From the many takes on Spider-Man’s origin to the classic movie The Shawshank Redemption, underdogs are a huge part of the stories we enjoy.
But why do we love underdogs so much?
What makes us want to root for them, especially when they seem to have a slim chance of succeeding? And why do we always come back to their stories, hungry for more?
Let’s begin by defining this character type a little more…
The underdog isn’t perfect, powerful, or poised.
The underdog isn’t perfect, powerful, or poised and their growth along their journey reminds us of our own growth as a person. To sum it up, an underdog or “misfit” character is defined by three main characteristics:
- They are overlooked by their society.
- They have a desire to change something about themselves or the world around them.
- The odds are stacked against them in achieving that goal.
Like most people, an underdog isn’t born with a silver spoon in their mouth. Their stories start with undeserved hardships or oppression and involve high stakes to overcome the opposition.
For those who have read The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen fits the underdog archetype perfectly.
She grew up hunting and trading illegally to provide for her family in one of the poorest districts in Panem. When her sister, Primrose, is reaped for the Hunger Games, Katniss selflessly volunteers to represent District 12, saving Prim from a horrifying execution on a live broadcast.
Compared to her wealthier and more powerful competitors, Katniss doesn’t have the experience, skills, or resources to prepare for the games. Her chances of making it out alive are slim, but she survives, becoming a symbol of revolution against the tyranny of the Capitol.
In The Water Outlaws by S. L. Huang, the underdog trope is in full swing when a disgraced arms instructor pairs up with a ragtag group of warriors.
Lin Chong is a celebrated expert who is focused on preserving her place within Imperial society’s status quo. That is… until she’s rebranded as a criminal by a man higher up in the food chain. Now on the run, Lin Chong is recruited by an entire group of dissenters and outsiders – the Bandits of Liangshan – and they’re ready to confront a corrupt empire.
Other famous examples of underdogs include Wade Watts from Ready Player One; Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings; and Inigo Montoya from The Princess Bride. The Harry Potter series is also chock full of underdogs. Beyond our titular character, Harry, Ron Weasley and Neville Longbottom meet this criteria.
So… why do we crave stories with these misfit main characters?
Underdogs feel more like “us.”
At the heart of these stories, there is a universal drive for the lesser of us to succeed. We want our underdogs to receive the justice and fairness they’ve been pursuing just as we pursue our dreams. A win is also a lot more memorable and meaningful when it takes determination and perseverance to get there. In a way, underdogs feel more like “us” than any other character type.
And let’s be honest… nothing is more satisfying than watching an all-too-powerful bad guy get their comeuppance!
Underdog stories allow us as readers to walk away with a lot more than just a character we empathize with and a gratifying high at the end. They teach us to overcome society’s stigmas, challenge stifling norms, and remain hopeful in the face of adversity.
Most importantly, they tell us it’s okay to dream of a better future, for both ourselves and others.
Interested in more stories that feature underdogs? Check out:
The Unseen by Lilla Glass, narrated by Patricia Santomasso.
A thief, a cutthroat assassin, a wayward prince, and a little girl with a chilling secret might just save multiple worlds… provided they don’t kill each other first.
Shadow Seer by Roman Prokofiev, narrated by David Bendena.
The third book in the Rogue Merchant series, Cat, a common trader, traverses the dangerous waters of an underground ocean to reach the Isle of Madness and prove himself worthy.