Before we start, this isn't a call for anyone to stop writing. You want to write, do write! You won't get better by staring at your bedroom wall. But maybe this will help you write better.
SYOTS are "submit your own tribute stories", the most popular form of "24 original tributes fight it out in an arena" fics. Basically the author doesn't fully create their own tribute characters. Instead other people -the submitters- give the author character sketches (often filled out 'tribute forms') that the author then fleshes out into full characters.There are dozens of guides (published or on profiles) on how to submit a relatable and interesting tribute that isn't overpowered. Unfortunately awesome tributes don't make awesome stories.
I haven't read every single SYOTS out there. This is just supposed to be a humorous compilation of the issues I pick up in so many stories.
Warning: sarcasm ahead.
1) Train rides
Emeritus swished his silk and silver cloak triumphantly in the glimmering command room. Pride flushed his cheeks. "I've obtained money to bug the trains!"
It was his first year as a Gamemaker and he was so going to show them.
His elder colleague eyed him oddly, looking disappointingly unimpressed. "Forget it, nothing happens during the train rides."
Emeritus missed a step, his foot snagging his cloak and almost making him lose balance. "But… but it's the first time the tributes meet! Just after tearful goodbyes!" He whipped his cloak around to give himself countenance. "There's bound to be conflict! They're having the worst day of their lives, or the best! None of them will be just sitting around! And what of the escorts? It's the tributes' first contact with the Capitol, don't tell me they take it in stride!"
"It's nothing new to them. They already know that we're just shallow and oblivious. Or cruel." Lucretia added with a giggle. Her hand flew to her glossy lips. "Oh my, did I really say that?" She said, readjusting her huge glasses. They were made of puppy bones with studded rubies.
"And what about the mentors?"
"Who cares about the mentors? They're bland traumatized individuals who give useless advice. Trust me, nothing ever happens during the train rides. You might as well put the mentors in a cupboard and not mention them at all."
Frowns made wrinkles. Wrinkles were bad. Emeritus smoothed his expression. Then he remembered his promotion to Head Gamemaker came with a salary high enough for premium collagen de-wrinkling treatments. His frown came back with a vengeance.
"If nothing happens, why have train rides at all? Why not sedate the tributes and have them wake up in the Capitol?" Except it couldn't be right. How could nothing happen?
Lucretia shrugged, puppy bones glinting under the artificial lights. "Maybe they can take a look at the reaping replays in the train. Shake hands with their district partner and all that. Gotta admit I just tune out until the bloodbath."
Well. That just wouldn't do. Amorphous tributes would have to be... drugged. Emeritus nodded to himself gravely. Yes. If that's what it took he'd drug them himself, but there would be conflict and drama and novelty and excitement.
"Why does the twelve year old have a teddy bear?" Emeritus said. Were there explosives in it?
Lucretia sighed. "Because he's twelve, duh. Ever seen a twelve year old without a teddy bear?"
"No, you haven't, everyone knows twelve-year-olds are naïve little bloodbaths with teddy bears! They don't even understand what the Hunger Games really are the poor darlings." A frown creased Lucretia's brow. "Although, there are psychopaths sometimes. It makes a great twist."
Bloodbaths? "If I were a Career, I wouldn't even bother to target the twelve-year-olds. It won't impress sponsors and the littles are a lesser threats."
"Stop acting as though Careers know strategy. Honestly, it's not like they've spent years thinking about the Games." Lucretia lowered her voice. "We ask the recruiters to spur the stupid ones to volunteer, otherwise, the other ones would have no chance."
What? "Isn't that our job? To balance their advantage with an arena that favors the untrained to keep the suspense up?"
"No, Emeritus. Careers are stupid and unoriginal. They pack together, they hunt and they betray each other when things get boring."
Lucretia cuffed him. "No buts."
"I love training," Lucretia gushed. "It's so ordered."
Emeritus was bored. He wanted blood. "Why do the tributes let the others train?"
"Why would anyone interfere with someone else's training?"
"To stop them from gaining skills? Or just because they're furious and feel like breaking things? Because someone out there may kill them? I'm not talking about interfering with Careers. Why isn't a single one crying for that matter?" Emeritus pulled a face. They had promised him there would be tears. "Can't they see their chances are low?"
