image: bookfandoms.com

Strong Female Characters: Tris Prior

For those of you that don’t know, Tris Prior is the main character of Veronica Roth’s Divergence trilogy. The novels are set in a dystopian society divided into factions based on personality types – which is only slightly reminiscent of a Buzzfeed quiz – and chronicle Tris’s attempts to bring that society down. With a movie adaptation of the first novel already released and a second one out soon, the novels have been praised as a second Hunger Games, and Tris has been hailed as a role model for young girls everywhere.

But does she live up to her reputation? Let’s find out – but watch out for spoilers!

 

  1. Does the character shape her own destiny? Does she actively try to change her situation and if not, why not?

Much like Katniss in The Hunger Games, Tris’s ability to influence her own life is severely limited by the fact that she lives in a repressive state. When we’re first introduced to her world, it becomes pretty clear that the behaviour of everyone in it is dictated by whichever faction they live in – and in order to be accepted into a particular faction, you must display the particular trait it represents to its fullest extent. Tris isn’t happy with this system, but she doesn’t do a lot about it until she falls in with a group of people who want to bring it down – but even then, she’s pretty much absorbed into their pre-existing plan rather than forming one of her own. She does get moments when she’s allowed to influence her own life, but rather worryingly, many of these moments only happen when she isn’t with her boyfriend.

Where she really comes into her own is in the last novel, Allegiant – and there’s going to be some pretty serious spoilers in this paragraph, so don’t say I didn’t warn you. She takes an active role in scuppering a plot to overthrow the faction experiment, infiltrates the government organisation controlling the experiment, changes her mind and comes up with a plan to bring them down, and leads the whole thing herself. What’s really nice about this is that her boyfriend, Four/Tobias, is involved with some of her plans and doesn’t completely overshadow the role she has in making them, which is a refreshing departure from the earlier two novels. That doesn’t completely let her off the hook, though, so I’m giving her a half point.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

  1. Does she have her own goals, beliefs and hobbies? Did she come up with them on her own?

Tris doesn’t really have many distinct hobbies that aren’t affected by her surroundings. When she’s a member of Abnegation – the selfless faction – she doesn’t really get leisure time, because they deem time spent not helping others as an unnecessary luxury. Similarly, when she’s in Dauntless – Gryffindor the brave faction – she engages in a lot of thrill-seeking, ‘dangerous’ activities, like getting tattoos and going ziplining, but her internal monologue makes it pretty clear that she’s doing it to fit in with the rest of the Dauntless, who encourage this kind of behaviour. These aren’t activities she’d seek out if she was on her own; she’s doing it because everyone else is.

Her goals and beliefs are a little harder to pin down, mainly because they fluctuate so much over the course of the trilogy. At first, she wants to fit in with the factions while keeping her Divergence (the ability to fit to more than one faction) a secret, then she wants to bring some of them down, then she changes her mind; in the last novel alone she wants to leave the city, stay in the city, stay with the government organisation controlling the factions experiment, help support said experiment, then bring down said experiment…you get the idea. Her beliefs go through a similar fluctuation, and the upshot of all of this is that she doesn’t really come across as a particularly permanent kind of character. While aspects of her personality are consistent, her beliefs, goals and even her pastimes are always reactions to her environment; there’s nothing that really sticks with her as she goes through the series and this really works against her.

SCORE SO FAR: 0.5

 

  1. Is her character consistent? Do her personality or skills change as the plot demands?

For most of the trilogy, Tris displays a pretty consistent level of skill. She’s hailed as one of the best fighters and leaders in the series, and for the most part this remains constant throughout the books. How she gets to this level is completely unrealistic. At the beginning of the first book, she has absolutely no physical strength or military training, yet in a matter of a few chapters, she becomes one of the best. While her training is mentioned in the book, the timescale makes it completely unbelievable. She gets to be one of the best initiates in her group in a matter of weeks, but we rarely see her improve in training, and we certainly don’t see her put in the kind of gym hours that would result in a drastic improvement in that time scale. She seems to get fit mainly through ziplining and moping over boys, and I don’t know about you but that certainly didn’t make me lose weight. Her personality suffers from similar problems. Like many other YA protagonists, Tris displays elements of an informed personality – what I like to call ‘Bella Swan Syndrome’.

