Skip to comments.Chasing Katniss: Divergent Author Veronica Roth Builds Her Dystopian Empire
Posted on 10/09/2013 7:10:17 PM PDT by nickcarraway
On March 31, 2010, 21-year-old Veronica Roth wrote a blog post titled You + $$$ = ? Roth was a creative-writing major at Northwestern who planned to support herself as a proofreader after graduation. The exercise on her frequently updated blog was about imagining success: What would she do if she suddenly had the resources of Stephenie Meyer or J. K. Rowling? Roths answers were unapologetically practicalbuy a house in Wisconsin, invest, donate to charityand her wildest dream involved jumping into a pool of mini-marshmallows. Mostly, the aspiring young-adult author just wanted to work. Day jobs? Pshh. Who needs them? If I could set up a nice little room in which I could write all day and supply myself with infinite tea, Id be pretty much good. Two weeks later, Roth sold her first book, a dystopian YA novel about a society segregated by moral virtues and a girl who doesnt fit in. Divergent was published in May 2011 and spent eleven consecutive weeks on the New York Times childrens best-seller list; the sequel, Insurgent, debuted at No. 1 a year later. The series has remained there ever since, thanks to a wildly enthusiastic, bordering on maniacal, audience that includes not just teenage girls but their brothers, their mothers, and a growing number of childless adults (Divergent coincided with the rise of The Hunger Games, the industry-wide scramble to succeed Twilight, and the resultant YA dominance in the pop-cultural landscape). Since no popular YA series is without a movie franchise, Summit Entertainmentthe studio behind Twilightwill release Divergent early next year, and its cast (Kate Winslet, Next Big Thing Shailene Woodley) suggests similar expectations for the film version. Meanwhile, the contents of the trilogys upcoming final book, Allegiant (coming out October 22), are being guarded like Katniss Everdeen in the first half of Mockingjay. So if Roth isnt quite at Twilight or Hunger Games levels, then she would seem to be on her wayor far enough along, at least, to tackle a few things on the list she wrote three years ago. Find a house, maybe. Figure out what else grown-ups do with large sums of money.
She went for the mini-marshmallows instead. At the mention of her otherwise unfinished list, Roth shrugs politely. Dreams change, she tells me, which is a fair point coming from a 25-year-old. I keep forgetting this fact, since in person Roth is almost six feet tall and intimidatingly serious; at first, it is hard to picture her bathing in a tub of candy or spazzing over a book meant for teenagers. She could reasonably be hired as my babysitter. Then she suggests we get some ice cream, frets over the flavors, and is soon covered in cookie monster. Roth and I have come to Coney Island on a bright September day to stare at a Ferris wheel like the one that Tris, the heroine of Divergent, climbs without thinking. Were staring at it because the amusement park is closed and also because Roth wouldnt want to ride it, especially with a stranger. The action-book author is afraid of heights.
Shes afraid of a lot of things, actually, and fear, or how to overcome it, is what first inspired Divergent. I was in Psych learning about exposure therapy, she recalls. I wondered what would happen if there was a group of people who tried to create fearlessness using the technique. She started writing about those people instead of doing her college homework, and within 40 days she had a completed draft. The fear-chasers from class became the Dauntless, one of five factions in the crumbling future Chicago where Tris lives. Each faction has a different moral credo that governs its members lives; they are like Harry Potter houses, minus the magic. So you have Triss adopted Dauntless, who value bravery; the selfless Abnegation, in which she was raised; Amity (peace); Erudite (intelligence); and Candor (honesty). The division, established long ago by a mysterious group, is supposed to teach humans how to be good again, one value at a timebut Roths point is that none of these values is effective all by itself, and the order is disintegrating. Tris, unable to conform and in danger because of it, rebels against society in order to save herself. Divergent sold quicklyafter four days, to the first editor who finished reading itthanks to a familiar premise: stubborn teenage girl, divided society, kids fighting kids, civil war. The Hunger Games was just becoming a thing when I was finishing writing it, Roth says, and Divergent led the next wave of YA dystopian fiction. The timing worked in her favor, and so did the current distaste for fragile YA heroines like Twilights Bella Swan; Tris is strong and uncompromising (and a pain in the ass, really, but thats popular too, as surly, regular teenagers are more relatable). Despite its trendiness, Roth sees Divergent less as a traditional point a finger at society novel and more of a personal critique. Those virtues are the ones I believe in. And to kind of dismantle my own understanding of those virtues, or what it would be like to live this way, was a little bit like delving into my own psyche.
She didnt recognize it at the time, but Tris also became a test case for Roths own life. Not long after selling Divergent, Roth broke up with one boyfriend, started dating another, got married within a year, and moved (temporarily) to Romania (for her new husbands work). This is just a theory, but Divergent was sort of good for me, because it was a safe place to explore taking bold action, she offers. The things that Tris doesjump off trains, fly down zip lines, leave her familyare insane, and she comes from a sort of repressed environment. And I think my internal environment at the time I was writing it felt sort of repressed. It is Roths particular gift that she could experience this as a peer and then write it as an adult. It was a way to explore the possibility of making those kinds of big steps. And then when it was finished, I started making them.
