Losing 101 for Characters

My hubby is a baseball freak.  As baseball season winds down once again, to disappear for a dreaded, empty, borrrring 5 months or so of No Baseball, I started thinking about the fans.  Why do they continue to love their favorite teams, even when their teams lose? Year after year of losing, the fans keep cheering.  They keep coming back for more because they love them.  Everyone loves the losers.

I think it’s the same as in mystery writing.

Readers love to read about characters who lose.  Why is this?  “Losing” is subjective and comes in many different forms, but I’ve come up with a list of 5 reasons:

1.  Losing makes characters more sympathetic.  Take, for example, the character of Walt Longmire, a Wyoming sheriff who loses his self-respect when he battles with his demons, including alcoholism.  He’s become one of our beloved fictional characters. Another favorite character is Dave Robicheaux, who struggles with his own damaged past while staying best friends with the even more damaged Cletus Purcel, which makes Robicheaux highly sympathetic.

2.  Losing builds suspense.  Writer-talk calls this “the black moment,” when all seems lost for our protagonist, facing the antagonist in the climax scene.  When done well, readers love it.  They are on the edge of their chairs and won’t put the book down here!

3.  Losing builds motivation.  Did I mention that many literary sleuths have damaged pasts?  When the odds are stacked against the protagonist, he or she will struggle even harder, more determined than ever to win.  They have something to prove.  They not only want to win, they MUST win.  This helps readers to believe in their reasons to solve the mystery.

4.  Losing builds character.  Jim Rockford, a pardoned convict, is always in trouble, often with the law.  But he always sticks to his principles, and this makes him a strong character.  And there’s Inspector Cramer who always loses out to Nero Wolfe in catching murderers.  Cramer helps elevate Nero Wolfe into a super character.

5.  Losing brings justice in the end.  Amateur sleuth and dry cleaner Mandy Dyer befriends Betty the Bag Lady, who helps Mandy solve the mystery, save the day, and bring justice.  Every good mystery brings justice.

Who are some characters you love to see lose?


5 thoughts on “Losing 101 for Characters”

  1. Good post. I can’t think of names (I’m so horrible at that – but it’s early), but I think you’re right. People like to root for characters who have lost something – or who are at risk of losing something. I think it makes them more sympathetic. It’s hard to relate to the guy/girl who always gets everything he/she wants.


  2. So true, Sue. Every time I draw the plot arc on a blackboard for students, I comment that it shouldn’t be a hill but a valley with an upturn at the very end.


  3. I’ve been thinking about this very thing lately. There seem to be two camps: the down on their luck characters who need to try to “win” because they can’t take another loss, and the somewhat successful characters for whom unexpected loss is a defining motivator. And then you get into noir, when nobody really wins. I like Theresa’s comment too; not a hill, but a valley with an upturn.


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