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Veronica Roth was born in New York on August 19, 1988. The youngest of three children, she was raised in Barrington, Illinois, a well-to-do suburb northwest of Chicago. Her parents divorced when she was five years old, and she describes herself as a serious and intense child. After the divorce, Roth lived with her mother, a painter who read to Roth every night and told her that boredom was prohibited. She credits this creative environment with encouraging her to create her own worlds and scenarios. As Roth grew older, she began writing, which eventually lead her to pursue a creative writing degree at Northwestern University. In 2011, she married Nelson Fitch, a photographer from Chicago. Her connection to the Chicago area led her to set Divergent in a futuristic version of the Midwestern city.
Roth was enrolled in psychology classes when she conceived the idea for Divergent. In these courses, she learned about exposure therapy, a phobia treatment that requires repeatedly confronting one’s fears, and the infamous 1961 Milgram experiment that tested people’s obedience to authority figures. The influence of these studies is evident in Divergent’s emphasis on personality traits, phobias, and rankings and hierarchies. The author’s own personality also affected her decision to make Tris, the book’s protagonist, into something of a daredevil. Unlike Tris, Roth suffers from generalized anxiety disorder and doesn’t like to take physical risks. However, in an interview with the Chicago Tribune, she says she strayed from her comfort zones by temporarily moving to Romania, marrying young, and cutting her hair short.
Roth’s mother grew up feeling oppressed by the religious beliefs of her parents, who were Polish concentration camp survivors, so she didn’t raise her own daughter to be religious. However, after Roth joined a Bible study group during high school, she became a devout Christian. She wrote from a religious perspective throughout her time at Northwestern, and some critics read Divergent through this framework. In the book, Tris mentions being baptized as a child and implies that she believes in God, suggesting she is Christian. Additionally, Roth’s first acknowledgment at the end of Divergent thanks God for his son and blessings. She also notes that certain scenes were inspired by songs by Flyleaf and Evanescence, both popular bands in the Christian rock community. Still, in interviews and on her blog, she explains that doesn’t intend Divergent to preach a specific message, Christian or otherwise. Rather, she hopes to encourage readers to contemplate the meaning of virtue, as well as to think about whether being “good” should be a primary goal in life.
When Roth first started Divergent, she intended to write about her idea of a utopia. However, she soon realized a world in which everyone strives to be perfect could actually be a troubling, even horrible place. The book thus turned into a dystopian novel, a popular genre in contemporary young adult literature. Dystopian fiction engages with themes like self-discovery and the struggle against authority, making it a compelling format for many young readers. Although Roth says she wasn’t aware of Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series while she was writing Divergent, the two trilogies share many themes. Both are set in futuristic societies. Divergent takes place in an alternative Chicago, while The Hunger Games’ Panem is a fictionalized country in North America. Both series feature capable teenage female protagonists who struggle against the restrictions society has placed on them as individuals. They even share a bird motif: Divergent’s crows and bird tattoos recall the mockingjay of The Hunger Games.
Roth wrote Divergent over winter break during her senior year at Northwestern and signed a book deal for a Divergent trilogy several months later. Divergent was published in 2011, and its sequels, Insurgent and Allegiant, appeared in 2012 and 2013. They have proven immensely popular with readers: Divergent and Insurgent both spent forty-seven consecutive weeks on the New York Times Young Adult Bestseller List. The trilogy has been made into a series of feature-length films starring Shailene Woodley as Tris and Theo James as Tobias.