This year’s conference (the 17th annual conference) will be at the Hilton Orlando/Altamonte Springs, October 18-21, 2018. The theme is “Where does our muse live?” Other speakers will include former prosecutor and crime novelist Linda Fairstein as the National Guest of Honor; Florida Writer of the Year Heather Graham, (author of 200 novels and novellas!); and Peter Meinke will be heralded as Florida’s Poet Laureate. Continue reading →
My movie review of Wonder Woman is live at the Independent Institute. I really liked the film, and, as I mention in another blog post, I think this might be a break through film for women directors. The film is smart, well executed, and superbly directed by Patty Jenkins.
Perhaps one of the elements I appreciate the most is the multidimensional development of the main character, Diana Prince (Wonder Woman). She doesn’t lose her gender identity as she embraces the superhero role and heroic commitment to saving the human race. Diana Prince is not a character that essentially acts and looks like a man. Kudos to screenwriter Allan Heinberg for scripting a great character and giving her a worthy arc. Jenkins has also done an excellent job blending an international cast and using the story to play off their differences. Their differences become humorous interactions that deepen relationships and understanding.
In my longer review, I write:
Wonder Women contains an excellent story in a well-executed film that grapples with the conflicts between idealism and practicality, innocence and experience, gullibility and wisdom. Jenkins has crafted a film that infuses substance into a smart story. She uses well-crafted storytelling elements, such as defined and complex character arcs, to allow the anti-war social conscience that underlies the film to shine and provide a compelling context for the film.
This is great summer film—a lot of fun with great action sequences and excellent character development.
The contemporary romantic dance musicalLa La Landcontinues to post strong earnings at the box office, generating $40 million domestically and $68 million worldwide (double its production budget). The film is destined to generate much more as a Golden Globe nominee and potential Oscar contender. I will be surprised if the film fails to bring home a major award.
Written and directed by Damien Chazelle (Whiplash, 10 Cloverfield Lane), the plot follows the two aspiring artists in Los Angeles—Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a jazz pianist unwilling to compromise on the purity of his art, and Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress who finds the rough and tumble world of Hollywood dispiriting and overwhelming.
The characters are well developed, and their arcs are clearly defined over the course of the story. Sebastian’s intransigence in the face of pressures to bow to bland public musical tastes is artfully depicted in a scene in a lounge (managed by the reliably excellent J.K. Simmons) where he is fired for straying into free form jazz rather than remain focused on the uninteresting background music he was hired to play. His unwavering commitment to art nearly leaves him destitute but secures the admiration of Mia through a serendipitous meeting in the lounge.
La La Land incorporates much of Chazelle’s hard earned experience, as well as that of Gosling and Stone, into its scenes, giving the film a gritty realism while effectively driving the plot. For example, Mia is performing a heartfelt line when one of the casting director’s takes a personal call, an event borrowed from Gosling’s own auditioning experience. The callous nature of Hollywood and the film industry, as well as the idolatry that draws so many into it, is captured well through these small vignettes which increasing drive Mia to a breaking point when she stakes her savings and professional aspirations on a one woman show.
Chazelle’s story masterfully plays off the differing paths of the lead characters as it builds to the climax, a penultimate point that challenges the characters’ commitment to themselves and their art. But the weave of the story is much more complex than a simple clash of futures or paths. One of the more innovative techniques Chazelle uses reels back through time to chart different courses for the characters at key plot points. This begins at the outset of the film when the characters are introduced after a grand dance number choreographed on an LA freeway so congested traffic has come to a stop. But the technique is used several times to convey different outcomes, allowing the audience to internalize the storytelling technique while pondering more substantive questions about decisions and relationships. This becomes crucial for the film’s climax, bittersweet third act that focuses on the emotional and professional state of the characters to highlight what is ultimately a story about the choices we make and the personal consequences of those decisions.
The film is grand and soaring, much like the most audacious mid-twentieth century musicals, but the story is more complex and artful than many of the classics. Drawing inspiration from classic musicals, including Singing in the Rain and the Umbrellas of Cherbourg, as well as performances by theatrical numbers by Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and others, Chazelle has crafted a film that plays homage to this bygone film genre as well as the real-life experiences of those trying to make it in today’s film industry.
