Lessons from The Hunger Games: The Limits of First-Person Present Tense

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By now, everyone has talked The Hunger Games to death. Though it largely deserves the hype, it seems that the conversation stops at praising what it does well. Certainly, The Hunger Games is a compelling book series that isn’t shy about its critique of contemporary society, but it falters enough to provide some valuable lessons to writers about what does and doesn’t work. One of those lessons is the limits of the first-person present perspective.

This is probably the most difficult POV to nail. In fact, I rarely see it and the only time I’ve seen it done extremely well was in Catalyst by Laurie Halse Anderson. First-person present is ideal for short, intense stories that retain tension from start to finish. It works for characters who experience everything in their heads and feel everything deeply.

In the first book of The Hunger Games series, Katniss Everdeen is this type of character and the plot of the novel is that kind of story. First-person present works brilliantly in the first installment because almost the entire book was The Hunger Games itself. That sort of situation lends itself perfectly to first-person present. The games are a fresh, horrifying experience for Katniss and she has to keep quiet most of the time anyway just to stay alive.

However, in Catching Fire and Mockingjay, the use of first-person present is more awkward. Catching Fire is especially slow since it’s using a POV meant for intensity while most of the book is just Katniss waiting for the Quarter Quell. The problem is that without any intense, immediate action, the effects of first-person present fall flat.

First-person present seems edgy/cool/interesting, so I see a lot of people using it, but I feel that many of these attempts don’t harness the full potential of that POV because many writers treat it like the traditional third-person past tense. First-person present is especially good at capturing immediacy and intense reactions that come without a lot of prior thought. Using it for anything slower often comes across to me as surface-level attempt to craft something original.

In my experience, the type of story you have and your characters dictate the POV. My epic novel series began in first-person past, but is now so much better in third-person because I realized my protagonist didn’t make for a good first-person POV. My novella, on the other hand, is first-person present because the entire story centers on some jarring events and my main character is someone who has trouble getting out of her own thoughts and memories. With both of these stories, I ultimately let the characters and plot suggest the perfect POV instead of trying one for the sake of an experiment.

I think it’s more difficult for first-person present to excel in longer series like The Hunger Games because long stories will always have their slower moments. So, what I’m advocating is not for writers to avoid POVs like first-person present, but for writers to fully understand how those POVs can work well so they can make the most of perspective.

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