Counterpoint: Consider the Audience

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.

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About Jaclyn Sullivan

I'm a full time Instructional Designer and a sometimes adjunct professor of English Composition. I have a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from the University of Central Florida and I'm a published fiction and non-fiction writer. Check me out on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/jaclynmsullivan I'm a big fan of post-modern literature and swear by the lessons of Kurt Vonnegut. Some of my favorite writers include Lorrie Moore, Antonya Nelson, Grace Paley, Flannery O'Connor, Louise Erdrich, and Raymond Carver. I like Tom Waits, Andrew Bird, actual birds, pictures of cats, actual cats, animals in general, polka dots, exercise, iced coffee, reading, writing, tv-viewing, the Internet, and food. I dislike rain on days when my hair looks good, sweating, t-rex arms, public bathrooms, books being made into awful movies, and when The Walking Dead is on hiatus.
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8 Responses to Counterpoint: Consider the Audience

  1. idlelore says:

    That’s an interesting topic, one I’ve debated about endlessly with my own work. First, or third person? I think you’re right though, and Katniss wouldn’t be the same in the third person. I always thought I was a fan of third person only, but Bernard Cornwell does a great job at telling quite a few of his stories from that perspective. Granted, his protagonists tend to be the same person over and over again, but it works, and works well.

    What are your thoughts on the quality of writing in the Hunger Games? I feel like there might be books for different occasions, and this might be just for entertainment, and that’s ok. It’s difficult for me to accept books as merely entertainment, but I think that’s where a large segment of readers fall into.

    • I definitely think there are problems with the writing, specifically with sentence structure. I couldn’t figure out if it was intentional or not, but some of the sentence structuring was just weird. But, I certainly thought that for a YA novel the writing was fairly decent. I guess my feelings about it go back to audience. It was good for YA. I really liked Katniss as a strong female narrator, especially for a YA audience. After Bella Swan, the YA genre needs all the help it can get in the way of positive female figures.

  2. I’m right there with you on Collins’ choice of perspective. I feel like telling the story in first-person present gave the story a sense of urgency that couldn’t have been dealt out in another perspective.

  3. Mark says:

    Heh, since writing my post, I’ve had an extended argument with my wife about Katniss’s emotional, um, availability in Hunger Games, because she completely disagreed with me too. My MFA is in YA writing, so I was definitely reading it with the intended audience in mind, but I still couldn’t make a connection. As you say, something isn’t for everybody, so I think I may have missed the boat with it (for what it’s worth, I mostly enjoyed the movie…mostly). But I definitely agree about Katniss being a strong central female character, which we do need more of. So it’s a book that I feel like I should like more than I did, so I’m going to keep working with it. And I’m certainly going to read Catching Fire and MockingJay.

    • I’m glad to hear that you’re going to give the rest of the series a chance. I still have yet to read the other two as well (Target has been sold out!) but I think it’s a YA series worth keeping tabs on if for nothing else than the strong female narrator and the social commentary. It’s interesting that your wife disagrees with you too. While you studied YA and know to keep the intended audience in mind (and I hope you didn’t think I was suggesting that you don’t, that’s not how I meant it–I just want our students to understand why you and I might have different opinions about this) you’ve never been a 16 year old girl, so perhaps there’s somewhat of a disconnect there? That’s not to say that you have to have experienced the same things as a character to empathize, but in this case it seems to me that your disconnect stems more from personal connection and preference than to an actual problem with the point-of-view. I think it’s important to explore intention with these kind of things, and I felt that was missing from parts of your argument. It seemed to be a fairly vehement admonition of Collins’ choice to use first person without recognizing any of the reasons why she did that. I also took some issue with statements I felt were untrue, like that Katniss only cared for her sister. While I was reading your post I also thought about the post you wrote before that about not being able to get into the novel, which was before I had even started reading it, and I wondered if perhaps you went through the novel looking for faults because the beginning didn’t work for you. I personally didn’t have a problem with the beginning and I actually thought the world building was done fairly deftly, despite other problems in the prose. At any rate, debate is healthy and generally useful, and since Collins’ was able to evoke this kind of discussion she must have done something right.

  4. Kasey Day says:

    I’m a CRW student at Full Sail University, and I couldn’t wait to jump on this thread. I enjoyed Katniss as a narrator in the Hunger Games, but I think this was due to her being the polar opposite of Bella Swan from the Twilight Series. Katniss has her imperfections, certainly. At times she was a little too distant for my liking, but I prefer this to the overzealous and over dramatic Bella. I believe that Katniss is a stronger female lead, one that younger girls should feel comfortable about looking up to. Katniss placing her family’s well being before that of a love interest was an extremely endearing quality.

    • Kasey, thanks so much for jumping in on the conversation. I think we’d be hard pressed to find anyone would would argue with the fact that Katniss is a much stronger female narrator than Bella Swan–I know I certainly think so! Do you think that Katniss would be as appealing as a narrator to people who haven’t read Twilight and are unaware of Bella’s weaknesses?

  5. Pingback: Second Person POV: What The Heck Is It? | Full Sail University Creative Writing for Film and Digital Cinematography

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