By Ekta R. Garg, E.ditor
August 13, 2020
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins
Release date: May 19, 2020
Genre: YA dystopian fiction
As an e.ditor, I found Ballad fascinating for many reasons. The top one, though, was that author Suzanne Collins decided to tell the story in third person point of view. Given that the original Hunger Games trilogy was all in first person, reading Ballad in third person took a little mental adjustment. As I’ve considered why she might do this, though, her choice makes sense.
(Buckle up, readers and writers. I’m going to do a quick jump into writing mechanics.)
First person point of view (POV) allows writers to bring readers as close to melding them with their characters as possible. The only thing different between first person POV and the protagonist of the book is actually becoming the protagonist. Writers choose first person for a variety of reasons, but one of them is always to help the reader experience the story firsthand.
First person POV has an added, built-in benefit. When we read a book in this POV, we automatically begin to sympathize with the protagonist/POV character. His/her goals become our own. His/her challenges become our own. We root for the protagonist/POV character all the way to the end, and we get indignant or upset when something stands in the POV character’s way of achieving the story goal.
In The Hunger Games, this choice made complete sense. Collins, no doubt, wanted readers to feel Katniss’s pain from start to finish. Every time Katniss killed a tribute in the arena or faced one of her enemies from the Capitol, we stood right next to her and held our breaths. Our hearts dropped into our feet at the dramatic climax of Mockingjay when everything Katniss had fought for, the whole reason she volunteered as tribute, was lost.
I was stunned for an entire week when I read that part.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes takes place decades before Katniss and Peeta take down the Capitol, though. The Capitol, in fact, is still reeling from the rebellion and is trying to rebuild. It’s still trying to figure out how to stand back up after such a horrific war.
Enter Coriolanus Snow. Thanks to the trilogy, we know Snow’s ultimate fate. Ballad, then, allows us to see how he got there. He’s the protagonist, the main POV character for the entire book. As I said last week, Ballad functions as his origin story.
At first glance, it would make sense to write this book from first person as well. After all, it would easily allow us as readers to get inside Snow’s head and see just why he turned out the way he did. We’d get to understand the workings of his mind and his circumstances, and maybe—just maybe—allow us to offer him a shred of understanding.
Instead, Collins writes Snow in third person POV. Third person has its advantages over first. It allows the writer to “zoom out,” so to speak, on scenes so readers can see more than just what the POV character sees. Collins does a brilliant job of painting pictures with her words, and through her chosen vantage point we get to see just how devastated the Capitol is. The rebellion hurt more than the fighters resisting the establishment, and Collins’s choice of POV lets us see that firsthand.
Writing Snow in third person POV also gives us a little bit of distance from him. This is different from reading Katniss’s story. In the trilogy, we’re meant to cheer her on as she fights for the rebels. It would make sense, then, to see everything from her point of view. It brings us closer to her, and it separates her story from Snow’s in a more distinct way.
That distance allows us the space to do something that most writers don’t want readers to do: dislike the main character. As Snow goes from a student to a mentor and then, eventually, a candidate for the university, Collins creates many situations where Snow has the opportunity to choose between what’s right for him (or, occasionally, his family) and what’s right for others. In other words, he has the choice between selfishness and the greater good.
Most of the time, Snow chooses himself. Collins lets us follow as Snow’s ideology of who he is and who he wants to be crystallizes. His grandmother teases him early on in the book about becoming president, and he brushes off her remarks. Later, though, he doesn’t brush them off quite so fast.
By the end of the book, it’s easy to see what comes next. While we never see his actual campaign for and election to president, we can imagine how he got there. And we’re left right where we were at the end of the trilogy: despising him.
It was a risky move, to be sure. But then, Collins had already taken the biggest risk of all with that climactic moment in Mockingjay and made it work. This kind of leap must not have felt quite so long to her.
Had I been fortunate enough to be one of Collins’s e.ditors, I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable in early drafts of the book to go with this choice. Upon further reflection, it makes complete sense. Snow has chances to “redeem” himself, but he doesn’t think he needs redeeming or saving. He’s going to do what he thinks is best for him. Why does he need to bother with thinking about other people for that?
My work as an e.ditor does blur with my love for r.eading a little bit here; I started out the book kind of wishing Snow would justify his later actions in some way. That we’d find out the reason why he’s so despicable. But there’s no “big reveal.” There’s the simple detailing of a man who started out self-serving and ego-centric and whose life circumstances encouraged and almost forced him to continue to make choices along those lines.
Those choices, no doubt, benefited him for decades. It wasn’t until more than 60 years later, when he met a volunteer tribute from District 12, that he felt challenged. At the end of Mockingjay, there’s a point when I almost felt sorry for Snow. I held on to that as I read Ballad, thinking, Maybe my sympathy is justified. But no. Villains can garner sympathy for a moment or two. That doesn’t mean they deserve absolution.
Other r.eviewers have called Ballad sluggish or a nonstarter of a novel, but I see it as a careful profile of a powerful man. Books like these, with intention and purpose behind them, are truly a pleasure for any e.ditor to work on. I hope I get manuscripts like these in the future to help shape into novels just as thought-provoking.