Saturday, July 07, 2007

The Archetypes of Star Wars

I got through my one presentation at the book fair yesterday, and I think I'm now pretty much done because the rest of the events are purely social, and I'm not feeling overly obligated to attend. I enjoyed the discussion we were able to get going yesterday, and I liked meeting the librarians, but I don't think I'll be open to participating in this event again next year. As much as I love libraries, I haven't really been impressed with most of the library book festivals I've attended. For one thing, they mostly seem to turn into venues for self-published authors to sell their books, and that doesn't tend to bring in attendees. I may have to try attending a more major book festival somewhere else, one that's really successful, and see what the difference is. Not that it matters to me, I guess, since the last thing I'd want to do is volunteer to run one or put one on. I'm not even sure I'd find someone willing to let me, considering how confused/annoyed this group was with my complaint about them not giving any additional information to participants beyond the web site address for the schedule (but not when the schedule would be posted).

But enough of that. Summer has finally arrived. There's not a cloud in the sky and it's quite warm. I even had to turn on the air conditioner. Because I am from bizarro opposite land, I'm actually a little gloomy about losing the clouds and rain, and while a lot of people were getting sniffles during all the wet weather, I started sniffling and sneezing when the sun came out.

Now, as promised, let's look at Star Wars and archetypes. There are a couple of different levels of archetypes. What I've been mostly talking about has been on a more specific level of common character types as defined by their driving motivation. But the archetypes as discussed in the study of mythology (like Joseph Campbell did in Hero With a Thousand Faces) are more functional. They're roles that appear in stories. They serve both dramatic and psychological functions (that has a lot to do with Jungian psychology).

It's fairly well known that George Lucas was heavily influenced by Hero With a Thousand Faces when he wrote the original Star Wars. The plot of that movie maps exactly to the hero's journey, and his cast of characters is drawn from the mythological archetypes:

The Hero: Luke Skywalker
Psychologically, this character represents the ego, the part of the psyche that considers itself separate from the human race. The hero's journey is often one of separating from the known in order to find wholeness. Dramatically, this character is the one the audience is supposed to identify with, so they can vicariously experience his adventures. In order to get this effect, the character needs to be universal enough that everyone can relate to him, but unique enough to stand out from all the other heroes of all the other stories.

The Mentor: Obi-Wan Kenobi
Usually the wise old man or woman who trains the hero. Psychologically, this archetype represents the higher self or the god within. Within the plot, this character supplies teaching or gift-giving and may serve as the conscience of the hero.

The Threshold Guardian: Uncle Owen
This character keeps the unworthy from entering the "magical" world of the story. Psychologically, this archetype represents neuroses, internal demons or self-limitations that hinder the hero's growth. In the story, this character tests the hero.

The Herald: R2-D2 (with translation provided by C-3PO)
This character issues a challenge to the hero or serves as a signal of change. Psychologically, the archetype represents the need for change, and as a story function, he sets things in motion or provides motivation (Like by letting the hero know that there's a princess who needs rescuing).

The Shapeshifter: Princess Leia
Psychologically, this character shows the mix of animus and anima, the male element in the female unconscious or the female element in the male unconscious. This archetype also may represent the idea that the opposite sex is mysterious. As a story function, the shapeshifter can bring doubt and suspense into a story or can serve as the femme fatale. (I think Leia fits this because of the way she shifts between the ethereal damsel in distress we see in the recording to "Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?" snark, back and forth. Plus the whole thing about her really being Luke's sister all along, which neither of them knew.)

Shadow: Darth Vader
The dark side of the hero. Psychologically, this is the power of repressed feelings, psychoses, bad habits and fears. In the story, the archetype serves to challenge the hero and provide a worthy opponent.

The Trickster: Han Solo
The archetype represents mischief and a desire for change. Psychologically, he cuts the hero's ego down to size, which then shows the common bonds of humanity (helps the audience relate to the hero by keeping him human). He points out follies and hypocrisy. He may also represent healthy change by drawing attention to the absurdity of any stagnant psychological situations. He's the enemy of the status quo. In the story, he's often the comic relief.

If you try to find the deeper motivational archetypes in most of these characters in Star Wars, you'll give yourself a headache because it's just not there. Most of the characters in this movie go no deeper than this functional role in the story, though as a writer, if you're aware of what even these broad types represent psychologically, you can still make them resonate with the audience. In a way, keeping things this broad really worked for this movie because the audience brought all their experiences with every other character from every other movie they'd seen or book they'd read with them and mapped that onto the functional archetypes they recognized subconsciously. That made the movie a kind of blank canvas that allowed everyone to create their own personal experience with it that resonated with them. My Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia are probably very different from what any of you experience, and what you saw and experienced seeing the movies as a child is probably very different from what you brought to them when you saw them again as an adult because you'd absorbed more stories and more characters since then. These characters are essentially empty vessels, but they're very familiar empty vessels, so we don't have to dig inside (if you've ever drunk a Coke, you don't have to actually drink from the Coke bottle in front of you to know what it will taste like).

