Star Wars and the Metanarrative

You can’t really discuss metanarratives these days without talking about George Lucas. Over the last two weeks I’ve talked about how ignoring the importance of a metanarrative can cripple a franchise over time and how putting a solid metanarrative (or better yet, two or three) at the center of a franchise can result in a fresh, invigorating take on a seemingly worn out genre. But metanarratives are not all sweetness a light. It’s possible to become too invested in them and Star Wars is the perfect example. Most people see this, to a certain extent, when discussing things like “ring theory”, the idea that certain scenes and plot points occur at similar times in the classic and prequel trilogies, and in the recent revival The Force Awakens. I would propose that, even from the original trilogy, the franchise shows signs of being mired down by Lucas’ obsession with the Hero’s Journey.

Now it has been, and continues to be, my premise that metanarratives in and of themselves are not bad. But, just as The Simpsons threw out the prevailing metanarrative and missed how it set up one of its own, Star Wars introduced a metanarrative and never did anything beyond the bare basics with it.

The Star Wars interpretation of the hero’s journey is pretty standard: introduce menace, introduce main character, have main character leave home to do something simple, get caught up with mentor figure in the midst of some kind of trouble, learn of the Force to varying degrees, face struggle and ultimately triumph.

There were slight variations on this theme, some of which are truly excellent. The death of Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru in A New Hope are suitably emotional and impactful as an inciting incident. We knew enough about both characters to feel their mutual affection for Luke and their death was as senseless and tragic as you’d expect at the hands of an evil empire. The Degobah Cave sequence in Empire Strikes Back shows the fears Luke has about himself in a memorable fashion, making it one of only two worthwhile Degobah sequences. (The other is the introduction of Yoda.) The chase through Coruscant in Attack of the Clones is pretty fun and introduces a kind of buddy cop dynamic to the Obi-Wan/Anakin relationship that could have been the heart of a better movie. The Order 66 sequence in Revenge of the Sith is a horrific twist on the main character’s moment of triumph and, contrary to what many think, Anakin murdering the younglings is the perfect capstone on his descent into evil. Introducing Han Solo and, later, Luke Skywalker as the mentor figures of The Force Awakens is leveraging the franchise mythos for all it’s worth.

The core problem with Star Wars is that the story never really changes. It’s more like playing a game of mad libs. In the very broad sense plot elements could be substituted for one another at random and smoothed into a coherent narrative with little trouble. Imagine if the plot to Star Wars 3 1/4th was that Luke Skywalker hopped a ship to Jaku with Yoda after the Clone Army raided Hoth and blew up his bar. Yoda convinced him to join the Rebel Alliance and help BB-8 hijack the Millennium Falcon and smuggle it to Coruscant where they could use the plans onboard to ambush and destroy the new Super Star Destroyer. On the way Luke rescue Qui-Gon Jin, ace pilot, and his starfighter squadron from a prison camp and scrapes together ships for them to fly and the agree to help him in his ambush. Qui-Gon’s second in command, Lieutenant Amidala, is a former Jedi padawan and teaches Luke the basics of the Force, which enable Luke to fly the Falcon through the Star Destroyer’s defenses and ensure its demise.

Just like that, you have a Star Wars story. It meets all the requirements. It has some potential for fun and action. And it’s almost beat for beat what all the other Star Wars stories have been.

Like I said when talking about The Simpsons – there’s nothing wrong with a serviceable metanarrative. But when it’s the only one at work that leaves a lot of room for other kinds of stories, other metanarratives, to move in and set up shop as your metanarrative gets old, stale and self referential. It happened with The Simpsons. Will it happen to Star Wars?

