Turns out, this guide-story wasn't complete after all^^.
Topic of the day: 24 tributes.
So I googled: 'how many main characters should my novel have'. The answer was: less, much less, than 24.
Well, snap. There's still 25 chapters to go until the bloodbath. What do we do now?
Or in other words: how not to lose the reader's interest (or burn out and abandon the story) before the reapings are even over.
Before we start: many submitters try to make their tributes 'victor material' because we all want our character to be important. This sometimes leads to far-fetched backstories and a peculiar amount of tributes who know how to lethally wield a lasso. It comes from a misunderstanding that badass/ important in the story equals 'must be skilled with weapons'. Nope. In the right circumstances, anybody with a rock can be a killer. In the right circumstances, someone who doesn't kill can even win. The psychology of the tribute is their greatest skill (but it's hard to show that in a short form, so submitters will favor lassos). Writers, it's your story. Don't get hung up on the lassos and start picking at your tributes' brains.
Now we can start^^.
Caesar Flickerman, brow furrowed in concentration, pushed one of the levers. Three hundred miles away, deep in the wilderness, a couple of concealed cameras swiveled silently.
The arena was a city of salt. Pompeii, to be exact. As perfect a replica as the archives allowed. Those glittering trees, statues and homes were products of exquisite craftsmanship. They hid supplies in their heart and the barbaric tributes would smash everything to pieces, with no care for beauty, the moment they realized they had something to gain.
On the empty alabaster cornucopia in the salt forum, squirrel viciously mauled squirrel.
"Here," Caesar cooed, "stay right there…"
The brand new arena was infested with somersaulting squirrel mutts outfitted in tribute-suits. They were the gamemakers elite defense squad: the territorial terrors kept wild beasts far away at a fraction of the cost of a full forcefield.
The tribute-suits were to make the promotional teasers more appealing. Something about fluffy animals had the crowds go wild and one couldn't go for ninja cats every year.
Caesar toyed with the cameras, searching for the angle that would kick off a lucrative sponsor season. As the sun set, the salt crystals glittered an ominous orange, promising fire.
"Remember all of you." Standing around Caesar, nine young Capitolites drank his every word. They dressed like him from sock to cufflink, with the best imitations they could afford, bless them. "Emeritus and his troops are the architects, but we the Games are nothing without its storytellers." He paused for effect. "Us."
"So how does it work, Boss?" Five of Nine said. (Caesar found numbering his interns to be highly practical). "Must we spend the same amount of time on every tribute? Or can we focus on a core few?"
The nervous hope that had Five twisting her tattooed hands was adorable.
"It's twenty-four tributes, pet. Not seven tributes and the shrubbery."
"But… I mean, they're not all-"
"Everyone is interesting. Everyone is unique." Caesar's eyes narrowed. "Two of Nine, if you roll your eyes again, I'll make you unique by stabbing one out." The boy paled, his Adam's apple bobbing. He bowed his head in apology. Caesar smiled. "Listen up, pets, I have a task for you." He opened his crocodile leather bag and handed them each a fly-sized drone-camera. "I'm assigning each of you a tribute. You'll film them without them noticing and convince me of their worth in a twenty minute montage."
Gah! Eight. Bloody District Eight. A gray district full of sleep-deprived scrawny cotton-pickers and loom hands, shuffling their feet from school to work to home like sleep-walking mutts. And yet… Now that Atia had spent days following the boy the crystal ball had shown her, she had too much. It'd never all fit in a twenty minute montage.
She'd gotten uncomfortably close to that snot-nosed kid who thought he had life all figured out at sixteen. She knew all his siblings, all his quirks, she-
Why did it feel like so much and yet so little?
Atia tugged at her braided hair in exasperation. She hadn't inflicted this internship upon herself to be defeated. She lay spread-eagled on the king-sized bed, naked, as she contemplated her future. A sudden strangled cough announced Emeritus' presence.
"What are you doing here? What are you… not wearing?"
"Listen, I swear, I had no clue you'd make a name of yourself when we were sleeping together. I actually liked you for yourself, not like those sloozies throwing themselves at you these days. Also, I have so much blackmail on you." The fact she'd been sixteen and him thirty-one when they'd first slept together, for one. She'd been a hormonal idiot all too eager to act all grown up, but he had been the adult.