I've tried finding the more specific character types in most of these characters, and that's when things get weird. The only two characters who really fit the motivational archetypes based on inner drives are Darth Vader, who's the dark side of the Warrior, and Han Solo, who's the Swashbuckler. And guess which two are generally the most popular characters that were the most memorable in the earlier films? Princess Leia is kind of a muddle because she's almost a bit of everything -- sometimes a Boss, sometimes a Crusader, sometimes a Spunky Kid, and sometimes she even acts like a logical Librarian. In the archetypes book, they use her as an example of layered archetypes, with her being both a Crusader and a Boss, but I think she's mostly just a mess and proof that having lots of archetypes does not necessarily make a more complex character (a topic I'll deal with more specifically next week).

I've never been able to place Luke. He doesn't really fit anything. And I finally figured it out last week, thanks to, of all things, one of the behind-the-scenes documentary thingies on the Supernatural DVD sets. One of the creators mentions that one of the original ideas behind the show was Han Solo and Luke Skywalker go on a road trip. So, yeah, we've got Dean in the Han role as a Swashbuckler, but Sam's a Best Friend, and does that match Luke? And then I realized that it does. The problem, though, is that the plot needs Luke to be a Warrior.

The overall mythological structure tells us Luke is a Warrior -- he's got a destiny that he's aware of on some level because he knows the farm isn't where he's meant to be, his opponent is Darth Vader, who's a dark Warrior, and they even make it clear that this potential is inside Luke with that weird dream sequence in the magic tree in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke cuts off Darth Vader's head and sees his own face inside. Then there's the fact that Darth Vader is Luke's father. In order for Luke and Darth Vader to go toe-to-toe the way they do and push and pull each other over that dark/light divide, they have to be dark and light of the same archetype. Unfortunately, Luke as he's actually written in the dialog and actions is more of a Best Friend (and not a particularly vivid one). To be a Warrior, he needs to be a man on a mission, a true believer, and his belief sort of wanders all over the place. Mostly, he's just about helping and protecting his friends. We don't really ever get a strong sense of him being truly loyal to the grander cause or even being a true believer in the Force. Still, that doesn't hurt the movie too much because Darth Vader is such a strong True Believer who is singlemindedly devoted to his cause, and that makes him a credible threat, so we don't much care who's fighting him and stopping him, as long as they do (well, okay, maybe not the Ewoks. Imperial rule might even be preferable to the Ewoks).

Then we get to the prequels, and all of this breaks down. For one thing, the characters don't really map to the functional archetypes very well. Who's the hero? is it Anakin Skywalker, someone we know is going to turn bad, or is it Obi-Wan Kenobi, the one we already know is going to be the keeper of the faith who's still on the side of right twenty years later (and don't even get me started on the timeline there)? Who's the Shadow? Is Palpatine the shadow of Anakin, or is Anakin the Shadow of Obi-Wan? Padme isn't interesting enough to be a Shapeshifter. She's more of a Herald, kind of, sort of. And is there a Trickster at all (we won't even bring up the one likely candidate there because he's a character who Does Not Exist)? Lucas lost the mythological core that enabled weakly developed characters to still resonate.

And we get hung up once again on the weak use of the motivational inner drive archetypes. Structurally, Anakin has to be a Warrior in order for him to still be the dark Warrior as Darth Vader. The whole point of the entire series of movies is that this one character has that pivot between light and dark, and he can't change archetypes while he's at it or it doesn't work. But he's never really written as a Warrior until he goes evil. They seem to be kind of trying to make him a Swashbuckler who loves action and keeps rushing recklessly into danger -- and a Warrior can still do that if he's fighting for his cause, but I never got the sense that Anakin had ever really bought into the cause. He was kind of fighting for Padme all along, but that doesn't really track well -- he wanted to protect his wife from maybe one day dying in childbirth, so he ended up destroying the entire Jedi Order? (He never considered, oh, I don't know, CALLING A DOCTOR? They have medical droids who can rebuild bodies, and he couldn't get a midwife model to be on call for his wife?)

