If you’re a fan of Young Adult (YA) fiction and you haven’t heard of The Hunger Games, where on earth have you been? The original trilogy, and blockbuster films that followed, skyrocketed in the early 2010s, making it one of the most popular book based fandoms of all time.
In honor of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes release earlier this year, I feel its high time to dive into what makes The Hunger Games series one of the best examples of dystopian literature in modern society.
Lesson 1: For Dystopia, World Building is Key
Admit it… if you’ve read The Hunger Games, you probably have mixed feelings about Panem and The Capitol. The more we read about them, we learn they’re absolutely terrifying, and yet somewhere deep down, we still have a small inkling of wanting to visit and see the world Katniss Everdeen lives in through our own eyes.
As readers, we learn from early ages that the setting of the story often plays a role in how the story unfolds. Sometimes the setting enforces physical challenges, such as the dangerous conditions in my friend M. Liz Boyle’s debut novel, Avalanche. Other times, the story’s world challenges the characters mentally and morally through its political structure.
While world building isn’t one of the highest priorities for contemporary fiction as the genre mimics modern society, creating a believable world that purposefully aids in driving the story forward is vital for the Sci-Fi, Fantasy, and Dystopian genres.
How to Build a Convincing Dystopian World
Though I haven’t written a dystopian novel yet, I have read multiple standalones and series within the genre. I’ve had inklings of ideas on how to craft the world, but haven’t sat down to write an outline yet. However, I have researched how to write a dystopian, and The Hunger Games is still one of the best examples I can find.
Social and Political Structures
According to Wikipedia, “Utopia and dystopia are genres of speculative fiction that explore social and political structures.” Therefore, the majority of constructing a dystopian setting should involve crafting a believable yet corrupt society. If you’ve read The Hunger Games series, you know that author Suzanne Collins excels at this.
The setting of The Hunger Games is Panem, a post-war North America that is now ruled by The Capitol. The Capitol rules over twelve districts (formerly thirteen). Tensions have been high between The Capitol and the districts since the districts rebelled three quarters of a century prior. While The Capitol folk live in prosperity and want for nothing, the districts are forced to work and provide food and necessities to be shipped back to The Capitol while receiving little for their own families.
This type of political society mirrors the real-life government model of communism, where the government controls production and allocation of resources and private enterprise is nonexistent. The Hunger Games provides an example as to how communism, while some countries operate under it today, has the potential to create hostility and conflict between the government and its citizens.
Keeping my own political views out of this as much as I can and trying not to make assumptions about Collins’s beliefs, what I’ve learned writers can take away from the political and societal structure of The Hunger Games is that when writing Dystopian, the more our world building can reflect existing governmental structures and pinpoint where those structures could become corrupt, the more believable our novels will become.
For Dystopian literature, I firmly believe creating a solid political/societal structure is far more important that the terrain or climate of the story. However, these can also play a part in how the setting affects the characters. The ever-changing Arena in The Hunger Games attests to this, as the Tributes are faced with physical roadblocks that often challenge them mentally or emotionally as well.
The geographical setting can also provide insight on the former government system that used to be where the current dystopian society resides. For example, Panem used to be North America. The Divergent series takes place in a corrupted, futuristic Chicago. By having the setting be a futuristic portrayal of an existing location, readers can wonder how the current government system failed and created the dystopian rule.
Lesson 2: Characters Need a Purpose/Stakes to Drive Them
Just like in any other genre, the overarching storyline of a good dystopian novel or series should be driven forward by the character’s quest to reach their goals rather than forward action forced upon them by physical challenges.
One of the main gripes readers have about the Divergent series, The Hunger Games trilogy’s top comparison series in the YA Dystopian genre, is that the main character, Tris, could have been swapped out with literally anyone else in Dauntless and we would’ve received the exact same book. The reason for that is Tris, unlike Katniss, didn’t have a definable goal or purpose she wanted to acheive other than to join Dauntless. Once she does that, action scenes fill in the rest of the series for us.
The goal of this post is not to claim that The Hunger Games is the superior YA Dystopian series and pick on Divergent. However, I feel the example is necessary for this lesson.
How to Give Your Characters a Goal/Desire
In contrast, The Hunger Games series starts out with the reaping for the 74th Hunger Games. Katniss, and her little sister, Prim, go to the reaping together. Katniss assures Prim, who has come of age to be part of the reaping, that she will not get picked. However, the odds are not in Prim’s favor, and she ends up being selected as the female tribute for District Twelve.
Here we are introduced to Katniss’s goal for the remainder of the book: to save Prim, fueled by the history of having to raise Prim while their mother suffers from grief of their father’s death. Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place in arena, taking a pivotal action step to achieve her goal (aka the Inciting Incident). The rest of the first book, and Katniss’s quest for survival during The Games, is all driven by Katniss’s desire to win for Prim. If she wins, her family will be well taken care of for the rest of their days.
So basically, what we as writers can learn from The Hunger Games‘s example is that our character’s desire can be constructed based on:
1) Their past experiences (ex: Katniss having to raise Prim, basically becoming her mother)
2) Their fear/misbelief (ex: Prim won’t survive without Katniss being there for her)
Lesson 3: Strong Female Characters are Allowed to Fall in Love
And *drumroll* here we go.
If you’ve read my past post on Strong Female Characters, you know I have some beef with how modern society defines a strong female. The main characteristic I define a strong female character with is Perseverance, not a STEM job or ultra-feminist beliefs.
And boy, does Katniss Everdeen define Perseverance. Against all odds, she fights tooth and nail to achieve her goals. Many people call her a strong female character because she’s good at kicking butt and taking names. But, there’s another side to Katniss I feel makes her strong as well.
Katniss, while dealing with the mess of The Games, the uprisings, and eventually overthrowing the government of Panem, falls in love along the way. Despite seeing how her mother’s heart was decimated when her father was killed. Despite knowing that The Capitol sees love as a weakness they can use to exploit their enemies. Despite realizing that Panem, ruled by the corrupt Capitol, is no place to raise a family.
Though The Hunger Games trilogy isn’t a love story and its primary focus is on the fact that Katniss is able to bring justice to Panem through her heroic efforts, it challenges the modern strong female character stereotype by allowing Katniss to fall in love.
A lot of the “Strong Female Character” discussions we see these days emphasize that “she’s a strong independent female who don’t need no man”. And, I personally resent this. It implies that women who are in a relationship 1) need a man to survive and 2) are only strong and independent if they don’t have a man.
That’s ludicrous. Katniss Everdeen effortlessly puts this misconstrued belief to rest. While she doesn’t need her true love to survive, he adds value to her overall survival. Being with him makes her happy and a peaceful future life with him gives her something to look forward to IN ADDITION to achieving her own, independent goals for herself.
Girls, no matter what modern society preaches, remember this: You can be both strong AND be in a relationship with a man, who is allowed to support you as you support him. Just like Katniss.
The Hunger Games has taught me the following about storytelling:
- Lesson 1: For Dystopia, World Building is Key
- Lesson 2: Characters Need a Purpose/Stakes to Drive Them
- Lesson 3: Strong Female Characters are Allowed to Fall in Love
Talk to Me, Arrowheads!
Do you like The Hunger Games series? What else has the series taught you about storytelling? Let me know in the comments!
Aim high, stay strong, and always hit your mark.