La La Land is distinguished by its production values, ability to entertain, and financial success as a contemporary musical. More interestingly, Chazelle’s determination to tell a complicated story adds to the richness of the film, giving his experienced actors the freedom to explore their characters and relationships. The ending will not be satisfying to many, but this is also his point: real life involves choices and meaningful trade-offs. Our decisions about which choices to make lead to different outcomes, and the results may not be completely satisfying even as we accomplish our professional goals.
I recently saw the Tom Cruise action film Jack Reacher: Never Go Back. The movie was very serviceable as an action film—lots of fights, car chases, and take downs of bad guys—but I was disappointed overall. I personally believe Cruise is one of our best actors, and he, like Matt Damon, is capable of filling action hero roles quite capably even as he progresses through his mid-50s. (In fact, the sci fi action movie Edge of Tomorrowremains one of my favorite movies.) Even though Cruise has an entire wikepedia page devoted to his awards, he may be the best actor currently working yet to receive an acting academy award. Jack Reacher doesn’t come close to other movies in quality despite the talents of Edward Zwick, the academy award winning director of Shakespeare in Love and critically acclaimed films such as Glory, Legends of the Fall, and The Last Samurai. Why?
I explored this question using a rubric that includes seven criteria to help me think through a film’s overall quality and pinpoint its strengths and weaknesses. I’ve done similar things for character development in novels (see here and here).
Never Go Back is part of the Jack Reacher thriller series penned by British novelist Lee Child. The story puts former military policy investigator Jack Reacher into the center of a conspiracy to swindle the U.S. government out of millions of dollars through illegal arms sales. The inciting incident is the arrest of Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who is in charge of Reacher’s old unit. She’s jailed for espionage, but is really a target for assassination because her investigative work uncovered the arms trafficking scheme. Reacher also learns of a paternity suit in the course of the investigation that claims he is the father of a 15 year-old girl, Samantha Dayton (Danika Yarosh). When Turner’s attorney is murdered, Reacher is framed for the crime. The assassins quickly link Dayton to Reacher, expecting to use her as a pawn to trap and kill Reacher. So, the film is off and running as action adventure crime thriller.
I thought Never Go Back was a enjoyable action movie, but fell short of being an excellent one. It relied too much on formulas, and not enough on creative storytelling. So, how did this movie fall short? What made the difference between mediocre and great? These are my thoughts based on my film criticism rubric.
Production values & artistic scope. Overall, the film didn’t have anything that pushed the envelop. The cinematography was state of the industry, but not state of he art. In leading action films such as Mission Impossible or Jason Bourne, technology is used to augment action sequences. Creative editing slows or hastens the pace. The camera shots engage the viewer with different angles and perspectives to illuminate motivation, create suspense, and immerse the viewer. I didn’t see much of this creative use of standard film tools and techniques in Never Go Back. It was yoeman’s work, for sure, but not much beyond it.
Plot, internal consistency & composition. The plot wasn’t particularly creative;
“good guy, but flawed, cop uncovers duplicitous arms dealer” is a pretty worn concept. Buddy rescue stories are also pretty common. The fact that the new boss of Reacher’s old unit is a woman (Turner) might have been innovative in the 1980s and 1990s, but in the 2010s it’s almost cliche. Similarly, the emotional threat of a family member being used to derail the good guy cop is also pretty common (remember Lethal Weapon?). Reacher is a drifter and loner, much like old western heroes, and being tied down by an unwanted child is also a familiar plot device (recall True Grit, Shane, etc.). While the story had an internal consistency—few loose ends left around at the end—its plot and composition were pretty stale. Also, the subplot of the uncertainty about paternity seemed contrived to add some humanity to the hardened soldier turned outlaw. In part this was necessary because Major Turner could pretty much take care of herself. So, some character had to be vulnerable, and that ended up being the teenager that might be Reacher’s daughter. She was never fully integrated as an essential element of the plot.
Story plausibility and dialogue. Okay, this is a bit of a stretch for action films—they are almost always implausible—but my assessments are put in the context of the genre. The dialogue was straightforward without nuance in Jack Reacher. The banter was standard and straightforward, with little wit; Audiences weren’t asked to interpret much beyond what was said by the actors. In fact, I found very little in the way of compelling visual storytelling, in contrast to other similar films such as Deepwater Horizon and Jason Bourne. What makes cinema different from literary forms is the ability to show character and emotion through facial expressions, physical action, and reactions to events and other people without resorting to dialogue to tell the story. Visuals substitute for literary description. The actors were asked to do little more than straightforward acting in the film.
