Star Wars Writing Tips: Your New Characters Should Be Compelling and Consistent
This is Part 4 in an ongoing series regarding Disney’s Star Wars trilogy. To see the other parts, click here.
We’ve got the old characters out of the way and we’ve learned valuable lessons about how to keep them compelling. After all, they’re the reasons your readers will be picking up your books, so heeding the warnings of The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi are important! But we also have to give our readers new characters to like. Sometimes this is done right, as in Cobra Kai or the prequel series The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance. Other times, we get a Disney Trilogy mess.
For this article, my primary focus is going to be on Kylo Ren, Rey, and Finn. Poe will get a little love (or hate) from me, but these three have some very large problems and we can learn the most from them.
Rey and Finn
Let’s start with Rey and Finn, two characters who were set up very nicely and then plunged into bland and boring. A character that is cool in concept will only have his or her potential realized if you flesh him or her out and make their actions and choices believable. Remember, the plot shouldn’t be dragging your characters through the story by their nostrils. While certain aspects of the plot, such as the inciting incident, will set your characters in motion, they should always feel real and that they, not you, are calling the shots. If the plot is large and in charge, your characters should be feeling hopeless, like Frodo when he’s wishing the Ring had never come to him. Of course, Gandalf is there to remind him of his own agency, and that’s what your characters need to have: a feeling of agency.
So, Finn starts the story on a top secret mission despite being quite green when it comes to battle. The violence and chaos overwhelms him and, knowing that in a regime like the First Order you can’t just change the role its military-glorifying government wants to you play, he decides to defect. He knows the lone prisoner taken from the excursion on Jakku is a pilot, which is exactly what he needs.
For reasons I can’t explain, the other characters are aware that something is a little off about him (maybe he’s Force-sensitive?) and his commanding officer orders him to report for reconditioning, but then he’s left to his own devices so he can find Poe and escape. The two make their way to a hanger and decide to steal a Tie Fighter. Poe is an expert pilot who can fly it, but Finn is a little confused about how to use the guns. Poe gives him a mini lesson and they try to escape, only to find that the ship is still tethered in the docking bay.
Finn, who was completely disturbed by violence, death, and the chaos of battle just scenes earlier, is now massacring stormtroopers left and right. This can be written off as being due to the heat of the moment, as Finn is now a very motivated character with a clear goal whereas on Jakku he was merely a soldier following orders on his first mission. Even in a soldier afflicted with PTSD, they are still capable of fighting back when the fight or flight response is activated.
The problem that we see from here on out is that this moment is treated as though it exists in a vacuum. Once out of immediate harm, Finn should have to deal with this incident and the way it affects him and how he views both his former comrades and himself. We need a moment where he can reflect on how accompanying Kylo Ren, a powerful Force user, to Jakku has changed him, but we don’t. From here on out, Finn will act like a normal human being, not as a kidnapped, brainwashed soldier who broke under pressure.
He’s very motivated, which, as we just learned in the last article, is an important character trait. Unfortunately, he’s a very inconsistent character. His previous life experiences seem to have no impact on his present self at all and he should either have to go through some character development to learn how to deal with his past or learn to move beyond it. It’s hard to relate to a character who goes through something rough yet seems totally unaffected by it. Outside of providing him with his motivation for wanting to run, Finn’s actual character doesn’t suffer for his time as a stormtrooper.
We’ll come back to him soon when we talk about his relationship to Rey and I rewrite his character and give us a moment to learn how to avoid the pitfalls The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi fall into, but I think we need to talk about Rey first. Rey is probably one of the most divisive characters in the franchise right now, probably even trumping the character assassination of Luke Skywalker himself.
When we meet Rey, she’s a scavenger. She seems to live in the wreckage of an old AT-AT, providing us with some nice set pieces and giving us a glimpse of the scars left by the Galactic Civil War. She doesn’t seem content with her life, which is a pretty hard one. She spends all her time collecting old junk and trades it for food portions at a tiny little trading post. It’s hard to tell if she’s homeless and basically recycling cans for food or if she’s more like a slave or serf for the owner of said trading post. Either way, she’s clearly living a life of extreme poverty.
