Monday, February 21, 2011

Literary Satisfaction and THE HUNGER GAMES

(Massive spoilers for THG all the way through to MOCKINGJAY. Before viewing this post, you are strongly advised to get your read on.)

Like many, I loved THE HUNGER GAMES. Suffering a severe case of premise-envy, the first novel stuck with me for days, particularly its unabashed and uncensored depiction of the inevitable slaughter – not to mention a female protagonist who actually did something. But CATCHING FIRE felt like a weakly plotted jumble of two distinctly different stories: the first half seemed desperate to establish the world’s most boring love triangle, until midway through the novel Collins went damn, this isn’t working, and threw them back into the arena for round two. (I swear Collins must be a total pantser.)

So when MOCKINGJAY rolled around, I was hoping for some redemption for this conceptually-exceptional series. After reading, though, I was confused for days as to how I felt about it. I was glad for the promise and execution of full-scale rebellion, and appreciated the moral ambiguity of many of MOCKINGJAY’s principle characters, not least our fiery heroine. On the other hand, the pacing got even weaker, and the plot even more flagging and disjointed – a flaw exacerbated by Katniss’ perpetual catalepsy. But it was the story’s dénouement that really had me confused – there was no happy ending! No real love story resolution, no satisfying resolution to Panemic dystopia!

No, I told myself, it was a good thing – realistic, reasonable, even, after everything these sixteen(!)-year-olds had been through and been forced to do. Collins was right not to plaster happy smiles on their faces and call it catharsis. Their lives had sucked. Of course, I reasoned, they were damaged. Broken. It was understandable.


I still hated the ending.

I get what Collins was trying to do – even if it was a little preachy – and I do understand it. But I still can’t get on board. I wanted a ‘happy’ ending, I realised. I wanted catharsis – for me and for Katniss. But instead Collins gave nothing: there was no redemption for the characters who had survived a war; no satisfaction, for Katniss or the reader.

And damnit, I wanted it! I wanted her to marry Peeta – to LOVE Peeta – and to have kids and grow old and find solace outside of her teenage years of war. I wanted hope for Katniss, and for her future. My dissatisfaction with MOCKINGJAY’s ending, and subsequent lack of ‘happy’, prompted me to an uncomfortable concern…

Am I a Wimpy Reader?

Surely not, I told myself. When it comes to (fictional) blood and guts, I’ve got no problem; one of my favourite keenest memories of Katniss’ first Hunger Games was the visual of the boy tribute spitting up blood all over Katniss’ face at the Cornucopia’s bloodbath. I applauded Peeta’s torture and psychotic break (something I know a lot of readers did not care for), particularly as it gave a previously thin character some personality. I was fascinated by THE HUNGER GAMES originally precisely because of its gory and fantastically creepy premise.

But, I have to admit… I wanted an ending that offered redemption. And MOCKINGJAY denied such a thing emphatically.

Perhaps it was obvious that such catharsis would be unlikely. Katniss’ trials, particularly throughout MOCKINGJAY, seem only to make her weaker, not stronger. She shuts down under the pressures placed upon her, turning later to addiction and suicide as the war dissolves her physical and mental strength. Katniss’ near-constant concussion emphasises this: she’s perpetually waking up post-conflict, having been knocked out (chemically or forcibly) during the battle, and hence rarely deals with any real action – especially during the second half of CATCHING FIRE and in MOCKINGJAY. Like her emotional relationships with Gale and Peeta, Katniss never truly has to deal with the consequences of her physical engagements; instead, she wakes up afterwards to be told of the fall-out. Aside from making her an increasingly ineffectual heroine, Katniss’ continual lack of consciousness creates a tell-don’t-show debacle that disrupts the book’s pacing and the reader’s interest.

Not all novels exist to give the reader a literary endorphin rush, and MOCKINGJAY is a testament to this. It is clear Collins did not intend for Katniss’ journey to result in a ‘happy’ conclusion. Like 1984, and like the Hunger Games themselves, its ending is brutal and unforgiving. MOCKINGJAY may be more moral than narrative – at times glaringly so – but its conclusion is resolute indeed: war is destructive, physically and emotionally… and often, there's no going back.

So, while I can’t say I overly enjoyed MOCKINGJAY, I do know I liked it. There is a difference, and it’s an important one. It works both ways, too, and its application to THE HUNGER GAMES world is particularly significant. In a series where children routinely slaughter each other, it may have been naïve to expect or even want a ‘happy’ ending. But does that mean we shouldn’t hold out hope for satisfaction from any conclusion? Is it bad (naïve/childish/wimpy) to want a happy ending?