Context in terms of genre. The film’s plot is relevant to the action film genre. After all, the U.S. is winding down the war in Afghanistan, and those weapons can easily be diverted. But the story doesn’t unfold in a creative way. The theft of arms is a standard plot for military television series such as NCIS or JAG. The theme simply is transported onto the big screen in a formulaic way. Even adding a corrupt inside guy n the military isn’t presented in an innovative or creative way.
Entertainment & audience engagement. Never Go Back was entertaining, but it didn’t keep me engaged evenly throughout the film. If I had received a phone call or text message, I would have been willing to leave the theater to take it believing I wouldn’t miss much by the time I returned. In part, this is because the film was predictable and lacked imagination. This movie could have easily gone straight to DVD and saved for late night parties for your teenager.
Character depth & arc. None of the characters really grow. At the end of the film, Major Turner is redeemed and goes back to her job running Reacher’s old unit. She is restored to her position rather than given new responsibilities, and her relationship with Reacher is not significantly deepened. Reacher goes back on the road, taking up his vigilante lifestyle, and the girl goes back to school (albeit this time living with her real mother who has cleaned up her act). Ironically, its the teenager—Samantha—that grows the most. She realizes the truth about Reacher, develops true feelings for him, but takes on a more mature and adult role as daughter to her mother. Unfortunately, Reacher and Turner on the leads in the movie, not the girl.
Social message & relevance. The film has virtually no social relevance or meaningful message, except that Jack Reacher might not forsake the child he may have fathered. The film ends with Samantha giving Reacher a phone for him to contact her, but he doesn’t embrace the new relationship. Similarly, showing bad guys as bad guys doesn’t really advance our understanding of human nature, or reveal new ways of looking at human relationships. It’s all standard formula action movie fodder.
I am not sure how these aspects of the film could be “fixed,” but actors, producers, and directors of Tom Cruise and Edward Zick’s stature and experience can certainly find ways to do it. I didn’t feel like I was ripped off sitting in the movie theater, but I certainly expected more and I believe the principals could have given more. With a production budget of $60 million, they could have. On the other hand, the film has generated nearly the same amount in domestic revenue and $136 million worldwide. So, in at least a commercial sense, the film is a success despite its artistic flaws.
The action film Deepwater Horizon has a lot of elements that make it one of the best movies of the year—a smart screenplay, excellent action, immersive special effects, and a compelling narrative. (See my review at the Independent Institute here.) Missed in almost all the reviews of the movie, however, is a brilliant example of foreshadowing through visual storytelling that, frankly, drives much of the success of the film overall.
As a story, Deepwater Horizon faced what many writers would think is a fatal flaw: everyone knows the ending. Deepwater Horizon was the name of the oil rig at the center of the world man-made environmental disaster in U.S. history (and perhaps the world): The Gulf Oil Spill. The full costs of the spill exceeds $45 billion by all accounts, and BP Oil is shelling out more than $50 billion in compensation, fines, and reparations as a consequence of the blow out.
Everyone knows what happened. Where’s the suspense? How can this be built into the story?
The film was marketed as a heroic action film, showing how ordinary men and women responded to an unthinkable event (even though they technically had trained for one). This is all fine and good, except that the filmmakers, like most storytellers, want their audiences to be fully vested in the characters—we had to care about them, really care about them, to want to know how they get out of this mess. So, we (the audience) needed backstory.
Some films will accomplish this through flash backs, or dreams, or memory tricks. Deepwater Horizon doesn’t use these techniques. The story (by Matthew Sand with screenplay help from Matthew Michael Carnahan) starts with the protagonist, rig technology guru Mike Williams, waking up in bed with his wife the morning he is heading out to the rig for a long assignment.
Boring. Most people in a relationship get up with their partner or spouse every day. And many, military people in particular, see their partners and spouses deploy for months and years at a time. Nothing extraordinary here. Some reviewers have dismissed this scene as an “obligatory” nod to family and traditional values. But I think this is much more significant and critical to the story.
Conflict drives stories, and these small personal conflicts—the husband going to work, not seeing his kids, etc.—are very minor in the greater scheme of things, particularly in the context of the world oil spill in history. A cardinal rule of writing is that the “inciting incident“—the event that drives the plot and arcs of the main characters—must begin early in order to catch the attention of readers and viewers. They don’t have to finish the arc, but characters must start down the road to transformation to keep the story fresh. And conflict drives the actions of the characters and builds tension in the plot.
