Enjoying the end times

Picture by thierry ehrmann via Flickr creative commons
Picture by thierry ehrmann via Flickr creative commons

Day after day, I’m currently writing science fiction with a grim setting. And I’m enjoying it. I’ve also enjoyed reading and watching quite a lot of science fiction that has that darkness to  it. The harrowing dystopia of the The Hunger Games. The post-apocalyptic teen angst of The 100. Hell, I’m still a fan of Games Workshop’s Warhammer 40,000 setting, even though I haven’t played or read anything set in it in years.

It seems almost perverse to take pleasure in such dark futures. After all, this is science fiction, a form designed to show the amazing and wondrous things that the future could hold. So why do we do it to ourselves? Do we find hope in seeing people struggle against the darkness? Do we find failed futures more convincing? Do they act as a warning? Is it just easier to create conflict that way?

It genuinely perplexes me. There are so many potential explanations it’s hard to work out which are relevant, never mind common for those creating and experiencing this sort of fiction. So I’ll ask – do you enjoy dark science fiction, the stuff where bleakness plays a larger part in the setting than hope? And what about it appeals to you?

Willing ignorance

How far can we allow our characters or our narrative voices to be more ignorant than our readers?

I didn’t think this was a difficult question, but after listening to the latest episode of Writing Excuses I’m not so sure. In this episode they talk about the gap that sometimes exists between what the writer and reader knows of the world and what’s written on the page. I thought they were going to be talking about the dramatic potential in this, but instead they mostly discussed the pitfalls. The fact that, if a character says something inaccurate about science or a historical setting they’re living in, the reader may see this as ignorance on the author’s part and so be thrown out of the story.

True, sometimes this does reflect the author’s ignorance. But a lot of the time that’s not the case. Mary Robinette Kowal discussed a story she’d written in which a character was unaware of prejudices common in her setting. This was a deliberate move on her part as an author, and the book went on to address those prejudices and tensions. But for at least one reader she spoke with it became a block to reading the book. That ignorance on the character’s part seemed so implausible to her that she couldn’t go on with the story – she thought Mary was missing something crucial.

You can get around this sort of problem by lampshading it. Have the character be ignorant of something but have the narrative voice draw attention to that ignorance. But what if the character is providing the narrative voice? And how much lampshading can you do before that too becomes irksome to readers? Then it becomes much more difficult.

Of course this sort of gap can also be a powerful tool. Think of the dramatic ironies in J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls, when characters at an early 20th century dinner party talk of the unsinkable of the Titanic and the impossibility of war in Europe. Or the tensions in Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games books that arise from Katniss’s lack of awareness of her own circumstances.

But writer beware – it seems you can’t just throw those ironies around with glee. Be careful what your readers will think of your writing skills and how that will colour their reading of the book.

The danger of pity

Should we ever make our readers pity our characters?

It might seem like a natural way to build empathy and support. But when we pity a character we aren’t just acknowledging their suffering. We’re seeing them as vulnerable, as a victim of others or of circumstances. Pity is about seeing the weakness and suffering of others from our own position of strength.

This is a dangerous thing in writing. If we start to pity a character then we see them as less powerful, less in command of their own destiny. We aren’t seeing their ability to cope, we’re just seeing their suffering and, in a sense, belittling them into the role of victim. Doing that to a protagonist can really undermine them.

Of course it can also add depth and nuance. Look at The Hunger Games. Katniss is a complex character. Feeling pity sometimes plays into that. But it’s part of why she isn’t really a strong role model, for all that she’s a wonderful character. This isn’t someone idealised. It’s someone in trouble and turmoil, unable to take control of their life.

Big damn fashion hero
Big damn fashion hero – not words I ever expected to type

By contrast, Cinna the stylist takes a brave action in Catching Fire that has terrible consequences for him. Should we pity him? Or, given that he’s making a sacrifice for others, should we just admire his nobility, not weakening that with pity? Is there room for both, seeing a strong character laid low by his circumstances, forced to choose between right and safety?

My own thoughts on this are still half formed, inspired by an email from the Raptor but still seeking clarity. So what do you think? Is pity the right response to a character like Cinna? Is it a feeling we can nurture towards characters without undermining them? How is it best used in writing, and can you point out some good examples?

Help me think this one through please internet.

Catching Fire: three reasons you should read the book too

I considered reviewing the film of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, but it would have just been a gushing stream of enthusiasm. For brevity’s sake, my review is this: ‘it’s great, go see it’. To add some nuance, here are three reasons you should also read the book:


Getting inside Katniss’s head

While Jennifer Lawrence gives a brilliant performance as Katniss Everdeen, the books let you really get inside her head. Suzanne Collins does an amazing job of showing rather than telling just how traumatised Katniss is, and of drawing you into her interior world without making the books slow. She also manages to make readers understand things that Katniss doesn’t, even though the whole story is told from Katniss’s viewpoint. It’s an incredibly skilled piece of writing.

