The protagonist of the series, Katniss is a tough young woman who has a strong urge to always protect those weaker than herself. At the start of the novel, she craves little more than a simple, safe life for herself and her loved ones. The events of the previous novel, however, have put her in the middle of a few complicated situations, one of which threatens the wellbeing of her friends and family. Much of the novel follows Katniss as she navigates these situations. To begin with, Katniss finds herself having become a celebrity of sorts after winning the Hunger Games. She recognizes that her fame means people are watching everything she does and at times taking her words and actions to mean more than she intends. Over the course of the novel, for example, she comes to learn that she’s become a symbol of rebellion against the Capitol because she defied the Capitol’s rules and threatened suicide with Peeta at the end of the Hunger Games. But Katniss’s primary intent wasn’t to stage an act of rebellion, though she does recognize that there was some spirit of defiance in the gesture. Mostly she wanted to save Peeta and herself and she knew the Capitol wouldn’t let both of them die. Now, however, she finds herself cast as a rebel, and she struggles to navigate a path between defusing this persona and not being a puppet of the Capitol.
The second complex situation she faces is a direct result of her reputation as a rebel. She’s now a target of the Capitol, and to make sure she doesn’t act out and spark an uprising, the Capitol threatens to harm or kill Gale and possibly her family if she defies it in any way. To appease the Capitol, she has to act at all times as though she’s in love with Peeta, because doing so allows the Capitol to pretend her act at the end of the Hunger Games wasn’t a rebellion but a desperate attempt for her to save someone she loves. Maybe the greatest change Katniss undergoes over the course of the novel is from wanting to appease the Capitol to wanting to bring it down. In large part because of the Victory Tour she goes on as a winner of the Hunger Games, she begins to see how brutal the Capitol is to the people of Panem beyond District 12. After Gale is publicly whipped and District 12 is essentially turned into a military state, her desire becomes to punish the Capitol. As she begins to think of the idea more seriously, she worries that the Capitol might retaliate against her family, but then thinking about the ways her family has already been hurt by the Capitol, she finds her resolve only strengthened. The realization confirms for her that action needs to be taken, even if it means more pain in the short-term. By that point, she’s become something like the rebel the Capitol feared.
Yet another complicated situation she has to contend with involves her relationships with Peeta and Gale. Gale has hinted at times that he’s in love with Katniss, but finally in this novel he tells her outright. Katniss, meanwhile, has feelings for both Gale and Peeta, but because of the complexity of her life, she doesn’t want to be with anyone. At the same time, she has to pretend publicly that she and Peeta are madly in love, even though Peeta knows she does it only because of the threats made against her by the Capitol. As a result, there is constant tension among all of them. Peeta and Gale are jealous of each other, and Katniss is nearly always caught in the middle, trying not to hurt either’s feelings but making both feel rejected.
The kind, artistic, and self-sacrificing Peeta is most notable for his essential goodness. Peeta is never violent or vindictive, no matter how horrible his situation may be. At one point during the Quarter Quell, Katniss is shocked to see how willingly the tributes kill one another, even though they’ve been friends for years. She thinks how Peeta in the same situation would try to talk to everyone to prevent any violence. Finnick also notices this quality in Peeta. He says to Katniss that none of the previous victors won their Games by chance, except maybe for Peeta, which Katniss takes to understand that only Peeta of all the tributes has no capacity for violence. Peeta also never punishes Katniss for lying to him during the previous Games about her feelings for him. He makes it clear that she hurt him in doing so, but he never expresses any desire to hurt her back. The thought of deliberately hurting anyone seems beyond him, and never does he waiver from a commitment to help the people around him, even at times at his own expense.
There is more to Peeta than his goodness, however. He’s also a clever strategist and gifted speaker who can effortlessly connect with an audience. By making up the lie about him and Katniss already being married and Katniss being pregnant in the tributes’ interview with Caesar Flickerman, Peeta effectively convinces the audience that the Games are unjust without explicitly speaking out against the Capitol. The Capitol can’t publicly accuse him of being a rebel, and at the same time he manages to use one of the Capitol’s greatest publicity tools—his and Katniss’s popularity—against it. This ability shows that he’s extremely intelligent, and like the other tributes, he’s not afraid to try to hurt the Capitol.
At first, Finnick appears to be little more than an arrogant and self-absorbed scoundrel, to use a somewhat polite term. He’s famous in the Capitol, and indeed all around Panem, for being extremely handsome, a serial womanizer, and for having won the Hunger Games when he was just fourteen. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Finnick, much like Katniss, has a public persona that doesn’t match who he really is. As Katniss gets to know Finnick during the Quarter Quell, she sees he is in fact loyal, dutiful, and caring. For example, despite Mags being a burden on his chances of survival, Finnick does everything he can to keep the eighty-year-old alive because, as we learn, she was his mentor and he genuinely cares about her. We also learn that even though he could have any woman in the Capitol, he loves an emotionally broken woman named Annie from his home district. This last detail implies that Finnick, like Katniss, is more interested in protecting people that are vulnerable than using them, as his public persona would suggest. In fact, that persona seems to be a calculated façade, which suggests that Finnick is highly intelligent.
Despite being an alcoholic who is often drunk, Haymitch is incredibly shrewd. He knows what it takes to accomplish his goals, and he’ll do whatever is necessary, even if it means lying or misleading people who trust him. Toward the end of the novel, Katniss realizes that Haymitch has been keeping information from her and using her to help the rebellion, causing her to feel extremely betrayed. On the other hand, his goals are generally good ones. He only uses Katniss because the Capitol is brutally oppressive and he realizes that, with Katniss’s help, the rebels have a real chance of bringing it down.
This sort of cynical pragmatism largely defines Haymitch, and it stems from a combination of realism and a rebellious spirit. That realism is why he recognizes that he can’t always use nice methods to do what needs to be done. In the previous novel, he believed he couldn’t save Katniss and Peeta, so he knew he had to choose one. He chose Katniss because she was the stronger competitor, and to help her win he forced her to take advantage Peeta’s romantic feelings for her. At the same time, however, he doesn’t simply give up his fight against the Capitol, though a realist looking at the situation objectively might deem it hopeless. He feels a strong need to rebel against anyone or anything that tries to control him. As Katniss learns, even his method of winning the Hunger Games twenty-five years earlier involved him defying the Capitol by using the force field around the arena, which was never meant to be a weapon, to kill his final opponent.