Workshopping the Hunger Games

Over the holidays, I got back into reading regularly by devouring the Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins. The trilogy has made quite a splash in the YA market — nothing like Twilight, but The Hunger Games gets points for being, well, good. A motion picture has been announced, and its release date just recently set at March 23, 2012.

Like I said, I devoured the trilogy. It’s a fast and exciting read, with adventure and danger and romance, all the things I like in a YA novel. It’s a great storyworld, some wonderful characters, plot twists, and so on. I highly recommend it to, well, everyone.

I did, however, have some issues with the writing of the trilogy. Maybe it comes out of having just finished two and a half years of workshopping people’s writing and still being in that mindset; maybe it just comes from being a YA writer and wanting to be able to identify what I think didn’t work to avoid in my own writing. I’m not usually hard to please. Whatever it is, that’s what this post is about — what I would have done differently, or what I would comment on were I to be workshopping The Hunger Games.

WARNING: Massive spoilers for the whole trilogy ahead. You have been warned.

Narration

The trilogy is told in the first-person point of view from the head of the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. It’s also told in the present tense.

I’ve never been a huge fan of 1st-person narration, and I’m not sure why, given thath it can be done extremely well (read John Green). Part of the trouble is that it means we never get out of the character’s head, and in something like an adventure story, that means it’s hard to get an idea of the bigger picture, of what the whole host of other (interesting) characters is doing or thinking.

In The Hunger Games, this worked on some level — part of the point is that Katniss is often kept in the dark, so we as readers are kept in the dark with her. There were times though when I got very tired of being in Katniss’s head — see my comments on her character, below.

More irking to me was the present-tense voice. A story told in first person, like a stage monologue, begs the question of who the story is being told to and when. If it’s past tense, this is easily answered — sometime after it’s all happened, the narrator is telling the story to someone, even to you, the reader.

If it’s present tense, that no longer works. It becomes Katniss telling her own story to herself as she lives it. Ok, granted, I’ve done this in my own head. But I’m a writer; it seems out of character for a tough girl trying to survive a thousand different deaths.

There were even a few moments that completely pulled me out; there was one instance where (unfortunately I don’t have a page reference) she says she’s expecting one thing to happen, and then something else does, and she phrases it like, “But here’s what happens:”. This just completely breaks with the style of narration, and I was immediately pulled out of the story. Now it seems like she really is telling someone else the story.

In addition, we get a lot of things as they happen to her, but every once in awhile, she skips over a whole whack of time to get to the next event. That too pulls me out, when we’ve been so in her head in the moment the whole time. What happened in that tim period? How did her opinions change? Sometimes we learn retroactively that something did happen, or she made a decision. Why didn’t we see it in real time? It works as a storytelling technique, but is inconsistent with how we’ve experienced the story so far.

(An argument could be made that she’s telling the story later in life but in present tense, as stories are often told when you “get into the moment.” Certainly this is the tone I get in Will Grayson, Will Grayson, by John Green and David Levithan (fantastic book), also told in first-person present. But it fits the voices of the two narrators; it still doesn’t seem to work for me for Katniss, it’s not the feel I have of the narration, especially since at the end we get a huge chunk of her later life.)

Katniss Everdeen

Speaking of her character, let’s look at it. I’ve heard her touted as an exceptionally strong female lead, and a fantastic protagonist because of that. She’s beloved by a lot of readers.

So I’m going to take some flak for saying this. Yes, generally, I liked her; she had some great moments. But I had some major problems.

She’s a strong character, she’s a survivalist, and — at first at least — she’s acting out of a desire to protect her family. But she never really has her own driving force, something she wants other than to survive and protect her sister and — in the second book — Peeta. And as the books went on, this became less and less the case. Mostly, she was acting in response to other people (more on active protagonists below).

She was also so oblivious. I’m thinking primarily the first book, here, when it was obvious to everyone but her (other characters and the reader who is only seeing what she sees) that Peeta was truly in love with her, and she did not get it. No matter how many times the obvious truth was bashed over her head. Could it be explained by looking at the fact that she was just unconcerned with love, focusing solely on survival and her family? Maybe. Except she often was thinking about love — wondering if she loved Gale, if she loved Peeta, if Peeta loved her — she simply dismissed the overwhelming evidence.

Furthermore, it’s not like she was oblivious about everything. When Haymitch was sending her messages by the gifts he sent (or didn’t) she picked up on it quickly. Katniss is smart, she’s canny. But for some reason, this one thing just never clicked. That drove me crazy.

And that leads me to my biggest overall concern with her. She was, overall, inconsistent as a character. She’s smart, but oblivious. She says she has no skill with words — Peeta’s the big charismatic speech giver — but then every once in awhile, she comes out with these impactful, moving speeches out of nowhere. Plus, she’s telling us this story (to revisit the first-person issue).

Is she doing all this to protect her family, or for the revolution, or just because she hates Snow? It seems to change. Often.

And finally — she is smart. She picks up on Haymitch’s clues in the first book, really easily. Her smarts are why she’s able to be the winner, why Haymitch actually put some investment in her in the first place. And then, in Catching Fire, when the mentors were sending gifts as secret messages to the other victors, she didn’t bat an eye.

24 biscuits. 24 biscuits. 24 biscuits. Obviously she wouldn’t have been able to decipher the code, because she didn’t know what was going on (and see below on that). But she didn’t even consider that it might be a code, when it was so obviously so, even given thta I didn’t know what it could be a code for either.

