Monday, June 1, 2009

We who are about to die, give you the finger.

It's not Monday again? All right. Out with it. One of you smart young whippersnappers has a built trans-temporal fugimomator and you've trying it out on me. I know perfectly well that weeks are normally at least three months long. You can't fool me that easily. Ha. One thing I'd like to know is why you evil geniuses will keep using me as a test subject? I promise you, in the future, or the next dimension or the planet Borogrove... they're expecting someone taller. And better looking. With money. Possibly with intelligence too. So why the little hairy fellow, eh?
I mean every bit of research shows that in real world it's the tall handsome blokes with right family who gets the promotion, and the girl. Yeah, I know. There was Napoleon (and Casanunder), but in general terms if you were going to pick on likely heroes in real life it's not going to shrimp orphan, or the junior cabin boy, or the standard fantasy trope, the underdog. So why do we root (put your minds back above your belt, Australians, or I'll confiscate your sheep! root in English or American sense) for the little guy facing huge odds, the underdog, the least likely hero on the block.
My own theory is that it evolved to prevent the species becoming totally inbred, but maybe I'm wrong. It's a major feature of our writing. It's popular. Why, and how do you exploit it? I've got ideas. I always have ideas, but I'd be curious about yours.
And short squat types try harder.
Ask Casanunder.


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Go the Underdog!

Dave, I think it is because we are all secretly underdogs. I mean, seriously, how many of us were popular in school.

Take an average year of around 100 kids. Maybe 3 boys and 3 girls were good looking, clever, good at sport and socially aware enough to get on with people. The rest of us floundered.

So that leave 94% of people who identify with the underdogs!

How's that for pseudo-science?

Dave Freer said...

So how come in the real world tall people get paid more? :-)

Anonymous said...

I was popular at school. I had people lining up around the block to beat on me.

Do we root for the underdog? In boxing, for instance, if you have a plucky club fighter up against the world champion (like in Rocky) then while some of the people might be cheering for Rocky, most of them have paid good money to watch Apollo beat the tar out of a bum.

There's Underdog fiction and myth, as per Joseph Campbell, but there are a lot of Ubermensch heroes as well.

Ori Pomerantz said...

It might be genre specific. Science Fiction and Fantasy are fairly cerebral. This means that most of your readers were underdogs in elementary school. Nerds only become popular when kids get old enough to realize nerds know how to do cool stuff.

In Romance Novels the characters usually aren't underdogs, IIRC. There is something making romance difficult, otherwise the book would be a extremely short. But it's not that the characters are low status.

Dave Freer said...

Anton, I think there are both cultural and genetic components in our support for underdogs. I suspect in strong authoritarian regimes and highly structured societies underdog support is low.

I think the one 'cue' I really should have given is there is scanty support for the untermensch who stays that to the end. Thomas Covenant anyone? There is an element of vicarious wish fulfilment in this for many of us I think. But it's also true that supportingthe status quo was good for your health, but that also led to inbreeding - see egyptian, and celtic myth and what we know of history for egs of brother-sister, father-daughter interbreeding. In the short term this not a bad thing for the expression of certain traits. It's quite common in various social animals. In the medium-long term it does end up weakening the dominant genome - especially where there is social avoidance of selective pressure (you're the king. You don't have struggle for food or even fight yourself most of the time). Sooner or later an upstart (underdog) would take out the weakened line. At this point the res to the social group - if they weren't quick to change horses and have established an 'in' with the new honcho, could find life short, and, more importantly, less likely to be fertile in terms of offspring. Sympathy with the underdog has a genetic advantage too.

Dave Freer said...

Ori, you're on target I believe. There is certainly some vicarious wish-fulfilment there. We geeks like to believe we have potential :-).
I'm not sure I agree with you in the romance area (someone who reads a lot, tell me). In those I have read the male is often the ubermench and the female protag the untermench. The girl who no one likes, the ordinary housewife in a threatening situation etc. RED ADAM'S LADY - one of my favorite historical romances ever, starts with the heroine, plucky but not in her own eyes pretty, as very much the underdog.