She comes across the droid with the map to Skywalker and we learn a few things about her character. She has a hard time letting others in, is fiercely independent, and was apparently abandoned by her parents and, for some strange reason, actually expects them to return. Seeing as how Jakku is a multicultural hub, much like Tatooine, she’s also linguistically talented, which polyglots like me can appreciate!
She decides to allow BB-8 to stick around, at least temporarily, having discovered they share a few things in common, such as being very private and hoping that the people who left them there will return. When he follows her to the trading post, the owner offers her a substantial amount of food in exchange for him, but she resists the temptation. We know that, in spite of her unfortunately circumstances, she’s compassionate. Compassionate loners exist and I have no problem at all with her characterization thus far. She’s someone who has felt the pain of abandonment and refuses to inflict further pain on the droid.
Then she meets Finn, the First Order catches up with them, and the problems start. Having crashed on Jakku, Finn doesn’t see Poe and assumes he’s dead. He takes all that’s left of him, a jacket, and wonders over to the first sign of civilization, which happens to be the trading post Rey and BB-8 are hanging out at. BB-8 doesn’t know Finn, but he recognizes Poe’s jacket. Before we can get much farther, a handful of ships from The First Order attack and our heroes are making a bolt for any ship they can take, which happens to be the Millenium Falcon.
At this point, the advice I heard from a short story magazine editor shoots through my brain: disbelief should be suspended, not hung by the neck until dead.
Somehow Rey, who has never left Jakku (for as far back as she remembers, anyway) and has only flown a handful of times and never actually left the planet (I’m assuming this is the Star Wars equivalent of Robin Williams’ character in Jumanji pointed out that he has driven a car, but only back when his parents let him park it in the garage) manages to pull off the kinds of maneuvers we’ve never even seen ace pilots like Han Solo or Lando Calrissian pull off. I don’t know if even Anakin ever pulled off stunts like this!
Daisy Ridley and John Boyega try their hardest to make this scene believable, but it just doesn’t fly. This is the first of a huge problem with Rey’s character: her abilities and skills don’t match what we know of her character. If Han, Lando, Chewie, Anakin, or even Hera from Rebels had done this, I think most people would be on board. Even Ahsoka pulling off some of these maneuvers would be understandable.
Rey is also able to speak plainly with BB-8, which contradicts previous installments of the franchise in which the speech of droids had to be translated by a computer or by another droid that speaks human languages, such as C-3PO. This is a continuity error that comes into The Last Jedi also when Luke is able to understand R2-D2.
She also is an expert mechanic. I can almost buy that one because she clearly spends a lot of time working with electronics and machinery as a scavenger, but, again, her skills are above and beyond what we’ve seen from any mechanically-inclined Star Wars character before, such as Chewbacca.
She can wield a lightsaber efficiently, which is odd for someone whose weapon of choice is a staff. Staff fighting doesn’t really translate into fighting with a bladed weapon.
And, of course, she picks up most abilities of the Force with little to no training in spite of every other Force-sensitive in the franchise, including Anakin (born from the Force) Skywalker, grates on the nerves of practically everyone. Yes, there is such a thing as a fast learner, but this goes above and beyond that. Even Mozart had to spend considerable time practicing to become as proficient as he was.
I’m not going to debate whether or not Rey is a Mary Sue, but the fact that this is poor writing is indisputable. Your characters should always be a mix of both strengths and weaknesses, and they should reflect the character herself or himself and not just be thrown in for the sake of convenience or for making your character feel inspiring or strong. Even if you have a character who is extremely competent at virtually everything, he or she needs to be balanced out by some serious personality flaws to compensate.
An example of the latter being Azula from Avatar: The Last Airbender. Is there anything she can’t do? She’s a very powerful bender, competent fighter, and can read and manipulate people as though they’re mere putty in her hands. As a villain she’s more intimidating than Ozai himself! However, her incredible skill is balanced by her unhinged personality. By the time season 3 ends, the underlying cracks in the outer shell, the ground of which has been painstakingly and subtly laid for two seasons now, are showing. There are plenty of excellent YouTube videos analyzing what makes her so compelling, so I won’t reiterate it here, but the point is that this is a character done well who also happens to be good at almost everything.
