Everyone loves to cheer for the underdog, the misfit, the outsider—especially the teen reader, because that’s how he often views himself in the world. “No one understands me” is a common teen refrain and, if we’re honest, a phrase that leapt from our own mouths during our teen years. It’s no wonder that S. E Hinton’s aptly named classic The Outsiders still resonates with today’s teens.
But there are dangers in casting your main character as an underdog. One potential pitfall lies in making his or her situation too miserable. Sure, your teen character can be homeless, with no parents in sight and having to scramble for food every day, but don’t go overboard. Don’t go on to saddle her with a broken arm, one blind eye, three younger siblings, and a stalker. Or at least don’t load her down with these calamities all at once! If extreme misfortune is to be a theme in your book, dole it out in portions and allow your character to combat them (as much as possible) one at a time. Defeats and setbacks – even an overwhelming number of them – are okay; they add to the tension of the story. But your character has to be allowed to win some small battles in order to keep the story moving forward.
I’m reminded of the main character in the 2009 movie Precious. This teen lived in a truly horrific environment yet with grim determination and a wry sense of humor, she grabbed on to the ropes that were tossed her and fought for a better life for herself.
And… Precious never whined about her situation. This lack of self-pity is vital when developing your underdog. Sometimes you are so in love with your hero and want everyone else to love her too, that you end up overstating her misery. It can come out in the character’s own voice, as in: “Everyone else gets the good stuff. I never get anything.” Or it can come out in the writer’s tone: “Susan, thoroughly despondent now, watched the girls hoisting the trophy and knew she’d never be included in their group.” Aaggh! That’s when you have to give your character (or yourself) a good slap and say, “snap out of it.”
To be an appealing character, an underdog simply cannot be miserable all of the time. Readers want to hear a story of a person overcoming a difficult situation, of triumphing. She doesn’t have to gleefully sing “The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow” on every other page, but she must vibrate with an inner strength.
I admit that I’ve been guilty of birthing a whiny central character. The novel that became my fourth, Firehorse, was actually begun as my second. I thought my heroine, Rachel, was wonderful but I consistently received negative feedback about her. I tried tackling her story from one direction and then another but still had difficulty winning approval. So I set her aside and went on to complete two other novels, regularly returning to wrestle with this complex character. Somewhere in my sixth or seventh attempt, I think, I began to learn who Rachel was. As it turns out she was a very strong character – one of the strongest in any of my novels – and though put in a difficult situation, wasn’t whiny at all. Sometimes your privately suffering underdogs make you work to fully understand their inner strengths.
As a final note, I think it helps to give your underdog a special talent. It can be something subtle, such as the ability to acutely observe people and notice the details in every situation. Or it can be a more obvious talent, such as the ability to throw a ball with incredible speed or draw portraits with great skill. Or it might be a character trait – a propensity to always help those in need, or endless patience with children or a sly sense of humor. Giving your character a special ability is arming her for her battle with the world. She may not even recognize it as a weapon, but readers will, and they will love her for it.
Diane Lee Wilson’s author website: www.dianeleewilson.com
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