By JK EVANCZUK
There is something distinctly magical about the idea of the “underdog.” Seemingly present in most–if not all–fiction, the underdog is only too easy to identify with. Who hasn’t felt that the world is against us, our problems are too great, our skills are too inadequate? What ultimately happens to this character becomes tantamount to our own abilities to succeed, or to fail. The need to read on, to learn how the underdog will summon his strength and overcome the seemingly insurmountable odds, consumes us.
As the saying goes, everyone loves an underdog.
But I wonder if this intense bond we tend to form with our beloved underdog stems not from simple empathy, but from some more primeval source. I recently was reading a copy of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites, an interesting analysis of the origins of war and ritual sacrifice, which despite its subject matter provided some insight as to why we crave fiction and how, like ritual sacrifice, it might satisfy an unconscious, primitive hunger we all share.
Let me explain: way, way back in the day, and I’m talking men-wearing-loincloths-and-drawing-on-cave-walls-back-in-the-day, humankind lived in fear of the beast. Before primitive technology like arrowheads or what-have-you (forget about more advanced technology that came later, such as the bow and arrow or the gun), we lived in fear of the lion, tiger, bear, wooly mammoth, etc. We were the hunted. The occurrence of people being plucked from their villages and dragged into the lion’s den to become, well, supper was not uncommon. Eventually, we did develop those primitive technologies and shifted our circumstances so that we graduated from being the “hunted” to becoming the “hunter.”
I describe this transition simply, but it was monumental. Even hundreds of thousands of years later, our fear of being the “hunted” lingers even now, like our innate fear of the dark. On at least on a biological level, we still haven’t quite gotten over the fact that we’ve since situated ourselves nicely at the top of the food chain. And because our species remains in a state of perpetual disbelief, we reenact that tremendous transition, over and over and over again. Hence, there are ritual sacrifices. Hence, there is war. We recognize that our species was once weak and then we demonstrate our newfound dominance by shedding blood.
So, wait, how does this relate to fiction again? I wonder–and here I venture into the exciting world of the theory–if fiction serves as another (less bloody) method of reenacting our graduation from “hunted” to “hunter.” More specifically: the underdog serves this purpose. And maybe this would better explain why we just love to see our puny, powerless, and beloved characters–the hunted–transcend their overwhelming circumstances to become the victor. The hunter.
And we do love to see the underdog succeed, over and over and over again. Such as in war and ritual sacrifice, just one reenactment will not do. Even when we know from the outset that the underdog will indeed overcome those impossible odds, we read on anyway because it is not the ending we are interested in. It is the act of transcendence, which so mirrors our own so many years ago, that enraptures us.
Here I can once again thank the horror movie for so baldly demonstrating my point. Think of your standard horror movie fare: a big scary monster chases some poor kids around for 90 minutes. The monster is bigger and stronger and the kids are woefully unmatched to him, but somehow they survive. Maybe I’m speaking too much to my own interests here, but I can’t imagine why anyone would want to willingly submit to being terrified in a dark theater for an hour and a half if not to ultimately experience that thrill when the protagonists miraculously survive.
So, yes, the concept of the underdog works so well in fiction because by nature the underdog inspires conflict, and such a character is infinitely more interesting to read about than one who gets everything he wants with little to no opposition. And yes, it is handy to the writer that the bond forged with the underdog helps pull the reader through the rest of the story. But beyond these more technical aspects, the underdog works so well in fiction because we need it on a primal level. We read on primarily to see the underdog achieve and thereby vicariously experience, once again, the thrill of making that phenomenal step from the “hunted” to the “hunter.”
Cross-posted at Lit Drift