As we wander around the boardwalk, I notice that Roth is dressed in head-to-toe black, like a member of the Dauntless, and that Im wearing Abnegation gray. This seems like a good excuse to go full fan-fic on Roth, so I begin quizzing her about Four, the curt, mysterious older boy who becomes Triss mandatory love interest. Roth drops a bomb: She wouldnt date Four. Too many secrets, not enough jokes, she says, laughing at my immediate outrage. On behalf of message-board readers everywhere, I keep at her, pointing out how dreamy Four is, how hes so sweet to Tris and such a jackass to everyone else. He appeals to her, Roth explains patiently, as if shes done this a thousand timesas if she is used to grown women confusing her fictional world for a real-life dating pool.
She is certainly used to obsessive questions about the third book in the Divergent series, and she deflects most of mine with ease. The closest I come to a spoiler is on the topic of sex, which Tris and Four havent had, because Tris is deeply afraid of intimacy. The barrage starts again: Are YA characters allowed to have sex? (Yes.) Have Tris and Four had sex off the page? (No.) Is this an abstinence series? (No. Roths Christianity has nothing to do with it; the characters just arent ready.) So theres a chance they could have sex sometime soon? Its not out of the question? Roth breaks into a grin. This is the only time shell yell at me, but its loud, and shes clearly not nervous anymore. Maybe you have to wait!
I always wondered, is Katniss the kind of female action movie/tv hero that Freepers want to see more of or less of. When it comes to female action heroes in the vein of Katniss, Buffy, Ziva David and others, on FR people are often pretty heavily divided on whether or not they should be on movies and tv screens. Some say yes, others say they have sucha negative influence that in an ideal world they would be banned from movies and tv shows for being too dangerous (yes i have seen people on FR who I suspect would want this).
To me it’s all about enjoying the books. The fact that these books are made into movies (usually very subpar to the book) that folks want to see is fine, but I don’t really even think about whether it’s a female or male protagonist or about them being somehow dangerous. I’m not clear as to why anyone would view them as dangerous.
The idea is that having females fight with males in these kinds of books and movies is a dangerous contortion of reality and leads to the degradation of our culture and our Judeo-Christian ethics. I have heard that said here more than once about movies/books/tv shows like the Hunger Games, Buffy, NCIS and cop shows with women as officers.
Haven’t seen shoes that funky since Joe Jackson’s “Look Sharp” album.
I think a more interesting female character is the dis-functional Lisbeth Salander of the Millenium series.
I can only tolerate mild doses of female action heroines.
It starts getting hard to suspend reality after awhile. Women aren’t GI Jane superheroine...I say this as a woman.
But I am willing to read Divergent.
Nick Cage as a computer nerd with latent SEAL skills in "the rock" was silly. An 110 lb heroine who can kick every kind of juiced up ass is a total departure from reality.
Part of the rise of the super-woman is feminism’s idea that women can do everything as good or better than a man. The other part is the loss of the honorable male hero in much of our society, so the girl has to save herself and everyone else because there are few guys willing and able to do it.
Some of the "virtues" this author believes in are actually not virtues: "selflessness" isn't a virtue -- in some contexts it isn't even a positive, "intelligence" is an accident of birth, and "peace" isn't anything at all.
It's not surprising that morally confused times produce morally confused ideas. I think you'll find FReepers who understand the cardinal virtues are less fussed about her gender (at least she has one, thank God for small favors) than how stupid the books sound.
Wow. That Lisbeth Salander was pretty boring to me. A one-dimensional projetcion of ultra-P.C. values.
I am not sure that is the sole issue here. I mean, Wonder Woman did come about well before the rise of second wave feminism, and I don;t think the original Charlie’s Angels or Xena or Resident Evil were created with the primary goals of making second and third wave feminists satisfied. I think what happened is that if you are going to have movies/shows/books what have zero basis in reality, which had been the case for decades, why not include both genders? I have a feeling that even if for a while we went back to the times when the action heroes were all John Wayne-Chuck Norris=-Jack Bauer types, it would only stay that way temporarily. Audiences’ tastes are fickle like that.
Here are a few examples where this kind of stuff is said:
and I could find more too once I look again.
Here are a couple more:
This is a total pet peeve of mine also—little women kicking big men’s asses, then they wonder what’s going on in our society: men from little boys being bred on violent video games where women and men are “equal” fighting partners. Yeah right.
That is fair enough. BTW, do you have an opinion on the whole Buffy/Katniss/Ziva/Xena type of superheroine? Do you like them, dislike them, wish they would go away or are you personally not really invested either way?
