Friday, May 11, 2012


Creativity: More Magic in The Hunger Games

Every novelist should read THE HUNGER GAMES. It's
become one of the standard works of fiction that
everybody knows.

When you read a great novel, you should also analyze it
to see how it works. To see if you can steal any of its

Last month I began my analysis of THE HUNGER GAMES by
writing a one-sentence summary of the book.

This month, I had intended to analyze the Three-Act
Structure of the novel, but I'm thinking that it makes
more sense to first talk about the characters.

All great fiction is built on great characters. THE
HUNGER GAMES has several superb characters. What makes
them work?

We'll begin with Katniss Everdeen, the lead character.
Katniss is not a completely likable character. She is
sometimes self-centered and occasionally acts without
thinking. Katniss has a tough outer shell and she
really only loves one other person on the planet.

What makes us love Katniss? Why do we root for her?

We love Katniss because she loves her little sister
Prim, one of the very few characters in the novel who
is genuinely good. Katniss will do anything to make
sure Prim doesn't go hungry and that she lives in some
sort of safety.

Katniss hunts in the woods illegally so she can put
food on the table for Prim. Katniss won't let Prim put
her name in the Hunger Games lottery extra times, which
would get her free food from the corrupt government.
Katniss even puts up with Prim's surly cat.

So it's a massive disaster for Katniss at the end of
chapter one when Prim's name is drawn to represent
District 12 in the Hunger Games.

This is a death sentence and the reader knows it. How
could this happen? Lots of other kids have their name
on dozens of lottery tickets. Katniss has her name on
20. Prim's name is there only once. Yet her name is
drawn. It's not fair!

Anyone would be in shock if their sister's name were
drawn in the lottery. Anyone would take a few seconds
to freak out. But most people wouldn't do anything
about it.

Katniss isn't most people. Almost instantly, she goes
into action, moving to intercept Prim. Before Prim can
go up on the stage, Katniss has reached her. The reader
doesn't know it yet, but there's one thing Katniss can
do to save Prim.

Katniss can volunteer to go in her place.

You have to love somebody a lot to do that. Katniss
loves Prim more than anything. She doesn't even think
about it. She just acts.

That's why we love her. That's why we'll forgive her
later for her harshness and self-centered behavior.

Now would be a good time to talk about values. Values
are important because they drive a character's actions,
and therefore they drive the story.

"Values" is a word that gets used in many different
ways by different people.

Let me define what I mean by "values."

Values are "core truths" for a character that take this
form: "Nothing is more important than __________."

For example, most characters in most novels would agree
that, "Nothing is more important than survival."

The survival instinct runs strong. Katniss certainly
agrees with this one. Yet she's just taken on her
sister's death sentence. Why?

Because Katniss has another value: "Nothing is more
important than protecting my sister Prim."

Two values in conflict with each other. They can't both
be true. Which of them is "more true?"

If you asked Katniss at the beginning of the story,
she'd probably say that they're equally true. Of course
survival has the highest priority. And of course Prim
has the highest priority. There's no way to know which
is a stronger value for Katniss.

Until you put her back to the wall and force her to

Katniss can't have both.

She chooses Prim. Prim is more important to Katniss
than survival.

But Katniss has a third value that she believes in, and
it's a value that's going to dictate many of her
choices throughout the novel. This value is implicit.
Katniss never says it anywhere, but she does believe it:

"Nothing is more important than avoiding love, because
the more people you love, the more people you have to
lose, and losing them is intolerable."

Katniss once loved her father, but she lost him in the
mine explosion.

She once loved her mother, but her mother went into a
stuporous depression after the death of her husband and
Katniss has lost the ability to love her.

The only person Katniss loves now is Prim, and the
government has used that to put Katniss in the arena.
That is the hazard of love. Katniss is terrified of

There's another person Katniss is tempted to love in
the novel -- the other tribute from District 12, Peeta

Peeta is a decent guy. Honest, hard-working, kind.
Peeta once saved Katniss's life, years ago when she was
starving to death. He got a beating for it, but he did
it anyway, knowing he'd be punished.

Peeta is a wonderful guy, and he's been in love with
Katniss ever since he can remember.

If Katniss were free to love him back, maybe she would.
But she's not free. Peeta is going to the Hunger Games
right along with Katniss, and they can't both survive.

Whether she likes Peeta or not, Katniss doesn't dare
love him, because it'll hurt too much to lose him.

So there we have it. Katniss has three core values. Two
of those are put in conflict very early in the story,
forcing Katniss to make a horrible choice.

Once the choice is made, she has to live with it.
What's going to guide her through the rest of the

Two things: her ambition and her goal.

It's easy to confuse these two things. By the word
"ambition" I mean the abstract thing Katniss wants
most. That thing is "to stay alive."

The problem is that "staying alive" can take many
forms. Katniss needs a specific, concrete strategy -- a

Katniss has a simple goal: When the Games begin, she
will avoid fighting. She'll run and hide while the
others kill each other. If somebody finds her, she'll
run if possible. She'll fight as a last resort.

This strategy might keep her alive or it might fail,
but it's in line with Katniss's values and it tells her
clearly how to behave. It's a good goal going into the

If Katniss were the only character we cared about in
the faceless mob, then the story would be a simple
survival tale.

But Peeta makes it a lot more complicated. Peeta is a
genuinely good person and we care about him because he
once saved Katniss from starving.

Peeta has three values:

* Nothing is more important than survival.

* Nothing is more important than keeping Katniss alive.

* Nothing is more important than being true to who you

We never get inside Peeta's head, so it's not so easy
to know how he handles the conflicts between these
values. Eventually, we realize that he values the
survival of Katniss more than his own survival.

So Peeta's ambition is identical to Katniss's. The
abstract thing he wants most is to keep her alive.

He translates this into a specific and concrete goal.
When the Games begin, he will join forces with the
brutal "Career Tributes." He'll help them hunt down the
weak. He'll be there when they corner Katniss. And when
they swoop in for the kill, he'll take them out -- as
many as he can, giving Katniss her best chance against
the rest.

This is a hard choice. To execute this plan, Peeta has
to violate his principles and kill the weak. He has to
sacrifice himself. He has no guarantee that Katniss
will survive, but it's the best he can see to do.

Going into the Games, Katniss and Peeta have clear
goals. Things ought to go simply, but they never do in
combat. The rest of the story shows us Katniss and Peeta
shifting their goals a bit as things go horribly wrong.

But always, their goals are guided by their shared
ambition -- keeping Katniss alive.

And always, their actions are guided by the best
balance they can find between their conflicting values.

What makes THE HUNGER GAMES WORK? At its core, it's the
tectonic conflict in values for both Katniss and Peeta.

To survive, Katniss has to pretend to be in love with
Peeta. But actions have consequences, and once you've
kissed a guy, you've opened the door for that deadly
thing called love.

To help Katniss survive, Peeta has to sacrifice his own
safety. But his self-sacrifice arouses love in her, and
love will get Katniss killed if she isn't careful.

There's more to say about THE HUNGER GAMES, and we'll
say more of it next month in this column.

This article is reprinted by permission of the author.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the
Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced
Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 31,000 readers.
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