How To Write Underdog Stories

underdogs in fiction

The underdog is very popular as a main character in fiction. But there are ways to write underdogs well as well as pitfalls to avoid.

What Is An Underdog?

  • An underdog story is a ‘David Beats Goliath’ story going back even further than Biblical times.
  • Underdog stories are often rags-to-riches stories. (Cinderella stories)
  • Another variation is the Baby In The Basket, starting with Oedipus.
  • When the main character is an underdog the audience tends to care about them and root for their success in whatever goal the writer sets up.
  • Sometimes the underdog is discriminated against due to their identity, e.g. racism or sexism or any other kind of prejudice. In fairytales it was because they were poor or unconnected or because their stepmother didn’t love them.
  • In children’s stories, the child is always part underdog archetype by virtue of being a child, not considered capable of doing anything significant, not trusted, not believed.
  • In fables, mice are under-‘dogs’ because of their small size.
  • Northrop Frye categorised heroes based on how similar main characters are to the average person. The underdog sits between low mimetic and ironic narrative, right at the bottom of the pecking order.

 

The Three Assumptions Behind Most Underdog Stories

It’s worth thinking hard about our own attitudes towards social hierarchy before writing an underdog story. In contemporary stories, these are some shared beliefs:

  1. In every situation there always has to be a winner and a loser. A happy ending requires not just someone’s triumph but also someone else’s defeat.
  2. The best way to win is to have the individual power to take control and win by one’s own actions
  3. A truly happy ending occurs only when a person who was oppressed achieves a position in which it’s possible to oppress others. 

If you’re anything like me, you have a problem with these assumptions. For starters they promote a particularly combative, warring view on the world. Subversive stories will go beyond these conservative defaults. From a feminist perspective, these assumptions also pander to a masculine sensibility.

Maurice Sendak’s “Where The Wild Things Are  is an excellent representation of these political assumptions. Surprisingly few award-winning texts for children celebrate the value of groups of people working together as equals; far more celebrate the power of individuals controlling groups.

– from The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Nodelman and Reimer

The Paradox Of Underdog Characters

Readers want heroes to be underdogs, but they don’t want them to be losers. They don’t want your main character to actually go from being zero to hero: they want him or her to start out with skills and admirable characteristics that will carry him or her though the story.

Matt Bird

Matt Bird uses the phrase ‘zero to hero’, analogous to John Truby’s concept of Range of Change.

The Smallest Girl In The Smallest Grade
The Smallest Girl In The Smallest Grade is an example of a children’s story in which the reader is encouraged to root for the smallest character.

Underdog Stories vs Carnivalesque Stories

Leaving Northrop Frye’s categorisation aside for a moment, in which the superhero is the inverse of an underdog, the inverse of an ‘underdog story’ is a ‘carnivalesque’ story. Read Pippi Longstocking for a prime example of carnivalesque. In a carnivalesque story a character with little agency (probably a child, or a child stand-in) has great fun by ignoring societal conventions, basically going on a bender and to hell with the consequences. For the duration of the story, this character has broken free from their underdog status.

The Chaste Clarissa by John Cheever

WHAT HAPPENS IN THE CHASTE CLARISSA

A twice-divorced philanderer holidays where he has always holidayed, on Martha’s Vineyard. On the ferry he meets for the first time a beautiful young woman who has recently married into a bird-watching, rock-collecting family of average Joes, but her husband won’t be joining Clarissa on the island, so our viewpoint character decides immediately that she shall be his next conquest. He sets up a plan to make this happen.

SETTING OF THE CHASTE CLARISSA

Place

Vineyard Haven is a community within the town of Tisbury on Martha’s Vineyard in Dukes County, Massachusetts, United States.

Tisbury

Time

Published in 1952, this is a story set in the same time. This was The Decade of the Housewife, an era which we still tend to idealise, forgetting perhaps, the problems described by Betty Friedan and others.

Milieu

As usual in Cheever’s stories thus far, ‘The Chaste Clarissa’ is a story about upper-class people with upper-class issues. We have holiday homes and housemaids and copious amounts of spare time. Whatever else was going on in the world is irrelevant to these characters, underscored by the fact that this is set on a literal island.

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Is there a double standard when it comes to evaluating “chick flicks” compared to male-oriented action and war films? According to one critic, we incorrectly assign more value to the drama of male bonding than we do to the female bonding portrayed in such films as Divine Secrets of the YaYa Sisterhood.  […]  The deeper issue here is not whether “chick flicks” are devalued, but rather how you dramatize family life. Action and war films have it easy; they show life and death situations. Nobody mentions that the vast majority of the audience will never encounter these situations.

