Wednesday, October 22, 2008
I watched the first season of Ugly Betty on YouTube this weekend, and it reminded me of one of my favorite movies, Twelve Angry Men. Both the show and the film have main characters who start out with everyone else against them, at the immediate bottom of the totem pole. I felt for them just as quickly, and was hoping for their success.
Underdogs have that kind of appeal. On the other hand, it’s easy for such characters to veer into being doormats or the constant butts of jokes. If the story is intended to be humorous, this is fine. If not – if the character is intended to be sympathetic or strong – there are a few things I’d take into account.
1. The underdog’s personality and appearance.
Whether they’re timid or tough, admirable underdogs all have a few things in common. They keep their dignity and basic decency despite being treated badly; they don’t let their adversaries affect their personal moral code. And they rarely if ever indulge in self-pity.
Underdogs are often less attractive than the rest of the characters, like Tyrion in A Song of Ice and Fire or Mayweed in The Duncton Chronicles. That’s one thing I like about such characters – unlike the stereotypical alpha male or Action Barbie, they can be plain or even ugly. And although they can be charismatic or funny, they are usually disadvantaged in some way and should usually continue to be disadvantaged if the readers are to keep sympathizing with them.
2. The underdog needs to play a role in his being mistreated.
That’s one reason I like The Fountainhead. Howard Roark is treated horribly by a lot of people, but at the same time, he doesn’t go out of his way to be nice to anyone either. He’s obsessive, intractable and indifferent to anyone else’s wishes. He’s not a poor, passive victim – he’s as active as any other character regarding what happens to him. Likewise, in Twelve Angry Men, Juror #8 chooses to vote differently from the rest of the jury, and he sticks to this opinion even though he knows the other jurors resent him for doing so.
A lot of heroines in romance novels end up in dire straits by accident or through the vile machinations of their enemies, so I decided that Before the Storm would be different. The heroine, Alex, accepts the antagonist’s offer to become his mistress because she thinks that’s better than being a servant. As a result, she bears some of the responsibility for what happens to her, and she never forgets that.
It’s easier to sympathize with someone who makes a mistake (or a certain choice) and pays pays pays for it, rather than with someone who’s a flawless martyr.
3. The underdog cannot be Job.
I once critiqued a synopsis where the main character’s wife died, he was fired, he became an alcoholic and lost custody of his kids. It was one tragedy after another, and I couldn’t hope that the main character would realistically recover.
Underdogs are most appealing when they fight back, even if they go down in defeat (a la Willy Loman). In this synopsis, though, the main character didn’t have a chance to recover from one sucker punch before the next one hit him. Rather than looking like a hero, he looked overwhelmed, like someone whom the Fates had predestined for Great Suffering. Readers love seeing characters struggle against apparently insurmountable odds, but if everything in the universe turns against a character, there won’t be much struggling he can do.
More like feeble wriggling before he’s stepped on, putting both him and the readers out of their misery.