My second viewing of The Force Awakens only reinforced my admiration. I'm very impressed by Rey as a character, and so I want to respond to the prevalent criticism that she does not have a satisfying character arc. I think she stands up better than many people think. To prove it, let's compare her arc to Luke's in the original Star Wars, Episode 4: A New Hope. Luke and Rey each have two inner conflicts dealing with the themes of loyalty and trust, but in Rey's case, the conflicts converge and are developed in a more dramatic and I think satisfying way.
At the start of Episode IV: A New Hope, Luke wants to be loyal to his aunt and uncle, but also wants to follow his own dreams. This is his first inner conflict. His dreams are somewhat vague at first: He wants to get off Tatooine, join the academy, be heroic, etc. When Ben Kenobi tells him his father was a Jedi Knight killed by Darth Vader, his motivation becomes more focused: He wants to join Kenobi and the rebellion, and become a Jedi Knight like his father. When he is finally free to follow this path, Luke faces another internal conflict: to let go of his senses and trust his feelings and the force.
Here is a breakdown of how this all plays out in relation to Luke's choices.
In Act 1, Luke chooses . . .
- to help his uncle take care of droids.
- To remove R2-D2's restraining bolt, because he thinks it is limiting the droid's ability to function (he wants to see the rest of the message from Leia)
- to give in to his uncle's command to remain on Tatooine another year, even though he is anxious to leave.
- to chase after R2-D2 after the droid escapes, because Luke doesn't want to disappoint his uncle.
- to reject Kenobi's offer to join him, because his uncle wants him to stay on Tatooine.
- to race home and see if his aunt and uncle are okay after he realizes that stormtroopers are looking for the droids.
In Act 2, Luke chooses . . .
- to join the rebellion
- to train to become a Jedi Knight
- to rescue Princess Leia
In Act 3, Luke chooses . . .
- to attack the Death Star
- to rely on the force
Let's look at this a bit more critically. Luke's Act 1 inner conflict is resolved at the end of Act 1, which makes him a less engaging character as we enter Act 2. Additionally, he does not choose to resolve that conflict: It ends when stormtroopers kill his aunt and uncle. If it were up to him, he'd spend the next year whining about how his uncle won't let him follow his dreams. Furthermore, his motivation to follow in his father's footsteps is primarily established through exposition, not action. Luke's motivation intensifies through dramatic action in Act 2, when he witnesses Kenobi's death, but his motivation has already been established at this point. Act 2 sets up a new internal conflict for Luke--trusting the force--but this is given very thin development, without any significant internal obstacles.
How does this compare to Rey's arc in The Force Awakens?
In Act 1, Rey chooses . . .
- to scavenge in order to survive on Jakku
- to rescue a lost droid
- to befriend said droid
- to protect the droid from traders
- to help Finn and the droid escape stormtroopers
In Act 2, Rey chooses . . .
- to recruit Han Solo in BB-8's mission
- to help Han Solo and Finn escape Han's enemies
- to reject Han's job offer
- to plead with Finn to get him to help BB-8 and the resistance
- to reject the call of Luke's lightsaber
- to fight Kylo Ren
In Act 3 + Epilogue, Rey chooses . . .
- to escape Kylo Ren's control using the force
- to fight Kylo Ren again, this time using Luke's lightsaber and the force
- to find Luke Skywalker and return his lightsaber
At the end of the fight, after Kylo Ren is defeated, Rey is confronted with a choice: She could kill him or she could show mercy. We know she has a strong capacity for compassion, but her wrath might be a significant obstacle. And Kylo Ren has earned her wrath. We've seen it all unfold through action, not exposition. Will she be ruled by hate or compassion? Alas, the choice is stolen from her as the planet is torn apart, but the seeds for a new internal conflict are there for the next film.
In the film's epilogue, Rey takes her first step forward on her new path: taking the lightsaber to Luke. He doesn't accept it, at least not right away. Is it now hers? That's another question for the next installment, but however it is answered, the film has completed a compelling arc. Rey finally trusts the force and is no longer torn between family loyalty and compassion. She doesn't know who her family is or what happened to them, but she has made her choice all the same.