July 7, 2012
The Hunger Games series: A Study in Novel Construction
I’m re-reading The Hunger Games. I know, I know, I’ve read it half a dozen times, but I’m doing it this time as WORK. How can that be work? You ask.
Well, I’m a writer studying The Hunger Games because I think it is one of the most well-written books in recent history, and I’m trying to figure out how Suzanne Collins did it.
Of course, lots of books have fast-paced plots and/or well-developed main characters with fully developed side characters and/or extensive world building and/or thought-provoking themes and/or clever symbolism and/or brilliant style. But how many books are at the top of the craft in all of these areas? The Hunger Games is the only one that comes to my mind. In the comments below I’d love to hear what other books you see as being similarly successful.
So, how does Suzanne Collins do it?
Point of View
First, I think her choice of first-person by Katniss Everdeen has many positive ramifications. We don’t see her world, Panem, as a passive outsider, we see it and feel it and understand it in the way Katniss does. We get her thoughts—what she understands to be normal, what she finds to be cruel, how she is able to survive.
Obviously, the first-person perspective allows for a thorough development of Katniss’s character. We understand her decisions and where she waivers. She is a character who has to make choices when there are no good options. She is always trying to do what is right, but is thwarted by her circumstances. She’s likable and admirable but by no means perfect.
One of the things I enjoyed most in this novel is the development of the minor characters, and part of this happens because of the first-person point of view. When we meet people for the first time, we get Katniss’s take on them, which is usually limited and often biased by her own prejudices.
For example, Haymitch Abernathy is first shown to the reader at the reaping where he is drunk, causes a scene and falls off the stage. Katniss explains what an embarrassment he is to their district. And we see him like she sees him. When he first acts as her mentor, we see him as cruel and uncaring because that’s how Katniss sees him. But over the course of the novels, Katniss learns more about Haymitch’s sad history. Hunger Games survivors have nightmares that never go away. And what is it like to mentor two children every year for 23 years and watch them die in the games? Is it pathetic that he drinks? Or is it human?
This minor character development happens all over The Hunger Games trilogy. There are no stereotypes or flat side characters. Every single character has a history—even if you never learn what it is, you can feel it in their aliveness. Cripes, even the cat has surprising depth.
Every time I re-read these stories I’m trying to figure out how Suzanne Collins manages to bring to life such a vast army of characters.
This is what has made the trilogy a bestseller; your average reader doesn’t notice the clever manipulation of the POV or the depth of the characterization, but they know whether or not the plot works. The Hunger Games‘ plot is fabulously constructed, page-turning, and jam-packed with action. How does she do it? Constant conflict. Suzanne Collins covers all types of conflict: person vs society, person vs person, person vs environment, person vs self. Some conflicts last the whole series, others are solved quickly but replaced by others. Poor Katniss. She must handle conflict after conflict after conflict. Her methods for solving problems are diverse, mostly successful, but she is human enough to sometimes solve small problems without realizing the ramifications and/or their long-term effects.
Plot is the main reason these books are so popular.
This is another aspect I’m studying, and I have to admit this is one area I struggle with. The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian future, and Suzanne Collins creates this world in such depth and detail, that having read the series several times, I know Panem like I know my own world. Yet Collins never “info dumps.” Info dumping is when an author spends a whole lot of time describing the world without anything else happening. Frowned upon in the literary community. Boring to the average reader.
Suzanne Collins is able to have her action rolling along at a fast clip, while still thoroughly detailing the world of Panem (and deeply exploring every single character). How does she do it? The explanations of her world are subtle and thorough and wrapped up in the plot and characters, and I may have to read this series several more times before I can learn from her.
Collins takes on the theme of war and handles it with great adeptness and without any trace of didactism. Again, the first-person point of view helps here. Katniss does not have the answers, but asks good questions. At one point, Katniss ponders (and I’m paraphrasing here): Are there no rules for how badly a human can treat another? She doesn’t like the idea of killing innocent people, and yet she has been forced to do that very thing. And, like a real person, she waivers in what she thinks–especially in the heat of battle or when emotionally frayed.
Another theme Collins hits hard is the superficiality of popular culture and the harm that can come from it.
Wow! Symbolism is so much fun in this story. The most obvious is Fire. Katniss is The Girl on Fire, and that idea is played with throughout the whole series: by Katniss, by the Capitol, by the rebellion, by Suzanne Collins. But there are other symbols, both obvious and subtle: the mockingjay, the smell of roses, Buttercup, the pearl…. Can you think of others?
Collins’ writing is superb. My set of books nearly reeks with the cloying smell of roses. Could you feel the heaviness of the jungle air in the Quarter Quell? Did your heart stick in your throat when the second parachutes went off? Did you laugh when Johanna stepped out of her tree costume? or when Boggs said, “Sorry if we’re not impressed, but we just saw Finnick Odair in his underwear.” Your reactions are the result of superb writing.
And most amazing? These books are short. So much happens, so much is accomplished, with so few words. My head spins just thinking of it.
So, I should get back to work—the rebels are underground and the mutts are calling Katniss’s name.