However, unlike Azula, Rey has no real reason to be so insanely skilled, and her fast learning (or downloading of her abilities) makes no sense. As a writer, you need to make sure that your characters’ abilities are within reason and reflect their experiences. A character who grows up in a desert shouldn’t be able to swim, for example. Or just because I have a driver’s license, that doesn’t mean I should be on a NASCAR racetrack or stunt driving in Hollywood.
Now, before we start recapping our lessons and rewriting these cool-in-concept-only characters, we need to talk about Rey and Finn together. A huge problem with these characters is that their primary motivations don’t compliment each other. It’s difficult to buy the relationship between these two characters, at least in The Force Awakens, because they’re too inconsistent with their setup and things need to be swapped around.
Finn is a character from the insular, brainwashed First Order. Likely the only people he’s ever known in his life were other brainwashed soldiers. He’s excited to have found a friend in Poe who both humanizes him and can help him escape and is equally happy to have found Rey. Seeing as how she’s the only “normal” girl he’s ever met, he quickly becomes very attached to her.
On the other hand, Rey is a character who has lived on her own and seems to, before meeting Han and starting her character arc, want to keep to herself. She waits for her parents to return to her and not much else. She doesn’t seem to have any friends or any real relationships to speak of, and she’s annoyed by Finn and his protectiveness at first, but once they’re on the Falcon that all changes.
Rey’s primary character motivation is to belong somewhere, to have a family. Kylo Ren points out that she’s constantly looking for parental figures in everyone she meets, starting with Han Solo in The Force Awakens and moving on to Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi. This, however, shouldn’t be her character motivation.
First of all, unlike Finn and Jake complimenting Billy in Adventure Time (see the previous article), Rey doesn’t compliment Luke. Her quest to get Luke off the island is boring because she has no chemistry with him and there’s really nothing he can do for her character. He can’t even really train her in the Force because she already knows it all. Her poor character motivation is incompatible with what her role in the plot is meant to be, making it feel like Rey is there because the plot says she has to be. Were she a little more like Luke in his younger days this problem wouldn’t really exist because she’d be eager for a teacher who could help her reach her full potential, allowing her to save those she cares about.
It also causes a problem just because Rey’s character was set up as a loner. Were she as desperate as she becomes immediately after leaving Jakku to have a sense of family and belonging, you would think that this would have been a recurring pattern for her on Jakku. She would have had friendships and found father and mother figures in the various people she came into contact with, not hold them at arm’s length because she has abandonment issues that need worked out. It’s another symptom of not having truly thought out the characters or plotted a logical path to progress from loner scavenger to someone who needs relationships and is willing to fight for them.
I suppose that was done to make her more compatible with Kylo Ren, who seems to have similar tendencies himself. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t suit her character very well, and I doubt much of The Last Jedi was taken into consideration when they were writing The Force Awakens.
That character motivation, however, would fit Finn better. Finn should want to have a family and a place to belong since he clearly feels out-of-place in the First Order. Latching onto Poe right away and then Rey quickly fits this trait. He’s torn between wanting to run and wanting to save Rey. Whereas Rey takes the initiative in saving herself while imprisoned on Starkiller Base instead of waiting for rescue, as she seems to always want to wait for others to come and fulfill her, Finn strives to preserve his relationships with others, putting the lives the people who are shaping his newfound freedom before his own.
When you’re writing your characters, you need to be aware of what you want them to do in your story. Their action need to be driven by events, their relationships, and their natural tendencies and personalities. These things all help shape their primary motivation, and it should suit the plot and the relationships you want them to have.
Poe also has problems with consistency, although not as extreme. He’s presented as a wise-cracking cowboy-type who flies by the seat of his pants and can improvise his way out of most situations. He’s trigger happy, disregards orders, and lacks caution. When he undertakes a task, he tackles it with dogged determination. While he’s not my favorite character just because he and his humor always feels out of place, he fills an important function. Unfortunately, there are still problems.