Sand and Carnahan do something clever. They write in the 10-year old daughter, Sydney, who is giving a presentation on her dad’s job (played by Mark Walhberg) to her elementary school class. She describes (beginning at minute 9 in the collection of trailers emedded below) how, way back in time, dinosaurs roamed the earth. When they died, the dinosaurs became big bad black monsters (oil) that were trying to escape. When humans drill for oil, the monsters try to escape (the oil gush). Her Dad’s job is to put a lid on the hole that keeps the monsters in the hole, using honey to illustrate how mud is used to block the hole.
During the entire presentation, the daughter is showing what happens by first taking an opened soda can representing the oil reserves that will be tapped, driving a hole in the top using one of her father’s tools to represent the men drilling for oil, and then containing the oil by putting honey down a brass pipe fitting (the oil pipe) until it stops seeping from the can. Everyone is happy, proud of the daughter for coming up with such a simple, clever way to explain a very complicated job to her kids who, like most adults, know little, if anything, about oil drilling and its dangers. Then a chemical reaction leads to the soda exploding from the can—the “blow out”. The family runs from the spraying soda, showing they are powerless to stop it. Since it’s just a soda can, it’s all fun and games.
However, what Sand and Carnahan have done is use foreshadowing to bring the inciting incident into the earliest scenes while providing backstory that shows a close, respectful loving family at breakfast. Now, however, with our advance knowledge and the privilege of knowing the ultimate end—tragic blow out—we know that this family will be threatened, perhaps even torn apart or destroyed. We just don’t know how. We are invested in the main character. This is not an obligatory scene pandering to audience sensibilities; it’s critical to the story’s development and engaging the viewer.
Most of the reviews have focused on how the technical language of oil drilling is handled in the action sequences. Most people will not be able to follow the language, but it’s not necessary. Indeed, when I saw this scene, I realized that an important part of the sequence was to explain to the audience just how the blow out was supposed to be handled. The scene, and the daughter’s explanation, visually and orally explained the basic principles behind drilling and the tactics used to prevent a blow out.
But the scene also accomplishes something much more. It brings the inciting incident upfront in the film, into the opening minutes of the story. Now the audience is focused on whether Mike Williams—the father, the oil rig operator—will survive, whether he will make the right decisions, and, if he survives, how he perseveres through a tragedy that killed eleven men, injured scores of others, devastated an entire region of the Gulf of Mexico, and fundamentally changed the way deep water oil exploration is managed and regulation.
This is one reason why I believe Deepwater Horizon is one of the best films of 2016, and another reason writer’s can learn a lot from successful films and screenwriters.
A pirate, a ninja, and a gens de couleur wak into a bar in 1784 New Orleans….
The punchline? I think this is my next action/adventure series, probably launching after the third book in The Pirate of Panther Bay series is published by SYPP in 2017. The new series will follow three sets of characters as they branch out on their own at the end of the third book: Isabella and Juan Carlos, Gabrielle and Louis, and the ninja (yet to be named). New Orleans provides a provocative blend of Spanish and French colonial cultures. Adding a Japanese to the mix has the potential to ramp up tension and conflict immeasurably!
At the end of Tortuga Bay, I had decided to take Isabella to the U.S., cruising up the west coast of Florida to St. Marks, then Pensacola, and ending her journey in New Orleans. (I have plans for Isabella and Juan Carlos, there.) I wanted to make the third book a little more fun, however. So, I was thinking about adding a ninja. A Ninja? you (a reasonable person) might ask?
I already had a free black (gens de couleur) added to the cast up Isabella’s daring and desperate escape from Port-au-Prince and Dr. D’Poussant’s henchmen. Why another character? In part, each of my novels explores cultural conflict. The Pirate of Panther Bay series stretches challenges readers on a number of different fronts, both in terms of how colonial powers viewed slavery as well as pirates. Fundamental differences in the value of human life are explored in The Pirate of Panther Bay, as Isabella struggles with her place in the world as an escaped slave under the contradictory philosophy and social psychology in play in Catholic, colonial Spain. In Tortuga Bay, differences between and shifting alliances among France and Spain are central to the story. So, I think the third book is ripe for a new take on cultural differences. Why not add an Asian influence?