Well, that’s a harder question to answer. Rogue One has already kind of broken the mold, telling a different kind of story with very different beats but sticking to the mythos and style of Star Wars (for the most part). Unfortunately, for numerous reason all of which we may never know, Rogue One was not very good as a story. At the same time it as such a radical departure from most of what Star Wars had offered until that point many longtime fans of the franchise still loved it. There’s a lot of room for Star Wars to expand on its current core metanarrative, as Rogue One showed. But if the “core” films continue to beat the same drum then the moderately positive reception The Force Awakens received is likely to die out quickly and leave the franchise much where it was after Revenge of the Sith: under a bit of a cloud as hard core fans dream of the days when it was fresh and exciting. Regardless of which way it goes, the lesson is the same: Pay attention to what you’re doing and be sure to switch it up from time to time.

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Star Wars Episode Eight: Course Correction

So let’s pick up where we left off last week. The Star Wars character Rey has had some Mary Sue elements stuck into her character but that’s not the end of the story. I really feel that The Force Awakens suffered for these elements but I have to stress that they weren’t the sole reason or even the biggest reason I felt the movie was subpar. The holes left in Rey’s character exist for one of two reasons, in so far as I can tell.

The first is that the film didn’t have enough room to squeeze in all the kind of narrative support that make the wish fulfillment aspects of Rey’s character function within the larger story framework. The story is chock full of characters to be introduced, situations to be sorted out and story to be imparted. The whole film moves so fast that none of this information really gets examined deeply. This is a bad habit I see in a lot of recent movies, and Disney movies in particular, where filmmakers just throw a character archetype or well known plot on screen and expect the audience to fill in the blanks while the story glosses over the lacking character and plot development in favor of more spectacle. The studio wanted a blockbuster show and the other, more important stuff, got cut.

Now spectacle isn’t bad but Star Wars, for better or worse, hasn’t ever been exclusively spectacle. And furthermore, the archetype of a character without power suddenly unlocking hidden power – Rey’s archetype – clashes badly with the established Star Wars lore. For the first time we’ve gotten a Star Wars film that feels like it was made to be a blockbuster, and that’s sad. Understandable, given the investment Disney made in the movie, but disappointing none the less. So one reason Rey may not have gotten the development she needed was studio mandate. That’s lame, but it’s part of showbiz.

The second reason for Rey’s off balance character development is even more speculative. There’s a possibility that the film is setting up a story arc where Rey’s burst in power is a result of the Dark Side, the fast, easy and seductive half of the Force. With a quick burst of power fueled by her anger and the Dark Side much of what Rey does can be explained away. This doesn’t have any more support than the prevailing interpretation of the story, that Rey is just an absurdly powerful and fast learning Jedi, but it would better explain things in conjunction with the lore than the idea that Rey has amnesia and has forgotten previous Jedi training.

Of course, the biggest problem with this theory is that it doesn’t have support, the problem that the whole movie has to start with. In truth, it has less support than others, since Rey never actually shows any signs of Dark Side influence when using the Force. But it could have been the intent and, more importantly, it brings me to the question of how the poor writing around Rey’s character could be salvaged.

The first is if Episode Eight runs with the idea I just laid out. If we find Luke training Rey hard to cure her of a taste for the Dark Side it would go a long way to show that the existing Star Wars lore is being respected and open up opportunities for a lot of interesting ways for Rey’s character to go. She currently doesn’t have a clear direction for character development or arcs so by giving her an ongoing struggle with the Dark Side the writers would both do her character a real favor and take advantage of the opportunity to explore themes the franchise has dabbled with previously but never delved into in any meaningful way.

Another entirely viable option would be to make the next film primarily about Finn. He felt more like the main character of the first film, with his broken indoctrination and significant streak of cowardice giving way to new ways of seeing the world and the start of real personal courage. If Rey moves back out of the spotlight some the lack of polish in her character is less jarring. That doesn’t really solve the problems in her writing as such but if the film is constructed in such a way as to make the problems irrelevant then it still does some good work.