Lucretia snorted. "Furious? Crying? You're so weak. Normal people are calm and collected even when they're three days away from a horrid death. It's not like it's a huge deal."
Emeritus donned his invisibility cloak, strapped on his telepathic helmet, and tip-toed into the training room. Closest to him the dark-skinned Berry Wilde, a willful sixteen year old from Eleven with lean muscles and tight braids, was explaining snares to her ally.
"You will die," he whispered in her ear.
Berry blinked and shook her head. "Snares are easy," she said as if Emeritus had never spoken. "They're like making nets to carry apples except to trap humans."
Her ally, another sixteen year old, but from District Eight, nodded before cracking a brilliant joke on apples and people.
Berry's thoughts filtered through the telepathic helmet.
She's so nice and brave to be able to joke here. I'm so relieved to have her as my ally.
Emeritus face-palmed. "You're wasting time being protective instead of allying yourself with someone who can help you, Berry."
Berry might as well have been deaf. She paused to look at Sylvan from Seven at the weapons station. His ax struck the target with a thud.
He's really good. I wish I could have trained. I wonder what Seven is like.
Emeritus tuned out the three paragraph monologue about District Eleven's orchard and her starving little brother which she missed so very much.
"That target could be your head." Come on, give me one negative thought, girl!
Berry barely shivered. She just bit her lip.
Maybe we need another ally. For better protection. We would be able to go far.
"Who cares about going far," Emeritus huffed. "There's no WE. It's win or die. You mean nothing to Sylvan, he might kill you."
Emeritus realized that every time he said the word win, death or kill, Berry's mind went blank. It was peculiar. It's like there was a cosmic force that prevented her to think about it.
Suddenly, a random male tribute rushed across the room.
"Trip him," Emeritus urged. "If he breaks a leg, you won't have to fight him."
Berry frowned. Where did that thought come from? Oh wait, I must think about how training is important and how happy I am to have an ally.
Berry wiped sweat off her brow. She had narrowly avoided some meaningful, tense interaction. Phew.
After even more looking around and half-hearted musings, Berry's eyes stopped on a lanky young man sitting in a corner. District Three, she thought, they were usually smart and not too aggressive. Perfect.
"Yes, smart," Emeritus whispered ominously, flapping his arms underneath his invisibility cloak. "He may lie to you, use you and leave you for dead because he's actually in another alliance and just pretending to be alone to spy. Or because he doesn't want to give up his chances for another, better alliance."
Berry blinked again. No, the guy looked nice and not too weak. It didn't even cross her mind that her life was on the line, that she had no clue who the boy was. He looked nice and she needed an ally. She had no reason to suspect the worst in him, even if such an oversight could kill her later.
She asked him. He said yes. Why make things complicated?
Emeritus sighed mournfully. When he'd been a kid, he had actually been afraid of death. The new generation was so disappointing.
A ripped bronze-haired youth with a nose-ring elbowed Emeritus on the way out.
"Stop being depressing," District Four said. "If everyone is truly miserable or gets legitimately furious at life and turns into a git, the Games stop being fun and light with the occasional melodramatic death."
"Killing teenagers? Fun and light?" Emeritus pulled a face. He'd become a gamemaker to see them suffer. What was the fun if the tributes didn't even process the danger?
"It's a SYOTS, Man, you're overthinking. Now, I'm going back there being cliched and pretending that, after six years of training, I still need to risk pulling a muscle before the Hunger Games. I'll go swing some tridents around or something."
Ripped Guy then pulled something out small and round of his pocket. "Want some denial pills, Man? Everyone took them on the train."
Emeritus's eyes widened like saucers.
Finally, it all made sense!
"Why don't the trained tributes have an actual interview angle? It looks like the guy just invented that on the spot." Emeritus scrunched his nose up. "It's lame too."
"Forget the interviews," Lucretia said dismissively. "The Games are coming up. Interviews are just a formality. The faster we go through them, the quicker we reach the arena."
"But why don't they sabotage someone else's angle or just lie to make themselves more interesting?"
"Lie? Who lies? And sabotage is just mean. They smile at the crowd and boast. Those are the rules."
