I say it constantly: nothing is for everyone. While we as writers may hope and wish that everyone who reads our stories will be enamored, the reality is that we cannot write to please them all.
Earlier this week my colleague wrote about point-of-view on the blog and used the recent popularity of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games as an example. You can read his post here. If you scroll to the bottom you can see my somewhat impassioned response in which I heartily disagreed with him. I guess this might raise some eyebrows, but different writers have different opinions and I think talking about differences of opinion are useful, if not necessary, when it comes to teaching. I often tell students to remember that I’m not the be-all end-all of creative writing, and if they truly believe a piece of advice I’m giving is wrong for their character or their story, to not listen to me. Of course, I did go to school for creative writing and I’ve been teaching it for several years, so I generally know what I’m talking about, but people have different tastes and sometimes what I want might be completely different from what another teacher, writer, or publisher might want. Case in point: my colleague thinks that The Hunger Games would have been a better story if it had been written in the third person point-of-view and I couldn’t disagree more. I found Katniss to be a believable and reliable narrator. I think the use of the first person narrator in the story was appropriate for the world Collins built and for the intended audience. I feel that a third person narrator would have been inconsiderate to the audience.
While The Hunger Games has garnered incredible attention from people of all ages, teenagers are the intended audience. Katniss Everdeen is a 16 year old female protagonist. The median age of the intended audience for the novel is—hey, look at that!—16 year old girls. She’s moody and embittered by the world she lives in; first of all, who wouldn’t be, and second of all, how many 16 year olds do you know who aren’t moody and embittered? Panem is a horrible place and The Hunger Games are a sick, disgusting exploitation of its people. I find Katniss empathetic because her reactions to her world are believable and realistic for a 16 year old girl, especially one forced to be the sole provider for her family. Her connections to people are appropriate for her age and situation. She doesn’t only care about her sister, as suggested. She also cares for her mother, for Rue, for Gale, for Peeta, and for Cinna, in whom she sees something different from the other people working in the Capitol. Her ability to recognize his inherent goodness is crucial to her development as a character. The use of the first person narrator also allowed for the audience to experience the humilations of the Games from a tribute’s point of view. Imagine being Katniss, naked and vulnerable, in front of the stylists from the Capitol. Would that scene have been as effective with a third person narrator? If this were to be a third person narrative, we would miss out on the nuances of Katniss’ personality and ability to emote in her own way, and I feel that a hindering filter would be put on the entire world Collins built. When teenagers are your audience, it’s important to play to their intense emotions and general sense of idealism. While I think any rational person can agree that the concept of The Hunger Games is seriously disturbing, teenagers tend to have heightened emotional responses to situations, particularly ones where human rights are brought into question. They can fill in the gaps that Katniss’s perceived “coldness” might leave because they’ll “get” it. By being a first person narrator, Katniss allows the intended audience to get right into her muddy boots.
I could go on and on in defense of the use of first person in that story, partially because I’m a big champion of first person narration, but also because I really believe it was the right choice for the intended audience. The novel is not perfect–far from it. My response to everyone who has asked me how I liked it has been, “It’s not perfect, but it was definitely good for what it strived to be.” As a writer, I’m also a careful reader, and as a reader I have to always keep in mind who the author intended to impress with his or her writing. When an author can reach unintended audiences in addition to the intended audiences, it’s a feat to be admired. It’s certainly not unheard of (hey, J.K Rowling!), but it’s no less impressive when it happens. Speaking of Harry Potter, there’s a book that’s appropriately written in the third person. The first novel begins with the protagonist in the dark about who he is. The use of a third person narrator in that case proves to be useful and is appropriate for its intended audience. Despite its wild popularity with people of all ages, the Harry Potter series was originally intended for children, and third person narrators tend to be good for children because they fill in a lot of potential gaps and give a lot of description and history that’s necessary for a story of that caliber. There are so many characters and so much time passes from the first novel to the seventh that the use of the third person lends itself as a useful tool for world-building. The Hunger Games series, on the other hand, spans over only three novels and a relatively short amount of time in the protagonist’s life.
I always remind my students to consider their audience. When I read their work, I try to consider who I am in the realm of their intended audience. Gangster shoot-out stories aren’t usually intended to entertain female English teachers in their late twenties, so rather than look at how much I like or don’t like that kind of story, I evaluate based on craft and adherence to the lessons taught in class.
So for what it’s worth, I think it’s fine that my colleague didn’t love Katniss as a narrator, but I think it’s worth noting to students who are learning how this whole creative writing thing works that his demographic wasn’t who Collins was writing for.