The third possibility is to give Rey a new and very personal challenge. The fact that she is never significantly set back through the course of the film is the greatest weakness of the character. Unfortunately, the writing of The Force Awakens severely crippled Kylo Ren’s ability to serve as a good antagonist in future films and I can’t see any new meeting between Rey and Ren having the dramatic weight necessary to be that setback. Hopefully the Knights of Ren that were hinted at will provide some of that needed threat so that Rey’s character can really shine.

The big lesson here is that even bad writing can be redeemed, most of the time. The real question for the typical writer is, would it be worth the time? All three of the solutions I suggested for Rey’s character problems require a certain amount of narrative gymnastics to function. Most writers find themselves better served by drawing what lessons can be had from bad writing and moving on, as the resources of Disney probably aren’t backing your less than stellar outing (and it probably doesn’t have Star Wars level brand recognition, either). The hard truth is, while a weak writing project doesn’t doom you as a writer, it can doom the ideas you invested in it.

At least until you can adapt those ideas into a new form for a later project.

Unless your Disney playing with Star Wars. At this point, nothing can really kill that project. But I’m still hoping they draw lessons from it and make it better.

Star Wars, John Wick and Mary Sue

“Mary Sue” is a derogatory term for the protagonist of a work of fanfiction. Fan fiction, for those who don’t know, is a story about characters from a work of published fiction, TV, movies or comics. written by a fan rather than the people who produce that work. Any fan who has ever written down a new adventure for the crew of the Starship Enterprise has written fanfiction. It has no standards for publishing or quality, it just has to be written down by a fan of the work in question.

Generally a Mary Sue is a character of either gender (but typically female, probably because fan fiction authors tend towards the female – sometimes male characters are referred to as Gary Stu) who represents the author in a fanfiction. The label has grown in many ways generally it refers to any character who gets to live out a fantasy without effort, risk or negative consequences, as this tends to be the way fanfiction authors write themselves into stories. Early critiques of the Mary Sue archetype refer to the character as “perfect” within their own narrative but that’s not a meaningful qualifier, as it’s quite subjective when applied to characters in a story.

There’s a certain amount of jealousy inherent in the “perfect” critique, the kind of jealousy that you typically find when people see a singer on American Idol and figure they made it to the finals because she’s pretty or he’s handsome. It ignores the hard work and effort the person has put in to reach the place they’re in and yes, maybe there were some elements in there that weren’t “fair” like being born with a certain amount of natural talent or good looks but there has to have been more to it than that. But when we’re talking about characters it gets a little more complex.

I think Mary Sues provoke a strong reaction from people because they tickle that same jealousy vibe in our mind. But, at the same time, we want to see characters in fiction who are extraordinary. Otherwise they wouldn’t be anymore entertaining than our own circle of friends and we’d just spend our time with real people rather than these shadows and phantasms. So a good writer gives us characters who are more perfect than us but also gives those characters situations far beyond anything we could realistically tackle, situations that push those characters to the very utmost limits of their abilities.

I’ve said time and again in this space that the point of a writer is to provoke emotions from their audience. Mary Sues provoke contempt because they seem to achieve things safely and effortlessly when we know that, in real life, things are typically achieved through effort and peril. A competent writer avoids this by creating in us a certain admiration for the character as they overcome adversity, allowing us to experience the rush of empowerment while the character overcomes challenges that only a person of their skill could possibly accomplish. A poor writer doesn’t show this adversity, or shows it poorly, and earns our contempt as a person who wrote a Mary Sue.

When people complain about Mary Sues I think they frequently mean characters who get to live out a fantasy without facing any difficulties. Without risk, effort or consequences the character comes off as flat, dull and uninteresting.

Let’s examine a character who is a Mary Sue by the traditional definition – which is to say, he’s pretty much perfect. The character John Wick, from the movie of the same name, is considered the perfect hit man. From the very beginning we see people in the Russian mob who know what he’s capable of deferring to him. When he finally snaps and destroys a team sent to kill him with little trouble we start to realize just how deadly he is. For the whole rest of the movie the Russian boss is terrified of this force of nature who is coming for him and anyone who can get out of John’s way does.

