Stories inspire us, they remind us of great truths in a way that straightforward speaking cannot, and they allow us to share in the adventures of another person, fictional or not. A story has four main elements: there’s the setting, conflict, climax, and resolution. Between the conflict and climax, a character faces difficulty, self-doubt, and challenges. But without the conflict, there would be no buildup to the climax, and, therefore, no story.
The main character in every great story is an underdog. Underdogs are easy to relate to and sympathize with, and we love them because we feel like their stories are a possibility for us, too. For me, underdogs are fascinating because I meet average people every day. I don’t, however, see great stories — real, inspiring, non-fictional stories — on a regular basis. This is because most of us don’t realize that we are passing up potential stories when we refuse to embrace conflict in our lives.
Blake Snyder, a successful screenwriter and bestselling author, offered the following checklist for a solid main character in his book subtitled The last book on screenwriting you’ll ever need. He says, “Tell me a story about a guy who…
- I can identify with.
- I can learn from.
- I have compelling reason to follow.
- I believe deserves to win and…
- Has stakes that are primal and ring true for me.”
I would even say that it’s impossible to be a hero without being an underdog. That sounds like a generalization, but think of superheroes—they all have nemeses and weaknesses. Every Sports hero had the odds stacked against him and an opponent who made it seem impossible to win, and every artist had to break the trends pressing him. The great story places a character in a situation that lives up to what G.K. Chesteron said: “A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth.” Others must have to have failed in the attempt to do what the hero succeeds at in the end, the stakes must be high, and the hero has to doubt himself in the face of the challenge, because effortless heroism isn’t heroism at all.
But we don’t want to emulate the underdog merely because he in unlikely to succeed, but because he takes the challenge before him and conquers it. We all love tales that astonish us, and though when listening to a story we’ll try to guess the ending, we don’t always want to be right. There’s something satisfying about a twist ending, something we didn’t expect. When watching a race, the audience takes their eyes off the expected champion to watch the rookie catch up, and they cease breath as he passes up the predicted winner. When expected to fail, the underdog turns the tables and earns center stage.
More than anything else, the plight of the underdog is a story of hope to those of us who think we’re average: success is attainable.
What extraordinary things make a hero? Who are the heroes in your life?