Emeritus pressed his fingers on the bridge of his nose. "What do you want?"
"You've got to do something! My tribute screams 'bloodbath', I don't even know what I'm doing wrong! Caesar's going to fail me. I'll have to kill myself then… and it'll be your fault!"
"Right, of course." Emeritus frowned, his lips quirking. Patronizing bastard. "I get you a solution, you're staying the night?"
"Dude, I've always been fair play. Besides, you look like you need some."
You could tell an arena would be a hit from the horde-of-zombies look to the game-making team. Emeritus had taken to wearing mad-scientist solid brass goggles (with real quartz glasses, if you please) to hide the bags under his eyes.
"So what have you got, Five of Nine?"
Oh, that smug bastard. She'd not be a nameless intern forever. "Footage of pre-reaping shenanigans. I loaded the telepathy app to the camera, young Loomero's mind's got no secret from me anymore."
The image appeared on the 3D screen in front of the bed. Atia wrapped herself in the closest lamb skin. Any glimpse of the districts in their non-doctored rawness made her itch for luxury.
The video showed a stringy sixteen year old hiding behind huge square glasses. He had early breakfast with Dad –dawn wouldn't be for hours- and hugged Grandma, before rushing out of the house, running to the gloomy train station where he'd unload crates full of dyes. It didn't show on his frame, unfortunately, but he was strong. His brother, the asshole, did the exact same work and was jacked. School was only a not so fond memory now, one that tasted like opportunities missed and assholes –kids and teachers alike- he was glad not to ever see again. Unfortunately, assholes weren't just confined to school, and Fuller –who was nineteen and in charge and wouldn't let you forget it- never got tired of making Loomero feel like he wasn't working hard enough and his ass was on the line. He came home starving and covered in sweat in the early afternoon and left again with a sandwich in his pockets before dinner time, to load the cotton fabrics heading to One for embroidery and shit. That shift was more fun, because his Ma and his two best friends worked it too. Who'd thought they'd bond best when they were all sweaty and cursing because of the jammed liftvan and spliters in the crates?
Emeritus yawned. "Cute. Except why am I seeing all these people? Grandma, bully, mom, brother, best friends… so much screen time for them. Why do I care?"
Dude. "That's his life. That's what the boss wants."
"Yes, yes… No. You…"He sighed. "Atia, life's boring. Life's crowded. I want him. I want the promise that he's going to be interesting. I don't care about his people. If they're not around to reveal him, they must go."
"I can't pretend he's got no dad," Atia huffed.
Emeritus smiled thinly. "I don't know, would having no father shake him up and make him more interesting? I can lend you a venomous mutt. Nobody has to know."
Atia bit her lip, hesitating. It was her career on the line. "I thought… I thought showing the family life, the district life, was how you got that emotional connection with the tribute."
Behind those ridiculous steampunk goggles, she could detect a spark of condescension.
"Yes. But it's not enough," Mr. Head Gamemaker drawled. "I do want a feel of District Eight, mind you. We wouldn't want to mistake the tributes for one of us. Nevertheless, how interesting would you be if someone filmed your Sunday meal with mommy and daddy? I know what you did to get your internship application in the top ten." Atia swallowed. Thank goodness she had blackmail on Emeritus. "That told me so much more about you, your strengths, your morals, your mettle, than any cosy chit chat ever would."
Good point, but… "Okay, I'll figure out something else." Starting almost from scratch. It was hard not to sound defeated.
"Clock's ticking. Go. You've got work to do."
Emeritus looked slightly mournful as she made her exit, swaying her naked hips, but she could also tell he'd be asleep the moment she'd shut the door behind her.
She almost felt a pang of sympathy before she remembered he made roughly fifty times what she did.
Atia had gotten the memo. No clutter, no useless background characters. Just the tribute.
Loomero was a thoughtful guy full of thoughtful moments, so Atia had waited for him to walk through the city to get all those nice District Eight immersion shots (exoticism, voyeurism, tragedy porn, call it what you like: the audience responded better to tributes well rooted in their dismal home environment) and used the telepathic transmitter to whisper thoughts to him, so he'd answer her questions in his head, not suspecting for a second that he wasn't alone in his mind.
She got his opinion on his district, on the Capitol, the Games, on his life and himself. A glimpse of his fears, his loves, his pet rats, his skills.