However John Wick still has his problems. His wife was ill and died at the beginning of the film. He’s injured during a botched attempt to kill the son of the mob boss and takes refuge in a hotel for assassins where, in theory, no business is conducted. But there’s enough money on John’s head to persuade someone to break the rules and try to kill him in the hotel. John survives because an old friend helps but suffers more injuries in the process. His next move against the mob results in his being captured and, again, he escapes only with help.

Finally he offs the boss’s son but his friend is discovered and killed in retaliation. John finally finds the boss and wipes out his bodyguards in one last confrontation that ends with a brutal grapple between John and his nemesis that John barely wins. He staggers away in the rain, barely able to remain upright.

While John could easily be classified as a Mary Sue by the traditional definition, given his hyper competent fighting prowess and obvious wealth on display through the film, most people don’t consider him one because the amount of difficulty he endures throughout the film makes us feel admiration for his endurance, determination and single mindedness.

Unless, of course, you deplore violent movies in general and that ruins the experience for you. Because that movie… pretty violent.

But to the point – the fact that no one seriously considers John Wick a Mary Sue is one of the reasons I tend to use my own definition of the term. Because John does show us the power fantasy of being able to take revenge on the powerful, wealthy and downright criminal creeps who feel free to occasionally make our life miserable. But the price he pays for it is horrendous, the kind of price only a fictional character could pay. The risk of his own life was made apparent during every fight, the effort comes with every grunt of exertion and every moment of pain, the consequences made clear more and more people turn against John.

Now to the final point of this post. By this point I hope you’ve all seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens because we’re going to talk about it a bit in a spoilery way. And by “it” I mean Rey.

There’s been a lot of talk on the internet about how Rey may or may not be a Mary Sue. By the traditional definition she’s not – straight up. She flat out runs from the lightsaber – and by proxy the Force – when it’s first offered to her and she makes a number of fairly minor mistakes along the way, enough that no one would consider her perfect.

But given the reasons I think people react badly to Mary Sues I think I know why people see her as one.

Rey clearly represents three fantasies fulfilled. First, the fantasy of finding a place of belonging after being an outcast. She finds a home for herself by leaving Jakku and joining BB-8, Finn, Han, Chewie, Leia and the rest of the resistance. She risks leaving Jakku and possibly never meeting those who left her there again. While facing the reality that no one’s coming back for her isn’t necessarily a huge risk it undoubtedly cost a lot of effort – enough that I’m willing to let the ease with which the rest of the cast accepts her slide. Han did want to ditch her at first and Finn kind of needed her there for a couple of obvious reasons. The movie wasn’t focused on intense character developments so lack of further effort to live out this first, very character driven fantasy is fine. That the responsibility of finding Luke and bringing him back into the fold falls to Rey also makes it clear her living out this fantasy is going to have consequences for her in the future. While responsibility isn’t always a negative consequence it frequently can cause problems and is definitely a consequence.

The second fantasy Rey lives out is the fantasy of being very good at a number of mundane tasks like flying, fixing and fighting. The risks there are pretty obvious, every time she does these things she’s taking her life in her own hands. The biggest example of this when she take the Millenium Falcon into the air the first time. There’s a lot of good piloting in there but a fair bit of bad piloting as well. She could very easily kill herself and Finn doing this but she manages not to and I’m willing to give her this one on sheer audacity. The effort in this is set up in the opening montage as we see Rei’s life on Jakku – it’s clearly hard and difficult and will have equipped her to do all of the things we see her do in order to survive – except maybe pilot a starship but again. A pass for the audacity. I like that kind of thing, in moderation. There aren’t that many consequences for this but only because the consequences you’d expect from this kind of hypercompetency are overshadowed by the next bit.

The third fantasy Rey lives out is the fantasy of power beyond the lot of mortals.