"What rules? I thought they wanted to be remembered. Or that they hated us. I'm surprised Caesar doesn't get shouted at." Surely not all the tributes were good enough actors to play along with Caesar? "That'd be spunky."
Lucretia looked at him as if he was daft.
"At least their mentors could have prepared..." Emeritus trailed off when he saw Lucretia's expression.
"Forget mentors," she said.
"Why are they all running towards the Cornucopia, even the slow girls and the guy established as the cowardly kid?"
"Because they have to, Emeritus. If they don't get supplies, they're dead."
"They're dead tomorrow, or in three days. If those slow runners go in after the Careers, chances are they're dead today. How can they be sure there are no supplies, or that they won't be able to find branches or rocks as weapons?"
Lucretia huffed at his incessant stream of questions. "How would I know! It's how it's always done."
"Says who? And even though, wouldn't they be scared to run straight to their potential deaths even if they might pull it off?"
"Haha, who's that much of a wimp?"
"Normal people," Emeritus muttered. He straightened, struck by sudden inspiration. "They could attack or bully a tribute who ran out of the Cornucopia with a pack and take no risks themselves. It's much less risky since the untrained tribute will probably not be enough of a killer to resist enough."
"Oh come on, no one is that cruel."
Emeritus narrowed his eyes. "Lucretia, those kids are fighting for their lives, aren't they?"
"Yes," Lucretia absently replied. "Why do you ask?"
"What did you feed them? They're all trusting, rational and friendly." And so bloody passive.
"Denial pills are totally in, didn't you know? Aww, look how nice to their allies they all are. Isn't it cute?" Lucretia gave an outraged growl. Her retractable cat-claws sprang out in fury. "My goodness, did that bitch actually hide part of the supplies from her ally? I knew it!" She took a deep breath and smiled. "We always need a good antagonist."
The word antagonist had Emeritus's eyebrows fly up. "Why would she starve herself for her allies when only one can survive? And she could think they're lying about what they found too."
"Where did you grow up? Why would allies be wary of each other? They're allies! Only a complete psychopath would even contemplate the murder of their allies. She's such a bitch!"
"They hardly know if the other can be trustworthy."
"Don't be absurd, of course they do."
Emeritus shook his head. "What if that girl who wants to go home and who knows that her allies are weaker than she is decides to save her own life? What if one of them realizes that the others will be dead anyway within a week?"
"But she could think -"
"No, she won't. Allies trust each other. They don't use each other. They're friends, damn it!"
"It will not happen," Lucretia said in final tones.
7) Backstory and realism
"What's so special about that girl?"
"Oh, Vale's life is so tragic," Lucretia said in delight. "Her illegitimate –but rebellious- peacekeeper dad was beaten to death by an angry mob. Her train-driver mother loves her but is away half the year. But she's just a normal girl, she was cowed into inaction. I mean, imagine what those brutes would have done to her brothers.
"Okay. But what does she do?"
"She's got trembling hands, so she can't be a hovercraft technician, but she's really smart so she's tutoring her brothers." Lucretia gave an endeared sigh. "Vale is a family girl, so full of ambition."
"But what does she do!" Emeritus exclaimed. He didn't care for all that, not if it had no impact on what Vale did.
"Do? Are you listening to me!" Lucretia exploded. "She spent her childhood trying to get peacekeepers and district citizen to get along, because she knows they're deep down normal people."
Emeritus gave up and decided to nod until Lucretia shut up. He'd thought observing the tributes in the Capitol would reveal their potential, instead he'd ended up with 24 biographies.
He desperately hoped it would get better during the actual Games.
Emeritus was eating a caviar and truffle sandwich when Lucretia entered the room, her diamond ring projecting the Games live on a 3D hologram.
"I know you don't like Vale," Lucretia said "but…"
Emeritus almost spat out his caviar. Action? Plot? Really? "What's she doing?" He said excitedly.
"Well… She's about to get killed by a mutt because she sat there staring in space about her ambitions for the last three days, but she's made a sling to fight it off, so she's got that going for her."
Emeritus frowned. "How can she use a sling?"
"Trembling hands can stop trembling if you will it hard enough. Honestly, it's like depression or hemorrhaging, you can stop it with a bit of willpower," Lucretia said with a shrug. "Vale had just never tried before. Besides, the crowd likes her so we have to make allowances."
