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What I Learned from The Hunger Games

About 20,000 words into my cozy mystery, I aborted ship and gave up the genre. Writing about a book-loving heroine leading an idyllic life in an adorable seaside town was so very boring.

I happily breezed through the scenes of death and destruction and emotional turmoil, but when it came to the heroine's cute dates with her dreamboat crush and the sugar-laden tea parties with her quirky friends, I couldn't do it. I'm not the sort of person who can portray the world as sweet and fluffy, topped with pink frosting and sprinkles. So while I enjoy reading cozy mysteries, I can't write them.

Now I'm back to an idea that's been rattling around in my head for a year or so, but I was too afraid to try because it's different from anything I've read or written before, an action-packed fantasy set in historical Asia filled with political intrigue, fight scenes, and a touch of romance. The two-word elevator pitch: "steampunk ninjas."

Usually when I start a new writing project, I try to find popular books in the same genre to study. But Western novelists don't write about steampunk ninjas. Our historical fantasies take place in either Medieval Northern Europe, a la Camelot and Middle Earth, or Victorian Britain/America. Our storytelling style also focuses on one hero fighting one central villain. Americans aren't keen on the head-hopping, time-skipping, name-dropping style of classic East Asian novels like Luo Guanzhong's Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Jin Yong's Legend of the Condor Heroes.

The task of finding a popular novel to dissect for this project was a head-scratcher, until I spotted the perfect candidate on my own bookshelf: The Hunger Games.

The Hunger Games is not about steampunk ninjas. As a story that takes place in a futuristic dystopian America, it appears to be the exact opposite of a historical Asian fantasy. But it's not. In every respect but the setting, it's precisely what I intend to write, an action-packed fantasy filled with political intrigue, fight scenes, and a touch of romance.

In a previous blog post I said, "[Copycat novelists] see the success of The Hunger Games and Divergent and assume people like dystopian YA novels about teenage girls fighting oppressive dictatorships, so they write more dystopian YA novels about teenage girls fighting oppressive dictatorships. But these big-name novels aren't popular because of their settings. They're popular because they offer excitement and adventure."

After reading the first book of the Hunger Games trilogy, I'm even more convinced that the setting and basic premise of the trilogy are not the root of Suzanne Collins' commercial success. Rather, she succeeded because she carefully crafted the story elements to appeal to young readers. I believe she could have set it in any time period, any place, and it still would have been popular for the following reasons.

The story is packed with action and drama.

Collins doesn't shy away from raw emotions and brutal subjects. Characters feel intense rage, despair, and fear. They face the worst situations a human can: starvation, torture, the loss of loved ones, and helplessness in the face of certain death. The book is an emotional roller coaster that offers young readers the extreme highs and lows they love to revel in.

Every scene is full to the brim with action and emotion. In many books the story grinds to a halt for whole pages while the author describes the scenery or the food or a character's appearance. But in this book, the action moves forward on every page. Any lulls in the action are deliberate, like Collins sticking Katniss and Peeta in a cave for three days to develop their tortured romance. Otherwise, the plot train stops for no one.

Even descriptive passages tell stories. A mountain isn't just a mountain—it's a trigger for Katniss to recall a precious memory with her father, or to explain a landmark in the history of Panem. A piece of bread isn't just a piece of bread—it's a symbol of how precious food is in this dystopian world. If birds are singing in the trees, they're birds that were genetically engineered for war and became metaphors for peaceful rebellion and human resilience. There are no extraneous birds.

The protagonist is heroic, but not a goody-two-shoes.

Katniss is an unimpeachable hero. She's smart, strong, mature, humble, and beautiful. She refuses to cry even when she's saying goodbye to her family before being shipped off to her death. She performs impressive and unlikely feats, like sticking it to the adults who underestimate her at her skills evaluation and outsmarting gangs of bloodthirsty bullies during the Games. And of course she's an underdog, a street urchin from the deep South with nothing to her name but her spunk and wits.

She doesn't have any faults that readers would genuinely dislike: pettiness, arrogance, selfishness, etc. Her only shortcomings are ones that teenagers will approve of and identify with: she can be brutal for the sake of her loved ones, she has a hot temper in the face of injustice, and she resents her mother for being weak and unreliable. Every teenager goes through a period in which they hate their parents for failing to be perfect saints.

Objectively, Katniss is a very reactive character. She spends most of the book hiding and tending her wounds until the Gamemakers or the Careers force her to come out and fight. The things she needs literally fall from the sky when she needs them. Katniss doesn't "win" the Hunger Games so much as survive them with a great deal of luck.

Still, she comes across as a heroic character because of her voice. Readers care a lot less about what a protagonist does than about how a protagonist speaks and acts. They want ideal, likeable heroes, and Katniss fits the bill.

In fact, if I were to accuse her of any real flaw as a character, it would be that she's too awesome. Nobody who lives outside the pages of a book (or the screen of a movie theater) could consistently shoot squirrels in the eye with a handmade longbow. But when you're writing for young adults—or for people in general—making a heroine "too awesome" is much better than making her "lame."

There's a strong aspect of wish fulfillment.