Poe comes across as the type who absolutely would pull a gun on Kylo Ren despite having orders to bring the map back to Leia and the impossible odds of actually being able to stop a massacre. This means he has heart, compassion, and determination. It’s also in his character to throw caution to the wind and take Finn’s word that he’s a stormtrooper who wants to escape the First Order because it gives him a chance to get back to Jakku.
Strangely, once he crash lands on Jakku he seems to abandon the search for BB-8 and returns to the Resistance. Another bizarre move because I guess they didn’t have anything more for Poe to do until the attack on Starkiller Base. Remember to stay consistent when you’re writing!
Kylo Ren is another character who just feels unmotivated. We’re two movies in and still have no idea what made him turn to the dark side to begin with. Unlike with the original Star Wars trilogy in which it wasn’t important to know Vader’s entire back story, we’re starting with a character whose turn to the dark side is presented as a major event in the established characters’ lives— something that affects each character deeply. We absolutely should know exactly what Ben Solo wanted or thought he needed that could be provided by the First Order, Snoke, or the Knights of Ren. For Anakin it was the power to save the ones he loved, to cheat death, but we have no idea what Ben Solo wanted or still wants that the dark side can provide.
Darth Vader’s motivations are quite clear. In the first film, he puts everything on the back burner to settle the score with his old master after sensing his presence. He’s mostly the guy who follows Tarkin’s orders otherwise and is clearly ruthless and willing to stop at nothing to get what he wants or what he’s been told to get.
In The Empire Strikes Back, his motivations are very personal. He wants to capture Luke and train him in his footsteps. He tells Luke that together they can overthrow the Emperor and become joint rulers. It’s unclear whether he’s lying to get Luke to come along willingly, since the carbonite plan failed, or if he really means it, anticipating becoming Luke’s tutor himself. Given his original plan was to overthrow Palpatine and rule with Padme, I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
By Return of the Jedi, Vader is mostly going through the motions. He’s depressed and knows that he may have to kill his own son by this point. He’s reflecting on his life, his enslavement to Palpatine, that Palpatine might finally take the last thing he has to hold onto from him — he’s not in a good situation. However, this conflict, regret, and sorrow serves to motivate him to choose killing his master over watching his son die at the last moment.
A common thread in character-driven storytelling is want vs need. Namely, the want is the character’s primary driving force and the need is what the character really needs to learn or do in order to bring his or her character arc to its completion. The failure to meet or recognize that need often serves to tell the tale of a tragic character.
Classic Disney films tend to be rather small in scope and incredibly character-driven, so we’ll borrow some examples from them:
The beast in Beauty and the Beast, for example, wants to be human. What he needs is to put the needs of another before himself. Doing so resolves his character’s central conflict and leads to his humanity being restored.
Aladdin wants to live in a palace and marry the girl he met in the marketplace, and he’s willing to do pretty much anything to that end. Aladdin’s need is to stop pretending about who or what he is.
I swear I’ll finish that Black Cauldron series, but in that story, both books and film, Taran’s want is to become a celebrated soldier; his need is to accept his place as an Assistant Pig-Keeper and realize that it’s just as important as being a soldier or a king or anyone else whose station is glorified.
Ben Solo doesn’t have a well-defined want or need. He seems to want either power or to belong somewhere. He clearly doesn’t have a good relationship with his parents, but we don’t know if this was a problem before they sent him to train with Luke or if it only developed after he started to turn. What is his central conflict? What does he want and what does he need?
Setting up the character’s mystery is one thing, and all writers do it, but you have to give your audience some understanding of what makes him or her tick and what the character wants. Kylo Ren is a conflicted character because they continue to repeat it, but we’re never really shown it. He claims to feel a pull to the light and wants to see the power of the dark to continue his resolve down the Sith path, but we don’t know what factors are pulling him to the light and what he wants that only the forbidden techniques of the Sith can give him.
Let’s Fix This Mess!
