Guest Post: Katniss Everdeen as Female Hero Archetype

Wayne Stauffer teaches writing and literature at Houston Community College in Houston, Texas. He has taught a Literature and Film class on the Harry Potter books and films and is preparing one on the Hunger Games.

The release of Mockingjay Pt. 1, the third installment of The Hunger Games movies, will give us our next cinematic visualization of Katniss Everdeen and the world of Panem. Since she is such a strong character and the protagonist of the books and films, our first thoughts turn to her as the heroine of the series. But Collins has written her as different kind of action/adventure story Hero than we have seen previously. Although she has many of the qualities of a Hero that initially come to mind, there is still something about Katniss that the usual hero analysis does not address.

Conventional literary hero analysis of fictional protagonists usually examines one or more of the following Heroic Male Archetypes as the protagonist seems to exhibit a preponderance of qualities of a given kind:(Summarized from the March 1970 issue of Today magazine published by the Cistercian Fathers)

Epic Hero Superhero
•  Represents the best in humanity (role model) •  Dual identity
•  Mistaken as larger than life •  Invulnerable to physical assault
•  Virtuous and courageous •  Cunning and intelligent
•  Never loses his humanity •  One weakness
•  A skillful warrior, but vulnerable and capable of fear •  Conventional authorities are helpless, ineffective, or corrupt against criminals
•  Remains Steadfast •  Sense of Justice
•  The fate of his people is tied to his fate •  No need for Revenge
•  Causes (or is active in) the conflict •  Protects the weak
•  Purpose is more entertainment than didactic
  • Rose up in judgment against humanity and found it weak
•  Hero of survival of the fittest
Tragic Hero •  Is a super-servant to make life easier
•  Inspires pity and fear (audience identification) •  Battles are too removed from normal problems
•  Noble, but flawed
•  Encounters an abrupt reversal of fortune Anti-Hero
•  Has an epiphany— a moment of recognition of his flaw •  Willing to go against the norms of society
•  Is a victim of conflict (Fate or Destiny) •  At first, appears to be a rogue
•  Purpose is more didactic than entertainment •  Is alienated from society
•  Sets his own standards, goals, and rewards
Modern Hero •  Self-respect and personal peace are more valuable than social position
•  Willingly risks his own health or well-being for the sake of someone in need of help •  Is a social misfit
•  Protects the weak •  Examples include Westerners and Gangsters
•  Is fair •  His honesty is attractive
•  Corrects injustice
•  Helps others Pseudo-(Violent) Hero
•  Sense of duty overrules sense of self •  The Criminal is the game he stalks
•  Is an ordinary person •  Cruelty is essential
•  No moral hesitation
Sexual Hero •  Not good vs. evil, but force vs. force
•  Lives by a philosophy of pleasure
•  Is irresistible to women Popular Hero
•  Takes freedom to be all things to all women •  Depends upon media coverage
•  Style is all important •  Waxes and wanes with public interest
•  Is an empty fantasy

In other explanations of Heroes, the Historical Hero existed in the time people say he did and did the deeds people say he did. They are mortal. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, and Martin Luther King are examples. The Legendary Hero may have been a real person, but could not have performed the deeds people say he did. He may have had a mysterious birth, endured hardships and trials in obscurity, and underwent a well-deserved and glorious change of circumstance, but the historical record of all this is fragmentary at best. They are mortal. Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, John Henry, Menelaus, Odysseus, and Agamemnon are examples. The Mythical Hero is into the realm of deities and demi-gods. They have supernatural powers and knowledge not given to humans. They are immortal. Apollo, Heracles, Perseus, and Achilles are examples. Legendary and Mythical Heroes come in two varieties in ancient literature: the Warrior and the Trickster. The Warrior depends more upon brute strength and his ability to “stare death in the face” than upon cunning or intellect. The Trickster depends more upon cunning, cleverness, and his ability to outwit his enemy than upon brute strength. Some figures have both qualities. Katniss seems to be both Warrior and Trickster, but she is also much more than either.If the protagonist has mostly Epic Hero traits, then Epic Hero he is; if more Modern Hero traits, then Modern Hero he is; if more Anti-hero, then Anti-hero he is, and we move on. The easy thing to do is to look at Katniss, check off the list how many of these qualities she has, and think we know her kind of hero.

When the protagonist is male, these heroic types generally describe the characters well because the characters have many of the qualities. By extension, conventional literary hero analyses try to fit strong female characters into one of these kinds, but such analyses result in an incomplete view of the female character because it forces her into a role that may not suit her personality, and it reinforces the idea that, for a female character to be considered a valuable heroic role model, she must exhibit these male heroic characteristics. But this is the wrong gender-type model.