What we needed for that turn to work was for him to be the kind of true believer in the Jedi Order that we later saw Darth Vader was to the dark side of the Force ("I find your lack of faith disturbing."). He needed to be fanatical about the Republic and about the Jedi Order, the uber-Jedi who believed one-hundred-percent in The Cause, so that when he turned, he would be just as fanatical but opposed to everything he'd once believed in, turning his allegiance to the Empire and to the dark side of the Force because Palpatine managed to convince him that they had it all wrong and were serving the Republic and the Force in the wrong way. His wife still could have played a role in that, if, say, part of Palpatine's argument that the Jedi had it all wrong was that they weren't allowed to love on an individual level. After all, what could possibly be wrong with being in love and wanting to have a family? Wouldn't that give a Jedi Knight even more to fight for? That would have been an excellent psychological trap very difficult to argue against. How can you argue against love and family, against wanting to take care of the people you love? If it had hinged on something like that, I think I could have totally bought the transition to opposing the Jedi Order the way he did, while I didn't buy it the way it was done. Seriously, from "I'm worried about my wife dying in childbirth" directly to slaughtering kids?

Now, here's a really fun thing I only recently figured out, and I'm still not entirely sure I'm right, but I think it works, and if they'd played with this, they could have really had something. It's not really in the script at all. I think it was purely an acting choice, so I'm giving full credit to Alec Guinness for coming up with it and to Ewan McGregor for picking up on it and running with it, but I think if you had to pin a core motivation archetype on Obi-Wan Kenobi, I'd call him a Swashbuckler who has learned through extensive training and a supreme amount of self-discipline to channel his energies into a specific cause. It was a brilliant acting choice because it was so unexpected for that kind of character. The older Obi-Wan could have been portrayed as some kind of serene Zen master or as a rigorous taskmaster, but instead, Alec Guinness threw in a certain humor and enthusiasm behind all the Zen master lines in the script. He gave the distinct impression that although their mission was dire, he was having a lot of fun with it and was quite excited to have the chance to get into action again. The way he dealt with the situation in the bar when he took out the guy messing with Luke, it was almost a case of "Oh, gee, too bad you had to draw on me so I just had to get in a bar fight." Then there was the way he thoroughly enjoyed getting on Han Solo's nerves. There was even something about the way he confronted Darth Vader that made it appear he was itching for a fight. But very little of that, if anything, was scripted. It was all in body language, facial expression and tone of voice. His lines where he's almost mocking Han could have sounded very boring Zen master, but Guinness played it as more playful.

This trait really picks up in the prequels, since Obi-Wan has a much larger role and is much younger. In Episode One, he's played as particularly restless and eager (look at the way he bounces impatiently on his toes while trapped in the force field in that final battle, while Qui-Gon kneels peacefully). He may act all mother hen with Anakin, warning him about his reckless tendencies, but when Obi-Wan's off on his own, he's just as likely to get himself into sticky situations, throw himself into a fight and truly enjoy it. He gets an almost gleeful look in his eyes every time he has to go into battle. The only fight in the entire series that he doesn't seem to thoroughly enjoy is that fight with Anakin (he even seems to get a bit of a kick out of the fight with Darth Vader in the original film). Otherwise, it's like fighting is the one situation when he's allowed to himself really cut loose instead of having to constantly fight back his Swashbuckler impulses, and he takes every advantage of those opportunities.

Now, if Lucas had actually paid attention to what his actors were doing with this, he could have made the prequels so much more interesting. If Obi-Wan had to have the Swashbuckler impulse trained out of him through rigid discipline and a big emphasis on duty and loyalty to the Jedi Order, then it's possible he could have unknowingly used the same training methods on Anakin, not realizing that he and Anakin were driven by entirely different things and had different impulses. Anakin seemed reckless, but as a (supposed) Warrior, he was reckless in service of a cause, so harping on things like duty and loyalty to him wouldn't make him less reckless. It would make him more fanatical to that cause. Then older Obi-Wan really would have had reason to feel like he'd failed Anakin if he realized that it was his training that actually helped create Darth Vader.

If I had time to write fanfic, I'd be seriously tempted to attempt to rewrite the prequels in prose form with all this in mind just to see how it worked. It also makes me really curious about Obi-Wan's backstory, pre-Episode 1. Has that been covered in any of the tie-in novels? If not, I kind of have connections at Del Rey ... (though I'm not quite sure they'd want to make the leap between "author of funny, fluffy fantasy books" and Star Wars tie-ins, but come on, how could you write about Obi-Wan and not have it be funny with at least a few dryly sarcastic one-liners?).

Next week, I'll get into some talk about how to use all this stuff to actually create a character instead of just analyzing other characters, and I think that will clear up some of the confusion I'm seeing come up in comments.

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