Life of the Mind

Character Development

One of the most important things for me in story is character development. Measuring development can done by asking (and answering) these three simple questions.

    1. Where does the character begin the story?
    2. What is the journey the character takes?
    3. Where does the character end the story?

This is one of the reasons I loathe so many of the blockbusters nowadays. Characters don’t develop. They just are.

I’ll use the new Star Wars Trilogy as an example. This new series has polarised fans. I find it boring because the protagonist is complete when she is handed to us.

Although she opens the story as a scavenger, she is a crack pilot (although never having flown), she is a brilliant mechanic, she is proficient in the Force (which she didn’t even realise she had) and its various skills, and she is capable of expertly wielding a lightsabre. In both movies, she faces the antagonist and defeats him. She also defeats the Jedi Master whose training she seeks.

This is just not an interesting character. Where is the development? Where is the journey? She overcomes pretty much every obstacle she faces (with the exceptions of Kylo Ren rendering her unconscious in the first movie, but that’s so she can Force-rebuke him later; and in the second movie, when Supreme Leader Snoke incapacitates her – if she was capable of opposing him, that would’ve ended the trilogy two movies in).

Some say the characters in the Original Trilogy also didn’t have much by the way of arcs, but I just don’t see it. Look at Luke: he begins life as a farmer. He is immature, reckless, and impulsive. In a Mos Eisley bar he’s beaten by two criminals; during his Death Star run Han Solo has to save him; he is almost eaten by a wampa (and Han Solo ultimately saves him again); in their first confrontation, Darth Vader easily accounts for him (and slices off his hand); and then Princess Leia has to save him when he’s hanging off antenna from Cloud City.

Each encounter compels Luke to learn and to grow until, come the final movie, he is a mature, purposeful, and skilled Jedi Knight – and, even here, it’s still Darth Vader who has to save him from the Emperor. Luke goes on a journey through the trilogy and develops emotionally, intellectually, spiritually, and physically.

Even the minor characters have journeys. Han Solo goes from a selfish mercenary to caring about a greater cause. Leia goes from being single-minded about her cause to warming to and then falling in love with Han Solo.

No such thing happens in the new Star Wars Trilogy. Sure, there’s a circumstantial journey. The characters go on adventures. They face dangers. Things happen. But how much do they change? About the closest that gets to occurring is that in The Last Jedi both Poe and Fin have epiphanies. These aren’t really journeys, though, but realisations.

Rey becomes particularly objectionable as she continues to showcase a mastery in whatever she does. Who can relate to this? I could relate to Luke’s struggle to become somebody greater than he was, even if I’ve never faced an evil galactic empire. We all struggle to advance in life. But Rey? Well, some may say she’s no different to other superhuman-powered characters, like John Rambo, James Bond, and Indiana Jones.

But those universes explain or justify why those characters have the skills they do. Rambo is a Green Beret. In First Blood his former superior, Colonel Trautman, explains to Sheriff Teasle just who Rambo is:

    ‘You don’t seem to want to accept the fact you’re dealing with an expert in guerrilla warfare, with a man who’s the best, with guns, with knives, with his bare hands. A man who’s been trained to ignore pain, ignore weather, to live off the land, to eat things that would make a billy goat puke. In Vietnam his job was to dispose of enemy personnel. To kill! Period! Win by attrition. Well Rambo was the best.’

So while the Rambo universe does grow increasingly implausible, we understand that he has been not only trained for combat, and he was not only trained in an elite unit, but he was the best there was amongst them.

The same applies to James Bond. He’s a spy with MI6 who has a ‘license to kill’. It’s implied that to become that, he would’ve gone through rigorous training. They don’t just hand those things out to anybody walking in off the street.

Raiders of the Lost Ark opens with Indiana Jones navigating booby traps, discovering an artefact, escaping various pitfalls as he flees the caves, and then facing the indigenous Hovito people led by a rival archaeologist – the antagonist, Belloq, who says:

    ‘Dr. Jones. Again, we see there is nothing you can possess which I cannot take away. And you thought I’d given up.’

Indiana escapes, jumps into a river, and climbs into a moving plane. Far-fetched? Yes. Rey-like? Well, no, because do you know what these opening scenes do?

It shows us Indiana’s world. Belloq prefaces his statement with ‘Again’. He and Indiana have been in situations like this before – many times, it seems. You infer that Indiana has developed the skills to operate in this world because we’re shown he can, and it’s qualified he’s dealt with these sorts of things before. When he later encounters other adventures, we understand this is his world and he’s equipped to handle it – or at least to do his best.

Rey has no such context. The filmmakers actually (and it looks like they did it unwittingly) infused a mystery into the origin of her character – surely there had to be an explanation as to why she is so proficient, to why Luke’s old lightsabre ‘calls’ to her. But come The Last Jedi, Kylo Ren tells her she is a nobody. Some thought this was clever – that there was no grand plan to Rey. Hey, so original, right? No. It’s stupid. So she’s just brilliant at things – and better at them than people who’ve trained in these abilities for years (if not decades) – just because?

Who does that? Even Neo in The Matrix had to have skills uploaded into his brain.

Nobody just is brilliant at everything.

Rey has no journey. She is just whatever the story needs to be – pilot, mechanic, Force adept, swordsperson, gun shot (look at the way she effortlessly shoots TIE Fighters in the Millennium Falcon at the end of The Last Jedi, and compare that with Luke’s and Han’s struggles to mop up four TIE fighters at the end of A New Hope).

I don’t find her interesting. And if they belatedly address this in the conclusion of the New Trilogy, I – and I know many others – have gotten to the point where we don’t care because we’re over four hours into this story with no explanation whatsoever.

It’s disappointing, because that Trilogy had the potential to do anything. People will counter that they had to play it ‘safe’ following the disappointment of the Prequels (which I think have a lot of problems, but I rate them better than the New Trilogy), but it’s a franchise that’s bulletproof. The Prequels proved that. People will come. And that defense that they have to play it safe is such a cop-out. Look at Logan, which did something different, and people loved it. Why? Because it was a good fucking story.

Good stories always bring people out.

I have little confidence in Disney to address these issues in their Star Wars universe because they made exactly the same errors with the young Han Solo in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Going into a prequel, you would assume that you’ll learn how Solo became so cynical, how about he became a crack pilot and a gun fighter, and how he fell into the life of a mercenary.

Well, no. In Solo: A Star Wars Story, Han is handed to us just as complete as Rey: he’s a brilliant pilot, a great fighter, already wise-cracking and cynical, he knows how to speak Wookie, and he’s an expert gambler. We don’t see how he came about any of these skills – as we saw Luke develop them in the Original Trilogy. Like Rey, Han just is. In fact, he opens the movie with much (if not all) of these skills. Whenever he faces a problem, he already has the abilities to deal with them, and no explanation, justification, or context as to how he got them.

It’s boring.

The new Star Wars universe is petering out and a lot of people are citing all sorts of defences.

The reality?

They’re just not very interesting stories because the bulk of their characters aren’t going on a journey. They’re given to us largely complete and if they’re complete, well, what journey is there to take with them?