– John Truby on the film Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

Buullies and Mean Girls in Middle Grade Fiction

mean girls

 

More often than not, middle grade books about friendship changes are explained away with bullies and Mean Girls.  There’s usually a clear hero(ine), a clear villain, and that’s that.  But we all know that real life is much more murky and complex, and real-life aggressors look more like Astrid [in Victoria Jamieson’s delightful graphic novel Roller Girl] than a Disney villain.

– Nerdy Book Club

See also: How Children’s Books Teach Children To Despite Hilary Clinton for an example of how character tropes in fiction can transfer to real life, and leads to real life consequences.

Short Story Study: The Great Chain Of Being by Kim Edwards

You may recognise the author’s name from her bestselling The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, which was first published 8 years later in 2005.

WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT

A girl feels overlooked because her important father gives names of significant family members to each of her siblings except to her. She tries in vain to win his attention and affection, but unfortunately, she only wins attention by trying to smother the baby twins which have lead to a long, worrisome labour for their mother. Eshlaini’s father then names her after his own mother, which is no compliment whatsoever. When Eshlaini comes of age, the father turns away all of her suitors, because like his own mother, this daughter Eshlaini must care for him in his old age. Continue reading “Short Story Study: The Great Chain Of Being by Kim Edwards”

Smile, baby! You’re on the cover of a picture book.

[L]ike the smiling image of the girl on the title page of Mr. Rabbit, pictures often imply through signifying gestures that the victims of our gaze are willing victims. We all know that we should “smile for the camera”–show a facial gesture that signifies pleasure to those who will eventually see the picture, and who will view it with a relentless attention that would cause us to stop smiling and feel abused if we experienced it in reality. The covers of many picture books ape such photographs and show their main character in a sort of introductory portrait that implies an acquiescence in the right of viewers to observe and to enjoy what they see. There are also, of course, many picture books whose covers show their protagonists simply getting on with the business at hand, whatever that business may be. But interestingly, those who smile and invite the gaze of viewers are most often female, the others usually male.

– Perry Nodelman, Words About Pictures

Smiling Girls

As Nodelman points out, it’s easy to find illustrations of smiling girls in passive, portrait position. When both a boy and girl are depicted, it’s the girl who is more likely to be aware of the imaginary camera. Note that even The Little Match Girl smiles. Anyone who has read that story knows that the reader should perhaps be forewarned; this story is no smiling matter!

CinderellaThe Up And Down BookBaby's ChristmasWildLittle LuluGood Bye TonsilsThe Little Match GirlRed Riding Hood LadybirdLittle Red Riding HoodAlice In WonderlandThe Christmas ABCFun To Cook BookPepper Plays NurseLucy and Tom's ChristmasPhoebe and the Hot Water Bottles

Some Smiling Boys

The boy on the swing is aware of the camera but he is at least doing something (showing off). The boy in front of Baby’s House is proud and prancing about. The red-haired boy looking coyly at the camera is in more typically feminine pose. It’s no accident that he is doing something more typically feminine.

The Up And Down BookBaby's HouseThe New Baby

Smiling Group Portraits

It’s hard to get everyone in a group smiling at the same time, especially when doing something else at the same time, but not if that portrait happens to be an illustration:

The JetsonsLittle VersesHansel and Gretel

 

Smiling Creatures from Dr Seuss

Dr Seuss was a fan of the portrait-style smile on a front cover. This makes sense, because the inner stories were presented much like a pantomime, with ridiculous goings-on which seem designed to delight a young audience.

If I Ran The ZooGreen Eggs And HamCat In The HatFox In Socks

 

Other Smiling Creatures

If you’re hunting for smiling-at-the-camera male characters gracing the fronts of picture books, it’s a bit easier to find males smiling who are not human.

Frosty The SnowmanThe Monster At The End Of This BookPuss In BootsSomething ElseWordsChatterly Squirrel

Hell, I’m Not Smiling

Though these are obviously posed, portrait-type illustrations, in which the painted child is in front of an imaginary camera, these children are not actually smiling. Indeed, the twins look exceptionally creepy to a modern audience, though it wasn’t so long ago that nobody smiled for cameras; portrait-sitting was a solemn and expensive event.

My KittenMy PuppyMy Teddy BearThe TwinsWe Like Kindergarten

smile

The Absence Of Smiling On The Cover Of Russian Picture books

Here’s something that has always puzzled me, growing up in the US as a child of Russian parents. Whenever I or my friends were having our photos taken, we were told to say “cheese” and smile. But if my parents also happened to be in the photo, they were stone-faced. So were my Russian relatives, in their vacation photos. My parents’ high-school graduation pictures show them frolicking about in bellbottoms with their young classmates, looking absolutely crestfallen.