Emeritus's head was beginning to pound again. "What's wrong with a dagger or just a rock?"
"A rock, how frigging sick is that? What kind of beast kills another with a rock? She's a normal girl!"
Exactly. "Have you ever tried to hit a target, never mind moving, with a sling hard enough to actually wound? And how did she build it again? She's from District Six, right?"
"Aw come on, how hard can it get? She's seen the other Games." Lucretia laughed and pointed. "Oh look at that idiot."
A Career was drowning.
"How hard can swimming get?" Emeritus snappily replied. "The Careers have seen the other Games."
Lucretia sighed. "My dear man, you've still got a lot to learn."
Vale stunned the Career tracking her by flinging two sharp stones at their heads. A random mutt finished the job, dismembering the evil(!) volunteer from Two. She'd have killed him with a single stone, but she wasn't a Mary Sue. Things had to be kept realistic.
"What, they've all stopped!"
Lucretia hadn't even blinked. "They've each done one action today. There's not more than one action a day."
"What? Why would they just sit around? And anyway after four days, they'll be so weak from lack of supplies they'll be useless. And even if they get supplies, the Careers have more."
"Humans can survive very long without food if they have a bit of water."
Emeritus rolled his eyes. "Yes, if they do not exert themselves physically."
"If they do too much," Lucretia added. "Their actions for the day would not hold in one chapter."
"And that's a problem, because?"
Lucretia patted Emeritus' bunny-fur wig. "It is, trust me."
"Aren't they cute. All sleeping so soundly."
"Why does no one do anything at night?"
"Troll mutts that turn to stone in the daylight kill anyone who'd try to take advantage of the dark."
Emeritus cocked an eyebrow thoughtfully. "Makes sense."
"It's disgusting, all that blood," Emeritus said, the hungry glint in his gold-encrusted eyes belying his tone.
"He took a spear to the arm. Nasty business," Lucretia said gleefully. "The bone broke under the impact. See them running for their lives?"
Emeritus was astounded to see the boy honest-to-God zooming through the trees while holding his shattered arm. "What did you feed them?"
"Nothing! It's just adrenaline."
"Make starving, severely wounded, tributes run two miles and be just winded afterwards? You sure they're not breathing pain-killers?"
"Oh, Emeritus, who lets himself get distracted by a broken arm? Honestly. Why are you limping?"
Emeritus flushed a deep red when he realized another tribute was crawling through barbed wire, barely a moan escaping his clenched teeth as his fingers were sliced away. "I have blisters, it hurts," he said, struggling to hold to his tattered dignity. What, ivory shoes were fashionable!
Maybe Coriolanus Snow hadn't been exaggerating when he'd said District people weren't human.
11) Character development
"What! But they were just about to get interesting. Why did the camera switch?"
"We have to spend an equal time on all tributes," Lucretia said with a shrug.
"But why! Stop switching over whenever I finally start remembering a name."
"Then keep a cheat-sheet. We must give each a chance to shine!"
Emeritus crossed his arms. "Okay…I'm not sure fair has anything to do with a good show, but fair enough. But why are you fixing the camera on the guy who's watching from the side instead of someone who's actually doing something?"
"He's having a fantastic inner-monologue."
"But there are two tributes right next to him and a huge arena all around, what does he have to monologue about?"
"Hey, this is a game of strategy. Those who don't think, die, Emeritus!"
"He's thinking about what he'll do?" Emeritus asked hopefully.
"No he's thinking about how badly he wants to stay himself."
"What? He's been stuck here two full days. He should be scrambling for food, he should be stressed out enough to be snappy." Emeritus paused. "If he kicks his ally out of the group making a good scene, he might get a weapon from sponsors."
Lucretia gave a disapproving cluck with her tongue. "What kind of psychopath do you think he is?"
"He could at least think about it. Why are they all so passive?"
"He's a nice guy," Lucretia said.
Ah yes, Emeritus recalled. Nice people don't ever have an aggressive thought. Besides, it's not like their crush had started dating another or they'd failed a crucial exams or other legitimately reasons to be short or feel paranoid. They were just about to die murdered.