All in all, it was like an interview. Young Loomero had a lively internal-voice, full of puns and adolescent awkward-cuteness. He was pretty emotional about what mattered to him, and that was gold to ensure bonding with the audience. Atia was pretty proud of herself.
Seated next to Caesar, Atia held her breath as the video ended. Fifty hours of work in four days. Her hands were slippery from stress.
"And now what?" Caesar asked, his eyebrows reaching his hairline.
That infuriating man! Atia fought the urge to stomp her foot. She wanted to impress him, damn it!
"And now… he's reaped, Boss!" she said with forced cheer. "He's ready for action!"
"Can you not see the depressing lack of stakes in your little presentation? All these opinions he has… there is ample time for them to appear later, when he's in the Capitol."
"Yeah, but… It's an introduction. We've got to show where the tributes' come from, what's their normal, so we can shatter it by reaping them." How could he say there were no stakes? "It's not like his background is all roses and sunshine either, Boss."
"Five of Nine, we've got twenty-four tributes to meet. Twenty-four back-to-back introductions, all very informative, certainly, but all so very sedate." Caesar's pointed yawn hit her like a slap. "I want my heart to pound. Give me a glimpse into a day of their lives where they are hit with difficult choices. Where they learn something about themselves, perhaps something unpleasant. Show me what they have to prove. Show me the cracks, the regrets, the ambition, the potential for change. Here, Loomero is wholly in his comfort zone. It's…" Caesar's sigh made Atia's cheeks burn. How dare he. How dare he dismiss her work like- "Pet, passive suffering stopped being entertaining five years ago. Poverty, hard lives… it's all flavoring: I want the meat."
Atia took a slow breath. Surviving an internship with Flickerman was gold on a CV. She couldn't let it get to her.
"So like, every intro should be like a short stand-alone movie, with its own plot, that ends with the reaping as a cliffhanger?"
Caesar blinked at her. "Isn't that what I've been saying since the beginning?"
Atia swallowed down her scream of sheer frustration. "Sure, Boss. It just takes time to sink in."
Now she just had to find the day Loomero's baby brother had been ill, and Loomero had overheard his Ma say she'd tell the peacekeepers that it was Stitch, a desperate single dad, who'd stolen that valuable batch of silk. It'd get her access to the medicine they needed. Faced with the moral pitfall of being a snitch and destroying another family, Loomero had convinced his torn mother not to. Rotten luck: untreated, his baby brother had died. The consequences on Loomero's personality were... telling.
That should get Caesar interested.
Maybe also that day Loomero had worked up the craftiness and courage to steal his bully's sewing homework. The bully had gotten a brutal caning from the teacher. That sure had been an emotional rollercoaster, leaving Loomero to wonder if it was justice, or if he'd done worse than his bully ever had.
Wasn't there also that time he and his best friend had been competing for the same job, a job they desperately needed, so they'd decided to injure one of the other workers to make sure two jobs got opened? Loomero's Ma had been proud of him 'we fight for our own', but now he wondered how many people's bully he had become.
Stitching a few scenes of Loomero growing up, with the running theme of justice and survival in a harsh world, Loomero's failures, his struggle with it all, might just show what kind of guy he was.
But, dear Capitol, that was more work than Atia had signed up for.
"Boss… Does Loomero have to have an introduction? I mean, if you say the problem isn't the introduction in itself but the fact there's twenty four of them and that taken together they're so long…"
Caesar's chuckle wasn't reassuring at all. "Oh no, he doesn't have to. Nothing's compulsory. If the female from Eight has a more interesting background, we might cover only her before the train rides. Perhaps for some tributes, keeping them mysterious might be the way to go. After all, deception for example could have greater impact if nobody suspects. If you're done with Loomero, you still have two tributes to take care of, Five of Nine, so I'm not sure why you're still standing in front of me with the amount of work that needs doing."
His small smile betrayed how much he enjoyed the power he had over them. What a snake.
Atia had no other choice but to give him the satisfaction of seeing her all but run away.
Caesar and his interns watched intently from behind a screen as the tributes showed off their skills to the gamemakers. It was the usual batch of weapons-savvy and not so physically inclined. Of course, the arena could shake everything up. Skills were nice, but half the games were played in tributes' heads.
Which was why spotting whose story had run its course was a critical talent.
