One of the concerns I have about my major rewrite is the person.
Not the person of the protagonist himself, mind you. He’s (probably) fine. It’s the perspective that bothers me.
You see, I wrote Citizen in the Wilds from third-person perspective to avoid pouring myself too much into the protagonist. I may be overly paranoid about it, but projecting oneself onto the lead character can be the death knell both for the narrative and the writer’s credibility. However, it’s entirely possible that this fear has lead to a diametrically opposed problem. There may be too much distance between him and me, and by extension the audience.
There’s also the problem of world-building. I think part of the issue in opening this tale is that we have an entirely new world. I want to set the scene as much as possible by talking about the society our would-be hero was raised in, so it can be compared to the reality of what’s outside his little bubble. I’m probably bogging down the flow as a result.
This is why I’m considering switching back to first person.
The thoughts and emotions will be more immediate. I’m likely to cultivate more energy and drive by removing the barrier between reader and character. And if things start to bog down, I can sit back and ask myself “Do eighteen-year-old bookworms think like that? Did I?”
Or I could simply try to pare down some of the slower bits of the first few chapters I’ve gotten through. It’s hard to say which course is best.
Follow-up to my review of Suzanne Collins’ first book in the Hunger Games trilogy.
They say the second chapter of a trilogy is its darkest. The stakes are heightened, the danger deepened, families torn apart and friends forced to make deadly and dire choices. For examples of this, look to The Empire Strikes Back, The Two Towers, The Dark Knight, Mass Effect 2 and now, Suzanne Collins’ Catching Fire. It builds on the momentum established in The Hunger Games and draws the reader into the dangerous, hauntingly familiar and all too possible nation of Panem.
Katniss Everdeen, victor of the last Hunger Games, should be able to retire to a peaceful life in her home district, where her winnings and fame can feed the coal miners and families she grew up supporting through illegal hunting. However, her actions during the Games have had unforeseen consequences. Katniss, the girl on fire, has sparked something in the hearts of her fans all over Panem, and the smoldering dissent they feel is fanning into the full-on inferno of revolution. President Snow’s wish is for Katniss to downplay this if she can, to play the Capitol’s games once again. And if she fails, it’s not just Katniss’ life that will suffer or even end – it’s the lives of everyone and everything she loves.
Catching Fire does two things that the middle chapters of a trilogy can and should always do: expand the world and deepen the characters. We see more of Panem as Katniss takes her Victory Tour around the country, and characters who were given sketches of interesting pasts are more fully realized, like Haymitch and Katniss’ mother. I hesitate to mention other characters for fear of spoiling the myriad twists and turns the plot takes almost from the very beginning.
Even moreso than The Hunger Games, this book seems nearly impossible to put down. It seems like every few pages, there’s another surprise awaiting Katniss, something that upsets her momentum or throws her into flickers of doubt and despair. Yet this never becomes repetitive or exhausting. The pace is so meticulous and the timing so precise that as much as the events are artificially created by Collins as the author and the rulers of Panem in the story, the flow is natural and always exciting. And just when you think things are going to get better…
Well, read the book, and find out.
Catching Fire does fall a bit into the trap of some trilogy middle chapters in that it occasionally feels like a stopgap between the opening that drew us in and a conclusion that promises to rock our world. However, for the most part, Collins’ sense of pacing and character overwhelm any feelings we may have that the plot is not advancing. The focus remains on the characters, not the events, and those characters are as brilliant as ever.
I recommend this book as highly as I did The Hunger Games. It’s made me eager to read Mockingjay to find out what happens next, and if heading into my local library as quickly as possible to make that discovery isn’t an endorsement, I don’t know what is.
On our final trip to the local Borders book store, my wife and I picked up a few things, such as Earth: The Book, which is every bit as hilarious as you can imagine, and the first collection of the Path of the Planeswalker mini-comics based on Magic: the Gathering. On something of a whim, I also picked up the first novel in a trilogy penned by Susanne Collins called The Hunger Games. As I’m aiming one of my novels squarely for the upper end of the young adult audience, I figured it would be good for me to know what I’m up against.