Because of her beauty and virtues, Katniss becomes a celebrity and a heroine of the people. Everyone in her hometown gives her a touching salute when she volunteers to take her sister's place in the Games. All eyes in Panem focus on her during the parade, the whole world regularly chants her name, and two handsome boys have been secretly in love with her for years.

Other than the bit about the country going to hell in a hand basket, this is the dream life of every teenager and many adults.

Even the setting, though dystopian in principle, is somewhere people would want to live. The Capitol of Panem resembles the Emerald City in the merry old land of Oz. People with crazy neon skin walk around in cool futuristic fashions. Like Dorothy, Katniss has a posse of beauticians who make her look like an exotic princess. Her room at the Training Center is full of toys straight out of Star Trek, like a contraption that magically styles her hair in a glossy curtain and a kiosk that zaps up any snack in seconds.

Plus, she gets to gorge herself on gourmet meals polished off with cake, and it does her good because she's too skinny. (Screw you, Katniss. Screw you.)

Collins' portrayal of the Capitol surprised me, because every other dystopian novel I've read emphasized how scary the future could be, not how fun it could be. I expected the usual toxic ruins of once great cities, the pale masses huddling together for warmth in dank subway tunnels, the fights to the death over moldy scraps of food. I was not expecting crystal elevators, gorgeous rooftop gardens, and evening gowns made of dazzling gemstones.

The term "wish fulfillment" is often used derogatorily, to imply that a work is insubstantial, unrealistic, and mercantile. But it's a very important part of any story, because it's the primary reason people read. People read romances to dream about falling passionately in love with handsome millionaires who treat them like royalty; they read historical novels to dream about living in simpler times and wearing elegant clothes; they read mysteries to dream about using their smarts to save the day and restore order to the universe. Wish fulfillment is the reason Jane Austen has avid fans 200 years after her death, why Disney's live-action Cinderella grossed more than $120 million worldwide in its opening weekend, why the Star Trek franchise is still going strong, and why J. K. Rowling is still the world's richest author eight years after the last Harry Potter book was published.

And I have no doubt that it played a key role (if not the key role) in the popularity of The Hunger Games. Every kid wants to be a beloved star like Katniss, and reading about cool fashions and toys is a lot more pleasant than reading 400 pages of misery, misery, misery.

There's tragic romance and comic relief.

No matter the basic recipe of a YA book, there are two spices that no author can skip if they want happy readers: romance and humor.

The Hunger Games has plenty of romance. I actually think it has a bit too much romance. Of all romantic polygons, triangles are my least favorite. But I'm not a teenager anymore. When I was a teenager, the romantic plot-line of a story was the only one that mattered, whether it was the main point of the story or not. I skimmed the boring historical/philosophical/political bits of Anna Karenina to see if Levin and Kitty would ever make up. I was mildly amused by Anne Shirley's misadventures with Diana, Matthew, and Marilla, but I got excited only when I saw the name Gilbert on the page. And forget stupid Voldemort and his stupid wizarding world wars—I was reading Harry Potter to make sure Ron and Hermione ended up together like they were destined to.

I believe that of every ten teenagers who read the entire Hunger Games trilogy, seven or eight of them do so primarily because they want to see Katniss and Peeta get married and live happily ever after. The whole restoring democracy thing is interesting too, but not interesting enough on its own to keep teenage hands from wandering away from the books and towards smartphones and TV remotes.

Another important aspect of the book is the clever humor, which Collins throws in at the moments you'd least expect it. The dialogue crackles with dark wit, especially when Peeta's in the scene.

"I've seen you in the market. You can lift hundred-pound bags of flour. That's not nothing."

"Yes, and I'm sure the arena will be full of bags of flour for me to chuck at people. It's not like being able to use a weapon. You know it isn't," [Peeta] shoots back.

"He can wrestle," I tell Haymitch. "He came in second in our school competition last year, only after his brother."

"What use is that? How many times have you seen someone wrestle someone to death?" says Peeta in disgust.

"There's always hand-to-hand combat. All you need is to come up with a knife, and you'll at least stand a chance. If I get jumped, I'm dead!" I can hear my voice rising in anger.

"But you won't! You'll be living up in some tree eating raw squirrels and picking off people with arrows."

Collins wrote for television for decades before she wrote The Hunger Games, and I think it shows in the dialogue. Her conversations have the snappy pace and tone of a classic Nickelodeon show, and she writes smart characters instead of relying on cursing or vulgarity for flavor.

If there's one thing I've learned by reading many reviews of books, movies, and TV shows, it's that Americans like their characters to be smart. We hate, hate, hate it when heroes or heroines act or speak like idiots. When I see many Korean, Chinese, or Japanese shows translated for American audiences, the comment walls are nothing but complaints about how annoying the main characters are. The weak, girlish heroines that charm audiences in Asia are seen by us as air-headed, and the humble, self-sacrificial heroes stuffed to the gills with filial piety are seen by us as dumber than a sack of rocks.

Westerners enjoy reading or watching characters like Gregory House, Veronica Mars, Lord Peter Wimsey, etc., who are smarter than everyone else and talk like it. So when Peeta hides his badly injured body in the mud and quips, "Frosting: the final defense of the dying," it's right up our alley.


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