Extra details

Turning a book into a film inevitably means cutting things out. The film’s producers chose the right things to drop, but those details are still worth experiencing. There are secondary characters in the book who aren’t in the film and who add real depth to the world, as well as details of the rebels’ plan that are pleasingly clever.

More Peeta

Katniss isn’t the only tragic figure in these stories, or the only one worth more time than the film can give. My heart breaks every time I watch Peeta Mellark try to survive a fake relationship with the woman he loves, and I sometimes want to scream at Katniss for not understanding how much she’s hurting him. While Josh Hutcherson is terrific as Peeta* the book gives you time to really appreciate his situation.

So go see this film and read this book. They’re both brilliant.


* The consistent quality of the performances in the film also reflects well on Francis Lawrence’s direction – there’s barely a false note from anyone in the thing.


I love a good adaptation. Whether it’s HBO’s Game of Thrones or the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice, seeing something I love on the screen, seeing how script writers, actors and directors turn those familiar elements into something new, it’s pretty exciting.

Tonight I’m off to see Catching Fire, the second Hunger Games film. I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve written before about how powerful and skilfully written I think the books are, and I think that the first film did a good job of a potentially difficult transition from page to screen. But I’m going to see it with my friend John, whose criteria for judging adaptations are slightly different from mine. For John, as for many fans going to see stories they love, what matters is how faithfully it sticks to the original. For me that has a place but, more than with presenting the past on screen, what I’m really after is a film or TV show that can stand on its own two legs, inspired by the source rather than bound by it.

These two different attitudes to adaptation are where film and TV producers can get in trouble with their potential viewers. I think that the way Elizabeth is portrayed in the 1990s BBC Pride and Prejudice is fantastic, drawing out sympathy and contrasting with other characters. But I know that others feel she’s not as faithful to the book as she could be. And in the second season of Game of Thrones, I thought that putting Arya and Tywin Lannister together strengthened the narrative, but some people look at that and mutter about how it didn’t happen in the books.

You can never entirely please both sides.

The show that probably comes closest is The Walking Dead. They’ve taken a clever approach, one that probably only works because the original writer is involved and this gains the trust of fans. They’ve kept the characters and the scenario, as well as some of the story arcs, but thrown the detail of the narrative out of the window. In this way they’ve set their stall out from the beginning. They’re actually being more faithful to the unpredictably terrifying world of the comics by being less faithful to their storylines, and that works for fans both new and old.

Of course it’s an approach that wouldn’t work for a story like Game of Thrones, where that epic story is crucial, or a small, more contained work like Pride and Prejudice. But it’s an interesting experiment, and one that seems to be paying off.

So what are your favourite adaptations? What works for you and what doesn’t? How do you judge their success? Leave a comment, let me know.

Lessons learned – The Hunger Games 4: the road less travelled

This is my last post on The Hunger Games, for now at least. It’s spoilerific again, so, you know, read the books first then come back and read this. They’re really worth it.

Despite its title, this post covers the most well-worn territory in terms of the lessons I’ve learned from these books. Because ‘don’t do the obvious thing’ is old advice for writers, but Collins does it particularly well.

It would be easy for this trilogy to become triumphalist. The main character is a skilled, wilful young woman, pressed into danger by dark forces and her own desire to do good. Over the course of the trilogy, it turns into a story of defiance and rebellion against an oppressive establishment. The temptation to turn it into a gung-ho action story of good against evil must have been huge.

But that isn’t where the story goes. Everybody in it has their flaws, and the people who stand out against the darkness aren’t always good themselves. Shallow, unpleasant institutions can be turned to good ends, and good intentions can lead to terrible consequences, as shown by the deaths that follow Peeta’s act of generosity in District 11.

The romantic arc doesn’t pan out in an obvious way either. The love triangle isn’t neatly tied off with one party nobly sacrificing himself or finding another love. Feelings are complicated and difficult, love can be a challenge, and in the end Katniss doesn’t fall into a burning well of passion, but into the hard work of building a life together. I was happy with who she finally chose, but couldn’t help thinking that it wasn’t a healthy situation for him. The story didn’t show pure, romanticised Hollywood love. It showed a more complicated truth.

Collins’s choices about plot and character arcs often make for an uncomfortable read. But that makes the books all the more satisfying. They feel real. They feel raw. And if I can make such courageous choices, it’ll make my own writing a lot better.

