs
The point of all of this is to still go back to the underdogs. We can learn a lot about them. What traits, exactly, make it so people who have everything stacked against them still win?
- The first answer is that it isn’t all as one sided as it may seem. Underdogs who come out on top always have more of a drive to win than the opponents. They want to succeed more, and in stories that means they do.
- Optimism. Underdogs always have enough optimism to believe there is a chance for them to come out. They have to, or else why would they try at all?
- Perseverance and the drive to keep going even when the going gets hard instead of giving up and running away from the challenge.
- Make a battle plan. Underdogs always make a battle plan, whether it’s the kid Kevin McAllistir from Home Alone figuring out how to oust bad guys who invaded his home or Harry Potter fighting the most evil and powerful wizard in the world, if you are fighting someone who clearly has the upper hand you need to have a battle plan to figure out what strengths and strategies you can use to win.
- Make friends, because you are stronger together. Countries can be toppled by rebels, bullies can be defeated by the unpopular kids, illness or disability can be overcome or worked around.
You Can Win Even if You are an Underdog
You can still win and make things work, even if you are the underdog in your own story. You need to put in the hard work, have the positive mindset, work with friends, and make a plan and you will have a good chance of overcoming difficult odds.
It won’t be easy, of course. The thing about being the underdog is that you are in the disadvantaged position. You will have to work harder than the forces conspiring against you to come on top. But that’s okay. That’s life. The majority of humans in the world never get anything without working hard for it. The same will probably be true for you too.
It’s so magnetic to read about a character who is feeling some of our same emotions and dealing with some of our same problems. We read about their problems, and see how they have success in the end, and it helps us feel more prepared the next time we have the same problem, because we’ve heard about how to win despite that particular difficulty before. Even in fiction, like Fantasy books about dragons, are relatable. My Shadeworld books are mostly dragons and fey and wizards and magic, but when you dig into it the characters are dealing with jealousy and betrayal and heartbreak and confusion, just like all of us have experienced before.
So be brave! Maybe, just maybe, if you work hard at it, you can still come out on top in your situation.