Or, y’know, she can use the Force if you want it to sound mundane.

Point is, Rey has supernatural powers. She doesn’t start with them, not in any noticeable way, in fact the movie spends a little time hinting the powers might actually belong to Finn, not her, so these are new things to her character. She uses the Force in four cases. They are:

When she repels Kylo’s mental attack and counter reads him. Rey doesn’t run any risks here, failure doesn’t leave her any worse off and success is all up side, but it clearly costs her something and it has the consequence of making him angry and her drawing the attention of the big bad as a potential resource – just like any skilled person would be, only more so. Not a particularly Mary Sue event.

When she forces a guard to let her out of her restraints and leave his weapon behind. Again, failure doesn’t leave her worse off – well, maybe strapped down a little tighter – and success is pure profit. She does have to work at it, Rey tries three times before succeeding. While Kylo gets angry again and puts the guards on Rey this is still pure profit over where she was with no noticeable consequences. But this kind of surprising move twice in a row starts to raise eyebrows, especially because we know this isn’t the kind of thing a person can pull of without a lot of training.

When she uses telekinesis to rip the lightsaber from Kylo. A third time, this is a situation with no risk. She wouldn’t be any more weaponless if she hadn’t tried this. Worse, it’s apparently effortless as she overwhelms Kylo without a struggle and again this doesn’t bring her any negative consequences. Pure Mary Sue.

When she channels the Force during her lightsaber duel and defeats Kylo Ren. You’re probably tired of hearing this but her situation literally can’t get any worse when Rey tries using Force combat so she wasn’t really risking anything. Worse, as soon as Rey opens her eyes she’s in an unstoppable battle trance and proceeds to demolish Kylo. She even avoids negative consequences like guilt over killing him when the earth splits in two and conveniently separates them. That last bit is really bothersome.

In short, Rey’s Force abilities mostly got her out of sticky situations in a rather convenient fashion without much rebounding on her. Seems to fit the bill, doesn’t it?

So Rey is a little bit of a Mary Sue, or at least the way she’s written could easily provoke the same kind of reaction from people. There was definitely some poor writing at work in there. But saying that Rey had a touch of the Mary Sue identifies the symptom – what was the problem? Why did Mary Sueisms work their way into Rey’s character arc and what steps can be taken to shore up the weak writing in the future? Or at least in stories we write where characters explore similar themes?

Well, I think that’s a post for next week. Hope you’ll join me then!

Green and Yellow Morality

Those of you familiar with the TV Tropes morality pages probably know what Black and White, Gray on Grey and Blue and Orange Morality tropes are. There’s a lot to be said about them but that’s not what I want to do today. Rather, in the same vein, I want to talk about another fairly frequent morality trope I’ve noticed in fiction and we’re going to call it Green and Yellow Morality, or GYM for short. Some context.

The colors green and yellow identify two opposing groups of interplanetary soldiers in the DC Universe. One of these groups are the Green Lanterns. The name Green Lantern is an old one in comics, going back to the 40s, although the most commonly known Lantern, Hal Jordan, was introduced in the late 50s. Although it wasn’t a part of the original Lantern’s schtick; when Hal first received his ring and given the power of the Lantern Corps he was told that a central requirement was that he be fearless. Another was that he be honest but that’s not what’s important here – fearless. Focus on the fearless.

Many years later, after almost half a century of expanding lore and character development, the Green Lantern story would come to depict the Green Lantern’s fearlessness as an extension of their willpower. Will held fear, and many other emotions, in check and allowed the Lanterns to draw out the power of their rings and use it wisely.

Yellow, as most westerners already know, is a color usually associated with fear or, more specifically, cowardice. It’s also the color the writers chose for the Sinestro Corps, also known as the (surprise!) Yellow Lanterns, a group of spacefaring warriors led by a former Green Lantern who had embraced fear, at least as a weapon, and made rings that gathered it from others as a power source.