The glory days of the Ninja, masters of ninjutsu, were in medieval Japan between 1500 and 1700. Japan was unified in 1700, and the role of the ninja declined precipitously as their services against warring clans where no longer needed. This actually sets up the back story for my ninja pretty well. Since the demand for their skills largely disappeared, a ninja would have little reason to stay in Japan (particularly if the government was trying to shut them down). Yet, their skills would be particularly well suited for pirating, even in the Caribbean.
While the ninja were in decline after 1700, they didn’t disappear altogether. Indeed, their training forms the basis of To-Shin do, a self-defense oriented martial art created by Stephen K. Hayes. Hayes is a member of the Black Belt Hall of Fame and is credited as one of the key figures leading the revival of ninjutsu and introducing it to the U.S. (Also, my black belt is in To-Shin Do, and this marital arts provide the foundation for my novels A Warrior’s Soul and Renegade.)
Shiraishi Island, Japan. This old fishing village will be the boyhood home of the ninja in the third book in the Pirate of Panther Bay series.
The character really came together for me while visiting Shiraishi Island in the Seto Sea. The island would have been a tiny fishing village at the time, but my character will be discovered by a old ninja traveling through rural Japan. The old man will discover the talent of my character and bring him to a training facility in the mountains of the fabled Iga Provice of Japan. Then, he will make his way to the Caribbean. This is all backstory, but this background will be essential as his own series takes off from the Pirate of Panther Bay series.
I am very excited about this new series prospects!
I know that books typically have more depth than films, but YA fiction has tended toward the simplistic and straightforward rather than the complex and layered. Thus, I’ve written the last two posts on the Divergent film series, thinking that the books were not that much more complex than the books (see here and here). I was wrong. Or at least I am revising my thoughts based on the first of Veronica Roth’s novels in the series.
I was very pleasantly surprised to find that the book version ofDivergent had a lot more going on than than a kick-butt heroine finding herself among the rubble of post-apocalyptic Chicago. Actually, the character of Tris Prior had a lot more going on. I have already written about how Tris is a much stronger heroine than Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games series. My belief if more firmly entrenched now that I’ve read Divergent.
Veronica Roth has given Tris a grand character arc that establishes her female protagonist as a deep thinker motivated by ideas. She just doesn’t want to be brave, she aspires to the nobility implied in selflessness for a higher cause. Hence, she carries the tattoos of both Dauntless, her chosen faction, and Abnegation, her family’s faction (which she never completely leaves emotionally). Indeed, her discovery and reconciliation of these “divergent” aspirations via her romantic relationship with fellow Dauntless faction member Four becomes a primary element of her identity as she leads the rebellion against Erudite. This is a far more subtle and meaningful transformation than that Katniss undergoes in the more survivalist focused Hunger Games.
Seeing Tris on this journey via Roth’s words was an unexpected pleasure, and elevates her to one of my favorite heroines in fiction.
While recently researching blog posts about the Divergent film series, I ran across a 2011 blog post from Veronica Roth, the author of the novels, that also discussed the origin of Tris Prior, her kick-butt female protogonist. Many readers might think that Tris was always the center of the story, but not so! Here’s what Ms. Roth writes:
“…Divergent really happened when a bunch of these pieces of inspiration suddenly coalesced in my mind as I was writing, and I got about thirty pages of a story from Four’s perspective down, and then set it aside because it wasn’t so good. It was only when I discovered Beatrice that I was able to write the full book, four years later.”
The observation that caught my attention was that she had started writing Four’s (Tobias Eaton’s) story, not Tris’s. But it was boring so she stopped, and didn’t get back to it until four years later!
Her experience is strikingly similar to mine when I was crafting The Pirate of Panther Bay back in 2000. At the time, I was writing a young-adult romance about pirates because I thought it would be exciting and different. The protogonist started out as a male. But after about 50 pages (I got further than Ms. Roth), I put the manuscript down because it was boring! My story was just another pirate trolling through the Caribbean for loot. Ugh.
I am not sure how Ms. Roth “found” Beatrice, but Isabella’s “birth” was actually quite analytical. Since I was writing fiction, and story turns on conflict, I asked myself what would happen if I made the pirate captain female? The story became much more interesting, because virtually any plot putting a woman at the center in a leadership position in the 1780s was going to create conflict and tension. This was particularly true on pirate ships where crews were superstitious and almost always banned women on their vessels. For Isabella to get on the boat in the first place, she would have to overcome significant hurdles. She would also have to be strong–she couldn’t be a stowaway or consort, or start out in a typical role. The path to the captaincy of a pirate ship simply couldn’t take that route.