Finishing this book has convinced me I need to step up my game.
“May the odds be ever in your favor.”
The Hunger Games opens with a bleak picture of our future. After some North American catastrophe that is merely hinted at, we are introduced to the nation of Panem, a glimmering but austere Capitol surrounded by twelve specialized and somewhat downtrodden Districts. Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, hails from the coal mining District 12, where she and her friend Gale must hunt in the forests (illegally) for food and supplies their families wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. At sixteen, Katniss has spent most of her adolescence signed up for the Hunger Games, where two children conscripted from each District fight to the death for the honor of bringing home wealth, food and prestige. When Katniss’ little sister’s name is drawn for this years Games, Katniss volunteers in her stead. What happens next goes far beyond the needs of Katniss’ family and opens up a greater world of danger, intrigue, romance and adventure.
Suzanne Collins clearly has a plan that extends beyond this book. As the first part of a trilogy, The Hunger Games must set up the characters, locations, events and themes to service the entire overall story. However, at no point does the book feel dry or overly expository. The perspective of Katniss both allows for the introduction of the necessary elements mentioned and keeps us firmly in the narrative of the story at hand. It’s a fantastic example of characterization and plotting woven together to create a coherent first act that manages to stand alone.
Speaking of characters, Collins also does a wonderful job fleshing out the people of Panem. Katniss as a heroine is at once strong and vulnerable, intelligent and naive. She feels, talks and reacts like a real person, with palpable confusion in some moments and grim resolution in others. Her fellow tribute from District 12, Peeta, shows a great deal of complexity as well, along with some of the adults involved and the tributes from other Districts. The entire enterprise from start to finish has all of the hallmarks of careful construction, not only creating this new world of a potential future but also giving readers a reason to care about it.
The sensationalism and spin doctoring of Panem surrounding the Hunger Games and the undercurrent of oppression and misery feels close to home. There are eerie similarities between the ways in which the Capitol interacts with its Districts and the rhetoric and attitude of certain elements in today’s world in general and the United States in particular. Between this similarity and the presentation of Katniss, Collins draws the reader in and refuses to let go, compelling each page to turn as the action unfolds. When the book is over, the readers is satisfied with the conclusion but left wanting more, which is exactly how any book should end, but especially when more are planned to come after it.
The Hunger Games is a wonderful book, deeply involving and a delight to read. And yet it’s only the first part of a greater narrative exercise. Subsequent books are poised to deliver more great characterization, a deeper exploration of the world of Panem, and more sleepless nights for the reader as they (that is, we) eagerly turn page after page. Good luck putting this one down.
If this is what the kids are reading these days, the work of aspiring novelists like myself has clearly been cut out for us.
Joseph Campbell is famous for basically saying that all storytellers are essentially telling the same story. Be it a myth based on the perceptions of the ancient Norse of their weather patterns or the all-caps melodrama and bright, splashy colors of a comic book by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, our stories are a way of exploring ourselves and the world around us. Sometimes, the old stories are reimagined and transitioned into new forms that appeal to the altered sensibilities of modern audiences. Sometimes this works; other times, it doesn’t. Not every middle schooler is going to have a nascent interest in the mythology of ancient Greece, so author Rick Riordan took it upon himself to set those stories in the foundations of those tumultuous schoolyards, giving us Percy Jackson & the Olympians. The first volume of this chronicle, The Lightning Thief, got the major motion picture from Hollywood treatment.
And by ‘treatment’, I mean the potential for storytelling that’s worth a damn got tied to a chair and worked over with a baseball bat.