Anonymous said...

"Sooner or later an upstart (underdog) would take out the weakened line"

So who is the real underdog there?

When the hero is chopping his way through a horde of orcs, is he the underdog or is it the orc, second from the back and putting a brave face on it?

I don't think you necessarily root for the underdog, you root for whoever your emotions are played with to root for.

Fagin and Oliver are both crowding the lower rungs of the social ladder, they both have ambitions to better themselves but one gets a better reception than the other because of the emotional strings that are pulled.

I am so not buying the idea of rooting for the underdog as a means to freshen the gene pool...

Anonymous said...

Nope, I can't let this drop.

The reasnon for inter-breeding in the nobility went way beyond any biological imperative. The reason for it was pure politics. In any event, when it was no longer expedient to support the status quo, you didn't take up the plight of the underdog, you went looking for someone stronger.

(NB - I like arg..discussing but let me know if I start sounding like a jerk!)

Dave Freer said...

Grin. I like to argue. But only with people who accept (as I do) that the point is not always to win. And who manage to keep it civilized. So no worries. Look - this behaviour crops up in Lion Packs and baboon troops for two disparet examples, where conventional human politics plays little role. Of course, it is possible the politics works because of the genetics. The overdog is the one in the position of strength, controlling resources - be that mates, food, or gifts of land or positions of power.

Anonymous said...

I think one key thing with rooting for the underdog is that he actually has to a) want to get out from under, and b) is willing to do something about it. Mind you, sometimes the underdog has blinders on -- figures he's stuck there so might as well make the best of it. Remember, even in a really crappy situation, you can still get stuck in a comfort zone. So, occasionally the writer needs to do a drive-by in her authorial Fiat and blast him out of that comfort zone (Dave, you're a bad influence on me...) and get the plot moving.

So: we want to root for the underdog, but the underdog needs to be someone worth rooting for.

Speaking of rooting for the underdog, there's the "David vs. Goliath" variant of that meme. Someone on Baen's Bar posted a link to an interesting article in the New Yorker entitled "How David Beats Goliath"

In a nutshell, it's because David doesn't play by Goliath's rules.

Dave Freer said...

Ach Now Robert. Don't distract me from writing into the strategy of war :-) It's what I've been saying about military 'get a bigger hammer' tactics (so we can win as we keep hitting each other in the face)for the last how many years. It's been the mainstay of military thinking for a very long time. Never play by your enemy's rules. If he wants to wrestle because that's what he's good at, then box. Or drop 500 ton bengal tiger on him. Or shoot him. Don't go and try and wrestle.

And indeed. The underdog MUST be fighter. Actually... he must be a battler. The kind that when he gets knocked down, gets up. And try again, in another way. And agian if need be. And underdog like that can even lose ulitmately and still carry the reader's heart.

Anonymous said...

Oh yeah. Even if the underdog doesn't win -- especially if he doesn't win -- it's crucial that he goes down swinging.

I think that's appeal with the Bolo stories (for me at least -- I devour Bolo stories). While several thousand tons of self-aware tank can hardly be considered an underdog, the Bolo stock-in-trade is going down guns blazing in a fight that would shake the mead-hall rafters in Valhalla. And more often than not they're fighting said battle to defend a group of underdogs from various Forces of Nastiness.

Chris McMahon said...

Yes, I am a total sucker for the underdog - but they have to have all the traits of the winner -- determination, skill, purpose -- and there is not much point if they don't win in the end. In fact I get fairly disgusted if they don't -- book at the wall disgusted.

WangZheng259 said...

Regarding the test subject question, word in the Differently Ethical - Differently Sane (DEDS) community is that someone, and I'm not naming names, got the UN to sign off on the Human Rights Exemption Form that they'd filled out for White South Africans. Thus you are no longer protected by the normal consent rules and other guidelines that normally govern human experimentation. However, the attached list of experiments is nonsense, and we might be able to get the HERF voided before the second round of bioweapons modification gets much more the halfway done.

