Category Archives: Heroes and villains

Tris Prior is more than just a buff, kick-butt character

divergent-poster-full 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 of Divergent 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.

Tortuga-Bay-RGB-96-01Other heroines worth reading in fiction? Try

 

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Katniss vs. Tris: Who is the stronger character?

KatnissVSTrisAs 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.

In a previous post, I argued that Katniss Everdeen is not a particularly strong character based on a few key criteria. I believe strong characters, male or female, human or alien, should:

  1. Have strong identities;
  2. Relates to peers as a peer;
  3. Make important choices;
  4. Take personal responsibility;
  5. Exhibit courage.

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:

Characteristic Katniss Everdeen Tris Prior
Strong identity

weak

Medium-Strong
Relate to peers as a peer

weak

Strong

Make important choices

medium

Strong

Take personal responsibility

strong

Strong

Exhibit courage

strong

Strong

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.

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Is Katniss Everdeen a strong female 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:Mockingjaypart2

  1. 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.
  2. 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.  
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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
Characteristic

Katniss Everdeen

Strong identity

weak

Relate to peers as a peer

weak

Make important choices

medium

Take personal responsibility

strong

Exhibit courage

strong

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 Bay and Tortuga Bay, middle-school bully Maria from Renegade, 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: 

Nicole Klaas

Isabella

Maria

Lucy

Characteristic

St. Nic, Inc,

(2014

Panther Bay/

Tortuga Bay

(2014/2015)

Renegade

(2011)

A Warrior’s Soul

(2010)

Strong identity

strong

medium/strong strong

strong

Relate to peers as a peer

strong

medium/strong strong

strong

Make important choices

strong

strong/strong strong

strong

Take personal responsibility

strong

strong/strong strong

medium

Exhibit courage

strong

strong/strong strong

medium

Interestingly, my strongest characters are Nicole Klaas and Maria. Both of these novels won literary prizes. Renegade won 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.

Now for shameless self-promotion: get free shipping & handling if you buy any of my books from Southern Yellow Pine Publishing through December 30, 2015! Use the coupon code STNIC.

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Slytherins Unite! The good and the bad of the “dark side” of Harry Potter

By Claire W. Staley

Hello all you Gryffindors, Hufflepuffs, Ravenclaws, and Slytherins, and welcome to the Slytherin common room, or as I like to call it, this blog post. I am a proud Slytherin, though it has taken me some time to learn to love it.

I struggled to accept the fact that I am a Slytherin, because I wanted to be a Hufflepuff, but I couldn’t deny all the tests I took and retook on Pottermore. I am a full-blooded Slytherin. My heart broke when I learned this; my soul died a little, and I didn’t know what to make of it.

And then I started researching. I reread the Harry Potter series, noticing more about the Slytherin house and who inhabited it, and I became more intrigued. The house with the worst reputation, with the most evil students, and with the most haters, was my house. How could I ever be proud of that?

I detest most Slytherins in the books. I really do. Many of them are vile and horrible, but they are also the ones most visible. They are the ones we’re familiar with, and we don’t really get to know many nice ones. We know who Draco Malfoy is and we know who Pansy Parkinson is because Harry hated them with almost every fiber of his being.

But there are plenty of Slytherins in the background that are not evil. To start off with, there is Severus Snape: though despicable in nature and rather unpleasant, he is not evil. There are plenty that are intelligent, stubborn, kind, and compassionate. Because if there weren’t, Draco would never have had the kind of power he does. Someone with a blacker heart would have stepped up to compete. But to be honest, no one wants to be Draco Malfoy, not even Draco Malfoy.

I find solace in the fact that the kind Slytherins help keep everyone in check. They have to, because they have to balance out the not-so-good ones. All Slytherins are expected to go dark from the very beginning, even by adults, making it much easier for them to go dark. They are surrounded by people telling them they’ll be evil. People judging and hating them because of the house they are a part of, and this comes from fellow students and adults. Imagine what it would take to combat that and fight to be good?

So to those kind and compassionate Slytherins, you fight a hard battle. You fight to be good when no one gives you the chance.

I think the Slytherins can be pretty amazing.