Let’s rework these characters into something we would do if we were writing a novel and not relying on special effects and nostalgic set pieces to draw our readers in.
I’ve been slowly rebuilding the world and characters in each article, so when I rewrite these characters, I’m placing them in the universe I’ve been building. To read the other articles, go here. Otherwise, wait until I write the final article to see my entire vision. Again, I’m not saying it’s what the DT should have absolutely been, I’m just pointing out how, as writers, we can solve the problems created. There are many ways to write and many ways this could be fixed; this is just my take.
First of all, we’ll start with Finn. I’m not going to change his setup at all. I’d change his and Kylo Ren’s introduction a little bit to put Poe’s cringe-inducing “Who talks first?” routine later, when Kylo comes to interrogate him to avoid tone problems, but everything else stays the same. However, we’re going to change Finn’s character from there on out.
Finn is a defector from the North Korea-like First Order. He’s alone outside of the Hermit Kingdom and is desperate for allies or friends who will help him get as far away as he can. Unfortunately, he’s stilted and awkward around others. He’s scared to death of the First Order (this is an environment where the lightest infraction incurs harsh punishment, and he’s just defected!) and also afraid of the outside world. He’s been spoon fed propaganda his whole life, having been a kidnapping victim, and it shows. He’s also reeling from the events that led him to defect and from what he had to do, slaughtering his own comrades like that, in order to escape.
It’s drawing a lot of attention from the locals.
I’m going to change one huge thing here: Poe is dead. When the Tie Fighter crashed, Poe didn’t make it. Now we don’t have to worry about Poe abandoning BB-8 for no given reason and Finn is alone in a strange world. He still has Poe’s jacket, though, and BB-8 recognizes it.
Anyway, Finn’s character arc is find a place of belonging and to encourage as many people within the First Order to defect as possible. He runs pro-Republic propaganda into the First Order’s territory, thus making his background as a stormtrooper relevant. Of course, he’ll also be instrumental to taking down the Starkiller Base and catching the Republic up to what the First Order has been doing and what it’s plans might be.
The Republic gives Finn a sense of belonging while still allowing him to do the kinds of things he was doing as a stormtrooper. I would change him from being a janitor to someone who blasted propaganda out to Republic friendly planets. This means the mission to Jakku is still his first real combat mission but his transition to working for the Republic is more natural. Finn is clearly not cut out to be a fighter, given the way he reacts to death and violence. Regardless of what side of the fight he’s on, that kind of thing will probably just be triggering.
This gives us a solid character arc with him. He wants to escape the death, the oppression, and the harshness of the First Order, but when he does, he gets what he really needs, which is a community and a sense of family. His character arc should be more like Rey’s, and his setup is ripe for it.
Let’s do Rey’s next, since she’s another mess of a character. Rey is the type of character who was set up to be someone who is a loner, afraid of being abandoned by others. She sees her parents in the people around her, but that’s not really a good thing. For her, that means she sees the potential to be betrayed in the people around her.
She hates Jakku and would like to have something better, but she lacks the means to do anything other than scavenge. Just like in the film, she sees her future in the elderly people around her, scrubbing their loot and trading it for food. There’s nothing more to life than this, and the monotony is killing her inside.
I would give her a preexisting relationship with Han Solo, partly to cut back on the sheer amount of coincidences, but also because it demonstrates her great character flaw: an inability to trust. Her relationship with Han isn’t close. He sometimes stops on Jakku to refuel the Millennium Falcon and get cheap supplies from the trading post. When he’s around, she can trade him parts for better food or even real money. He’s her ticket off the planet and would likely hire her to help him run these errands since he’s getting older, or even to act as an employee of his, Chewie’s, and Lando’s. Unfortunately, she doesn’t trust him or anyone else enough to ask.
She’s forced into the action when she runs into Finn. After coming under attack from the First Order, Han sees that they’re in trouble and insists that they escape on the Falcon. This doesn’t eliminate the coincidences, but it cuts down on them and it makes it just a little more believable that Han is nearby.
