Mockingjay’s Flaw (The Limitations of Perspective)

One of the first decisions to make when beginning a writing project is perspective.  Is the main character going to tell the story herself (first person perspective), or will a more or less omniscient narrator take charge (third person perspective)?

Third person has always been my perspective of choice for writing fiction.  I like to stick close to one character, detailing what she sees, hears, and feels, before leaping away to focus on someone else.  George R.R. Martin uses the same technique in his series, A Song of Ice and Fire, as does Robert Jordan in The Wheel of Time.  Stephen King uses a variation of it in The Dark Tower; King frequently wanders from character to character mid-chapter, and sometimes skips off to detail some obscure corner of Midworld or fill in a scenic vista in broad strokes for his readers.

It is the style of big, sweeping epics.  You can have characters in two countries, or on two continents if you like.  You can move around a scene or situation, taking it in from different points of view.  You can still have a main character, or avoid identifying one character as the most central or important.

It is also possible to write without ever quite landing on any one character, but this tends to be an antiquated style.  It is used in myths, legends, and the Bible, but not so much in modern literature.

More focused stories can also be told in third person.  The technique is useful for exploring a character or the events he experiences with more insight and wisdom than the character himself has.  Jack London uses this technique in White Fang, an early 20th century speculative fiction novel detailing the life of an Alaskan wolf.

Because London chose to write in third person perspective, the reader gains insight not only into the events of White Fang’s life, but of the greater forces that shape his life.  White Fang may not understand the Alaskan Gold Rush, greed, addiction, or the psychology of abuse, but London does, and so London can elicit greater empathy for his titular wolf with third person perspective than he could if he forced White Fang to somehow speak for himself.

Similarly, the Harry Potter series uses third person.  It’s an interesting choice now, considering the recent surge of popular first-person, Young Adult novels (Twilight, Divergent, The Hunger Games), but I think it was the right one.  Through third person, we get a clearer picture of Harry Potter growing up than we would if he had to tell us about it directly.

It also allowed J.K. Rowling the flexibility to move away from Harry Potter’s direct experience from time to time, broadening her Wizarding World.  In first person, it’s always a bit awkward to take in a bigger picture, or add a second main character to also speak directly to the reader.

Which brings us to first person perspective.  It is the default perspective, the one we use automatically when telling others about our own lives and experiences.  It also has a long literary history, and can be used to great effect.

If you want to get really intimate, first person is the way to go.  Diana Gabaldon writes her Outlander series in first person, with steamy results in her bedroom scenes.  At the same time, because her main character Claire Beauchamp has traveled back in time, she is able to tell the reader about events and places far away from herself, and so Gabaldon’s 18th century world remains much larger than Claire herself.

I also imagine it is the intimacy of first person perspective that drives the popularity of series like Twilight or Fifty Shades of Gray.  First person is indeed a powerful tool.

First person is also the right choice if you want to deliberately narrow your reader’s worldview.  Mark Twain uses first person in A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and so we only become intimate with Twain’s fictive 7th century England as the titular Yankee does, and that serves Twain’s satirical purposes.

Alternately, first person is the only way to write an unreliable narrator.  Whether the narrator is an anti-hero or a straight-up villain, using first person gives that narrator the chance to give his story spin.  In Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov turns Humbert Humbert’s tale of manslaughter, kidnapping, and child-rape into a semi-comic romp.  It isn’t until the end when the full horror of what he has done to Lolita hits Humbert Humbert, and therefore the reader.

And that brings us to Mockingjay.

I love Suzanne Collin’s Hunger Games series.  I devoured these three books.  They are written in first person, which makes sense.  As Katniss Everdeen dreads, we dread.  Her perspective is limited, and so is ours, adding to the tension.  There is a scene in the second book, Catching Fire, where Katniss hears mockingjay birds (which mimic what they hear) screaming, and sounding suspiciously like her mother and sister.  It is possible that the sound has been manufactured — or has the Capital imprisoned and tortured her family?  She can’t know, and neither can we.

But the third book, Mockingjay, is problematic.  As the conflict becomes larger, as civil unrest grows into a civil war, the first person perspective suddenly becomes claustrophobic.  We’re stuck in a bunker with Katniss and her self-pity.  We’re led to believe that her propaganda videos are the most important element in President Coin’s strategy to overthrow the Capital — and that doesn’t make sense.  She’s important, but not that important.  Through Katniss’s vantage, the war is as distant and unreal as the war in Afghanistan has been to anyone without a soldier in the family.

Katniss does eventually put her boots on the ground in the middle of the main conflict, but even then her point of view is too narrow.  A major character dies off-page because Katniss is too busy running for her life to look back.  We do not see major events, we are told about them afterward.  This is deeply unsatisfying for a reader.

The obvious choice for the epic that The Hunger Games becomes by the third book is third person, not first.  Third person would have given Collins room to tell us about more battles, or the real effects of the war on the Capital and the Colonies.  We could have spent more time with Gale, Peeta, Presidents Snow and Coin.  The world would have seem larger, fuller, more complicated, more satisfying, and less sublimated to the vanity of Katniss.

But the first two books would have lost their edge, and the deep empathy created for Katniss.

It is a puzzle.  I don’t know if the books would have been as popular, or as gripping, had they been written in third person.  At the same time, the film adaptation does greatly improve the first half of Mockingjay by taking a more third-person approach with the script, and spending a good chunk of time with Katniss off-screen.

It just goes to show you, the stories you tell will be shaped and made great largely by how you tell them.

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