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The unrocognized depth of the Divergent Triology

By Claire W. Staley

Popular books often become the target of criticism simply because they are popular. The dystopian, young adult novel Divergent by Veronica Roth seems to have fallen into this camp. Now that Roth’s books have become popular movies, earning more than $300 million worldwide, they seem to be the subject of even more criticism: Some say it’s just a story about a boy and girl who fall in love while they fight an oppressive regime. Some say it is too violent.

However, before denouncing Divergent and shoving it aside, perhaps it is more important than previously believed. This young adult novel taught me many things about life, and understanding this might change a society that looks down upon YA fiction novels. Here are just a few of my “takeaways” from these novels:

  1. Tris and Four, the lead characters, are equals. They support, love, and challenge each other in equal measures and they stand side-by-side. There is no love triangle (though I have nothing against these if done properly), and their relationship problems come from within themselves. This gives this particular book diversity from many other books.
  2. The enemy is constantly moving from one person to the next, from one group to the next, and from the good guys to the bad guys. Everyone is up for game and no one is completely innocent. Everything expands and retracts, gets larger and smaller, until you have no idea who is the actual problem and who is the solution. It challenges your critical thinking and frustrates you to no end- helping you realize that nothing in life is secure. Things and people change, and people aren’t always who you want them to be.
  3. Both Tris and Four are incredibly strong and real. They are role models because they make the hard decisions. They make the choices they must, and they learn how to deal with that and move on. They learn for to forgive-each other and themselves. And sometimes they have to put aside their personal ethics to do what has to be done. And it never gets easier. They do not get used to killing others. They understand and accept that they must make choices with no good outcome. When they are allowed to make choices that protect their hearts, they do. That makes them strong.
  4. People can change. And anyone can influence one to do so in positive or negative ways. Once you believe that no one can change, that no one can make different choices than those they made in the past, hope is lost, as is compassion. Love and understanding thread through the characters, even between enemies, and that makes a difference.
  5. People in power do not always make the right choices, and it’s okay to forgive them for making mistakes, but they are not always virtuous. They do not always make the right choices for the right reasons. They can be bad. They can be good. And the people are stronger than the government for a reason. Because the people are mostly good, and they thus are expected to uphold that. Everyone has an honor to themselves and to the people they live with. That honor must be upheld or chaos reigns.

Perhaps Divergent is really an educational novel, capable of teaching readers about, love, life, and people, and perhaps it is not just another book to read for fun. Divergent, like many YA books published these days, can be much more than light entertainment if readers give them the space to fulfill those aspirations.

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The social value of dystopian literature

by Claire W. Staley

After discussing dystopian literature with a wide variety of people, including college students and college professors, I have reached a conclusion: this genre is extremely important to our culture right now.

For one, it’s trending. From The Hunger Games to Divergent to Matched, it’s selling fast, which means people are buying. Why are we fascinated by this kind of literature? Why now?

With increased globalization bringing our world closer together, and smaller in the process, we are constantly being asked big questions. Significant questions. Questions that we may not be prepared to answer. Governments around the world are coming closer to home, and with them corruption and conflict. More than that, corruption and conflict within our own government is becoming publicized with increasing vigor by the media.

What does this have to do with dystopian literature? I don’t know about you, but I’m plagued by this question: what kind of governing body, if any, is the best pathway to a healthy and happy life and world? Do we believe in our own governing body, and thus try and implement it around the world? Or are we secretly Jeanine Matthews from Divergent by Veronica Roth, trusting our beliefs so much we are willing to sacrifice much more important things? I saw a quote the other day from Tom Hiddleston, the actor who plays evil Loki in the Marvel Comics Avengers movies, who stated that every villain is a hero in his own mind. Where do we draw that line?

Perhaps that is what dystopian literature is really about. Figuring out who is the hero and who is the villain, and if the two can even be separated. Maybe because, in this world where everything is so accessible, the lines between hero and villain are being blurred. Or perhaps we have just begun to question what we’ve always been told- perhaps heroes don’t have to be dressed in all white, and perhaps villains don’t have to be dressed in all black. Or perhaps we’re trying to figure out if we are, in fact, the villains after all. If we are the villains, perhaps reading these books can show us the pathway to heroism.

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