Recently, Rose Red and I watched the film version of Divergent (the first episode in yet another of the currently-popular young-adult dystopia trilogies). I found it interesting, and enjoyable, though a bit on-the-nose in places; I was unsurprised to discover the author was inspired by their Psyc-101 classes at university.
Lest I sound condescending, let me be clear that I mean no disrespect. I certainly haven’t managed to write a best-selling novel that’s been turned into a multi-million dollar Hollywood production, let alone to have done so in my early twenties. My perspective involves somewhat more experience (in life, education, and stories) than the target market for the book, so it’s not surprising it comes across a bit simplisticly.
Anyhow, what I found interesting in Divergent was the concept of “Factions”, which—like the Hogwarts Houses in the Harry Potter series—are defined based on particular personality traits/virtues*.
This [personality-based groups] can be an interesting way of revealing the characters, in terms of showing how they do/don’t fit within a particular group. Indeed, part of the point of Divergent is that people shouldn’t be defined so simply (different situations call for different approaches), which is not addressed in Harry Potter**. In the real world, there are a great many attempts to categorise people’s personalities, though they often involve more than a handful of different types (a well-known example being the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator).
One aspect of any sort of group segregation, another concept from psychology, is “Us vs. Them”. It’s been shown that the mere act of dividing people into groups (regardless of whether the division is systematic or arbitrary) causes them to value in-group individuals (“us”) more than out-group individuals (“them”). Essentially, there’s an instinct to compete (whether the competition is overt or indirect). This is one of the reasons behind the idea of “divide and conquer” (“A house divided will not stand”). For example, in The Hunger Games, the Capitol separated the populace into districts to prevent them working together.
Where this can come across as simplistic is when it becomes clear which groups the author identifies with (would be in, or wishes they would). Regardless of the value of other traits, Gryffindor is the best, and Slytherin’s are all dodgy (if not outright evil). Rose Red was very amused when I commented on the main character of Divergent choosing to leave “Lame Boringville” in favour of “Exciting McAwesomeSauce” (though, having not read the book, I don’t know if that bias comes from the author or the film-makers).
It’s very difficult to achieve, but there is great value and nuance in showing pros and cons to both/all perspectives without significant bias (other than the fact that the protagonist is on one side and the antagonist another).
* In some ways, the factions are better defined by the absence of vices: Abnegation reject Ego, Dauntless reject Fear, Erudite reject Ignorance, Candor reject Falsehood, and Amity reject Aggression.
** For example, Harry is told by the Sorting Hat that he would do well in Slytherin, but this is used to emphasise that he chose one over the other, rather than making a point of showing him using different approaches (“Choice” being a more pertinent motif of the series, as opposed to Divergent’s “Adaptability”).