WANTED for crimes against literature. (image: fanpop.com)
WANTED: for crimes against literature. (image: fanpop.com)

I touched on this in my post about Clara Oswald, but I’ll explain it again here: this is when other characters in a novel describe the protagonist as one thing, but they actually spend most of the novel doing almost the complete opposite. In Tris’s case it isn’t quite so pronounced, but it is nevertheless there. She’s often described as being very brave, but the kind of bravery she exhibits is often confined to grand gestures like leading rebellions and storming buildings – when she’s confronted with situations like standing up to a teacher abusing their power, she does nothing because she’s afraid of the consequences. She’s supposed to show an aptitude for Erudite (the ‘intelligence’ faction), but she often takes ages to put two and two together – most notably, when it takes her the entirety of the first novel to recognise a boy from her own faction when LITERALLY EVERYBODY IN THE CITY KNOWS WHO THIS GUY IS BECAUSE HE’S IN THE PAPER ALL THE TIME. You’d think she’d catch on a bit quicker, seeing there’s supposed to be a family resemblance. However, there are elements of consistency in her personality and narration – particularly her suspicious nature and strong self-preservation instincts – so I’ll give her half a point.

SCORE SO FAR: 1

 

  1. Can you describe her in one short sentence without mentioning her love life, her physical appearance, or the words ‘strong female character’?

A young girl trying to resist the conventions of the dystopian society she lives in.

SCORE SO FAR: 2

 

  1. Does she make decisions that aren’t influenced by her love life?

Throughout most of the story Tris’s decisions are influenced by whatever is going on around her; she usually ends up reacting to other characters’ decisions than making them herself. Most of these reactions are influenced by a desire to protect the people she loves or the things she believes in, and since not all of them are her boyfriend, she passes this round.

SCORE SO FAR: 3

 

  1. Does she develop over the course of the story?

Unlike The Hunger Games, Tris doesn’t have a clear goal that takes her through the series – what this means in practice is that she doesn’t have a clear development arc and that the books are much more like individual stories rather than three parts of a larger tale. Her character changes over the course of the books, but the links between the novels are pretty shaky, so you don’t always get a sense that these character changes are consistent. That’s not to say her character is static. Over the course of the novels, Tris goes through a lot of stuff. She loses both her parents, almost gets executed, witnesses several of her friends getting injured or killed, shoots a friend who was trying to kill her while under mind control and finds out that the entire society she grew up in was just an experiment controlled by a vague yet menacing government agency.

No, not that one. (image: wordpress.com)
No, not that one. (image: wordpress.com)

That’s a lot to deal with, but the thing is, we don’t always see her dealing with it. She feels very guilty about shooting her friend and has to come to terms with it, but takes the deaths of her parents remarkably well, hardly seeming to struggle with it at all. She agonises over not being able to save her friends, but when she finds out that she’s been watched like a lab rat her entire life, she barely bats an eyelid. Most tellingly of all, we don’t see her affected by any of the PTSD that going through these kinds of experiences would trigger, and in places, this makes the reader wonder if these experiences had any effect on her at all. The things that she does deal with are handled pretty well – for instance, after she shoots her friend Will she has to repair a friendship with his girlfriend, and get over the fear of firing a gun she has developed since – but she’s just got so much to deal with that it’s impossible to see it all through, and this really hinders her progression as a character.

SCORE SO FAR: 3.5

 

  1. Does she have a weakness?

Tris has a few really interesting weaknesses thrown into the mix, some of which are addressed by the novel and some of which are not. She’s very suspicious, prone to making snap decisions without thinking the consequences through, and finds it difficult to forgive people easily. These are all weaknesses acknowledged in the text, but there are more subtle flaws that are put across in the tone of her narration and the implications of her actions – namely, her desperation to fit in, the insidious self-loathing in her narration, and her tendency to overlook her boyfriend’s flaws even when she feels that he doesn’t respect her. These flaws aren’t really addressed in the text – particularly the ones surrounding her relationship with Four, but I think that’s part of a wider trend in portraying YA relationships – but they do affect her decisions and relationships, so I’m giving her the point.

