Before I start this post, I should say that there may be spoilers for The Hunger Games books. If you haven’t read them, you might want to come back to this later. You might also want to go out and read them right now – seriously, they’re brilliant.
Anyway, a few weeks ago I discussed how well Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy gets inside the head of Katniss, the story’s protagonist. That skill supports multiple layers of understanding of the story, which also enrich the reading experience. To steal Donkey’s metaphor from Shrek, the Hunger Games is like an onion, and today I want to peel back the layers.
Firstly, there is Katniss’s understanding of events. Katniss’s limited understanding of people, along with the emotional scars she aquires during her journey, allows her only a limited understanding of events. She sees only the surface of what’s happening around her, or reads her own specific interpretation into the motives of others. This adds depth to the character, as it reveals her flaws, her mental habits and her emotional state. It’s a skilful piece of show not tell that adds richness to the character.
Then there’s the level of understanding a first time reader can achieve. Collins’s deft portrayal of Katniss’s thoughts and feelings allows us to see past what Katniss understands, and gain a deeper understanding of events. We see the things that Katniss doesn’t, such as Peeta’s very real love for her. As the political plot unfolds in the second and third books, our understanding is usually ahead of Katniss. How far ahead depends on the reader, but any reader gets to feel smart at working out things that Katniss hasn’t. This also adds a pleasing layer of irony to reading Katniss’s thoughts, and incredible tension as we realise that something she’s going to do, for the best of reasons, is completely misguided. To go back to the example of Peeta, we know what emotional harm she’s doing to him long before Katniss does.
Lastly, there’s the layer of plot that provides big surprises, the things going on behind the scenes. The biggest example of this is the finale of the second book. There are hints throughout the book at something going on, not enough to allow the reader to gain a full understanding, but enough so that everything slots into place afterwards. It left me reacting with a satisfied ‘aha!’, rather than a disappointed ‘what the?’ when the twist came. It allows for surprises for the reader as well as Katniss, and adds extra pleasure to re-reading.
There’s a natural tendency when telling a story to want to put it all out in the open for the reader to see, if through the skewed perspective of your characters. But Collins’s approach makes her books far more satisfying, in both plot and character.