Warning: Some minor spoilers ahead.
Lately I’ve been interested in how human beings relate to one another. This is an invaluable tool to me as a storyteller, as I often need to connect a reader to something they’ve never come close to living through. Suzanne Collins uses this tool - empathy - in a mastery way that's worth thinking about.
Unlike the unfortunate protagonist of The Hunger Games, I’ve never been stripped in front of pecking stylists, forcibly clad in a flaming dress, and made to wave to a crowd of enemies who will soon watch me fight through the Hunger Games. And yet I can relate to Katniss, because I know what it feels like to feign happiness, to smile even when surrounded by odious people, to assume a false identity because it may prove beneficial. And okay, so I’ve never lived with an acquaintance for several days (Peeta!), harboring the knowledge that we will soon be fighting each other to the death. But I know what it’s like to feel affection for someone even though it’ll only bring misfortune upon me. The partly subconscious fight that plays out, the confliction over the itching, pulling tug in the back of my mind. And the decisive, awful moment when that tug inevitably whispers, “You like this person, and you’re not ever going to dislike them - no matter how smart that would be.”
I’ve never had to figure out how to feed my starving family before, so maybe I don’t quite understand how important it was to Katniss when a boy threw two loaves of burnt bread at her feet. But I have been alone on a crowded train, searching down the aisles for a seat, and I still remember the moment when a stranger moved her bags for me. The way my quickened heartbeat slowed and I sat, relieved and thankful for the simple act of altruism offered to me.
As I read the Hunger Games, countless memories emerge from my mind. They flutter briefly to the realm of conscious thought, but are usually gone before I can grasp their entirety. However, these memories leave behind traces of emotion - and it’s this emotion that links together my real experiences on a train with Katniss’s experiences in a fictitious, dystopian society. Seemingly unrelated events, yet actually the same.
Katniss and I live in different worlds and we’ve experienced different things. But because of empathy, I am Katniss and - if she were real - she could easily be me, too.
This is one of the reasons why writing fiction is so important to me. It’s the subtlety of the well-chosen word that reminds me, “Hey, we’re all living creatures here on this Earth; some of us seem real different, but we’re actually the same.” And, as people, that’s one of the most important lessons we can ever learn.