SCORE SO FAR: 4.5

 

  1. Does she influence the plot without getting captured or killed?

Tris does influence the plot without getting captured or killed, but it’s worth noting that it’s still one of the biggest ways she influences the plot. Tris has to be rescued from difficult situations a lot – more than once she turns herself over to the bad guys in order to save other people – and it takes a while for her to start making her own decisions and actively leading the story. I’ll be generous and give her a half point.

SCORE SO FAR: 5

 

  1. How does she relate to stereotypes about gender?

In many ways, Tris breaks down a lot of stereotypes surrounding teenage girls. She’s a capable leader, good in a fight, willing to face her fears and she doesn’t buckle under adversity – all things that teenage girls are rarely credited with.

However, in other ways she does uphold stereotypes, and this is primarily seen in her relationship with Four. Tris outright says in the last novel that she feels that Four doesn’t respect her or listen to her decisions, and the consequences of his actions directly led to people being injured and killed. It’s implied that she’s felt this way for a while, so you would think this would be grounds for a dumping, yet within a couple of chapters she’s attached to his mouth like a limpet again.

The most romantic mollusc of them all. (image:fungalpunknature.co.uk)
The most romantic mollusc of them all. (image:fungalpunknature.co.uk)

This is a problem right from the beginning of the novel – when she first meets Four, she sees his behaviour as hostile, and even though it’s interspersed with some friendlier moments she’s still convinced he hates her right up until the point where they start making out. This buys into a worrying stereotype often present in YA fiction: that young girls will put up with all kinds of behaviour from their boyfriends if they’re good looking. This is a much more dangerous belief than it would first seem, especially given the current lack of relationship education in schools and the ways that the media tries to package every YA romance as ‘THE MOST ROMANTIC LOVE STORY EVAH’. We should be discouraging young girls from accepting bad behaviour in their relationships, and although Tris makes a half-hearted stab at this, it isn’t anywhere near enough.

SCORE SO FAR: 5.5

 

  1. How does she relate to other female characters?

Tris interacts with a wide range of female characters throughout the series. She loves (but does not understand) her mother, drifts away from her female friends in Abnegation, has a wary respect for the female politician, Johanna Reyes, outright despites the leader of Erudite, Jeanine Matthews, and makes numerous female friends in Dauntless – most notably a girl called Christina. Christina becomes Tris’s best friend and their relationship is by far the most interesting; they get on well, but at the end of the first novel Tris kills Christina’s boyfriend, and she must overcome her guilt and loss and attempt to rebuild their friendship. It’s a wide range of relationships with a wide range of characters, so she certainly passes this round.

FINAL SCORE: 6.5/10

 

Tris is a character marked by inconsistency. While she does have some consistent personality traits (most notably her weaknesses) and an impressive array of relationships with other female characters, her development, agency and skills are in flux throughout most of the trilogy, frequently at the plot’s demand. She doesn’t come across as a character distinct from her surroundings – she blends into the background of her story so seamlessly that, at times, I was wondering why the heroine of the Divergence trilogy couldn’t be Christina, instead. That said, she does have some good points, and although she hasn’t passed my test she’s clearly had a hell of an impact on YA publishing, if the movie deal is anything to go by.

Next week, I’ll be looking at the Scott Pilgrim universe. Ramona Flowers, I’m coming for you.

 

And if you’re looking for the rest of my Strong Female Characters posts, you can find them here.

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13 thoughts on “Strong Female Characters: Tris Prior”

  1. You went soft with Katniss and awarded her the point when she didn’t challenge the society she lives in. But with Tris Prior, you were a bit more demanding and expected her to do it. Having only read Divergent, it’s possible that Tris could be punished by getting shot (even if they don’t say it outright). Either that or live a life of poverty with the faction less. Both prospects don’t look very promising. I think you could have given Tris a pass on that one, as you did with Katniss. But still she would have failed your test anyway.