Adolescents are terrifically fascinating and terribly complex human beings. Kids, still, but also nearly adults and wrestling with all kinds of very difficult questions, ideas, and emotions. Katniss herself is in this age group, yet she is really not a very interesting or complex person. Her life seems to boil down to: "how can I protect my little sister" (whose death is about the most predictable, shallow, liberal cliché on the futility of war imaginable) "how can I project my own self-importance today" and "which boy should I like?"
To be fair, she's about the best developed character in the series, but that's not saying very much. Her love interests are both bland dimwits, her mother should be an interesting character, but isn't; and the secondary characters in the alliance and her enemies are essentially cartoon characters. So, she ought to stand out since the book is told from her perspective, and her presence is there 24/7/365. But ... she doesn't.
Let me take just one specific: she's killed people. Those of us who have done that, or love people who have, would never believe in a character as apparently unaffected by it as she is.
Now as for the series: if you've read real fantasy and science fiction, this is simply NOT imaginative science fiction. It's at about the level of a Star Trek plot, which is to say: NOT ... IMAGINATIVE ... AT ... ALL. As for original, also, NO. It was done in Japan about ten years before The Hunger Games was written.
It's mildly pleasant, a quick read and not nearly as frequently cringe-producing as Twilight (a series I also worked my way through, with much more difficulty.)
Bottom Line: There are much better female characters in adult fantasy and science fiction, and those books are accessible to moderately intelligent kids, who would enjoy The Hunger Games a lot less if they knew what they were missing.
Preppers should love Katniss because she makes her own bow+arrows, hunts, and has basic wilderness survival skills.
She is oppressed by two different governments who are both willing to kill her and at various times arrest her.
She is essentially a rebel by default, and her first kills are more due to luck+accidents. She isn’t portrayed as being perfect. Some of her arrow shots miss. She can’t protect Rue. She can’t save her sister.
She only lived at the end of the first book because she identified a poisonous wild plant and was willing to die rather than kill her boyfriend.
Conservatives should appreciate that Katniss is stoic, not wordy.
Hollywood has lots of failed “strong females” because the failures all talk too much to be liked by the audience.
TV shows with women as the hero (ok heroine) tend to boil down to the “strong female” saying ridiculously tough things, loudly, with the bad guy backing down or even switching allegiances due to the speech at the pivotal crisis moment of each story.
That’s what isn’t believable, and it fails female lead after lead.
Katniss is pretty, but she merely accepts high fashion instead of seeking it out...which contrasts her to the Capitol’s elite women.
She breaks rules such as no poaching, crosses electric fenced boundaries, knows her plants, and has reasonable skills with her bow.
Faced with being forced to fight to survive in order to get her family through another day, she man’s up. She admits to her boyfriend that she’s willing to be fake to win audience support because that means an improved chance of survival in the arena.
Her depth of character is *there*, it just isn’t spelled out for the reader.
So, for example Ridley Scott's "Ripley" character is a hero I can understand. She's a capable person, second-in-command who suddenly has to figure out how to survive and does it in a believable way.
On the other hand James Cameron's "Ripley" -- who is supposed to be the same person -- is simply awful. She's supposed to be the Ultimate Mom, Ultimate Badass, and Ultimate Liberal Anti-corporate figure. I mean, come on. She outfights colonial marines who've been trained to sweep planets of dangerous life forms. Again, it's not because Ripley II is female, it's because her character is so implausible you can't identify with her at all. There is a palpable terror when Ripley I blasts the Xenomorph out into space. As she's edging into her suit, she could be you, every(wo)man; scared to death and knowing you're probably not going to be able to do this if you really think about what's actually happening. Ripley II, on the other hand is boring. There's never any doubt that she's going to get off of a planet infested with hundreds of these things that were able to kill a whole spaceship crew when there was just one of them.
One thing I do like about female -- as strictly opposed to male leads in films and books -- is that female leads are done as straight heroes these days. Unabashed, unapologetically, heroes. Most male heroes these days in popular culture are anti-heroes. Personally, I hate the whole anti-hero thing. It's bogus. Peter Jackson actually went a very long way toward wrecking one of the best and most important characters in the Lord of the Rings by making him an anti-hero (Aragorn.) In the book, Aragorn is a straight-up hero. He's an ambitious man. He wants to be king, because his line has been deprived of its rightful due, because he can't have the love of his life unless he's king, because Sauron almost singlehandedly led to the fall of his race and he wants revenge, and most of all because he is a virtuous and honorable man. He is exemplary. He's not some sulky, brooding twerp.
I don't give two hoots for these phony James Dean type heroes. They suck.
So, to finally give you the answer that you deserve: women who out-men men physically aren't realistic, so I don't care for 'em. But I don't care for unrealistic characters generally. Women who can outthink men, yes. Women who can be heroic and still be believable, sure. The Jeanne d'Arc treatments have generally been OK; Xena depends on the episode. Buffy -- to be honest I really have watched everything by Joss Whedon and I don't know why because he's awful. So, no Buffy for me, but again it's more about the artistic vision than gender.
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