Monday, July 11, 2011

Character, Part Three: Power

The final segment in this series of posts focuses on power, and how it can influence character.

Power is really my favorite, because it's so fascinating to think about it:, who has it, who wants it, and what they will do to get it.

This is a pretty big theme in fiction (and life).

When thinking about power, I break it into two broad categories: Control and Resources.

Control is the kind of thing we usually consider when we consider power: who controls who. Who is the puppet master, and who is the marionette? That being said, even within this category, there is a differentiation between formal and informal channels of power.

Resources are the tools at our disposal, maybe even less tangible things like the skills we have. In my work, resources for organizations often come down to time and money, but in fiction it isn't always this way.

So, how does it all work in concert?

Formal power is more the puppet master element, but (to me) informal power is the more interesting/exciting/gratifying kind.

To use The Hunger Games (first book) as an example, there are many elements of formal power (and lack of) over Katniss.

Lack of formal power (control)
  • An expected element of control, Katniss' parents, doesn't take place in reality- -Katniss' mother seems to have little formal control over her daughter.
  • The local government turns a blind eye to people breaking small laws (highlighted especially later, when this changes). Katniss and Gale can slip under the fence and hunt, then sell it on the black market. 

Formal power (control) 

  • Effie Trinket and her team control Katniss' look, what she can do, wear, while Haymitch tries to control her strategy.
  • The Game folks control Katniss, of course, and they are in turn controlled by President Snow, so there is this kind of formal power "chain of command" leading through the structure of the Games and Society.

But it's the informal power (control) that's fascinating, to me. Katniss (and all of the contestants) are in many ways powerless. They can use resources such as actual items (weapons, food, etc inside the game) and skills (bow hunting, knowledge of plants, climbing, etc) to try to shift that power.

But think about how Katniss uses informal power (control). She uses kindness and friendship (Pru), and love (maybe one sided, from Peeta, but still)  to turn the power equation around.

In contrast, the other contestants ignore these informal sources of power, and try only to match their resources against others, hoping the strongest will win.

So, how do you think about power in your writing?
What other sources of power from The Hunger Games am I overlooking?

See the earlier posts on Motivation and Information.

For information on the Contextual Interaction Theory:

Bressers, J T.A. (2004). Implementing sustainable development: how to know what
            works, where, when and how. In W. M. Lafferty (Ed.), Governance for
sustainable development: The challenge of adapting form to function (pp. 284-
318). Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. 
Owens, K. A. (2008). Understanding how actors influence policy implementation: a
comparative study of wetland restorations in New Jersey, Oregon, the Netherlands,
and Finland. Enschede, the Netherlands: Twente University Press. 


  1. How about Rue's song? When Katniss sings that at a critical moment, it becomes the rallying call for rebellion.

  2. Fantastic post! :) How a character handles power always says so much about them.

  3. Very insightful post! I've enjoyed this series (and have taken down notes!) :D

  4. Good one Carolyn!

    Thanks Madeline, and you're right-- we can learn a lot from what they say.

    Samantha- thanks, hope they help!

  5. This is a fantastic post, especially the informal power part. I've never thought of it that way, but you make a great point.

  6. Thank you Tracey-- I find informal power everywhere I look, now. It's kind of addictive. :0)

  7. Great post! Power runs through the whole of my story series. Fighting for it, fighting because of it etc... It's always there, even when it isn't overtly visible.

    Also, the way that Katniss hid her power in the beginning of the games was also notable. It might be just that that gave her the edge in the first place, given that everyone else underestimated her.

  8. This is excellent---and if you break things down this way, you can see it in almost every book. Power and control, power and control...its such a great lens to look at your book through.


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