"Emeritus has become enamored with a parasite our archeologists found," Caesar began, "it apparently burrows under your skin, lays a kind of spore-filled eggs in your mucus membranes and when the spores have developed enough, the eggs explode and it looks like the host is breathing out sulfur from all orifices."
Two of Nine looked horrified, but Five and Seven's grins were promising. Squeamishness stifled creativity.
"Obviously, it's also excruciatingly painful, and deadly," Caeser continued, his lips twitching in anticipation. What a great visual it would make. "We need to decide which tribute should be sacrificed to that, and in what context."
Caesar abruptly clapped his hands.
The interns all jumped to attention, fear flashing on their faces. It never stopped being satisfying.
"Come on, how do I identify a bore before they become a bore?" Ah, the fake-concentrated face of the student that doesn't want to look the fool but lives in terror of being called out. Caesar decided to throw them a bone. He flashed them a conspiratorial smile, his voice lowering to a whisper. "Pets, what's filler?"
"Uh, a moment where nothing happens? A sequence with no plot."
"Come on, Eight of Nine, you can do better than that. It's not just 'stuff happening'."
Caesar lost the smile. "Do all of you retain yourselves too good to so much as read the textbook? I can do with eight interns, you know. Even seven."
Terror was good for the brain. Now he could see them actively thinking.
"Filler is when nothing unexpected or unusual happens, when nothing new is added," Five of Nine said softly, her stubborn steely gaze and the bags still visible despite her makeup daring him to fire her. "Tributes who have become predictable, who have reached their potential for change, or their potential to bring change out of other tributes, should go first."
"But if we do that," Five continued, her hands tightly clenched behind her back, "won't the audience know who the arena is going to kill?"
"Pandering to the crowd isn't an ugly word. It has its uses. Nevertheless, you indeed do want to inject the games with a thrilling dose of 'nobody is safe'. The trick is knowing who has reached their peak before the viewers pick it up. Your value is in your foresight, pet."
Two looked utterly dejected. "Can't we just kill the less skilled first?"
How quickly they all got overwhelmed.
"Thing is, pets, people like tales of heroes, whether good heroes or villainous ones. Heroes are people who overcome odds, who reveal unsuspected strength. To have true suspense, we must titillate our viewers with twenty-four, or close to, potential heroes. For most of those heroes, we are scripting a tragedy. For one of them, we are not. If by the end of the interviews, or even worse, the reapings, the final ranking is predictable, then everyone in this room will have wretchedly failed."
Caesar let that sink in.
By the time the season ended, he'd have made adults out of these bright-eyed ambitious pups.
1) Try to hit the ground running with your reaping chapters. In a traditional novel, it's normal to start out slow and low-stakes, because by chapter 5, you're hip deep in action. Here, find whatever it is in your tribute's background that could also make for an exciting oneshot. It'll save you from getting hit by an 'argh, when do the blasted reapings end!' feeling by the time you hit District 9. The reapings aren't just a prelude to 'the good stuff'. They should be 'good stuff' too.
2) Twenty-four tributes is already a lot (a lot!) to focus on. Every non-tribute character should contribute to fleshing out either the tributes or the worldbuilding (better even: worldbuilding that impacts the tributes). Whether it's family/friends/enemies during reaping chapters, or escorts/mentors/gamemakers/the President later on.
You really don't want people to go 'huh, I know more about the tribute's sister than him' or 'his best friend is more interesting than he is' at the end of the reaping chapter.
3) Strong characters are forged in fire (or broken, that can be interesting too). Confronting characters with different outlooks/goals is what makes them grow. Even morally 'straight' people can be someone's villain (and straight up villains are cool too). Have the different tributes impact each other, force them to make hard choices, so that with every scene they end up somewhere different (mentally just as much as physically) from where they started. Do this even *before* the characters are reaped (the role of Moms, siblings, lovers, bullies, peacekeepers etc., more than just background or fuzzy feels, is to help us peel off layers of the characters).
Obviously, in the end, just do your best. Write to have fun! Nobody cares if it isn't perfect. My writing's far from perfect. We're people with a hobby, not professionals. I'm just a firm believer that asking yourself the right questions at the beginning of a story will make writing easier and the end result more satisfying (and more fun! Because it's no fun to get stuck half-way and abandon something you'd put effort in).