by Chantal Boudreau
I’m in the middle of working on a post-apocalyptic novel at the moment, Sifting the Ashes, and one of the main characters has me thinking about just how much I enjoy writing underdog characters. Shannon is the type of woman you wouldn’t necessarily expect to survive a calamity. She’s the quiet, studious sort, socially awkward and happy to throw herself into work, a little underdeveloped on the physical side. To both her good fortune and her misfortune, she proves to be immune to the bio-engineered illness that kills ninety-seven percent of the population, decimating civilization. She’s also an easy victim to the remaining survivors fighting violently for survival, and she knows it. At the beginning of the story, she has been holing herself up in her basement apartment with scavenged supplies and stolen library books, just trying to ignore what’s going on in the outside world. And she manages just fine this way, until trouble comes to her.
Despite the fact that Shannon is not a strong character, she still wants to survive and it’s that gumption and the willingness to face her fears that keeps her going even when things look terribly grim. I find myself really liking the character even if I wouldn’t consider her a good example of how one should handle a similar situation. She makes plenty of mistakes, often barely scraping through the bad tangles she lands herself in. She’s ultimately human, her flaws are endearing in a way, and it’s difficult not to root for her.
I think that’s the whole point to the underdog character.
They are not a “proper” hero, their weaknesses outweigh their strengths, the odds are stacked against them – you could even say they are bordering on pitiful. But they make you want them to win, partially because there’s something about them that makes you feel for them and partially because despite everything working against them, they’re not willing to give up.
This kind of character proliferates itself throughout my writing, sometimes as a secondary character but more often as a main character. Fawn, in my Snowy Barrens Trilogy is an underdog, a pacifist and social outcast who can’t seem to catch a break. In my Masters & Renegades series, the intro novel, Magic University, is teeming with underdogs and misfits. Casualties of War, the second book, introduces possibly my favourite underdog, Clayton. He is a gawky young man, low on self-esteem, who mistrusts others and is tormented by precognition. In the soon to be released third book, Prisoners of Fate, there is Anna, who seems to be a perpetual underachiever, despite strong potential, and she remains shy and mousy even with the urging (and sometimes bullying) from her mentor to develop more of a presence.
Even Sam, my protagonist in the Fervor series, plays the role of underdog, subject to the Scholars’ manipulations and bullying from the Controls.
So I admit it, I’m addicted to the underdog character – but why wouldn’t I be? Compare them with the standard hero who has the skills, strengths and resources to meet whatever mishaps and villainy the writer throws their way. Where’s the challenge in that? I honestly sort of want to see those types of protagonists fail, because they had it so good in the first place.
And maybe I feel this way because I identify best with the underdog myself. I’m certainly nowhere near perfect in any way, shape or form. You’ll find a lot more readers out there that have lived that kind of life as opposed to being stunningly beautiful, gracefully athletic and charismatically brilliant – all rolled into one.