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.

10 comments:

ScientistMother said...

I am definitely putting this on my must read list. Right after the sookie stachouse series. I've been submersed in TrueBlood and need to read the book

Anonymous said...

On my reading list too. I haven't read a good book lately. -- Aurora

Anne said...

That sounds just like my sleeping schedule - but I have no real reason! I decided long ago that I am allergic to going to bed. Age 23 and this still appears to be true. At least grad students don't have to look presentable at work!

After this recommendation, along with the great thrill the release of Mockingjay was greeted with by many of my friends, I'll certainly put this series on my (already too long) to-read list. I know just what you mean about indelible characters trumping beautiful writing, and that is always the deciding factor that tips a book over from like to LOVE for me. I am at the moment in the middle of a book that is an exquisitely crafted piece of work, and I am *interested* in the characters - but I don't love them. One died and I had no strong emotional response, which is certainly an uh oh sign. I fear I will forget these characters as soon as I finish, even though the actual experience of reading the book is quite pleasurable. There's merit in both approaches, but the books that stick with me, the ones that I re-read until they're ratty and dogeared, contain the characters that I dream of meeting and going on adventures with, the ones I cry and laugh with. People can say what they will about Anne McCaffrey's writing style, for instance, but she crafted a whole constellation of characters that I still think fondly of, and that makes her a success in my eyes.

Off topic, but I am new to your blog and I just wanted to thank you for your candor and honesty. I read back through some of your archive and ended up crying, just because you spoke so honestly about the truth of the future that I find myself staring down and I am so beyond scared. But even as I am frightened, it's important that I really understand what my options are, and I find that the best way to discover them is by reading the blogs of people who have been there. I am a second year PhD student in the biological sciences, and I honestly have no idea what I want to do. But I suppose I still have some time to figure that out! Anyway, thank you for sharing your life with the internet and the lessons you have learned along the way.

The bean-mom said...

Oh goody--I feel like a proselytizer when it comes the Hunger Games trilogy! And SM, I've heard good things about Sookie Stackhouse and the TrueBlood series, but I don't have premium cable!

Anne, welcome to the blog!Wow, your words are so kind--and that's why we science bloggers do it, I suppose--in the hope that our experiences can help or at least provide the comfort of letting others know that we are all the same boat together. I'm 35 years old and still don't know what I want to do or what the future will bring. I don't know if any of us can count on that, no matter what our ages. For me, having a partner and family to rely on is what gets me past the uncertainty of my career choice.

By the way, I read the Anne McCaffrey books many years ago and also enjoyed them--especially the Harper Hall trilogy!

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

Oh great, just what I need - more unread books to add to the pile!

(Just kidding, thanks for the recommendation! I've saved it for later, because I promised Mr E Man I wouldn't buy any more books until I've read all the ones I have).

The bean-mom said...

Cath--if I stopped buy books until I've read the ones I already have... well, it would be a long long time before I bought a book again.

ophelia rising said...

WOW! I definitely have to read this, now. Thanks so much for the recommendation. I'm always looking for good ones.

And I agree - it doesn't matter how pretty the prose is, if the characters aren't grabbing you, then it might as well be junk. I tried to read something recently that was beautifully written, but just couldn't quite get there with it. I tried. I really tried. But it didn't work for me. And I ultimately put it down before I was done, which is something I rarely do.

www.granada-3d.com said...

It won't work in actual fact, that is exactly what I suppose.

Ελλάδα said...

There is also no mention made of her looks. From what I can gather, she is white and has long hair. That's it. I could not tell you what color her hair is, what color her eyes are, how tall or short she is. I like to be able to hold a picture in my head of the people and places I am reading. Collins assigns very few physical attributes to her characters, and having finished the book I cannot describe to you what the Capitol looks like, or what her District looks like, or what Katniss' home looks like. No great effort is made by the author to develop her characters and settings into things you can see. I find this incredibly frustrating.

Cath@VWXYNot? said...

I just came back to this post after reading the first book and I agree 100%. The last "other" (i.e. non-George RR Martin) book I finished was The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje. It was beautifully written - just absolutely gorgeous - but didn't "grab" me at all. I even put it down for a few weeks when I got my hands on the fourth Martin book (my husband started the series first so I always have to wait for him) and didn't miss it at all; I came back to it later with a sense of obligation to finish it rather than any excitement about catching up with the characters or the narrative.

The Hunger Games, on the other hand, I couldn't put down. I read it in less than 24 hours and ordered the next two books as soon as I could. They should arrive by the same week as a) my parents and b) my new job. How's that for poor timing?! Oh well, sorry, Mum and Dad...

Storytelling > style! (See also: JK Rowling)