My theory is that underdogs add uncertainty to stories. Thus they are a tool, that is sometimes useful and sometimes isn't, when you want to do something else.

I think there are many stories where the big guy is favored, or that aren't about the underdog.

The Greek tragedies were about high class guys being destroyed by their own flaws, rather then the underdog. Here the uncertainty can come from the method by which this happens.

A great part of the fun of Hellsing is watching Alucard kill weaklings who wrongly think that they are his equal. He plays with them, pretending to be dead, before coming back together and brutally destroying them. In the setting, I would say only Quincy Morris et al ever do more then slow Alucard down, and they are backstory.

I am happy to root for the big guy, if I like him enough more then the little guy. In the right circumstances, I will cheer as he horrifically demolishes the enemy.

In Fist of the North Star, anybody who has done a little research beforehand knows that Kenshiro can or will kill everyone else in the setting. However, the tools he uses to do this are supposed to be kept secret, so we find out the how and the why as things go on. It helps, that he is decent compared to many of his opponents.

In Bleach, some of the power differences are pretty large, but sometimes the characters themselves do not know for certain. So, there have been a bunch of fights where the combatents keep on revealing secret or unknown uses of their powers to block more and more powerful attacks, until one side runs out of counters and is killed. One side was usually more powerful from the start, but it was not clear to the reader until the other is defeated. Then there are all the crazy guys who either weaken themselves to keep from losing fun by killing their opponents too fast, or who are willing to get themselves killed to conceal a secret or make a point. The main character of Bleach is nominally an underdog compared to some of his opponents, but he is introduced beating up a bunch of kids his age. He is an example of an 'underdog' who gains power and effectiveness extremely quickly for the setting, especially when faced with powerful opponents.

Then there are Slasher films...

My Alma Mater tends to outscore opponents in american football games two-three, sometimes four to one. The fans still cheer.

People like the underdog, when the underdog is in the right. People also like winners.

Anonymous said...

Hey Dave, I don't think we're actually disagreeing, I just think we have different ideas in our heads about what an underdog is.

I even checked Merriam-Webster to make sure I wasn't going crazy. There are two definitions but I'm favouring the first one, while I think you are standing by the second, broader one.

1 : a loser or predicted loser in a struggle or contest
2 : a victim of injustice or persecution

For me, an underdog is the guy you expect to lose. I don't think I've ever read a story about a humble peasant, setting out to avenge his murdered family and bring down the evil Emperor, and thought of the peasant as the underdog. My point is that in that situation the Emperor is the underdog, because this is a work of fiction and convention tells us that after a multi-part series the Emperor will get his just desserts. I don't root for the Emperor just because I think he's going to lose, I want to see the peasant turn into an unstoppable force of nature and crush him.

Truly I believe the only time we might ever legitimately root for the underdog is when we have nothing invested in either party. So when Cameroon went through to the quarter finals in the 1990 World Cup, they were the underdogs. I remember that because they were finally beaten by England and I was watching the match in a youth hostel in France at the time, cheering for Cameroon and getting daggers from the English guys there.

Underdogs - you expect them to lose, and they usually do.

Anonymous said...

The Evil Emperors tend to get drawn as thin stereotypes, so the Good Guy Underdogs have someone to fight against. Not that you can't open a history book or sometimes a newspaper and find one even worse (and less believable. Without the Real Thing would you actually believe a Hitler character?)

In any case, they aren't written to be cozied up to. Sauron? He's never even on stage, so how can you sympathize with his quest to get his favorite old ring back?

I think a lot of the appeal of the Underdog is simply the author handicapping the popularity contest. Frequently with brutal obviousness.