Emeritus sighed at the predictability of it. "Why do the six careers always stick together? Why don't they off the remorseless psychopath who got an eleven in training? He could kill anyone of them without batting an eye."
"Careers don't kill each other before the last ten at earliest," Lucretia said with a smiled that revealed exactly what she thought of Emeritus's intelligence. "There's a greater chance of Careers winning if they stick together."
"Yeah, but a Career winning doesn't mean the Career who wins will be you. Don't they want to survive above all?"
"They're Careers. If they truly cared about life, they'd not have volunteered."
"Right, so they're fine with dying, but they still volunteered, what do they care about then?"
"Well winning, I guess." Lucretia's little giggle was rather terrifying. "Glory, money, whatever. Who cares?"
"Well, I kind of do. They care enough to murder, to risk their lives. Their minds must be an interesting place."
"Emeritus, you don't get it. They're not human. Stop looking for logic here and enjoy the blood!"
Berry had spent the whole last chapter mourning her dead ally. She thought of Lacie all the time, guilt burrowing at her insides.
She walked aimlessly around. She had no plan anymore. Not that she'd ever had one. She wanted to hide but didn't know where.
She didn't think of killing. It wasn't the last five yet. Only antagonists seriously thought of killing before the last five.
She was hungry. She needed to find a new ally or she would die.
Luckily, the arena got smaller as the days got on and tributes met much more often when six remained than when fifteen did. Admittedly, sometimes it was the Gamemakers' fault.
She recognized Sylvan. He was alone too. Berry thought of Lacie again and of all her backstory.
Berry slowly walked out so Sylvan could see her. He looked at her warily but they knew deep down that they were both decent people and that not even the Hunger Games could change that. They'd seen each other without ever speaking during training, but they were both certain enough to bet their lives on it.
Berry wasn't afraid of him. Why would she be? The Gamemakers were the enemy. Except Careers, Careers were evil. It would be irrational to be paranoid, and people during the Hunger Games were reasonable and civilized. Except those who went legitimately crazy. But that's what they were C-R-A-Z-Y.
And Berry had been right, Sylvan didn't refuse to share his meager food, food he knew he desperately needed. He sat down, and they talked about how awful the Games were, taking comfort in not being alone and still having no plan at all.
Only antagonists took initiatives. After all plans meant contemplating murder and murder was for antagonists.
When the Careers found them, Sylvan took Berry's hand to help her run faster, at the peril of his own life and when he got caught in a pit, Berry broke him out despite it costing her energy and precious time. Because tributes in the Hunger Games are selfless, never forget that.
14) Fourth wall
"Why doesn't she shout at the camera?"
"Nobody shout at the cameras. It's breaking the fourth wall."
"But he was her ally, Lucretia. They almost kissed! Look at her, she's devastated and her whole character is about being outspoken."
"Nobody shouts at the cameras or vocally acknowledges us Gamemakers or the fact their parents and loved ones are watching."
"She's almost slicing her wrists from grief! She's beyond reason."
Lucretia gave a long suffering sigh. "Even at the height of madness, even when they are dying and it doesn't matter anymore, tributes do not speak to the audience, Emeritus. Ever!"
Emeritus swallowed back a retort, deciding to defer to her experience. "Then, why does no-one beg? When they're alone, thirsty and lost? When a mutt is chasing them and only we can help them? Why don't they talk to us?" He wanted to be talked to! He wanted the tributes to acknowledge that he was God as far as they were concerned!
Lucretia shook her head, looking increasingly irritated.
"But what about that girl, the one who desperately wanted to tell her parents the truth? And the boy who spent two chapters moping about how badly he wanted to apologize to his brother? Why didn't he just tell the cameras?" Emeritus' eyes flew open. "What about the mentors, why do the tributes never try to ask the mentors something? Come on, that's canon!"
"Nobody," Lucretia said in final tones.
"What are you doing?"
Lucretia gave a fearsome cackle. "I'm making the volcano erupt and sending the harpy mutts attack the surviving tributes with their paintball guns."
"Right. Are you sure-"
"The tributes are boring. Screw interactions and give me EXPLOSIONS! Oh look, the illusion machine is back from maintenance, we can totally send ghosts of their dead relatives. It's going to be so much fun!"