Lessons learned – The Hunger Games 3: agency

I’m on the Hunger Games again today. Again, spoilers for the trilogy – please go read the books first, then come back.

When the Hunger Games film was released, much was made of Katniss as a female lead. Some people praised this strong female role model, drawing comparisons with the way Hollywood normally treats women. Others were more critical, challenging whether she actually has any control over her life, or is just a victim with more action. These are interesting points, but for me they point at something deeper, highlighting how Suzanne Collins treats individual agency in these books.

First, a point of terminology. Agency, a term I first came across in an undergrad social science module, refers to a person’s level of free will and control over their own life. It’s contrasted with structure, where our actions are defined by the existing forms of society and the world. So, when a criminal burgles a house you could ask how far this was his choice (agency) and how far it was the result of his limited learning opportunities and poverty (structure).

How does this related to Katniss? She’s flung into a life-threatening struggle by a brutal society and historic circumstances (structure), combined with her own choice to protect her sister (agency). Within the game, she is severely constricted by the nature of the game (structure), and by the plottings of others (structure, or at least not her agency). But she deals with this using her own skills and force of will (agency). Her actions are seldom a matter just of free choice or constraint. The final act of defiance with the berries is one of desperation, a startling free choice that goes against all the norms (agency) but is still constricted by the circumstances of the game (structure). In the world of the Hunger Games, as in real life, structure and agency are not separate but intertwine in a complex fashion. Freedom is a matter of compromise and interpretation.

This exploration of agency goes further in the later books, as Katniss is drawn, sometimes without realising, into the politics of Panem. Agency becomes much more complicated, with people acting as groups. As the resistance led by District 13 make harsh decisions, it becomes harder to tell how far any of the characters are following a path they would choose, or how far they are being driven by circumstances. Even as they make collective decisions, does this give them agency as part of a powerful group, or restrict that agency through the structures of the group.

Looking inward, Katniss’s own agency becomes questionable. As she suffers from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, how far are her decisions really a matter of free will (agency), and how far are they defined by the disorders from which she suffers (structure)?

Many stories simplify these issues, presenting characters as in control of their lives, or breaking free of the structures that bind them. Much like The Prisoner, their tales cry out ‘I am a free man!’ The Hunger Games takes a much more nuanced approach, and it is this that makes it so difficult to define Katniss’s place as a female lead. This is a strength of the books, not a weakness.

So, if you’ve read this far, what do you think? Did you see the same things in the books as I have? What do you think of Katniss as a lead character?

Lessons learned – The Hunger Games 2: like an onion

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.

Learning from The Hunger Games 1 – in her head

I’ve just finished reading the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. I say just finished, but I really only just started too, I got through the books so quickly. For me, they lived up to their reputation as enthralling reads, as well as traumatic ones. And they were stuffed full of smart writing technique. Just writing one post wouldn’t do this justice, so today I want to focus on part of it – getting inside the protagonist’s head.

For those who don’t know, The Hunger Games and its sequels centre around Katniss Everdeen, a young woman living in a dystopian future where annual blood sports keep the population under control through fear for the majority and entertainment for the minority. Katniss is the story’s narrator, and everything is told in first person present tense. This point of view gives the story a great deal of immediacy, and is well suited to Collins’s aim of getting right inside Katniss’s head. Present tense is an unusual choice, but it works well with the first person, and within a couple of pages I’d stopped noticing that it was different from any other book.

Collins spends a lot of time describing Katniss’s thoughts and feelings. I know that to sympathise for a character I need some of this, but this much would normally put me off. However, in The Hunger Games it becomes a strength. The thoughts and feelings are tied in to events happening around Katniss, events which are always of immediate significance to her. The thoughts themselves have action, impact and tension. We live in her emotional world, feel her joys and heartbreaks, and it’s this that makes the books so enthralling.

The cleverest part about all of this is that, for someone whose thoughts and feelings are so obvious to the reader, Katniss displays an incredible lack of insight. She isn’t stupid, at least not to the point of becoming annoying, but she lacks the emotional intelligence to fully understand other people. This allows the reader to see what is happening through Katniss’s observations without Katniss herself getting the point, and without ever drawing us out of her head. It also increases the tension in the story, as we long for her to work things out before it’s too late. Collins is incredibly deft at this narrative sleight of hand, so that, like the present tense, it feels natural rather than intrusive.

I’ll be honest, I’m not completely sure how Collins manages all of this. I’ll be re-reading chunks of the books to try to work it out. But it’s an incredible example, and one I hope to learn from.

So, readers, have any of you read The Hunger Games? And what did you think?