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Well-Intentioned Stupidity

Sometimes, people do stupid things for noble reasons.

Well-Intentioned Stupidity is a staple of fiction. A common affliction, its symptoms include unnecessary risk-taking, self-sacrifice and determined martyrdom – idiocy in the name of heroism.

WIS is often born out of the hero only having half the facts (or knowing them all but failing to put the pieces together); despair-fuelled powerlessness; or some kind of severe head trauma (I mean, I’m assuming). This stupidity is multiplied by the urgent drive to save loved ones and manifests itself in acts of increasingly critical stupidity – think telepathically inspired rescue ops, feeding-frenzy-fuelling self-harm, or simply ineffectual attacks on the Big Baddie as he bears down on your love interest.

It’s understandable. Wanting to help those you love is hardly a character defect. Also, I doubt anyone really wants to read about a self-interested unsympathetic slacker. It’s just that these noble idiots go about their missions in such life-threateningly stupid ways… it’s almost offensive to read (or watch).

Speaking of… let’s examine some of the worst offenders:

 - Elena in THE VAMPIRE DIARIES has always been high on the WIS hit list, particularly because she’s a human girl in a vamp world*: she wants to fight, too, but it’s hard when everyone else has super-strength and -speed and you haven’t even got school-enforced self-defence training to fall back on. This season, though, she’s been determined to off herself to spare her family, and unwilling to even try to save herself.
 - Harry saving Sirius (and in the process, getting him killed) in ORDER OF THE PHOENIX is pretty textbook.
 - Think Bella and that stupid rock in ECLIPSE.
 - aaand pretty much everything Nora does in HUSH, HUSH.

* There’s a reason the paranormal romance genre features disproportionately heavily here (even in this very short, biased list) – something which also makes it a contentious area for gender roles. Sometimes, it’s just not humanly possible for the (typically female) human protagonist to take on the supernatural evils of the love interest’s world. Naturally sidelined, these girls often get a lot of stick for a kind of damsel-in-distress routine. But let’s be realistic – not a lot of teenage girls are capable of holding their own against a super-strong, super-evil Big Baddie. (Then again, though, this is generally the reason I’m not a fan of the genre as a whole. These girls get no chance.)

Well-Intentioned Stupidity has its place, then, and is, in many circumstances, understandable. But is it just me, or is the WIS phenomenon TOTALLY ANNOYING? Sure, these protags may be compassionate and courageous, but isn’t their propensity to run headlong into (figuratively) burning buildings an insult to their intelligence – and the reader’s?

Maybe it’s just me, but give me a hero who can turn courage into tactics – or at least try the back entrance first – any day of the week.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Battle for Longevity in Literature

Dystopia vs. fantasy

Flavour of the month (year[s]?) dystopia is continuing to kill it in all forms of fiction. We’ve gone over the reasons for its success – from the universality of its themes to the intrinsic dystopia of our own world. But will this current success translate into longevity? Is it simply the ‘right place, right time’, or does dystopia’s popularity hint at a deeper understanding of personal struggles and a collective resistance?

One of the most powerful things fiction can offer is an escape. In reading, in viewing, and especially in writing, we make a (often unconscious) choice to spend time in another person’s world. For dystopia, this means escaping to a world less desirable than our own – perhaps to reassure us of our world’s perfect imperfectability, or to commiserate with our feelings of oppression and voicelessness.

For fantasy, however, it’s about an escape to a world beyond our means – and often our imagination. These worlds may be experiencing turmoil, upheaval, and even uprising, but their laws and physics remain a testament to human desire – for power, for recognition, for mental and physical freedoms. And it’s through these basic human desires that fantasy and dystopia find common genesis. Like dystopia, fantasy speaks, at its most basic level, to the human need for voice, choice and freedom. While dystopia exacerbates our common sentiments of subjugation and coercion, fantasy erases them, offering power and abilities beyond our human capabilities with which to fight for such freedom.

Despite these commonalities, the two genres attract different audiences and different levels of interest. To date, the success of fantasy in literature, like THE LORD OF THE RINGS and HARRY POTTER (now replete with film adaptations), arguably outstrips that of prominent dystopian works like 1984 and THE HUNGER GAMES. A key reason for this, I think, is the audience fantasy reaches – from children to adults – whilst dystopia is more commonly associated with teenagers and YA, and often mislabelled as sci-fi by the uninitiated (and uninterested). Fantasy is generally easier to read, also, in the sense that it emphasises ‘uplifting’ ideas of freedom and power over dystopia’s favoured themes of oppression and control.

