So, word has it that The Hunger Games is a little bit popular these days. Which is great! They’re great books and well-written and, thanks to certain knowledgeable parties, I got them forcefully pushed on to my reading list back before most other folks had even heard of them, and am thus officially cool and hip and cutting-edge. But they’re in the zeitgeist now, and that means two things: an increase in post-apocalyptic YA novels, and the proportional increase in editorials and literary articles wondering what it all MEANS that there are so many post-apocalyptic female teenagers running around.
Over at the American Prospect, Abby McGanney Nolan has an article that cuts through a bit of the psychodrama fat and highlights what I personally think has the most to do with the books’ popularity among readers: agency.
Why are young heroines thrust into ruined worlds and then routinely hunted, harassed, or beaten into unconsciousness? A New York Times forum on the grim dystopia boom featured one novelist in the genre asserting that teens in our mismanaged times are demanding to read “something that isn’t a lie.” Writing on the phenomenon in The New Yorker, critic Laura Miller wondered if the authoritarian societies that dominate the trend are analogues to the oppressive world of high-school students, who are constantly monitored and hassled and forced to compete.
Neither theory quite pins down the appeal of the new damsels in distress: They’re not waiting for someone else to save them or the world.
Nobody likes being a victim. Nobody likes being powerless. Nobody likes feeling like things are just happening to them, and that they exist only to be happened upon. And, lo and behold, people have a hard time connecting to characters who don’t exist with any agenda outside of the characters around them.
Easiest way to avoid that? Don’t victimize your characters. Oh, sure, be mean to them. Put them through the wringer. Let awful things come their way that they have to deal with. But then make sure that they actually do deal with it, and attempt to overcome it, all the way up to the end. Even if they don’t end up winning, they should at least go down fighting.
When a character of any gender or ethnicity curls up in a ball, the drama stops. The scene’s over. Nothing is in question any more, because they’ve lost, and if you keep the scene going for much time after that point, you’re just subjecting your audience to a lot of boring spectacle devoid of meaning. With this in mind, of course books like The Hunger Games are compelling; they’re about characters not giving up in the most dire of circumstances. And that’s exciting!
It’s a shame that the gender of those characters is still so worth note these days, but there you have it. The trick to writing compelling female characters, or male characters, or minority characters, or characters of whatever descriptor doesn’t apply to you? De-victimize them. Give them an agenda, and respect that agenda, and make them struggle to achieve it no matter what. Because otherwise you might as well just replace them with a big scarecrow with the words “PLOT POINT” written on its chest.
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I would absolutely watch a play that had a giant scarecrow with the words “PLOT POINT” on its chest.
I’m generally not a big fan of post-apocalyptic whatever whatever, but I’ve fallen hard for The Hunger Games lately (though query how I feel about that, as a parent of a someday-teenage girl!). I think the high-school-is-hell metaphor is a really strong pull, though, in the same way that “Buffy” did that for us when we were in high school: everyone wants to feel not only like it’s possible to do something about it, but also like someone else knows that it REALLY IS THAT BAD, OKAY. I could probably do without the moony romance subplots, but that may be just one of the many wonderful things about no longer being a teenager in real life!
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