Rey’s new character arc is to follow the path of the Jedi after either Luke or Leia confirms that she’s Force-sensitive. This gives her the more exciting and fulfilling life she’s dreamed about and she begins to open up to others. The identity of her parents is a total non-issue. Their abandonment of her created her major character flaw and that’s it. She accepted long ago that they weren’t coming back and her struggle is with understanding that not everyone is going to leave her the way they did.
Things come to a head when she has to learn not to give up on people. Instead of Luke giving up on his own nephew, Luke, Han, and Leia are the ones striving to save him. Rey thinks they’re crazy for wanting to do so, similar to how Leia would have thought Vader irredeemable once upon a time. Because of Leia’s relationship with Vader, Rey learns to forgive. Thanks to Luke, she learns that no one is too far gone.
Finally, we have Ben Solo. There are a million ways to make this character more compelling, but I’m going to try and change as little as possible about what we’ve been given by Disney.
Ben Solo has a rough relationship with his parents. One is a former princess who became a well-respected general and rebuilt democracy, the other a smuggler-turned-general who became a war hero and successful businessman. His uncle is a legendary hero who is rebuilding the Jedi Order. His life has been lived in their shadow, expectations for him incredibly high. The Jedi academy would place him firmly beneath his famous uncle, but it would also give him some seclusion from the political life his parents lead.
The First Order has agents everywhere, designed to kidnap and recruit. Ben befriends one unknowingly at first. His new friend is odd, but understands Ben’s frustrations. Ben is tired of living in the shadows and wants to be someone important, but he doesn’t think he can ever escape his family’s legacy. His friend reveals that Supreme Leader Snoke is looking for strong Force users to help build his own army separate from both the Jedi and the destroyed Sith called the Knights of Ren. Their conversations grew more frequent about the subject as Ben started to fall under the sway of First Order propaganda. Like most people, he’s on the verge of making an emotion-driven decision in his quest for recognition and trying to justify it with logic.
Luke senses this inner conflict and decides to slow down his training until they can sort it out. Ben interprets this as Luke intentionally trying to suppress his power and keeping him down so that he could never have the chance to become more powerful than Luke. This well-intentioned action drives Ben fully to the First Order. He goes to see Snoke and takes the name Kylo Ren, quickly becoming the new leader of the Knights of Ren.
Unfortunately, the First Order isn’t the utopia he’s come to believe. He’s torn between embracing the dark side and reveling in his newfound position of authority and between the lessons of the Jedi. He assumed that the Knights of Ren were something like the First Order’s version of the Jedi Knights, but they’re closer to a Sith army. It would also be very difficult for someone as well-known within the First Order and by Snoke personally as himself to defect, so Kylo, like many Sith before him, resolves to become powerful enough to overthrow Snoke, allowing him to either dissolve the First Order completely or to restructure it into whatever he wants.
However, he’s afraid that Luke, given what happened with Darth Vader, will seek him out to try and turn him back. This could endanger Luke, whom Kylo still has some familial love for, as well as jeopardize his new position and plan. He shares his fears with Snoke, who sends the Knights of Ren on a guerrilla mission to attack the Jedi Academy. Kylo’s successful attack, while not wiping out the Jedi, earns the trust of Snoke fully and he is ranked alongside General Hux, who leads the main army.
By doing this, we’ve managed to give the First Order a nice, subtle power through manipulation and deceit, not just turn them into a regime that will throw soldiers at every single problem they face. Luring people into their ranks and trapping them, the First Order’s power lies in more than super-weapons. This also gives Kylo more complex motivations and makes his personal storyline something interesting. It also puts the Knights of Ren to good use, which we haven’t seen for two movies.
So, what did we learn with these characters? That they need to be motivated and consistent. They need to have reasons for doing the things that they do, and if you’re planning on doing any writing, you need to do the same. Think about what your characters really want and what they fear. What do they think will happen if they get exactly what they want? What do they need to do in order to get a similar outcome? What do they have to lose if they fail?
Let me know in the comments what you would rather have seen with these characters!
Next time, we’ll be talking about subverting expectations without destroying your story and alienating your audience.