More importantly, the conflicts created a fascinating story line that allowed me to really flesh out Isabella’s character as well as the major male protagonists. Each of the major characters had a dramatic arc and singular journey that would feed of each other. The results have been great, particularly in the most recent installment, Tortuga Bay.
I hope Veronica Roth talks more about the literary beginnings of Beatrice Prior. I found her character to be very similar to Isabella in terms of personality and temperament.
Now, if I can just get The Pirate of Panther Bay made into a major motion picture….
As the DC Comics superhero clash movie Superman Vs. Batman hits the theaters this weekend, I began to think about some of the stronger female characters in recent young adult action books and films. More specifically, we now have a new heroine to consider with the release of Alligiant, the third movie in the Divergent series: Tris Prior.
We will explore two questions: Whether Tris a strong female character and whether Tris is a stronger character than Katniss Everdeen.
These characteristics allow the protogonist to influence the trajectory of the story, and I think this is essential for a character to be considered strong, rather than weak (or passive).
Characters don’t have to start out strong in each of these criteria, but they should grow into them or end strong on each characteristics them before the story ends or progresses too far. Katniss Everdeen, despite her reputation among fans, falls short on a number of these criteria. She doesn’t have a strong sense of herself or place and appears emotionally and physically weak among her peers. She does make a few important choices, but even the most important ones–like taking her sister’s place during the lottery for the Hunger Games–are driven by circumstances rather than an exertion of her own free will. She plays defense rather than offense. On a good note, she takes personal responsibility for her actions, and she exhibits a tremendous amount of courage. Nevertheless, in literature and the films, all these criteria need to be met before she can be considered a truly strong character. Courage is not enough.
So, how does Tris Prior, the heroine in the Divergent books and films, stack up against Katniss? I decided to apply the same rubric to test my own framework, and here are the results:
Relate to peers as a peer
Make important choices
Take personal responsibility
While these comparisons always carry some degree of subjectivity, I think Tris Prior is a stronger character than Katniss Everdeen on a number of different metrics. While she faces the uncertainty of the psychological aptitude test to determine which faction best suits her, she opts for Dauntless even though the tests are inconclusive. She enters her training determined to be equal if not superior to her peers, and she is unafraid to make choices–whether to flee, return to Chicago, or track down her nemesis to kill them to avoid greater tragedies from taking place. She also never flinches from taking responsibility for her actions even when she is unsure of whether she can accomplish the task. She is willing to pursue her objectives even without help. She is on the offense, and doesn’t simply react to events around her; she tries to change the trajectory of those events. Tris, like Katniss, exhibits a tremendous amount of courage throughout her journey. Indeed, this is demonstrated early in the first book/movie when she jumps through the hole in the Dauntless training facility without realizing she would be saved by a net at the bottom.
The biggest difference between the two characters, in my view, is that Tris begins with a stronger personality. She is willing to stand up against injustice,d despite the risks, and she is willing to try to change the trajectory of events. She is not interested in fading into the background. Unlike Katniss, Tris embraces her new skills and identity. While she doesn’t accept the leadership role she creates through her resistance to the authoritarian Erudite rule, she does not try to avoid the responsibility of leadership.
Thus, in the end, Tris is leader and stronger character.
I have now seen all four Hunger Games movies and read all three books, and I am now doubting whether Katniss Everdeen’s character is worthy of ascending into the pantheon of strong female characters. Well, that might be too strong of an indictment, but I don’t think she makes into my top ten. This is a reluctant conclusion, but as a novelist who features young adults and women in ensemble stories, I think “strong characters” should have at least five characteristics:
Strong characters should have strong identities. Identities evolve, and characters don’t need to start out strong, but they need to end strong. They have to develop a sense of their own place in the world and how they relate to it. Moreover, this identity has to be recognized by their peers.
Strong characters should relate to peers as a peer. Self-doubt, even self-loathing, can be powerful tools for the novelist, and often provides tension that propels story. But at some point strong characters need to break out of their narcissism and begin relating to other characters, either as a leader or as a full-blown member of the team. Characters can be first among equals, but they still must operate on the same plane as those they interact with on a regular basis in the story.
