Tag Archives: hunger games

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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Will Tracy Lawson’s novels become this generation’s Ayn Rand substitute?

By SR Staley

Resist, the second novel in Tracy Lawson’s Resistance Series, picks up right where Counteract leaves off: Heroine Careen Catecher and love interest Tommy Bailey are on the run after the murder of the director of the national Office of Civilian Safety and Defense (OCSD). The OCSD is a federal umbrella agency that has subsumed major bureaucracies such as the FBI, CIA, Department of Homeland Security, and presumably even the Centers for Disease Control. Careen and Tommy have discovered the director of this super agency and his cronies are plotting to use terrorism as a cover to drug the general population under the pretense of inoculating them against biological warfare.LawsonResist,1

Set in the near future (15 years from current day), the Resistance Series explores the loss of freedom that can creep up on individuals and society through incremental changes that seem small but loom large over time. As Lawson says: “In the Resistance Series, there has been no rebellion, no cataclysmic event. The dystopian world in which they live has been created by fear, engineered by an enemy masquerading as a protector.” The premise is scary enough, and remarkably rooted in modern events and policies, as the controversy surrounding Edward Snowden and leaked classified information on domestic and international spying remind us.

The setting and premise could easily lend itself to an adult thriller by Michael Crichton, but Lawson’s series is firmly rooted in the young adult/new adult genre. The action is faster, and the story carries a syncopated beat that lends itself to the pace of a YA trilogy, not unlike the Hunger Games. In fact, like Katniss Everdeen, Peeta Mellark, and Gale Hawthorne, the protagonists are older teens who are simply trying to get on with their everyday lives. Rather than the post-apocalyptic setting of Panem, in which the vast majority of the population lives in servitude to the Capitol, Lawson’s protagonists are recent high-school graduates focused on the normal current-day activities of enrolling in college and participating in sports. Only an unanticipated series of small events leads them to discover the sinister plot to turn the nation into a mass of compliant citizens under the thumbs of politically powerful bureaucrats. In this way, Lawson’s series is very much grounded in another characteristic of the YA genre: everyday young adults forced to make significant life decisions without the luxury of experience or preparation. Not surprisingly, both Counteract and Resist tend to be plot- and setting-driven stories although the characters have an opportunity to flesh out in important ways in the second book.

Lawson,CounteractMy review of Counteract compared Lawson’s novel to 1984, George Orwell’s classic dystopian story the coined the term Big Brother and wrestled with government over reach, the tyranny of collectivism, and the implications for freedom. About halfway through Resist, I couldn’t stop thinking about the novels of Ayn Rand, especially her 1937 novella Anthem. In Anthem, Rand tells the story of a Equality 7-2521, a person who lives in a community in which individuality has been purged from the formal institutions of society. A Council of Vocations assigns jobs to people based on what they determine is their Life Mandate. The story follows Equality’s evolution into an individual as he discovers his natural inquisitiveness and intelligence leads him to innovate and produce. Through unregulated exploration, he discovers the word “I” and finds freedom.

Resist, fortunately, is not nearly as abstract as Anthem, making it much more suitable for YA audiences. It’s relentless focus on personal freedom and the right to live independently of the government is strong and tightly woven into the plot, and the action keeps the reader engaged. More importantly, however, as the characters develop, we see in Resist the makings of a trilogy that provokes readers in ways that more popular genre fiction doesn’t. Katniss Everdeen, for example, remains remarkably apolitical through the trilogy despite bearing witness to extraordinary oppression.AnthemBookCover

Lawson has the refreshing courage to push her characters to act and take responsibility for their actions. They don’t just bear witness. They recognize and accept the responsibilities that come with the knowledge they gain. And they act. Thus, unlike other YA fare, the Resistance Series admirably challenges its readers to ask themselves “What would you do?” and explores the implications of acting on those decisions.

For those looking for an engaging, YA adventure/thriller with strong pro-personal liberty themes, the Resistance Series should have a highly visible place in their book case or on their e-reader.

 

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Modern fiction for the modern classroom: Round 1

By Claire W. Staley

In an earlier post, I discussed why today’s students have a distaste for reading and why incorporating more modern fiction into the classroom would be a tremendous step forward in promoting reading among teens. Today’s post includes a few of my suggestions for modern books that can be used in the classroom. Perhaps, if more teachers took into account these next books, kids and teenagers would have a new outlook on books.

  1. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. Even teenagers who hate reading are reading this book. The Fault in Our Stars is a story about overcoming the vastness of the universe, finding your place in an unpredictable and unfair world, and finding happiness for those around you despite the horrible things that happen in the world. It’s modern, edgy, clever, and filled to the brim with enough symbolism and discussion points to keep teachers happy for weeks, if not entire semester. Plus, it’s well written, thoughtful, and has a good story with likable characters.

