Creating Teen Characters For Dystopian Novels, by Sam Hawksmoor
Why does Katniss work so well as a character in The Hunger Games? (Although I never really saw Jennifer Lawrence as my Katniss, I eventually warmed to her). She knows hunger. She knows courage and rebellion. She breaks the rules daily to hunt for food to feed her family. She understands self-sacrifice and is devoted to her family. All of this is in the first chapter of the novel. Who couldn’t like her? That she is thrown into this terrifying Big Brother Reality Arena with weapons as she is forced to fight to the death is the thrill, of course, but so too is her magnanimity and compassion (this is also her flaw).
If you think people (teens in particular) like this don’t exist, you weren’t watching the 2012 Olympics. Jessica Ennis won gold in the heptathlon. Running, jumping, javelin throwing, yet more running, and hurdles over water jumps and hazards. Four years of dedicated training, 15 hours a day, forcing yourself on through injuries, all kinds of setbacks, challenging yourself, submitting yourself to endless heats, never accepting defeat but renewing your efforts each time you are beaten. Multiply this by thousands and thousands of young athletes dedicated to the glory of achievement with a medal rather than financial reward and you will understand that Katniss has done the required 10,000 hours it takes to be a champion.
Creating teen characters who will strive, survive, love with all the intensity of a small nuclear explosion (and hate in the same strength) is what it takes; all this tinged with regret for the fleeting times between 15 and 20 when everything is so important and immediate, so much about you. Every relationship is ‘the one’ until the next one. Every break-up is devastating until the next one. Your hormones are raging and won’t leave you alone. Your life goes from total focus to total distraction in a flash and all around there is betrayal, paranoia, expectation, utter boredom and restrictions. Even so, you are supposed to make plans for your life and career. You either know exactly what you want to be or have absolutely no idea at all and everything seems out of reach. Your parents are conspiring against you. Girls you knew at school last year are going past the school with babies, and some have dropped out because of all the stupid other temptations that trip you up on the way. You’re still there – slogging away at exams you hate for subjects you have no interest in. No wonder dystopia is in fashion. Who wouldn’t want to destroy all this and start over, only with a full fridge and working shower? The world is utterly mad – until he or she suddenly smiles at you and a door opens to new possibilities. Too late, you discover that love is not the answer – just the question. But that’s another story.
Characters emerge out of this seething cauldron. I’ll leave you with the words of Ferris Bueller from the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off:
Ferris: The question isn’t “what are we going to do,” the question is “what aren’t we going to do?”
Cameron: Please don’t say were not going to take the car home. Please don’t say were not going to take the car home. Please don’t say were not going to take the car home.
Ferris: [to the camera] If you had access to a car like this, would you take it back right away?
Neither would I.
Sam Hawksmoor’s author website: www.samhawksmoor.com
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