Before Emeritus had a chance to protest, Lucretia laughed and slammed down a big red lever. "And now, the anti-gravity field!"
Emeritus's jaw was scraping the floor as the tributes began floating amidst amoeba-like pieces of molten lave. "How?"
"Technology," Lucretia said with a shrug. "By the way, have you read Harry Potter? A Hungarian Horntail would totally spice things up."
Emeritus blinked, his mind fizzing like an overcooked burger. "Some of those paintball guns look odd," he said weakly.
"Oh those are dimensional lasers. They make clothes invisible. Have you seen the blogs? Those underfed district whelps are hot!" Lucretia elbowed him with a sly smile. "Besides, add enough gimmicks, and you won't even have to worry about the tributes and their goals. You can even make games with 48 tributes, or say, 480!"
Emeritus squeezed his eyes shut. Gimmicks. A shudder ran up his spine. He had to do something. He had to save the Hunger Games.
Bonus: It's an alternate to "Emotions"
This isn't a parody. This is me having a go at actually making a Hunger Games appropriate one-character centric scene after picking at all the things that irked me. So feel free to tear at me for daring to give you advice when my own writing is far from perfect.
Berry took a deep breath. Her hands were trembling from lack of sleep. She could barely walk straight. Lacie was dead.
The word echoed in her mind like tolling bells. Lacie was dead, and soon it would be her turn.
Berry screamed when a leaf brushed against her hair. She whipped her head around, her heart hammering madly. What if someone had heard her?
Whispers hid behind every plant and rock.
It's just the wind. Her brain rationalized. Just the wind. Get a hold of yourself Berry.
But what if it wasn't?
Berry ran. She needed to get out. Out, away, somewhere safe. Surely somewhere would be safe.
She ran faster that was sane or safe, until her body plainly refused to go on. Berry stopped, her arms across her stomach. She swallowed back the urge to throw up, tasting blood. She couldn't hurl. She'd die if she lost the little food she'd managed to scrounge.
Berry bit back an anguished scream. She was dying. She wasn't getting enough air in her lungs. They'd catch her and she'd die, her legs lead, gasping for breath.
She saw a shadow. She fell to her knees, hiding behind a cracked stone wall.
The ragged-looking boy was half-running, half-stumbling. He hadn't seen her. He looked unarmed but he had a rucksack. Sylvan, Berry remembered.
Berry put her hand into her mouth. She was so hungry and her sleep-deprived brain pictured scrumptious apple pies and juicy oranges in that sack. Just thinking about it brought tears to her eyes. She was so hungry.
She was too weak to rush to him. She couldn't risk overpowering him. She was afraid. He was a boy, and so much stronger than her, she'd be completely at his mercy. Her breath hitched, her eyes burning at the sheer unfairness of it. Why, why her? She was supposed to be at home, with her family, not in this hell.
She blinked her tears out, furious. She wouldn't break. She'd not give them the satisfaction. Her strength almost failed her when she realized her brother was probably seeing her right now.
Sylvan was almost a hundred yards away.
Suddenly Berry hated him. He had food. He had the food she needed to go home. Who was he to deserve it? He was probably a coward, a murderer, nobody needed him like her brother needed her. Her cheeks burned with envy as saliva pooled in her mouth. She hated Sylvan like she had never hated before.
She had no choice. She had to make him give it to her, one way or another.
In a nutshell, it's fine for some tributes to be passive or in denial, it's okay for some tributes to be ridiculously brave, extremely nice or loyal but it's not okay for all or even most tributes to be like that. Some tributes should be depressed, paranoid, angry and vocal about it, some should refuse to play along and be dragged by their escorts to training. Stage fright is a thing, some should be unable to answer Caesar's interview questions. Some tributes should be impulsive when stressed, and so they'll do stupid things.
In the arena, stress and fear should appear very very clearly. Tributes (at least some of them) will be expecting the worst of everyone they encounter, and even their allies.
In the same way, Careers should have a much superior set of skills, knowledge of former games, and a greater ability to keep their cool, not be cookie cutter villains who swing big swords but are fundamentally stupid. It should be hard for an untrained tribute to beat a Career, and almost impossible in a fair fight.
Don't hesitate to review, discuss and point out anything I've forgotten^^.