The Hunger Games – part 2 – a case study in character morality

Last week I reviewed The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.

These days, when I read a book, I like to look back and think about what I can learn from it. Whether it’s something the author did well and I can try to incorporate into my own writing, or something they didn’t do well, in which case I can try to avoid making the same mistake.

I read The Hunger Games cover to cover in one day. It is exactly the kind of book I have trouble putting down. One which gets into my head and my gut and causes me to add tissues to my shopping list.

There were lots of things that Collins got right but the thing that impressed me most was the way she structured the story to preserve the heroins morality in an amoral world.

This week I want to look at how Collins achieves this.

Character Morality

This discussion contains significant spoilers from the book. The results of the prize draw are given at the end of the article.

Collins establishes Katniss’ morality when she volunteers to take her sister’s place. Rather than being an anonymous name pulled from a hat, Katniss enters the Hunger Games as a martyr.

But she doesn’t want to die, and when push comes to shove, Katniss will kill to stay alive. This is part of what makes her compelling and gritty as a character. The inevitability and resignation that she will have to kill innocent teens is there in Katniss’ mind from the beginning. She accepts it to the degree that, as readers, we do not doubt it.

So, Collins is presented with the challenge of engineering the events so that Katniss is never stripped of her morality in such a way that we cannot root for her, but, at the same time, does not undermine her character.

This is how she does it.

First and foremost, hate those in control.

None of the “tributes” have anything to gain by defying the state, and everything to lose. Any individual taking a stand and refusing to fight would be killed anyway, and it’s not just their lives at stake, but those of their loved ones back home.

Morality becomes a flimsy argument in the face of self preservation. Only one person will walk out alive which means 23 will die. What does it matter who kills them?

The authority is the real enemy. By taking away freedom and choice, the state  removes a certain amount of the tributes responsibility for their actions.

Secondly, create an unlevel playing field.

It’s not enough to want Katniss to win, there has to be someone you want to lose. Someone who it’s okay to wish dead.

To meet this need, Collins creates the “careers”, a group of four to six tributes who are there by choice. These teens are volunteers like Katniss, but with a far less worthy cause. In their case, by training in the art of combat, they stack the odds in their favour. For them, winning is about the prestige and the glory, not just living to see another day.

Immediately this creates and us and them scenario. Those who are there by choice (and those who choose to side with them) and those who have been forced into it; the victims.

Not only that, it also creates a situation where the bad guys outmatch their prey. Katniss and the other unlucky tributes become the underdogs.

Thirdly, warm up to it.

Katniss does kill. More than once. But Collins warms us up to it.

The first deaths are not at her hands, but ones she witnesses. It further emphasises the us-them scenario that Collins has set up and demonstrates the stakes.

Katniss’ first kills are not cold blooded murder. Trapped up a tree and heavily outnumbered, she is staring death in the face. The situation is unfair which immediately increases your dislike of those hunting her.

By dropping a nest of genetically modified wasps on the camp below, Katniss indirectly causes one of the group to die.

When she does kill someone deliberately it is the result of grief and rage at the death of her ally, Rue, who is just twelve and reminds her of her sister.

Number four is checks and balances.

When Katniss drops the wasp’s nest on the camp below her tree, she endures a number of stings herself and suffers halucinations and fever. Although a certain amount of justification is already there, the fact that she pays a price for her actions helps wipe the lingering traces of amorality from her slate.

When she kills the nameless tribute who kills her friend, Rue, it is with a sense of justice and retribution. An eye for an eye. As readers we have become attached to Rue as a character and feel the pain of her death and so Katniss’ actions feel justifiable.

And Finally, finish on a positive note.

Although Katniss attempts to kill her ultimate rival, Cato, by shooting at him, she is unsuccessful. This action maintains her character, and the idea that she will kill coldly and without hesitation, without the consequences of acting on that belief.

When she finally does kill Cato, to end the Hunger Games, it is a mercy killing. Mortally and horrifically wounded and having suffered a disproportionate amount of pain, Cato is slain by an arrow from Katniss’ bow.

Whatever she has done before, whatever she is capable of or willing to do, Katniss’ final act against her fellow tributes is to grant her nemesis release from his suffering.

In summary, Collins uses a number of devices to engineer the situation to allow Katniss to reach the end of her ordeal without ever stooping to the depths that she believes herself capable of. Readers never find themselves in a position where the do not feel they can be on her side.

Prize Draw Winner

Congratulations to Emily Knepper! Your new copy of The Hunger Games will soon be on its way.

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