Our titular character is a struggling middle-school student with apparent dyslexia and ADHD. His mother is married to a complete and utter douchebag while his birth father scampered off while Percy was still a newborn. His best friend, Grover, walks with crutches and has a penchant for cracking wise that works really hard to put Chris Tucker to shame. A visit to the local museum and a lecture by his wheelchair-bound Latin teacher begins to reveal some truths to Percy: his dyslexia is due to his brain being hard-wired to read ancient Greek, mythological creatures want him dead, his best friend is a satyr and his teacher’s a centaur. Oh, and he’s the son of Poseidon, Greek god of the sea. He must undertake a quest to return the lightning bolt of Zeus lest the king of the gods starts a massive war over its theft. Why Zeus would leave his trademark weapon which also happens to be the Olympian equivelant of a tactical nuclear strike laying around unattended is one of the many, many unanswered questions brought up in the course of this plot. Odin had a damn treasure vault for stuff like this, and Zeus couldn’t even slap a “No Touchie” magical whammy on the thing? But let’s move on. I don’t want to spend my entire rage quotient in the second major paragraph.
Having never read this series of books, I can’t comment on how well the narrative of the novel transitioned into the screenplay. What I can comment on is a visible shift in style and pacing by director Chris Columbus. This is a man best known for his light-hearted, kid-oriented films such as Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire and Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. The Lightning Thief feels a bit like an act of teenage rebellion against those more childish forays into filmmaking. While once we might have spent more time with Percy at home or school learning about what makes him tick and how he deals with the challenges of his young life, we’re thrust into the action almost immediately and given very little time for exposition.
This is both a good thing and a bad one. Exposition, after all, is difficult to get right and more often than not becomes an anchor welded around the ankle of the story, dragging the audience into the cloying darkness of boredom. However, without even passing attempts at exposition the story is left adrift, batted without foundation between one event and the next with nary a thing to connect them. Percy’s got a quest for a series of magical MacGuffins and an incidental need to rescue his mother to keep things going, but these elements have their own problems, seperate from those plauging the rest of the film.
It would be one thing if the MacGuffins were tied one to the other by clues that needed to be investigated on the scene where each is found. Instead our heroes have a magical map that just tells them where to go. Cuts down on stuff like intellectual curiosity and character building, sure, but who needs that stuff when you have mythological creatures to battle with swords? As for Percy’s mom, her character is also given something of the short end of the stick, and while most people would be genuinely concerned with a parent’s sudden death or disappearance, Percy reacts to the incident with a bit of dull surprise, quickly lost when he spots the girl. Because, you know, hormones are a much better motivator for moving a story along than concern for a loved one.
Without decent motivation or characterization for our hero, all we have left is action and spectacle. Again, the film falls short of delivering these elements without making things either bleedingly obvious or unnecessesarily dense. Instead of discovering the ways and means of his water-based demi-god powers, Percy has to be ham-handedly told how they work. Our heroes get out of their first two major scrapes thanks to everybody in the world having seen Clash of the Titans at some point, without explaining this point in-universe. The intrepid band spends five days in a pleasure palace before Percy’s dad calls him up on the Olympin telepathiphone to inform him of the fact that they’re farting around in a pleasure palace. And this says nothing about the aforementioned girl, supposedly the daughter of the goddess of wisdom and battle strategy, not employing the most practical and straightforward means of ending confrontations possible. Sure, it’s in keeping with traditions to train with swords and bows and whatnot, but just think how many of these encounters Annabeth could have resolved more quickly, directly and painlessly with the implementation and distribution of fucking guns.
Let’s see, what else is wrong with this flick? Grover’s irritating from start to finish, the only character who has interesting motivations and character beats in the slightest gets maybe five minutes of screen time, there’s no real tension and any attempt the story makes at trying to be more than a pandering and predictable distraction for middle schoolers just trying to make out in the back of the theater is slapped down in favor of more of that blunt telling over showing bullshit I’ve harped about for the last three minutes. Given my personal interest in stories like this reworked into other settings and genres to prove their viability and longevity, I wanted to like The Lightning Thief, but the more I watched the angrier I got. No amount of Sean Bean or Kevin McKidd can save this flick. Harry Potter does a much better job of giving us relatable adolescent characters in a fantasy setting, and cribbing notes from Clash of the Titans made me yearn for the early 80s schlock of that original film and wonder about how bad the new version is. I guess I’ll find out next week. For now, skip Percy Jackson. Give the books a try if you’re part of the target demographic, but if you’ve already read Harry Potter and aren’t frothing at the mouth for more of the same, I doubt you’re missing much. Find Madeline l’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time or T.H. White’s The Once and Future King instead. They’re classics, they’re poignant, and you don’t have the token black character weighing the whole thing down with his attempts at being both the ethnic wisecracking sidekick and the Magical Negro. But at least you can make a fun drinking game out of every moment the so-called heroes of The Lightning Thief just get a solution handed to them and don’t have to think for themselves, much like the audience.
