(Don’t) Write Like: Veronica Roth

For the entire month of March, I read and reviewed Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy (Divergent, Insurgent, Allegiant) in anticipation of the release of the Insurgent movie (I also reviewed both films). Anyone who has been following any of these reviews knows that I have had somewhat less than lukewarm feelings for the series. And yet it continues to haunt me.

A lot of it has to do with the series unreached potential. Despite all my complaints and vendettas, there is a lot to like about Tris and Tobias/Four and even parts of the confined world they inhabit. Tris and her struggle with sacrifices is both brave and admirable, and after the creepy almost-abusive tone of their relationship in the first book, Tris and Tobias navigate their relationship in realistic and mostly healthy ways. …But, so much of the world-building and general writing leaves so much to be desired.

And therein lies the haunting. I’m not seeking to lecture on what Roth could have fixed; that ship has sailed and she’s got the billions in her pocket to soothe any regrets she may have concerning her story. But as I go forward in my own novel-writing endeavor, the ghost of Divergent’s flaws have risen, begging me not to make the same mistakes. (Sorry, Veronica Roth.)

So here’s what I’ve learned from the writing and world-building in the Divergent series:

  1. A solid foundation is key.

A large part of the reason why Chebk even stopped reading the first book in the trilogy had to do with the world-building. It’s evident in the first twenty pages as Roth explains the entire foundation for her society, breaking communities up into personality traits: Dauntless (brave), Erudite (smart), Abnegation (selfless), Amity (peaceful), and Candor (honest).

The traits chosen do not make sense for an actual society, especially with the division of labor that seems to render large populations fairly useless. (We are told Candor are lawyers, but also told that basically nobody breaks laws and also that each faction handles disputes internally. …So what the hell do the lawyers do all day?) Once a reader starts picking apart the world of a story itself, there is little you can do to fix their belief in the characters and plotlines.

I admit I have been fairly lax in some of my own world-building, expecting readers not to question certain aspects or to fill in the gaps themselves. Reading Divergent has made me take a second look at how I am designing my world and its boundaries. Believability is key.

  1. Be consistent!

Part of adequate world-building includes follow-through with every aspect of said world. Readers will catch on to inconsistencies, which take them out of the story.

For example: In Divergent, Abnegation members are allowed to fall in love, marry, and have children. Yet we are told, through Tris, that many Abnegation members also do not have friends because they are not supposed to form ties that could keep them from being selfless for society’s good. My thinking is that spouses and kids form stronger ties that could keep people (especially people like Tris’s father, who works for government leaders) from being selfless.

Another inconsistency is in the varied personality aspects we see in all characters anyway, Divergent or not. Part of that is poor world-building; it was doomed to fail from the start with the division traits chosen. Part of it is simple character inconsistency.

My novel rotates between six character perspectives. Keeping each character consistent and unique is a chore that I regret half the time, but I have a renewed sense of the need for both to keep a reader interested and invested.

Let's play a game: How many do you remember?
Let’s play a game: How many do you remember?
  1. Control the size of your cast.

In the same way that Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight suffered from a bloated cast by the end of her series, Roth tends to introduce side character after side character with reckless abandon. The result is a mire of confused names and identities. This is even more egregious when Roth kills them off in swathes and we, as the reader are meant to feel something besides, “Who was that again?”

I can understand Roth’s line of thinking in her use of new characters. She wants to show how big this society is, as in real life Tris would be meeting all these new people. Roth always wants to be able to show the risk everyone is taking without killing off her main characters (well, sort of; more on this later). The problem is that these side characters are neither interesting nor memorable. Like, there’s sort of a secondary love interest for Tris in Allegiant but 1) We learn nothing about him besides he eats apples and does computer stuff and 2) What does he actually add to the plotline? I think he helps the girl that’s the secondary love interest for Tobias, and he provides information at some later point, but anybody could have done any of these things. Roth’s problem is that her side characters are interchangeable and replaceable. (Marlene and Lynn anyone?)

Now, I will be first to admit that I throw around side character names way too much. It is a goddamn problem and I am ashamed. Seeing this problem in another’s writing, and noting how it ruins the reading experience for me, has definitely affected how I use side characters. I will be cutting some down and combining them. The rest can be nameless faces in the crowd unless they add something important.

  1. Let go of filler.

In the same vein, I felt like most of Insurgent and Allegiant could have been condensed and combined. Side characters added subplots that dragged on. Repetitious revolutions ran in circles. Betrayers betrayed other betrayers.

While I’m sure dragging these stories into two books made Roth a fortune, it left a bad taste in my mouth as a reader. Why was I still reading this? Why was nothing happening? Why did people keep doing stupid things for the sake of a few extra pages to the text?

It’s understandable to indulge in certain whims as a writer. It’s your story; do what you want. But keep in mind what the reader is going through. Be careful with pacing. Be even more careful with juggling side tangents. The main story is the most important, after all.

  1. Major character deaths must be used with caution.
    Enough people have written about this for it to be fairly common knowledge, but just in case, this is your SPOILER ALERT. Tris’s death in Allegiant was the rotten cherry on a disappointing, overbloated cake. Her sacrifice didn’t further any plot lines. Four has never had an arc of his own and it rang hollow to trade his story off when readers invested in Tris in the first place. While it may seem a great and meaningful sacrifice on the part of the writer to kill off their character, it needs to matter to the reader and to the story.

    The best example I can think of is the death of Ned Stark in Game of Thrones (or A Song of Ice and Fire series). He is a major character throughout the first book, but his death propels a series of events and character trajectories necessary to further the plotline. It is tragic because we invested in him, but it also impacts the story in interesting enough ways that we want to keep reading. Tris’s death gives little meaning to the end. It could have easily continued with her living in the same way.

    Chebk and I both have problems with killing off characters for some reason. I don’t know about Chebk, but after this series, I know I have to plan these things more carefully and do it for more than just shock value. Life is precious. Even for fictitious characters.

So this is it. This is the end of my Divergent journey, readers. I wash my hands of this nonsense…until the last two films.

Got any book/movie recs for Cheri or Chebk? Let us know in the comments! Follow us on twitter (@cherichebk) for more updates!


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