A second approach in the literary hero analysis of a protagonist attempts to show how she/he possesses qualities of one or more of Carl Jung’s 12 archetypes (Innocent, Orphan, Hero, Caregiver, Explorer, Rebel, Lover, Creator, Jester, Sage, Magician, and Ruler) with one as the dominant trait. Several analyses are variations of these 12 or combinations of some: One system has 8 another has 30.

In this approach the Hero type is only one among several, but most reinforce the common stereotypes around women—Innocent, Orphan, Caregiver, Rebel, Lover, Creator, Sage. One variation (Hernandez) considers the female archetype traits in correlation to their male counterparts—Faerie with Warrior, Wise One with Magician, Lover with Lover, Queen with King—but again, this measures her against the male archetypes and not as an archetype in her own right.

A third approach to understanding female protagonists generalizes from Love Stories/Romances in which the female protagonist civilizes, tames, or reforms the man-beast/wildman by the power of her love—courtly love stories often follow this pattern (a la Beauty and the Beast). The obedient, unassertive girl is rewarded with a prince, for example, Cinderella. Originally, this was a story of a mother’s power: the dying mother gave the girl a doll who advised her, or a surrogate mother (fairy godmother) appeared and worked miracles.

Although it is not a story of courtly love, The Epic of Gilgamesh even has a subplot variation of this—the priestess tames the wild man, Enkidu. In these genre love stories, the female protagonist must mold herself to suit the male. Her power is derived from her relationship with a man. Love stories often make the female protagonist seem less passive by way of two assumptions: 1) The lovers think and feel in accord; and 2) fate or some other supernatural power has created the two lovers for each other and no one else will do as a partner.

Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games does not fit any of these conventional heroic analyses at all. Granted, she has many of the Heroic qualities listed above, but not a majority to fit neatly into just one. She has three of Jung’s four qualities, but she does not change into the final role, the Queen. And she definitely is not the Romantic Heroine, trying to tame the wild man. She is not obedient and unassertive. She says she is not interested in marriage, even to Gale. She only molds herself to Peeta for the sake of appearances in the first two books. The only man she has derived any strength or power from is her dead father, though one could argue that her resistance to Snow builds her strength of character and influence, not power. She does not think and feel in accord with Gale or Peeta, nor does she think or feel that fate or some other supernatural power has created the two for each other and no one else will do as a partner.

In our age of online quizzes to determine which Hobbit or Harry Potter character we are, these analysis approaches are easy to understand and make a surface kind of sense, but they may be too easy to accept. As I thought through these three sets of Heroic Traits when I read The Hunger Games trilogy, I could see the resemblances, but the image was still fuzzy, like a photo from a first-generation camera phone. Katniss may have several of these heroic traits from all three sets, but there is still something missing.

I would like to suggest an alternative understanding of Katniss Everdeen as a different kind of Heroic protagonist.

A while back I posted here a short explanation of what I learned as simply a ‘Female Hero Archetype’ back in the late 1980s early 1990s. This name sounds like just another generic kind rather than a specific one, but I do not have a clever name for her. I did not think up this archetype; I attribute it to a colleague, Jack Marshall, in a conference presentation.

Katniss Everdeen easily meets all of the criteria of this Female Hero Archetype:

The Female Hero Story Pattern in The Hunger Games series

1. The Female Hero enters a community alone, sometimes with her child or lives in a community which attempts to reject her.

Although Katniss is already a part of the community of District 12, not new to it, she still feels apart from it because she chooses to continue in her hunting activities outside the fence after her father dies rather than take on a traditional role that women play in District 12. Her mother is a Healer (a traditional social role for women), but Katniss has to leave the house sometimes if the patient is badly injured—not the role for her. When her mother descends into depression at the death of her father, Katniss takes over as provider for the family, effectively taking on her sister as her own child. Her father worked the potentially dangerous job in the coal mine; Katniss hunts in the potentially dangerous environment outside the fence—severe punishment or a death sentence await those caught outside (think of the Avoxes on her team). Although the District 12 community does not cast her out in rejection for her illicit hunting, neither does it protect her or try to keep her from undergoing the reaping; she is, for all intents, rejected by the community when she volunteers to replace Prim in the Game. In terms of Panem at large, she does enter into this wider community singly, since she hardly knew Peeta before the Game.

2. The Female Hero unifies the community and brings harmony and accord or creates a separate community full of harmony and accord.