An example to the contrary is Our Monkey's own _The Forlorn_, where we have a character with an obvious heroic lead in . . . but then the doubts start to seep in, and the collection of 'minor' characters end up having to stop him. [Beware, blatant praise of author!]This was brilliantly done. A reversal like that, done poorly, can result in airborne books.

Okay, I'm babbling. Back to the point. I like the underdog because he's the one who is Doing The Right Thing.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

The underdog is more interesting because the odds are against him. When handling someone who is in some sense -- and I've only ever written them in a limited sense -- above average, in strenght or agility or cunning, then you have to increase the odds against them to ridiculous amounts to keep the story interesting. Think about it this way, Ulysses was so cunning the gods themselves had to roll the dice against him for there to be a doubt of the outcome.

Kate said...


Most of us are underdogs one way or another - in the real world only a tiny handful of people have the power or are in a position to change how things work. Most of us are going to go through our lives without ever being anything that can make a noticeable difference.

Then you have fantasy and SF, where there are so many ordinary farmers, orphans, unappreciated folks stepping forward at just the right time to save the world/defeat the Dark Lord/drop Sauron's old ring down a volcano/blow up the Death Star... It's a kind of human version of Pratchett's million-to-one rule (million to one chances crop up nine times out of ten).

In life, the ordinary guy comes up against the Evil Overlord and goes splat. In Story, he fights despite the horrible odds, and usually manages to win. Either he really wins, or he has the Rocky (the original) not-quite-win, where he hasn't won the actual battle, but he hasn't been defeated either.

We all want what we do to matter. Underdog makes good lets us believe it for a while.

Ori Pomerantz said...

It is a little known fact(1) that before his famous last fight Goliath fought another guy, called Joe. The fight went something like this: Joe got close enough to Goliath to hit him with a spear, and then Goliath bopped him on the head with the flat of his sword. Joe went splat, which is how Dave got to fight Goliath next.

The story above does not appear in the Bible, for the simple reason that it is boring. That's the reason that heroes need to be underdogs - victory by brute strength, or brute intelligence for that matter (unless it's Sherlock Holmes and he can explain his reasoning) is boring. That's the reason you can read how Gideon tricked the Midianites, but when it comes to Samson you mostly read about how he slept with anything that was Philistine and at least vaguely female.

(1) Little known made up "fact", to be exact.

Anonymous said...

Ori - Joe was an UNDERDOG in his fight with Goliath.

When David fought Goliath, Goliath was the underdog, because David had Yahweh on his side. When you're David, playing Rocky and God is playing Burgess Meredith's part in your corner, how can you be the underdog?

To people observing the fight, David would appear to be the underdog, but when it's being reported three thousand years later in God's own day journal, you can't say you were surprised when Goliath got beaten, can you?

Dave Freer said...

Sorry guys -life has been a bit 'omgekrap' as we say around here, thanks partially to Standard Bank of South Africa (avoid if possible) and some medicals I had to get results for and today go for futher exam - all negative (and the bank will I think be sorted too. Not that I don't want a pound of flesh from them...)
Chris - dying well can be 'victory' too. But it brings out the instinctive support in me too. maybe because the underdog is so often small, and we're geared as a species to look after the small?

Dave Freer said...

WangZheng259 - I don't know how much of a cultural element there is in this. I do remember when ferrari couldn't lose, F1 had a serious fall off in watchers here. I think SA and maybe Oz - where climate is a lot more uncertain than much of the US and Canada for agriculture tended to mean even the best men saw their tail ends often enough. Hence the admiration for men who'd get up and dust themselves off and get stuck in again. Such a fellow even in battle - Gen Christiaan De Wet - could lose and still win enormous social prestige. Winning was important, but the manner of fighting more so. If you win easily - or shoot fish in a barrel... who cares? Not me. Maybe that's just SA - but I've surely encountered it in a few flyover country Americans, and liked them far more for the attitude.

Dave Freer said...

Anton, most of my 'underdogs' fit both categories :-) At leas as far as 'predicted' is concerned.