But the major reason, I believe, fantasy continues to outstrip dystopia – and probably always will – has to be the worlds behind these genres and issues. For all its adverbs, dialogue tags and Death Eater attacks, kids (of every age) still wait for a letter from Hogwarts. It’s an escape that has captured a generation and will ensnare many more, probably for decades. We read about Harry as much for his world as the plot. Voldemort or no Voldemort, we still want to live in Harry’s magical world. Can you say the same for 1984?

While we can’t judge the success of one for all, the success of such fantastic fiction emphasises the common desire for escape. However, it’s also safe to say basic human nature will never allow our world to become utopic, and its likely fiction will follow. Dystopia’s popularity is certainly in no danger, but it’s got a long way to go to catch up with fantasy.

(And seriously, Dumbledore – I’m still waiting on that letter.)

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Writer's Troubles: The Pensieve Predicament

"This?  It is called a Pensieve," said Dumbledore.  "I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling, that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind."
"Er," said Harry, who couldn't truthfully say that he had ever felt anything of the sort.

I never knew what Dumbledore/J.K. Rowling meant either, until I started writing.

I’m a planner – in my writing, that is. Though my real life/bedroom/organisational skills are pretty chaotic, I’ve never had so much as an inkling towards pantsing a story. I like detail, foreshadowing, sub-plots and sub-sub-plots. For me, planning is the only way to go.

A story as intricately plotted as the HARRY POTTER series requires a lot of planning. So, I could always sympathise with J.K. Rowling on her Pensieve idea/wish, even if – like Harry – I’d never quite felt the kind of idea-overload that inspired it. And then, when I started writing for myself, I began to empathise, too. With the main plot and the sub-plot(s) and the villain and the hero and the love interest(s) and the mother/daddy issues running around in your head, things get a little crowded. And confusing. And sometimes just thinking about plotting leaves you needing to lie down.

J.K. Rowling, with her seven books, innumerable sub-plots and entire magical world, clearly understood the agony of the Pensieve Predicament (and so she created one for Dumbledore, that lucky, brilliant bastard). Often, you’re so focused on the main storyline, or the protagonist’s relationship(s), or your latest genius addition to the plot, you forget to add the key details necessary to get your heroes from (A) to (B). Other times, you’re so mentally exhausted by your plotting and planning that you just want it the heck out of your head – but not gone forever.

Enter the Pensieve… if only it was for real.

I’ve tried to overcome the PP without magical intervention. I write down every idea; I’ve got flowcharts galore. I keep a paper and pen beside my bed at night – because if I don’t get it out of my head, I’ll never sleep. I’ve been through 10 notebooks, 20 computer files, and a ream of A4 paper. And that’s only notes – I type every WIP.

Every little bit helps, even if it’s just to chart the evolution of your story. But, just like with her Pensieve idea, it’s JKR who has come up with the best solution I’ve seen so far – as evidenced in her HARRY POTTER & THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX mindmap.

I can’t lie – it’s pretty friggin’ amazing. Not to mention helpful. JKR lines up her main plot points with their simultaneous sub-plots in everything from the Order, the Prophecy, Harry’s love life and Hagrid’s giant problem. It’s a fairly early, rough draft – almost none of the chapter titles are the same, and Umbridge’s first name is Elvira (also, there’s something called “‘Missy’ shipkiss” which sounds amazing) – but the major plotlines of the novel are all present. Mostly, though, it’s an awesome example of thorough outlining. It’s also particularly handy for setting out each plot in their chronological sequence, and for visually mapping every simultaneous action.

Creating your own is even easier on a much-more-manipulable Excel spreadsheet, and I definitely recommend it. Outlining is also handy for breaking through writer’s block, working through plot holes, or – like the Pensieve – just getting it out of your head. Writing is more than a full-time enterprise; the words never quite go away. But this – and the following tricks – can help you clear a little headspace for the other important things in your life (like sleeping. Also, work/study, friends/family and significant others, but mostly just, you know, sleep):

-       try meditating – just clearing your head. Sit/lie down, focus on your breathing, and try not to think. (Especially helpful before bed.)
-       write a to-do list, with everything you want to accomplish today/tomorrow, and plan your time accordingly.
-       write down every idea as you think of it. That way, you won’t forget, and you won’t waste half of tomorrow’s allotted writing time trying to  remember it.
-       invent a Pensieve. Or at least ask Steve Jobs to give it a crack. (iPensieve, anyone?)