Wait. Scratch that. I don’t want to be responsible for any of you dying from alcohol poisoning.
The example is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
… Yes, I watch My Little Pony. Get it out of your system now.
Anyway, I vaguely remember the original cartoon from the ’80s. My sisters were into it. I was more of a mind for Transformers, as I’ve mentioned, because robots that become cars and change back were far more gnarly than girly ponies. I was too young to pay attention to things like plot (which was non-existent), characters (who only rose above ‘broad archetype’ on rare occasions) and Aesops (that got beaten into your soft heads every episode) when things were exploding in a colorful fashion. But that was kid’s programming back then. It was safe.
Fast forward about twenty-five years and some hard-learned lessons about what does and does not make for good storytelling. When I was first made aware of the new Ponies, I was skeptical. I’d seen what they’d done to Star Wars and my beloved Transformers, after all, and besides it was ponies. I didn’t indulge or even glance at the show for the longest time. Then my wife got into it. I figured I’d try at least one episode, make her happy, secure the future of my sex life, maybe have a laugh.
I wasn’t expecting to get hooked.
I wasn’t expecting good characterization. I wasn’t expecting well-done animation and decent voice-acting. I wasn’t expecting legitimately funny, frustrating, joyous and touching moments.
And I certainly wasn’t expecting dragons, hydras, a cockatrice or a griffon so bitchy I’ve never wanted to roast a lion-bird on a spit so much in my gorram life.
My Little Pony isn’t afraid to go shady places. It deals with jealousy (a lot, I guess that’s a problem for girls growing up), isolation, growth from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood, fear and even crisis management and racism, all in the context of the magical kingdom of Equestria and without being terribly overt or insensitive about things. Sure, there’s an Aesop every episode but they range from mildly anvilicious to rather well-presented. I mean, they do a Clients from Hell episode. I wasn’t all that inclined to like Rarity (the seamstress unicorn) but watching her put up with the demands of her friends as customers made me a lot more sympathetic and that feeling hasn’t gone away. Clients suck, whether you’re building websites or magically assembling pretty dresses for your pony friends.
She’s not a shopaholic. She’s an artist. HUGE difference.
…Where was I? Right, children’s lit.
My point, other than these ponies being awesome, is that the show and its writers go into the darker corners of a girl’s adolescence and drag some pretty nasty issues kicking and screaming into the light so that the girls in question can face them without fear or shame. As I said, some of the Aesop-dispensing is a tad on the overt side, but when this show cooks it does so with gas as well as gusto. The relationships of its characters, the way they handle situations and the delivery of their lines is handled so adeptly and consistently that I can’t help but feel very strongly about the show. This is how children’s entertainment should work. This is how you write young adult lit well without sacrificing decent characterization, complex themes and dark subject matter.
The writers and animators of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic are wise in that they handle their stories in this way, and also in the way they keep the humor working on levels other than juvenile slapstick for any adults that watch and in the very adept and clever ways in which they handle character relationships and their reactions to the subjects at hand. While some cartoons and even major motion pictures and triple-A video games look at writing as a necessary evil to string together a series of flashy spectacles, this show knows its writing is the foundation upon which its appeal and meaning are built. Those other, flashier, more ‘masculine’ forms of entertainment could take a lesson or two of their own from this humble, pretty, bright and very awesome girl’s cartoon.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go do something manly. Like bench-press something, or drink really crappy beer while yelling obscenities at a sporting event.