Strong characters should make important choices. Making choices is what defines identity and character. The kinds of choices they make determine the character’s integrity and their honor. The choices do not necessarily have to be the right ones, but the character needs to make them, and they make choices only they can make. These choices propel the character arc and the story.
Strong characters should take personal responsibility. Once these choices are made, the character has to accept the consequences, good or bad, of those choices. These consequences also serve as ways to propel the story, but a key test of a character’s integrity is how they handle the consequences. In most cases, the character has to restore balance, or re-establish some sense of fairness, in the world in which they operate.
Strong characters should exhibit courage. Strong characters are self sacrificing in order to achieve something bigger than themselves. This is again one of the most powerful tools of a character. They can’t lay in hiding throughout the story. Without a doubt, a character can begin weak or cowardly, but they must evolve to a point where their self-sacrifice becomes a defining part of their story. Sometimes, the exhibition can be very small in the context of the story, but it has to be big in the context of the character.
How do I rate Katniss Everdeen along these five characteristics? She never quite achieves a state of self-fulfillment or identity. In fact, she retreats from the world and refuses to engage in it once her tasks are completed. The Hunger Games is very much a plot and setting driven book so the story is very existentialist; the characters are driven to act because of circumstances beyond their control. Thus, the characters are reacting and relating to their environment; they are not manipulating their environment.
Beyond this story-telling constraint, which appears to be intentional by author Suzanne Collins, Everdeen’s character is never in control. Even when it appears to the reader (and viewer) she is in control, she really is not. We never really get the sense that Katniss is her own woman–independent, strong willed, courageous, yes, but she’s not in control of her destiny. Not surprisingly, she plays defense, not offense. Even in a world in which defense is the only option, defensive strategies can be used offensively, but Katniss Everdeen is never that strategic. She leaves it to others to make these choices and take on the risks. In short, her choices do not drive the plot or the broader story. The exception might be in Mockingjay where she decides to go on her own to kill Snow, but even this is a weak form of decisionmaking and commitment. Her quest to kill Snow becomes driven by an existential drive for revenge and retribution, not a reflective choice about outcomes.
Moreover, Katniss’s ultimate goal is to return to her home with her family. When she returns to District 12 without her family, she is essentially forced to cope with the loss, but doesn’t exhibit any of the courage associated with overcoming the scars and wounds of the violence she has experienced. She is depressed, and she has nightmares, but these define her new reality. She never engages in the healing that is necessary to seize control of her life, and she is not challenged after the rebellion finally takes control. We are left with some hope at the end, but we don’t have a real sense she has come to grips with the ugly realities she was forced to confront. We don’t get a sense that her character is stronger or more complete than when she stepped into the Hunger Games for the first time.
So, while Everdeen certainly has several characteristics of a strong female character, she doesn’t exhibit the character or the arc in the story that elevates her to the level of a strong female character or, for that matter, a character that should be emulated or become a role model. Here’s a brief summary of my scoring of Katniss Everdeen as a heroine along these criteria:
Strong Protagonist Check List
Relate to peers as a peer
Make important choices
Take personal responsibility
Just for fun, and because this is a blog that highlights my professional journey as a writer, I thought I would rate my four principal heroines (I have others) along the same criteria. I’ve taken a look at Nicole Klaas, the CEO of NP Enterprises in St. Nic, Inc., Isabella the escaped slave turned pirate captain in The Pirate of Panther Bayand Tortuga Bay, middle-school bully Maria fromRenegade, and the strong-willed Lucy who tries to save her friend Luke from bullies in their school in A Warrior’s Soul. Here are the results:
Interestingly, my strongest characters are Nicole Klaas and Maria. Both of these novels won literary prizes. Renegadewon second place in the children’s chapter book division of the Seven Hills Literary Competition. St. Nic, Inc. won second place in the Published Mainstream/Literary Category in the Royal Palm Literary Awards. I have taken my own advice to heart, however, and Isabella has evolved into quite a heroine as she takes her crew into the maelstrom of a nascent slave revolt in Port-au-Prince in Tortuga Bay (published in 2015).
While I am disappointed that Katniss Everdeen doesn’t score higher along these criteria, The Hunger Games books remain very engaging reads. I recommend them for their quick pace, anti-violence, anti-war message even though Katniss Everdeen’s character arc is shallow. She is definitely brave and skilled, but she falls short of the leadership qualities and understanding of her own identity that would take her to the top of my list.
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