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Why Do We Root For The Underdog?

Everyone loves an underdog. A couple days ago, a rather large sporting event took place, pitting my hometown Denver Broncos against the almost unstoppable Carolina Panthers. Denver was the clear underdog. How could they stop Carolina? In this story, the […]
| Feb 9, 2016 | 10 comments |

Boxer Celebrates WinningEveryone loves an underdog.

A couple days ago, a rather large sporting event took place, pitting my hometown Denver Broncos against the almost unstoppable Carolina Panthers. Denver was the clear underdog. How could they stop Carolina? In this story, the ending was happy (in my biased opinion).

You can find this idea of underdogs in numerous aspects of daily life. Whether in sports, real life, or fiction, we love watching people overcoming the impossible, going against the odds to achieve their dreams. There’s something satisfying about such stories.

Why?

We Can Relate

We’ve all been underdogs at some point in our lives.

  • The invisible person at school
  • The small kid the bullies pick on
  • The girl who will never win the beauty contest
  • The employee the boss always negatively singles out

Everywhere you look, you find stories of people daring to dream the impossible. Even if it’s as basic as the primitive need to survive.

It’s a universal theme, which is why it ends up surfacing in so many stories.

We Want Someone to Cheer For

Literature is chock-full of underdogs. Podunk characters struggling against massive corporations. Revolutionaries fighting for a better country. Slaves aching to taste freedom.

Basically, anyone who isn’t given a shot at overcoming whatever obstacle they’re facing.

Why the popularity? Because there’s something eternally satisfying about going on a journey with a struggling character and watching them fight their battles as they climb the mountain of greatness.

Consider a few examples of underdogs from fantasy:

  • Vin
  • Frodo Baggins
  • Kaladin

Vin’s a street urchin, surviving as part of a thieving crew in a large city. A small girl in a rough man’s world. Yet, through the course of the story, she rises above the misery of her life to become one of the most renowned and feared magic-workers of the kingdom.

Kaladin’s life follows a twisting, heart-wrenching path, which eventually leads him to the place of bridgeman—a miserable life filled with brutal labor, rejection, and constant derision. A living hell. Yet remarkably, he overcomes. His story goes from survival to triumph, from despair to greatness. A true underdog who rises above the odds.

I’m an LOTR geek, so of course Frodo is my favorite example. Not only is he an underdog, he’s physical small. Weak. Vulnerable. He’s perhaps the biggest underdog (pun intended) in the history of literature.

One small hobbit against the raging hordes of Mordor. Even with help, he’s still hopelessly outnumbered. Sauron and the Ringwraiths have every advantage. It’s a miracle he makes it out of the Shire alive.

Frodo has as much chance of defeating Sauron as he does of flying to the moon. Or at least, that’s how it looks.

And that’s the beauty of Lord of the Rings. With the help of his friends, Frodo ends up overthrowing the most powerful empire in middle-earth.

This echoes stories in the Bible, where God uses the weak to defeat the strong. He uses the unexpected to pull off the miraculous.

Underdogs Inspire Us

rock climberIt’s impossible not to side with the weaker ones, the ones who seem destined for defeat. The sense of satisfaction we have when they finally break through is one of the most powerful feelings we can experience. We’ve cried with them. We’ve urged them not to give in.

And ultimately, we celebrate their triumph with them.

Who’s read a story of amazing survival, determination, or courage and not been moved? Impossible, right?

We get chills because the connection is so deep, so profound. The message of hope in a hopeless situation resonates through us.

Powerful stories inspire and stay with us because hardship makes the triumph that much more precious.

What’s your favorite underdog story?

*This post appeared in original form on March 1, 2015, at zacharytotah.com.

Zachary Totah writes speculative fiction stories. This allows him to roam through his imagination, where he has illegal amounts of fun creating worlds and characters to populate them. When not working on stories or wading through schoolwork, he enjoys playing sports, hanging out with his family and friends, watching movies, and reading. He lives in Colorado and doesn't drink coffee. He loves connecting with other readers and writers. Find him on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Google Plus, Goodreads, and at his website.

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Timothy Stone
Member

I agree but must point out that Vin and Kaladin are only underdogs due to their circumstances and psychoses. In terms of talent at magic, they are the strongest in their respective worlds in 1,000 years, barring Elend in Vin’s world, who is not as skilled though stronger.

But that’s an interesting idea. Someone so strong, ridiculously strong, who is in jeopardy due to the giant ball of issues they have to overcome to utilize that talent.

sheesania
Guest

I was going to mention this myself. It’s funny since two of the main tropes for fantasy protagonists are the underdog and the special chosen one, which seem opposites…and yet they’re often combined, as in Vin and Kaladin’s cases. It’s rarer to find a true underdog in fantasy who really doesn’t have any special powers or place, and yet overcomes. When it’s pulled off well, it can be even more awesome than watching the chosen ones with their cool powers. (Frodo IIRC is a lovely example.)

Audie Thacker
Member

–But that’s an interesting idea. Someone so strong, ridiculously strong, who is in jeopardy due to the giant ball of issues they have to overcome to utilize that talent.

Sounds a bit like the premise of One Punch Man. The premise is of a hero who is so strong that he ends every fight with one punch, so it’s all become boring to him.

Josh
Guest

I haven’t read Mistborn, so speaking of Kaladin, most of his struggle is internal. He thinks because he’s failed before he’ll fail again. And how many of us live with that mindset? Being an underdog isn’t just about being physically inept. Having the mindset of not being able, and overcoming is a battle all to itself. Great post, Zach!

Lauren Beauchamp
Guest
Lauren Beauchamp

Sorry to be dense . . . but who are Vin and Kaladin?

sheesania
Guest

Vin is from Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn trilogy, and Kaladin is from Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. I was a bit surprised to see Zachary using those works since they’re not as well-known as most of the SF he talks about, but they are good examples. And Sanderson’s books are really good, at least in the opinion of this fangirl. 🙂

Rebecca LuElla Miller
Admin

I’ll throw out Errol Stone in Patrick Carr’s A Cast Of Stones as an example of an underdog. I mean, the guy was the town drunk, and he was still a young man.

I also thought of Reepicheep in Voyage Of The Dawn Treader. He didn’t have special physical abilities, but he had unwavering faith.

Becky

Pam Halter
Member

I think most of us know the underdog is going to win when we’re reading a novel or watching a movie if the underdog is the hero. But it’s the journey! A quote from one of my daughter’s favorite videos when she was little is: “More often than not, the search proves more valuable than the treasure.”

In fantasy novels, my favorite underdog is Wil Ohmsford from The Elfstones of Shannara (I’ll not get into how the MTV series is SO NOT Elfstones). He’s half-elf, so bringing the Elfstones to life is hard, and it does something to him that is “not entirely pleasant”. But he does it to protect Amberle, who, in true heroic underdog fashion, succeeds much like Frodo – with help – but it costs her her life. It’s an older novel and probably wouldn’t pass today’s editors, but it’s the story that made me want to write fantasy. In which I feel very much an underdog.

Becky Farb
Guest
Becky Farb

When it comes to underdog stories, I’m a sucker for the classics: Robin Hood. Isn’t he just about the ultimate underdog? I know the story’s taken many forms over the years, but my favorite has to be Stephen Lawhead’s The Raven King trilogy.