There isn’t a way to discuss contemporary young adult literature without slamming headfirst into The Hunger Games. Whether onto itself, or in comparison to other books, it is undeniable that Suzanne Collins’ series has made its way into the worldwide conversation of YA. There are a number of reasons why the books are so popular among such a diverse audience. Personally, I’ve reread them and re-watched the movies mostly because I empathize with the characters. Heck, I downright like Katniss. Also, even though I know the ending, I’m still excited to find out what happens next.
So, the question is: how does Collins successfully create characters and plot that readers continually return to? The answer is through the creation, expression, and raising of stakes . Stakes assist with creating characters, and building characters assists with defining stakes. Character and stakes are the double-helix spindle running through the book’s spine; the backbone of story. Unfortunately, these writing aspect do not lend well to line-by-line analysis. Their creation is somewhat theoretical, sometimes decided upon even before a word hits the manuscript page. They are part of the superstructure of fiction. Most likely, explored and chosen during the planning process and/or honed and adjusted in the second draft.
My current interest in stakes and character is purely selfish. I’m having issues with a work-in-progress and searched for the problem’s source. I spent days untangling threads; finally arriving at its lack of conflict, especially in the premise1. Without conflict, the story lacks drama, and without drama it’s boring. So, I asked why is it lacking conflict2? If story conflict is nothing more or less than (at least) two opposing desires, then I had to reconsidering my characters. Specifically, their desires, how those desires clash, their actions to obtain the desire, and the repercussions of failure. These questions define the story’s conflict and the characters themselves. The character’s goals and risks are a story’s stakes.
Donald Maass (pretentiously, yet accurately) explains stakes as “…I can usually stop a story pitch dead in its tracks by interjecting the following: ‘Hold on, your protagonist wants to [insert goal here], but let me ask you this, if he is not successful, so what?’… Then what? That is the essence of defining what is at stake. What would be lost?” (Paperback, pgs 59-60). Robert McKee in Story agrees, more eloquently:
What is the risk? What does the protagonist stand to lose if he does not get what he wants? More specifically, what’s the worst thing that will happen to the protagonist if he does not achieve his goal?…The measure of the value of a character’s desire is in direct proportion to the risk he’s willing to take to achieve it; the greater the value, the greater the risk.
(Hardcover, pgs 149-150)
By thinking about character, I was considering stakes. By revising the character’s desires and risks, I was redefining the manuscript’s stakes. For a character is nothing more than their desires and actions to obtain them3. The character’s sacrifices to procure their goal is risk. To create drama and tension, the author must create greater, more complex situations that hinder the character from attaining their goal. Complicating situations pushes the character toward greater sacrifice, enhancing their desire’s importance.
So, what is Katniss’s desire? At first, I thought: survival, staying alive. However, by asking why she wants to survive, I came to realize her concern is not her own survival. Her true goal is presented in the first paragraphs of the book:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
I prop myself up on one elbow. There’s enough light in the bedroom to see them. My little sister, Prim, curled up on her side, cocooned in my mother’s body, their cheeks pressed together. In sleep, my mother looks younger, still worn but not so beaten-down. Prim’s face is as fresh as a raindrop, as lovely as the primrose for which she was named. My mother was very beautiful once, too. Or so they tell me.
Sitting at Prim’s knees, guarding her, is the world’s ugliest cat.
(Nook App on iPad, pg 5)
Collins’ immediately illustrates Katniss’s devotion to her sister. Prim is loved, above all else, by Katniss, their mother and even an ugly guard cat4. So, if Prim is “what’s at risk” we can examine “how its at risk” and how risk is heightened throughout the novels.
The premise of the book contains plenty of inherent conflict. The Everdeen sisters lost their father and primary breadwinner, their mother is mentally untrustworthy, they are extremely poor, Katniss engages in illegal activities to feed them. Oh, and a bunch of rich people want to see them killed as entertainment. The stakes begin high, and we’re only at base camp.