Her participation in the Game, substituting for her younger sister, gives the District 12 community cause for unity because they want her to survive and return—she represents them. But throughout the books, she also turns out to be a unifying figure for the Capitol residents, for Panem spectators at large, and for the disparate rebellious factions in the separate Districts. She becomes the rallying figure around whom they can come together against the tyranny of the Capitol. Katniss accepts her classmate Madge’s gift of a small broach as a token by which to remember her District 12 community when she is in the Game, but Katniss only sees a stylized bird in a circle in the first novel. It is not until the second book that she understands the symbolism attached to the Mockingjay pin/emblem throughout Panem in association with previous rebellion attempts.

3. The Female Hero has personal relationships with several individuals and their lives are better because of their relationship with the Female Hero.

Katniss and Gale are young teenage friends of the “he is a boy, and he is my friend, but he’s not my boyfriend” kind of relationship. They share thoughts and hunting, but neither has thought farther than that romantically. In the District Katniss is well-known in the Hob because she trades her excess hunting meat. She also is certain to hunt for the particular preferences of the Mayor and others who have levels of control in the District to curry their favor, should she need it in the future. Katniss had a strong relationship with her father before he was killed in the mine accident. This relationship was crucial in her development of the independent spirit she shows throughout the series. Once in the Capitol, Katniss charms her prep team even though she is not trying to charm them. They genuinely feel distraught when she is taken away for the first Game.

4. The Female Hero has power over others because of her overwhelming love, wisdom, goodness, and honesty. The Female Hero rarely, if ever, resorts to physical force or violence to accomplish her ends.

Psychological studies of Power make a useful distinction between “power” and “influence.” Power involves a position of authority and use of that authority to achieve both good and bad ends. Influence, on the other hand, does not come from authority; it grows from people’s willingness to respect each other. As a teenage girl from an outlying District, Katniss has no power over anyone or anything. But as a volunteer tribute, who chooses to put her life at risk for her sister, she has huge influence. Katniss shares the results of her hunting with the people of District 12 by selling in the Hob what her family cannot eat. She gains their respect and a level of admiration, but she has no authority over them. Before entering the Game she is known in the District for her kindness and strength of character. During the Games she only resorts to killing others in self-defense (Rue’s killer) or out of mercy (Cato at the end). Her first action when the Game starts is to grab some supplies and retreat to a defensive position, not go on the offense and kill-so-as-not-to-be-killed. She tries to stay alone against the group as long as possible and only allies herself with Rue under pressure. When she teams up with Rue, she transfers some of her love for her younger sister to Rue and tries to protect Rue as she would her sister. Her strong sense of honesty helps her to see through the artifice of the Games pageantry before and after the competition. She dislikes it, but comes to realize the need to “play along” as needed.

In the second Games of Catching Fire she is more aware of the value of allies, even if she does not fully trust them, and takes pains to use the booby traps and hazards of the Arena to take out those who actively hunt her. The unlikely alliance she has with Peeta, Finnick, Johanna, BeeTee is because they see her as the one worth protecting to get the rebellion going. Again, she only uses violence as a defensive measure for self-protection and not as a first line of action. Her preferred modus operandi is non-violence, but she is unafraid to use violent means when needed.

In Mockingjay she prefers to go and talk to the District 2 survivors coming from the train station instead of shooting them as they emerge. It is the traps of the Capitol that take out her pursuers with only two exceptions: the Capitol woman they surprise in coming out of the tunnels and President Coin at the end. In both cases she shoots them because she perceives them as threats to her safety and/or the safety of others, not an aggressive show of power or brute strength.

In all three books Katniss is expresses concern on multiple occasions with how many people “have died because of me” in all of the violence, as if she just stopped her resistance to the Capitol, then these people would not have died. And on each occasion those around her remind her that it is about more than just her personal wishes and desires—the freedom of all Panem is at stake.

5. The Female Hero reforms the villain in the story, if any appears. Usually, incorrigible villains kill themselves, fate eliminates them, or other characters dispose of them.

The primary villain of the series is President Snow and the faceless masses of the Capitol. In the first and second books Katniss does not reform these villains. Her immediate opponents in the Game are not strictly villains because they are forced to participate as she is, but they mostly kill off each other. In this way Katniss does not have to resort to violence. Yet, in Catching Fire she unknowingly has protectors who are willing to sacrifice themselves so that she can survive as the victor. In Mockingjay Katniss does not reform Snow or Coin, but she does change the Capitol and all of Panem. Katniss can see that Snow is already dying, his years of evil behavior finally catching up with him. She also sees that Coin is very much like Snow and needs to be stopped. So she does—an act of defense for all of Panem. This is Collins’ variation on this type.

