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Monday, January 18, 2016

Luke Skywalker and Rey: Comparing Character Arcs

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.
When Luke removes R2-D2's restraining bolt, we see how excited he is at the prospect of adventure.  This is the only time he comes close to being untrue to his uncle and it is what allows his entire adventure to begin.  Apart from this act, his loyalty to his uncle always wins out, making him rather whiny and anxious during this part of the film. Act 1 ends when Luke's aunt and uncle are dead and he no longer has any reason to stay on Tatooine. His internal conflict is thereby resolved. He is now free to follow his dreams:  Join Kenobi, train to become a Jedi Knight and defeat Vader.  This motivation carries him through the rest of the film.

In Act 2, Luke chooses . . .
  • to join the rebellion
  • to train to become a Jedi Knight
  • to rescue Princess Leia
The second internal conflict is set up when Luke begins training: Luke must learn to trust his feelings and the force.  This is not much of a conflict, however.  It only takes a brief verbal interaction with Kenobi before Luke is expertly blocking laser beams while blindfolded. He insists that he felt "something," even though Han Solo is skeptical.  It's a first step--he's no Jedi Knight yet.  The rescue of Leia is Luke's first trial, but it does not require overcoming any internal obstacles.  It is all external conflict, a typical "save the damsel in distress" scenario, and Luke's struggle with trusting the force is not even addressed.

In Act 3, Luke chooses . . .
  • to attack the Death Star
  • to rely on the force
When Luke chooses to use the force at the end of the film, it is not the result of a significant struggle.  His inner conflict is resolved and the Death Star is destroyed at the culmination of an exciting action sequence, but Luke does not go through any internal struggle here.  He hears (or "hears", depending on how you want to look at it) Kenobi's voice telling him to use the force, and he does it.

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? Like Luke, Rey is also torn between family loyalty and a desire to leave the planet she calls home. She also must struggle with the inner conflict of learning to trust the force. While these two conflicts play out sequentially in the first Star Wars film, they are combined in The Force Awakens, leading to a richer and more satisfying character arc for Rey.

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
While Luke's adventure begins with a feeling of excitement for adventure and heroism as he removes R2-D2's restraining bolt, Rey's adventure begins with a feeling of compassion for a lost droid.  (It's worth noting that at this point in the film, Finn's story has already established that there is no place for compassion in the First Order.)  Rey is staying on Jakku out of loyalty to her family, because that is where they left her to wait for their return, even though she is unhappy and dreaming of a better life elsewhere. Her feelings of compassion drive her off Jakku, but her inner conflict is not resolved: She still does not want to betray her family; she wants to return to Jakku.

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
Rey's choices reflect her conflicting motivations:  Her loyalty to her family is drawing her back to Jakku, even though her compassion for BB-8 is drawing her towards the resistance.  When she finds Luke's lightsaber, however, she faces a new internal conflict: trusting the force.  This conflict builds on the first, because trusting the force requires trusting her feelings and letting go of her desire to stay on Jakku.  She feels that there is nothing left for her on Jakku, but she cannot believe it.  She feels the force (and her compassion) pulling her towards a new path, but she cannot trust it, so she runs away in fear.  She doesn't stand a chance against Kylo Ren at this point, and he easily uses the force to paralyze her.

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
Luke Skywalker first uses the force in an otherwise useless scene in which nothing is directly at stake.  In contrast, Rey first discovers she can use the force when she is under great duress, and she uses it to protect herself (and the entire resistance) from Kylo Ren.  It's a stunning scene which turns an all-too-common victim narrative on its head.  Where Luke passes a typical hero's trial (saving the damsel in distress), Rey faces a twist on a typical female victim narrative: Mind rape. First, Rey successfully stops Kylo Ren from having his way with her. (He does violate her, but he doesn't get the information he wants).  More profoundly, she violates him in return, stealing and revealing his deepest fear.  Later, when she beats him in a contest to see who can pull Luke's lightsaber from the snow, we are thrilled, but not shocked, because we've already seen evidence that Rey is at least as powerful as Kylo Ren.  She knows it, too.  She is no longer afraid.  By taking up Luke's lightsaber and using the force against her foe, both of Rey's internal conflicts are resolved. She's not going back to Jakku.  She trusts the force and her feelings and she is following the Skywalker path.

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.