Where Green Lanterns tried to encourage strong wills making good decisions in all people Yellow Lanterns would terrorize others into letting them make all the decisions.

While it’s never expressly described as a moral system Green Lantern stories constantly imply that fear is a bad thing and willpower is the opposing good. For example, Hal is often at odds with Batman. Part of that is personalities but part of it is methodology – Batman frequently tries to terrify criminals out of their current lifestyles and that is anathema to Hal and the Green Lanterns. The Guardians of the Universe are often depicted as using their will to hold all emotion in check so as to make the clearest and best decisions but avoiding fear in particular. And the primary method to contain Parallax, an evil being that is fear incarnate, was to imprison it at the heart of the universe-spanning power source for the Green Lantern’s will channeling power rings.

Without ever using the terms “good” or “evil” the comics manage to create the idea that willpower and fear are opposing forces with moral implications. That brings us back to our focus today: Whenever a work of fiction takes attitudes or outlooks or emotions and assigns them moral qualities you have Green and Yellow Morality.

While I’ve chosen DC’s Green Lantern mythos to provide the name for this the trope happens more frequently than you might think and the most famous example isn’t in comic books. It’s Star Wars.

The dark side of the Force is created (or channeled?) by anger, fear and aggression while the light side advocates an almost ascetic state of calm and… well, the light side is actually never articulated as clearly as the dark side. It’s a “flow” I guess and it involves life somehow. Mostly it seems to be whatever isn’t anger, fear or aggression.

Now like all tropes, Green and Yellow Morality is a writer’s tool. There’s a lot of interesting stories to be told based on the conflict between differing mindsets, attitudes and personalities and Green and Yellow Morality can be used to spark those conflicts or just make sure they keep burning hot. They open up opportunities to show the humanity in characters as well.

Moral codes always come with the challenge of applying them to real world situations and the Green and Yellow is no exception. Green Lantern stories in particular have occasionally subverted the general tone of the series to show how Hal’s strong will can result in his making decisions without questioning them and get himself in trouble or put distance between him and people with less confidence. What he sees as his greatest virtues can also be vices. The struggle to properly apply virtue is a universal one.

In fact Sinestro was a Green Lantern who used his own fearlessness to create and stay on top of the Yellow Lanterns; in many ways completely inverting what it meant to be a Green Lantern entirely.

But attitudes or emotions as a moral code have critical failings as well. One critique Jedi philosophy gets a lot is that fear and anger are not negative in and of themselves – they are emotions that occur when something negative could happen or has happened around us. We are scared of getting hurt. We are angry after being hurt. The emotions serve as warnings of danger or prompt us to react to difficulty. Likewise, aggression is simply actively seeking to make something you want a reality.

If left unchecked emotions like fear or anger or attitudes like aggression can result in bad things. But the reality of human experience is that the clamping down on any of these things will create just as many problems as leaving them unchecked would. Frequently finding moral outcomes in situations fraught with strong emotions is less an exercise in drawing a spectrum from emotional response to totally controlled response and more an exercise in creating a Venn diagram of where emotion and self-control overlap and create good results. When both ends of your “moral spectrum” result in evil then it’s not really a spectrum, just a way of talking about what drives us.

What that means for writers seeking to use Green and Yellow Morality is pretty straightforward. Avoid the temptation to follow in Star Wars‘ footsteps and blatantly assign morality or immorality to specific emotions or attitudes. Instead, try and be more like the Green Lantern – let your leading characters strongly identify with the ends of the spectrum you want to build and then play up the strengths and shortcomings of each. Yes, some emotions and attitudes will lead to good outcomes more than others and there’s nothing wrong with showing that. But ultimately human emotions aren’t moral decisions, even if they are closely linked at times, and trying to write a story where they explicitly are moral will probably do more to undermine your story than help It.

Used with care Green and Yellow Morality is a great asset in focusing your story and setting the stage for conflict. Used carelessly and it just makes your story look slipshod.