6. The Female Hero rarely participates in competitions or fights. When they do occur, reaching accord is more important than victory over an opponent.

The Game is the first time for Katniss to engage in a competition or fight. Before the reaping of the first book, she tries to have a “live and let live” attitude in District 12. Her illicit hunting activities are about providing food for her family first, but as she has enough left over, she sells the excess in the District for others to have as well. This is how she builds good will and support from the community. Then, when she and Peeta are the only remaining combatants in the Game, her double suicide alternative provides the “accord” instead of victory that solidifies her standing in all of Panem. By that time in the Game, she cannot see Peeta as an adversary or villain to be conquered anyway.

As Katniss and Peeta tour the Districts of Panem at the beginning of Catching Fire, their message to each District is not one of gloating and threats, it is one of compassion. As the Quarter Quell Game progresses, she looks out more for the welfare of her allies than for herself to get them to work together as a team.

In Mockingjay her concern grows with regard to how many people have died “because of her” so she is always looking for an alternative to violence or competition. At the end when presented with killing Snow and accepting Coin as the new president, she provides the alternative that results in accord across Panem, not just for her satisfaction

Female Hero Story Elements in The Hunger Games series

Collins makes use of several distinct story elements that are unique to the Female Hero Archetype as well.

Conflict—In traditional myths, the male hero must subdue or defeat a villain in a win/lose situation that ends in a victor and the conquered. The Games of Panem are set up under this model, reminiscent of the gladiatorial games of ancient Rome. There is only one victor.

However, in the Female Hero Archetype story, the Female Hero changes the antagonist or invokes social pressure to discipline or change the antagonist. Although Katniss does not change the antagonist (President Snow) and the government, she definitely invokes social pressure to change the society of Panem. She so endears herself to the people of the Capitol and Panem at large that she and Peeta are allowed to live as co-victors. This pressure also leads to the rebellions in the Districts.

The Secret—The Female Hero or her best friend knows a secret that can only be revealed to someone intimate and trusted.

Katniss’s secrets include her love for Gale, the depth of her independent spirit, and her hunting outside the fence. Her illicit hunting and living off the land have given her advantages in the Game over her rivals, both in finding food and avoiding predators. In Catching Fire Katniss discovers the almost-forgotten symbolism of the mockingjay broach that Madge gave her before the first Game. Katniss recognizes the identities of the two Avoxes on her team. Her secret about the pregnancy is that she is not. Intimate moments she has with both Gale and Peeta later in the story prove to be crucial in decision-making and building trust.

Popularity—The Female Hero becomes liked and admired by almost everyone in the community. She accomplishes this feat by good deeds, talent, skill, a friendly disposition, and overwhelming charm.

Katniss endears herself to Panem, first from the way she volunteers to take her sister’s place through to the point that she and Peeta take the mouthful of berries at the end of the Game and on into the Game of the second book. In preparation for the first Game, she even impresses the Gamemakers with her archery skills, so much so that they score her an unprecedented 11. Her popularity as the Mockingjay in the third book rallies the rebels in the remaining Districts to join the revolt.

Community Unity—The Female Hero is always a part of some larger community, be it a family or town. Her goal is to reconcile all the members of her community. The Female Hero not only works to get everyone to like her, but to like each other as well. A happy ending occurs when her efforts and genial personality result in community harmony.

Katniss unwittingly steps into this position when she volunteers to substitute for Prim. Initially, she is simply trying to save the life of her younger sister. But as the first book progresses, she comes to understand her effect on the larger communities of the Capitol and Panem. Katniss and Peeta have the superficial populace of the Capitol hanging on their every word and action, while the rebellious elements of Panem are also noticing and making the most of their opportunities to undermine the control of the Capitol. As Katniss and Peeta tour the Districts in Catching Fire, they do not feel the resentment they expected for the deaths of the participants from the Districts. Instead, they feel the admiration in the Districts and sense the people coming together against the Capitol. In Mockingjay Katniss agrees to perform as the Mockingjay because she understands the galvanizing effect this will have on the Districts.

A Nurturing Nature—Sickness and death are moments of intimate expression and release of emotions, something very important to the Female Hero.