I know, JKR. I wish I had one too.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Gender Roles: The Fine Line Between Special and Mary-Sue

(Apologies for the silence! We return to your irregularly-scheduled programming now… ish.)

(Also, spoilers! for MATCHED, THE HUNGER GAMES and TWILIGHT.)

Mary-Sues are a universal evil of the literary world (or, if you’re 13, a totally realistic and appealing character). They’re too pretty, too kind, too powerful, too smart, too ass-kicking. They never fail. They suck.

They are also, however, disproportionately common in female protagonist POVs, and difficult to avoid entirely. To an extent, all fiction offers at least some wish fulfilment. Even dystopic tales of subjugation and control diametrically emphasise freedom and resistance. Narrative progression ensures character development ensures change – and usually for the better. It’s why we read – because reading is an escape, always. Sometimes, you want to spend time with a character whose world is slightly more awesome than yours.

Then we have the opposite. Authors, terrified of getting stuck with the Mary-Sue shame-label, create characters who are simple, ordinary, average (like you and me. I mean, unless you’re a dragon-defeating warrior princess, in which case you should really be shopping for a new wand or whatever), who get dragged into events beyond their control and even their interest. But when these identifiable characters continue to refuse their Call to Action and resist involvement in the actual plot, things go from realistic to boring fast.

So here’s the conundrum: how do you make a character interesting enough to be worthy of a reader’s time and attention, but not so ridiculously amazing that their journey reads more like an author’s dream journal than a novel?

We can illustrate this dilemma with real-life literary examples. Maybe I’m beating a dead horse here, but some of the best examples of the Mary-Sue vs. Boring Betty debacle come from major debuts in recent YA history: think Katniss in THE HUNGER GAMES, Cassia in MATCHED and (do I even need to say it?) Bella in TWILIGHT.

Let’s start off with the most recent – Ally Condie’s Cassia. She’s just a normal girl in a perfect world living out her pre-planned life to a tee – until she falls for the wrong guy. Let me preface this with a disclaimer: I did not enjoy MATCHED. (More on this later.) One of the biggest reasons for this was that I felt Cassia was just way too boring to devote an entire novel to. Sure, she rebels from the Society’s restrictions, but mostly in though – in her own head. She and Ky get together… and hold hands. Then she goes off and farms somewhere, planning to search out her lost love, with no ostensible plan.  I’m fairly sure Cassia’s primary character trait is boring.

Then we have Katniss, whose name should be your first tip-off to her Mary-Sue undertones. Not so fast, though – Katniss is complex, self-reliant and, well, kind of a bitch. However, she’s also preternaturally and prodigiously talented with a bow and arrow, gifted with a beautiful singing voice and – like Bella – she’s got the ~secret pretty~ thing nailed. Katniss is primped and preened in every single book, adored by viewers who don’t actually want to see her die (shocker), and given the nickname ‘The Girl on Fire’.

But then MOCKINGJAY happens.

The beautiful, ass-kicking, heart-breaking Katniss gets scarred, tortured and develops a pretty serious morphling addiction. She kills again – this time, almost indiscriminately – and resists, resists, resists getting sucked into a war she wants no part of (even though it’s against the regime who stuck her in an arena to kill off other kids. Que?). She spends most of her time in a coma. MOCKINGJAY is about a war whose leader doesn’t want to fight. In losing interest (and often consciousness), Katniss ensures we lose ours too.

Bella brings up the rear, and the winning Mary-Sue position – possibly of all time. Has there ever been an author with such blatant self-inserting intentions?  Bella is adored by the boys at her new school, equally hated by the girls, and the only girl in a hundred years to catch the eye of ridonkulously handsome vamp Edward. When her vamps her in return, she turns out to be the best of them all. Possibly the most annoying thing about Bella-Sue is her unrelenting denial of any and all of these traits. Is she modest or stupid? Either way, they could’ve renamed the stereotype after Bella when Meyer was done with her.

So how do you find the balance? It takes practice and revision. It also requires neutrality. Not everyone will love your character; not everyone will have disliked Cassia like I did. Instead of making your character likeable, make them compelling. Someone whose world and experiences you’d be happy to follow, for good or bad.

And remember: if you’re planning on experimenting with a new character, get tested first.