Saturday, September 4, 2010

On The Hunger Games trilogy, writing, and character (and why I haven't been posting)

Over the past two weeks I’ve been in the grip of delirium, staying up way past my bedtime, dragging to work bleary-eyed, and then staying up too late again the next night. No, the kids aren’t sick. No, I’m not writing a grant or investing this time in other practical matters. I just finished Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games trilogy. Now that I’ve finished the series, the fever should be broken and I should be able to get on with life. . . but her characters still haunt, and I think they will for a long time.

I don’t want to say too much about the last book, Mockingjay, because I don’t want to give away spoilers and because I’m still processing it. Let’s just say I’m still ambivalent about its final chapter. But I feel no ambivalence toward the first two books in the series, The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, which I flat-out love. It’s an interesting example for me of how very different kinds of writing can succeed. Collins’ prose is unadorned and even workman-like for the most part; no one could accuse her prose of lyrical beauties. But she’s a master of plotting, of edge-of-your-seat-can’t-put-the-book-down tension. She builds an entire world in her trilogy. She’s terrific with the snappy and memorable dialogue. And most important of all, she creates characters that you come to care deeply for. You don’t always like them, but you desperately hope that they turn out okay. I can’t remember the last time I fell for fictional characters like this—and most especially for one particular character in her series, a mild-seeming baker’s son with unexpected reserves of courage, strength, and nobility (and he also frosts a mean cake!)

It makes me ponder the veneration that many of the literarti (and I) hold for beautiful writing. Collins’ writing style is not particularly beautiful. Her background is in television writing, and I read an interview where she admitted that she has a difficult time with descriptive passages in her novels, because script writers don’t write extended description. But I think that a heart-grabbing character trumps the most gorgeously turned line. I’ve finished whole books of beautiful prose, nodding my head in pleasure at the well-wrought lines, and then forgotten everything about the book—plot, character, everything—after shutting its pages. I know I’ll never forget the characters of Katniss and Peeta in the Hunger Games.

Creating character is a gift. Someone once said that all great fictional characters have a touch of mystery to them. It’s the mystery that real-life people have. Collins’ characters, like real people, often surprise, behaving in ways that are unpredictable and yet also in keeping with their characters as we have come to know them. They exhibit a constellation of traits that have a certain recognizable consistency, and yet within those bounds they continuously surprise. They grow. And they remain themselves (save for what I see as a few missteps in the very last novel).

I dabble a little in short-story writing, and the descriptive passages come easily to me. I like imagery and mood. But what I would give to be able to envision and write real characters. That is what makes writing memorable.