Though Katniss does not have the Healing gift that her mother and sister have, she is able to use in the Games what she has absorbed in growing up, witnessing her mother healing others. She endures several injury/illness events herself and is near others in their injury and death for multiple expressions of intimacy and emotional release. She tends herself and Rue after the tracker jacker stings; she is with Rue when she dies; and she helps and tends Peeta’s wounds in the first book. She comes to feel compassion for Cato at the end of the first game when the wolf-like muttations drag him off the platform to tear him apart.  In the second book she is with Gale when he is beaten and helps as she can in his healing. In the second Game she figures out that the water draws out the poison of the fog and shows concern for the continued health of her allies. In Mockingjay she goes to the District 8 hospital to see how the wounded are recovering. She is concerned with how Gale and Finnick are recovering from their injuries in the Quarter Quell. She pushes for the rescue of Peeta, Annie, and Johanna on the strength of her emotional attachment to these characters.

Expression of Emotion—Expressing emotion is a notable trait in the Female Hero precisely because most male heroes repress their emotions to the utmost. While the male hero takes action to solve a problem, the Female Hero faces problems which action alone will not resolve.

Early in the first book Katniss remembers that, when she was younger and her mother had a badly injured person in the house for healing, she had to leave the house to keep from being overwhelmed by the emotions. Katniss is pretty stoic at the beginning of the first book, but as the story progresses her expressions of tenderness for Rue and compassion and feigned love for Peeta are more evocative because of the early lack of emotional show. In the other two books she has her share of emotional expressions when Gale is beaten, Peeta and Johanna are captured, the hospital in District 8 is bombed, and hijacked Peeta is returned. Though she has a story full of action, it is her alternatives to action that resolve the conflicts.

The Obnoxious Person—This character is much more important in a Female Hero story than any villain. Narrow-minded old people, irascible children, crabby relatives, irate neighbors, and the repressed husband are some of the more common obnoxious people the Female Hero must charm and win over as friends.

Haymitch is the prime example of apparently cynical compliance with the Capitol that Katniss dislikes. But Effie, Plutarch Heavensbee, Finnick and Johanna, Cinna & Co, other combatants in Catching Fire, and the Gamemakers are other obnoxious characters. Collins seems to have done the exact opposite with this story element: Katniss does not so much have to charm and win over these characters as much as she has to learn to appreciate them. She comes to see that each of these characters is not as obnoxious as she thought initially.

Relationships—Female Hero stories are about connections between people. Action is secondary.

Although a great action story series, the strengths of The Hunger Games series are the connections Katniss has and develops with others and that they develop with others because of her actions or example.

Social Disapproval—In most myths, traditional concepts about the nature of women’s roles in society oppress the Female Hero. If traditional male heroes reject society and ride off, society applauds because this kind of character is a disruptive, contentious element that disturbs the social equilibrium, harmony, and accord. The community is glad to be rid of him. But when the Female Hero is forced to leave, it is because she has disrupted the social equilibrium and is being punished for not fulfilling her role as Unifier. The community is not happy to force her to leave, but it cannot approve of the disruption she has caused and must make her an example of what happens to those who would emulate her. For this reason, women who stray from traditional passivity and acquiescence usually feel isolated and scorned by society. This is the reason so many girl heroes are orphans and so many adult female heroes are outcasts or newcomers into a community. Quite often the Female Hero must create a community of her own, even a community of outcasts if need be. The traditional male hero battles a villain, but the Female Hero must contend with a much more amorphous foe—society in general.

Collins wrote a variation of this social disapproval in The Hunger Games. Katniss is not rejected in District 12 because she has strayed from the traditionally passive and acquiescent role for her in that society, but her example of a strong individual who is not willing to just go along IS rejected by President Snow and the Capitol. District 12 gives her up for the reaping without a fight, thereby rejecting her in a passive way. Katniss does not so much create her own community as she serves as a gathering point for the larger populace of Panem that is disaffected and disenfranchised. Yet, in Mockingjay President Coin restrict Katniss’s appearances and actions as the Mockingjay once all Districts outside the Capitol have fallen to rebel control—her role as Unifier is no longer necessary to the cause, so she is effectively discarded. She served her purpose and is no longer necessary.

The Hunger Games trilogy’s Katniss Everdeen is no thinly disguised male hero in drag; she is no fantasy videogame avatar; nor is she the protagonist of a Romance story. No, Katniss Everdeen is a different kind of female hero on her own terms. She makes her own decisions throughout the three books of the series, from choosing to volunteer for her sister for the first game through to playing the Mockingjay in the rebellion to her return to the remains of District 12 at the end. She brings her community together, shows them alternatives to the competition of the Games and the control of the Capitol, and the value and importance of relationships, even with (maybe especially with) people we initially find obnoxious or irritating.


Hernández, Prisco R. “Jung’s Archetypes as Sources for Female Leadership,” Kravis Leadership Institute, Leadership Review, Vol. 9, Spring 2009: 49-59.

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