Dave Freer said...

Matapam, I blush. Thank you. It was a moderately insane (Wangzheng259 will like that admission) thing to do in a first novel. I'm glad I pulled it off (I intended to decieve but build up a sympathy for the minor characters, and a growing dislike and distrust for the seeming 'hero' until the denoument - which had to feel right by then, but not tip its hand too early. Quite an Agatha Christie trick) but I put down succeeding to luck, not good judgement

Dave Freer said...

Sarah... Indeed. I've said this so many times. Who cares if you can shoot fish in a barrel? - only those who really hate the fish. For the rest of us the joy is watching right prevail against the odds, partly because that re-inforces our own irrational belief that it could be so.

Dave Freer said...

Kate, yes. We NEED to believe that. Especially in a world which is so big it's hard to believe an individual matters. But that they do is close to religion for me.

Dave Freer said...

Ori (grin) what you're saying sex sells? I must admit I have a huge weakness for characters who out-think their enemies. It's entertaining and affirming. And yes, it can be done.

Ori Pomerantz said...

Dave Freer: I must admit I have a huge weakness for characters who out-think their enemies. It's entertaining and affirming. And yes, it can be done.

Ori: I meant "brute intelligence" in the sense of Scotty coming up with a technique that is indistinguishable from mambo-jambo except it happens to work. Or, for that matter, Hermione coming up with a spell that can solve everything (not that she does - the Harry Potter series is too good for that).

Your heroes out-think their enemies, but they do it the same way Nicholas van Rijn would - based on information the readers have. That is completely different, since we can read and understand the reasoning.

Dave Freer said...

Grin. Ori, I have a huge weakness for the Van Ryjn books. You do realise Anderson is obaeying good murder-mystery rules in them - the clues ARE there - in your face very often. When it's revealed the reader often says "doh... Why didn't I see that. But the master keeps that moment until all is revealed. I want to write like that when I grow up.

WangZheng259 said...

There are some 'fish' I hate a great deal, but I realize that it can be difficult to make the killing of them interesting, even for me. Since one writes with the intention of at least holding the interest of the general population, or an appropriate subset thereof, hatred cannot be relied on.

My Alma Mater is in flyover country. If we won every game, I expect eventually donors would get bored and complacent, and not donate as much to the football program, changing that situation. We still can lose, but I think the fans enjoy watching the team beat the lesser teams, and really look forward to the big matches. (Last season we ended up losing the final game, and we had otherwise done very well. People complained as hard about how overpaid the coach was as they would have said that he was well worth it, had we won.)

I think there is a cultural liking for people who get up after being knocked down. I know, at the moment, that it is a behavior I like.

Have you heard any version of Patton's famous speech to the troops?

'When you, here, everyone of you, were kids, you all admired the champion marble player, the fastest runner, the toughest boxer, the big league ball players, and the All-American football players. Americans love a winner.'

Some of this is hyperbole, but I think there is an element of truth to it. However, a winner is to some extent self made. One does not become a champion athlete through luck, but through hard work, talent, and never letting losses stop you from competing and improving your game. Likewise, in a story, a winner is not given his victories on a platter by the author or fate or what have you. Any random Mary Sue is not a winner, because she, by definition, does not truly bleed for her good fortune. Gon, from Hunter x Hunter, gets top place in a tournament by being unwilling to quit, and the tournament having a no killing clause. That is a victory.

I do think people fail enough here to admire the ability to get up over and over again.

I guess Robert Edward Lee might be a cognate of Christiaan De Wet.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Wang Zheng

Not a book, but the ability to get up over and over, and the complete unlikelyhood of his triumph MAKE Inigo Montoya (who, btw, makes the movie for me.)

WangZheng259 said...

I've read the book, but not seen the movie.

There are a lot of characters whose inability to give up really make the character. Dinobot from Beast Wars and Nanoha Takamichi from Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha for a couple.