So writes Olga Khazan at The Atlantic, in response to a new paper on intercultural smiling, further explaining that:

Russians’ fondness for the gentle scowl seems even more unusual to expats than its actual, climatic cold. And the cultural difference cuts both ways: Newcomers to America often remark on the novelty of being smiled at by strangers.

In Russian cultures, smiling is not a sign of friendliness; it is a sign of a ‘tricky fool’.

I can see a feminist benefit to that — according to Khazan, at least women in Russian cultures aren’t instructed to smile by random men on the street! American women, on the other hand, were required to look calm and reassuring even in time of war.

Russian propaganda poster
Russian propaganda poster

Continue reading “Smile, baby! You’re on the cover of a picture book.”

The Company Of Wolves by Angela Carter

Even if you’ve not heard much of Angela Carter, “The Company of Wolves” and other subversive stories have probably influenced some of your other favourite authors.

When I ask Gaiman who his favourite fairy tale character is, he says he fell in love with Red Riding Hood when reading Carter. … in order to interpret Gaiman’s taste, you need to know that Carter’s take on the tale was “The Company of Wolves”, an ornately told story in which the heroine makes a relatively late appearance in a savage, sexual world, not a small child skipping along a path but a daring pubescent girl who strips naked, laughs in the face of danger and sleeps with the wolf – rendering him post–coitally “tender” – in her dead grandmother’s bed.

Interview between Gaby Wood and Neil Gaiman, The Telegraph

The Company Of Wolves, found in The Bloody Chamber and Other Adult Tales

The queen of sexual subversiveness…must be the late Angela Carter. Like [Edna] O’Brien, Carter can write a very convincing sex scene. And also like her, she almost never lets it be only about sex. Carter nearly always intends to upset the patriarchal apple cart. To call her writing women’s liberation is to largely miss her point; Carter attempts to discover paths by which women can attain the standing in the world that male-dominated society has largely denied them, and in so doing she would liberate all of us, men and women alike. In her world, sex can be wildly disruptive.

How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster

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Sex In Stories For Teenagers

The prevalence of ‘sluts’ and ‘whores’ in young adult literature and schoolyard banter is enough to make a feminist mother weep. Our daughters learn early the same sexually oppressive messages that we learnt: that female sexuality is a prize to be given to (or taken by) a man.

Daily Life

These are notes from the Kid You Not Podcast, Episode 10 combined with my own.

You won’t find men’s genitalia in quality literature.

A Librarian

The sex in TV and movies can be simultaneously explicit and evasive. Sex, particularly non-committed sex, is typically presented as fun and advisable; rarely is it awkward or silly or challenging or messy or actively negotiated or preceded by discussion of contraception and disease protection. There’s always plenty of room in the backseats of those limousines, and nary a pothole in the road.

— Peggy Orenstein, Girls and Sex

One way to discover what Americans are concerned about is to delve into the books they read. Or more tellingly, the ones they reject. […] “America seems to be very exercised about sex,” Mr. LaRue said.

— Banned Books Week, NYT

Films such as American Pie are where boys are learning about sex from the male perspective.
Films such as American Pie are not specifically for teenagers but about teenagers. In this franchise, boys are learning about sex and we see a male perspective.

You may have heard the phrase, “Children’s literature is both a mirror and a window,” meaning when children (indeed anyone) is exposed to someone else’s story, two things happen:

  1. We get a glimpse into someone else’s experience via the ‘window’
  2. We see ourselves reflected back via the ‘mirror’.

Since stories function as windows, they also function as ‘super-peers’ — teaching us not only how others live in the world, but also providing scripts on how to live a good (or a not so good) life.

Though writing about porn in particular, Peggy Orenstein’s description of the nuanced interaction between ‘media’ and ‘consumer’ is explained below: Continue reading “Sex In Stories For Teenagers”

Ideology In Children’s Literature

ideology

Every novel, every painting, every work of art with meaning contains an ideology. This includes stories written for children.

One of the fundamental changes in critical thinking and teaching over the past twenty years has been the acceptance that ideology is not a separate concept ‘carried by’ texts, but that all texts are inevitably infused by ideology. This has been particularly difficult to accept in the world of children’s literature, which is still widely assumed to be ‘innocent‘ of concerns of gender, race, power, and so on — or to carry transparently manipulative messages.

– Peter Hunt

We believe some ideologies so deeply that we consider them Truth: such ideologies as “education can improve people’s lives” and “it’s better to be rich than poor” can be difficult for people brought up in capitalist societies to recognize as arguable positions. But all adolescent novels are informed by such sociopolitical beliefs. Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example, infuses her own libertarian ideologies* into all of the Little House books, but most especially into the later books written for adolescents. Although in actuality the Ingalls family was closely connected to their neighbors during the historical season of blizzards depicted in The Long Winter (1940), Wilder portrays the fictionalised Ingalls family as living entirely isolated in self-sufficiency. Influenced by libertarianism, her ideological goal was to portray ogovernment intervention as both unnecessary and suspicious. William Sleator’s House of Stairs (1974), Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese (1977) and Virginia Hamilton’s The Gathering (1981) provide similar ideological critiques of government politics.

— Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature

*I feel it’s a bit easier for a non-American to see libertarian ideologies when they crop up. From my perspective here in Australia, Australians value equality, in contrast to North Americans, who seem to value freedom. Though membership to a certain culture gives one kind of insight, sometimes it’s easier to spot ideology in stories from a slightly different culture. It’s certainly easier to spot ideology in work from the past. You’ve probably experienced the phenomenon of sitting down to watch a classic film — Gone With The Wind or The Long Hot Summer or even Friends from the early 2000s, and noticed how ideologies which were once accepted and loved now seem hopelessly sexist, homophobic and racist. That’s exactly how future audiences will see the stories of today.

In order to understand…political ideologies…the reader has to understand at least two things: the historical context in which the story is set adn the historical context in which it was written. The distinction is especially important for historical novels like The Long Winter, when the historical setting is significantly removed from the date of the novel’s publication.

— Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe: Power and Repression in Adolescent Literature

The following are notes from various places, notably from Episode 9 of the Kid You Not Podcast, and from the book Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature by John Stephenswith extra insertions from me. If you’ve ever wondered what exactly is meant by ‘ideology’ and have come across words like ‘hegemonic’ without really understanding what the words mean, the Kid You Not podcast is a great way to spend 25 minutes. It’s clear and concise.

DEFINITION OF IDEOLOGY

From a literary criticism perspective, all texts, especially fictional texts, are imbued with ideological content. This can refer to a system of values/beliefs/fears/world views, which are all linked to concepts of power. These values and beliefs will be distilled within language, whether through the words/images on the page or the words and images that are not there. [See: Where Are The People Of Colour In Picture Books?] Even picture books aimed at very young children can be ideologically charged. Sometimes ideology is transparent, because we’re bathed in it and therefore don’t even see it.

No text, and therefore no children’s book, is devoid of ideology. This isn’t necessarily a terrible thing. Ideology isn’t necessarily in reference to Nazi or communist propaganda. It might simply be an ideology of capitalism. While extremist groups have historically leaned on children’s literature to share their beliefs with impressionable audiences, but this is not what’s generally meant by ideology. Generally, ideology refers to children’s books at one end of the spectrum: Books designed to teach children something or deal with a specific problem. Peter Hollingdale has written about the distinction between implicit and explicit ideology.

He didn’t go so far as to explain that an explicit ideology can be communicated either directly or indirectly — but this is definitely the case. The difference between the two:

  • Novels with directly explicit ideologies go out of their way to explain certain views to the reader, in case the reader doesn’t pick it up.
  • Novels with INdirectly explicit ideologies trust that the reader has enough prior knowledge to pick up the messages in the book.

Some writers will tell you that books with direct and explicit ideologies are out of fashion, described as moralistic. But it’s a bit more complicated than that: Here’s what’s gone out of fashion: direct and explicit ideologies coming out of the mouths of adults. That includes adult characters and (presumably) adult unseen narrators. You’ll still see examples of direct and explicit ideology coming out of the mouths of first person young adult narrators. An example is the mini-lecture by the YA narrator of Am I Normal Yet? in which she describes the problematic language around casual use of words like ‘OCD’ thrown around in everyday discourse. If this had come out of an adult, then it would have sounded didactic.

Not every book has an explicit ideology. But every single story has an implicit one, and it is this kind of book which tends to be the more powerful vehicle for an ideology, precisely because it is invisible. The implication: that things are simply ‘so’.

The more covert the social practice in narrative, the more a text demands a reader who knows how to interpret a fiction. This demand is itself an ideological assumption.

Different categories of stories tend to have common ideologies. For example, in the mouse tale it’s common to find the idea that ‘When mice become too reliant upon human technology, this leads to the downfall of their own society.’ Is this saying something about isolated, ‘primitive’ human cultures and what happens to them when they rub up against technologically advanced civilisation?

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What Is Quality Children’s Literature? What Is Trash?

Children’s literature is often lumped into two broad groups: treasure and trash. The former is sometimes called ‘literary’, the latter ‘commercial’.

what is trash what is treasure

Many of the following are notes from Kid You Not Podcast Episode 2: ‘Quality and Trash

The concept of quality vs trash gets a lot of people quite worked up. Are these labels even helpful?

 

Continue reading “What Is Quality Children’s Literature? What Is Trash?”