Positive role models: Hazel Grace, Gus, Hazel’s parents, Gus’s parents, Isaac, and etc…

  1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. A brilliant work of literature that delves into the worst parts of humanity with hope, inspiration, and intelligence. Unlike The Road, which is also post-apocalyptic and shows the worst of humanity, this story has hope in it. Collins, despite the horrific lives these people lead, infuses her words with a chance at a better future. She writes to illuminate and change, while creating compelling characters we can root for.

Positive role models: Peeta, Finnick, Rue, Prim, and Katniss (though I’m not convinced her literary job is to be a role model)

  1. Divergent by Veronica Roth. Tris, the main character, taught me to be strong, courageous, to make a change, to believe in oneself, and to never give up. She battles rivals close to her and far above her, the entire time with kindness, compassion, and a clever head that is capable of making tough choices as well as loving her family and friends. I aspire to have some of her strength and her ability to adapt quickly and positively.

Positive role models: Tris, Four, most of the Dauntless initiates minus Peter, Uriah, and etc…

 

Next post? Round 2 in my suggestions for incorporating modern fiction into the classroom!

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The case for modern teen & YA fiction in school classrooms

by Claire W. Staley

Some people tell me that they wish they read as much as I do, but they either don’t have the time, or they don’t enjoy it. The way teenagers or college students see reading confounds me, especially when their faces are like most children’s when they are told to eat vegetables. Most students look at reading as a requirement for class, and most don’t even read those books. And yet, they want to read.

My friends believe they should read, and even have a desire to do so, but they haven’t had an experience with reading that makes them act upon this.

To enjoy reading, teenagers think they must enjoy all types of books, or, even worse, that they must enjoy the classic literature they are force fed from eighth grade onward. If students are not getting good books at home, the only experience with literature comes from school. I’m sorry to say that A Christmas Carol—or any other book by Charles Dickens for that matter—has done nothing to inspire me to pick up books and read them. And it has not inspired anyone else I know, either. If teachers honestly expect students to be avid readers after reading Shakespeare I think they are quite mistaken. I am not saying to this cut Shakespeare (or Dickens) out of the curriculum (I, for one, adore Shakespeare), but perhaps infusing it with modern YA books would create a new generation of readers.

Harry Potter got me started on books in fourth grade. The books taught me about the values of kindness, courage, intelligence, wit, reflection, loss, love, fortitude, standing up for my beliefs, and the power of a single individual. This is only a fraction of what I could say about Harry Potter, but there are a multitude of books that students love and are usable in the classroom. Divergent, Eragon, Artemis Foul, anything by Tamora Pierce, The Hunger Games, and countless others have created powerful role models that changed my life. When I have a problem I look to them. I look to Hermione, I look to Tris, I look to Peeta, I look to Percy Jackson, and I look to Hazel Grace. They always provide me with answers and support. They have never let me down, and I wonder why these characters aren’t a part of my education experience at school.

To pretend that John Green (The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns) is just teen fiction and has no basis in a classroom because his books are not “old” or about certain subjects is to deny every student and what they love. It reinforces the idea that there are good books to read and bad books to read, and that only one kind has value. Once teenagers find books with relevance to their lives and are well written, then they will read.

My next blog post will explore this concept even more as I discuss different books that I recommend for classrooms.

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The Hunger Games, Dialogue, and Voice

My new favorite young-adult series is The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The books literally grabbed me from the first page. I’ve been mulling over the stylistic and artistic reasons why I think these books were so good, particularly since I’m not a big fan of first-person narrative. Ironically, I think it’s the first-person voice that grabbed me.

For many writers, the first-person narrative is a mechanical vehicle for engaging readers by shifting the point of view. Rather than an out of body, third-person perspective, the reader gets to see the world through the eyes (or, more appropriately, lens) of the lead character. This technique is moderately successful, IMHO, but most writers don’t really exploit it effectively.

Collins does, however, because she has infused the first-person narrative with a distinctive voice and perspective: 16-year old Katniss Everdeen. The language is broken, littered with dependent clauses where sentence structure often seems incongruent. In short, she’s writing like a teenager thinks and talks. Take the first two paragraphs from The Hunger Games:

When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough convas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed togehter. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is a fresh as raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.

Short sentences, short clauses, some strung together, some on their own. Throughout, Collins mixes present tense with past observations by the character. Again, these are techniques for pulling the reader actively into the story and Katniss’s character. As the story progresses, Collins infuses more of Katniss’s way of thinking into the book, including self questioning and the kinds of dilemma’s anyone would face in such as situation. And it’s all teenager, not adults writing like teenagers.

Where did she get this fresh approach? I think it has a lot to do with her experience writing screenplays for children’s television shows. Screenplays are all about dialogue and developing distinctive characters. That’s a critical stylistic building block for these books, and a good lesson for writers more generally.

So, voice, character, and perspective are wrapped together in a very fresh first-person narrative. And the rest will be history….

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