Really, all it would have taken was a couple of sentences for her to wonder if it was a code, be unable to figure it out, and give up. That’s it. That would have been in keeping with her character. But instead, she comes across as exceedingly inconsistent.

The same extends to that whole plot. She’s shown to pick up on things pretty well, in Mockingjay she understands the danger she’s in from Coin, etc., but she has no idea that there’s any kind of rebellion plot going on or that she’s involved already.

The moment Plutarch flicked his watch to show the mockingjay at the beginning of Catching Fire, I knew he was involved in a plot. There’s dramatic irony, and then there’s oblivious and inconsistent characters I want to, at times, strangle.

And that leads me to my last point.

Active Protagonists

Katniss is not.

An active protagonist is one whose actions drive the story. A passive protagonist is one who merely reacts to things happening around her, along for the ride of the story rather than creating it. Every writing course you will ever take will tell you that your protagonist must be active.

But by and large, Katniss isn’t. She is swept along from place to place, event to event — both figuratively and literally. She is a pawn first of the state, put in the Hunger Games, then of Haymitch in the games and in the second games when there’s this whole rebellion plot that she knows nothing of, then of the rebellion.

And yes, I know that’s kind of the point. It’s part of the theme of the whole trilogy. It’s why there’s a rebellion. But it makes her a passive protagonist, and that’s not interesting. The reader is swept along with events as much as she is, feeling powerless as to where the story will go. “Well, she could do anything right now and it won’t make the least bit of difference to how the story will end.” It’s like railroading in Dungeons & Dragons.

There are two times I can think of when she acts: when she volunteers to take Prim’s place at the start of book 1, and when she kills Coin at the end of book 3.

Conclusion

I should end by reiterating, after all that, that I enjoyed the trilogy thoroughly. I’d give it an A, overall. I’m looking forward to the movie (when I won’t be trapped in Katniss’s head!). But there were aspects thta jumped out at me, places where I was pulled out of the story — things I would have done differently.

I don’t know that Katniss is as strong a character as she’s thought to be; she seems more to wallow in indecision like Hamlet, swept along her own story, at once smart and charismatic, and oblivious and powerless.

I now prepare myself for disagreements, which I welcome. As long as they’re civil and well thought out. Discussion in the comments!

Writing , , , , , , , , ,

4 comments


  1. Andrew

    I read these recently too. I liked that but really agree with your active protagonist bit(though, I didn’t know a term existed to describe what I was thinking while reading it). I think it was much better in the first book (another obvious point where she takes actions is deciding to threaten to both eat the berries, I’m sure there’s more in the book when she’s in the arena)

    What really annoyed me along these lines though was in the final book when she decides to go off with her squad of troops to try to assassinate the president. A huge part of the book is dedicated to it, and in the end it didn’t matter at all. This is where the railroading comparison is the strongest I think. The characters have really tried to take an initiative and do their own thing, the DM kills a bunch of them for not cooperating, and just continues along with his story.

  2. As I said on twitter, this points are fair. The first book is wonderful in my opinion, bordering on a masterpiece for its genre and target demographic. The other two waver from quite entertaining to extremely frustrating.

    I want to just quickly comment on the issue of voice and Katniss’s “selective perception.” You’re right that making her so oblivious to Peta’s affection is – technically – bad writing, that almost insults the audience. But I wonder if that’s not the point – readers almost want to shout at Katniss and tell her to wake up (which may draw them in further emotionally), and it also opens up the possibility for Twilight-style projection on the protagonist (“If I were Katniss, I would choose”). I wonder how many of the fanfiction entries here realize the Katniss-Peta relationship earlier, or in a more conventional way.

    • A friend of mine (who generally didn’t like the books) made the same Twilight point, but argued that Katniss was set up as an “empty protagonist” for readers to put themselves in the place of, giving her very little of her own character, and arguing that this was poor writing because while people might be able to “identify” with her more by putting themselves there, she’s not interesting as a protagonist and she doesn’t have her own desires, and all the things that make a character worth reading about. I don’t know that I would take it that far, but it’s an interesting point.

      Yes, I think perhaps it was part of the point, but that part just didn’t work for me. Maybe it made me more emotionally invested in her, but it annoyed me more than anything, which is not something a book should do to its reader. That’s just me, though; you do make a good point as to why it might have been so successful. (Though again, Twilight was successful and I’m not sure we should all be trying to emulate Twilight.)

      I do agree, the first book was head and shoulders above the other two — most of the problems I had came as a result of the continuation of the story, and I think they slightly tainted my perception looking back.

  3. This is a very interesting take on the whole novel.

    I agree on the obliviousness, but I also disagree. I read through it, and at first I believed it because I’ve been there. It’s like when a fat person works hard to lose weight and they still feel fat afterwards. A girl like Katniss doesn’t think about these things, and so she wouldn’t recognize when someone was into her until they hit her over the head. She might even suspect, but that part of her will deny.

    But it was drawn out much too long. Three books? That’s WAY too long for a girl as smart as she is to figure it out.

    Also, I completely agree with Andrew. I took apart the last book and examined what went wrong for me, it was that entire side quest. It was completely unnecessary, and made me pause. It felt like pure filler to stretch the books out longer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>