Monday, January 9, 2012

Face Off: Tessa Vs Katniss

Face Off is a new weekly feature which will appear on Mondays. We intend to compare and contrast two characters. Sometimes, these characters will be examples of how not to do it and how to do it right. Sometimes, they’ll both examples of how very wrong you can be. Occasionally, they’ll both be awesome -  sometimes they’ve been randomly linked elsewhere.

This week, we’re looking at Katniss from the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins vs Tessa from the Infernal Devices series by Cassandra Clare, which have been linked in the Heroine Torment. It's worth mentioning that when you have a count down clock for the next book in the infernal devices series, whatever competition you are running can hardly be said to be unbiased.

One of the advantages of this Face Off, is that the site itself presents the strengths of each character.

Personally, one thing I’m not going to rate is the relative combat abilities of each character. One trope I think literature in general and Urban Fantasy in particular needs to realize, is that a strong female character isn’t defined by the number of martial arts she has mastered, the heat of the fireballs she can throw out of her ass, or the size of the gun she can shoot.  The very fact that we have to equate strength with the ability to be violent is extremely limiting, simply because it is one dimensional.   A truly great protagonist is one that is complex and examines the world around her, rather than letting events simply happen to her and then reacting. So, though Katniss could certainly kill Tessa several times over, we will put it aside.

So let’s look at who these characters are.

Katniss is born to extreme adversity, having to risk her life to feed her family from a young age and living in severe poverty and oppression. She volunteered to participate in the Hunger Games to replace her younger sister, where she fought desperately to survive and then to keep Peeta alive as well. Despite having so little hope, she defied the capital and ensured both she and Peeta lived. Her act of defiance became iconic and she became the symbol of resistance, through all of the oppressed districts and  integral in the propaganda war against the Capital. Despite this, she recognised the oppression of her captors, kept her humanity, kept her ideal on moral lines that must not be crossed and, in the end, having lost nearly everything, she put an arrow through her own leader’s heart. I think it is important to note that for Katniss not becoming the oppressor even as she fought for freedom was absolutely imperative.

She frequently looks after herself and her family and has taken the path of safety more than once - but she has learned to survive when all the odds are against her. She rarely looks at the bigger picture or the world wide effects - she sees the ground and the people. 


Tessa was born in the states and grew up in a very poor household, but somehow she managed to be an extremely well read woman. Don’t take this as an accolade, because if Clare was truly interested in presenting even a remotely accurate description of class, books, and even the ability to read would not be a normal occurrence with someone of Tessa’s background.  Tessa lives in a world of books and that means she communicates in the same fashion which of course makes her tedious and boring. 

When she arrives in the sanctuary in London, she sets about immediately budding into people’s business, demanding answers to extremely personal questions.  This by all accounts would make Tessa a busy body.  Even the staff is not free from her comments on their love life. Unfortunately this not limited to demanding private information, and personal motives, it even includes lecturing the shadowhunters about their society.  A group that she has barely interacted with because of course Tessa always knows best.

If that were not enough, Tessa is all about Tessa.  Rarely does she consider the feelings of others in a rush to have her issues solved. It’s always about Tessa’s pain.

The characteristic that Tessa has absolutely mastered is spunky agency.  She rushes in where angels fear to tread and this is somehow constructed as a positive.  If Tessa had the common sense that God gave cabbage, maybe she wouldn’t always be in need of saving.  I understand not wanting to see the truth about her brother, I really do, but that does not excuse the ridiculous risks that she takes. See, I can forgive her sometimes. Another factor worth mentioning is that Tessa is extremely slow on the uptake.  A squirrel could find it’s way through a maze before Tessa found the answer to 2 + 2.

If it cannot be guessed from the write ups, we give Katniss the victory in this contest. While the contest sites says “I think that there is no denying that Tessa is mentally and emotionally stronger than Katniss” we quite simply cannot agree. Katniss endures horrors above and beyond what Tessa touches - and while Katniss is most certainly hurt by them, she still endures and survives - and even after losing so much, she still puts her arrow through Coin’s heart - her defiance isn’t crushed. Despite everything, she is still free and vital. Frankly, Katniss not being damaged by what she endured wouldn’t be a sign of weakness - it would be a sign of bad writing.

Further, the idea that Katniss is more selfish than Tessa bemuses me. From sacrificing herself for her family, for her sister, to her whole involvement as the Mockingjay, Katniss thinks of others. Had she wanted to be selfish, she and Gale could have headed to the wilderness. Yes, she survives and does what she has to and no, she’s not always willing to trust and go along with the plans of others - but has she a reason to? Her selfishness and “pouting” show a reasoned lack of trust and a sensible unwillingness to emotionally invest in people she may lose or even have to kill.

All in all, Katniss wins because she endures pain and a situation far worse than anything Tessa sees, and though she’s hurt she endures, she survives and she still inspires. No, she’s not trusting and no she doesn’t stop being suspicious or questioning - but these are part of what makes her a strong character - partly because it’s what’s necessary to survive in her world - and partly because it shows a character who comes to her own conclusions. Katniss is a real and fleshed out character in a way that Tessa, no matter how many love triangles she involves herself in will ever be.  In the end, Katniss is not a winner because her world is far more draconian, but because unlike Tessa, she is an in-depth human being.