  2. I know this is old, but I am really perplexed at your analysis of her improving in the physical aspect of training. You say she went from small and weak to one of the best and I’m not sure why you got that. Of the transfers she was ranked 6th of 9 at the end of the first stage. I’d hardly call that “one of the best”. She was in the bottom half and I’m sure even lower when compared against the group of Dauntless-born. It was entirely the fear sims and landscape that got her to first place, using her mind, not physical strength.

    1. I was actually referring to her training as a whole, not just the physical aspect of it. But regardless of that, Tris is able to perform on a similar level to a fair amount of some of the Dauntless characters without having had any prior training. Having had a few years of martial arts training myself, I can tell you from experience that it really isn’t that easy!

  3. First of all, I would like to thank you for writing this analysis. I am writing a research paper on the depiction of dystopian worlds in modern YA novels and I would like to cite your analysis but in order to do that I need to know your last name. I know that it’s a weird request but could you please tell me what your last name is, I’d be very grateful.

  4. When I first read this book, I knew I had found the birthplace of YA dystopia cliches. I’ve always found the faction system in Divergent completely ridiculous, and I didn’t like how the book was equating bravery with jumping off trains and other reckless behavior. It was also clearly setting up Dauntless as the “cool, edgy” faction. I recently heard an interesting question from a friend about this book that I would like your opinion on. Do you think the Dauntless are feminist or sexist for having the female initiates and the male initiates fight each other during training?

    1. Yeah – it’s a perfect storm of cliches!

      Interesting question about sexism in Dauntless though. I do think that Dauntless is sexist but not because female and male initiates have to fight each other. Realistically a well-trained fighting force has to be taught to fight opponents of any kind. Gender segregation in fighting classes would naturally make someone more vulnerable in a real fight – fighting more diverse opponents would make you less likely to be taken by surprise. I actually studied martial arts for a while and I can certainly say that surprising your opponent really gives you an advantage in sparring!

      I always thought Dauntless’s sexism was more evident in the culture of the faction. They encouraged their initiates to take unnecessary risks, dress ‘cool’, and get tattoos and, all in all, engage in this weird ‘bad boy’ culture which kind of pushed them all to act in pretty masculine ways. If you didn’t conform to this, it wasn’t because you chose not to, but because you were weak.

      This is really where I think Dauntless’s sexism shows the most. Bravery is not an exclusively masculine thing, and you certainly don’t have to wear a leather jacket and get a bunch of tattoos to be a brave person. Other kinds of bravery, maybe ones that aren’t so performative, just aren’t acknowledged – like the bravery you would need to tell the rest of Dauntless that jumping out of a moving train is just stupid. But I don’t remember a single member of Dauntless who was unapologetically girly and was actually respected by the rest of the faction. Dauntless’s sexism lies in thinking that you need to be a certain kind of masculine to be brave, and that anything other than that – including femininity, and possibly also a whole host of other gender/sexuality issues that I haven’t even touched on here – is a sign of weakness.

      But that’s just my opinion! What do you think?

  5. I agree with your analysis. I also thought it was interesting how Eric thought Al having the good sense not to walk in front of people throwing knifes was cowardice, when Al was the only person brave enough stand up to Eric and tell him that standing in front of someone throwing a knife is just plain stupid. Also, Lynn tells Tris that she felt the need to make her appearance more “masculine” in order to earn respect in Dauntless, which might have been the book acknowledging the sexism of Dauntless.

    1. Good points. There was a lot wrong with Dauntless which I felt wasn’t really addressed and for me, that was what made the difference between Dauntless and Gryffindor. Dauntless was all about taking stupid risks for the sake of grandstanding, but in the HP books it was openly acknowledged that there are different kinds of bravery and they’re all valuable. You can really tell when an author has put thought into their world-building with stuff like that!

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