Thursday, June 9, 2011

Developng sympathy in "The Hunger Games"

"The Hunger Games" was one of those rare reading experiences in which I simply could not put the book down. Grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning, writing ... all that stuff suddenly became secondary to reading just one more chapter. And this being YA, I'm not even the target audience. Still, I loved it.

What interested me the most is how Suzanne Collins managed to develop sympathy for a protagonist whose primary goal is to be the last person standing in a brutal game to the death. Given the nature of the game, Katniss (and also Peeta) have to do some unsympathetic things. Acts that would in the real world send a person to the electric chair. Yet we readers are rooting for them both instead turning away in disgust. Why?

Obviously, first off, the protagonists are forced into a bad situation by the people who run the game. The primary blame is on the adults. But the game runners do not dictate the players' individual actions. Katniss could go into the arena and refuse to fight, or to hide until everyone else kills one another. But she doesn't. She is an active participant in the game. So how do we cheer on a teenage girl who chooses to kill?

1. Background
The first two chapters lay down every card in the deck aimed at developing sympathy for Katniss. She lives in the poorest section in one of the poorest of the 12 districts, a place where starving people literally lie down in the street and die. Her father is killed in a tragic mining accident. Her mother goes catatonic. Katniss, then 11 years old, is forced into the adult role of feeding her family and caring for her younger sister. Not only does she not throw up her arms in defeat, she proves herself to have more spunk, ingenuity and backbone than any person you've ever met. She never whines or complains about her plight. She finds ways to pull through and even starts her own (illegal) small business to keep her family fed and sheltered. In all, Katniss comes off like the modern-day version of a fairy tale heroine, faced with horrible circumstances yet unwilling to let them beat her down. She even has a "fairy godmother" in Cinna. Except instead of singing "Whistle While You Work," she can use her bow to shoot out the eye of a rabbit. But she sings, too.

2. Motivation
If Katniss had been chosen randomly as her district's tribute (i.e. player) to the annual Hunger Games, or if she had volunteered in hopes of gaining glory and riches, she would not come off as sympathetic. But Collins sets up the circumstances just perfectly here. Katniss' younger sister is chosen as tribute, which is akin to a death sentence. Horrified, Katniss steps up to take Prim's place. She is now part of the game by choice but for the sole purpose of protecting her sister. Re-enforcing that, Prim begs Katniss to do her best to win and return home. From that point on, whenever Katniss does anything we readers would normally disapprove of as violent and brutal, we know she's doing it out of love for her sister, and that makes it OK. Admirable, even. It's the motivation that matters, not the action. The same is true for District 12's other tribute, Peeta, whose motivation is also pure and good: Protect Katniss, who is the girl he loves.

3. Lack of opportunity
Twenty-four tributes, and only one can win. Katniss and Peeta spend more time running and hiding than they do fighting, which means most of the blood is not on their hands. Even when they do kill, it is never cold-blooded murder. Katniss has four kills. The first two deaths are indirect and in self-defense: She drops a nest of angry, stinging insects on people who are trying to kill her. The next one is justifiable: She puts an arrow through a boy who just murdered her partner and friend. The last one is a mercy killing, ending the suffering of a boy who is being eaten by mutant creatures. Peeta's known kills number only two. The first could be considered a mercy killing of a girl who was already dying slowly. The second was purely accidental: He picked some berries he did not know were poisonous, a girl watched him and followed suit, and died when she ate the fruit.

So there you have it: three main techniques Suzanne Collins used to transform what could have been a tale full of unlikeable killers into a hero's journey. I'll be moving onto the next book in the trilogy, but not until after I'm done writing my current WIP. Otherwise, the story will never get written because I'll spend all my free time reading.

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