Hello everyone. So, November was a bit crazy. Not gonna lie about that. I'm gonna go ahead and make a change to the site, not promising updates every week. Not by a loooong shot. I just can't promise that. Who would I become if I tried to insist on that?
But I'm here now, and I'm writing on a subject which I was thinking about while watching the new Star Wars movie today. There are two parts to this, the first is spoiler-free, but the second, which I will denote clearly, is not.
First, I want to touch on the subject of black-and-white morality. Growing up, most of the stories we're presented with are pretty clear-cut when it comes to who's the good guy and who's the bad guy. White hat, black hat. Clean clothes and smooth voice, dirty ones with a harsh tone. Usually young and beautiful and... not. We're given these hero figures who must overcome foes whose unscrupulous methods usually give them an upper hand against the moral and upstanding good guy(s). Or good people, if we're being politically correct.
However, when we grow up, things are rarely so simple. The heroes we once idolized and wanted to be in some way become flimsy, brittle, and rigid to the point of being plain annoying. The obvious, stark line which could be drawn between what is good and what is evil doesn't cut it anymore. The world doesn't work like that. For every just cause, there are people who have ulterior motives using that cause for their own goals. Do they accomplish something good in the end? Yes, but not for the right reasons. More importantly, though we want to believe in the concept of the righteous revolution against oppressive dictators, the methods used to accomplish such a feat are far from pretty. Anyone who thinks Che Guevara was some bright and shiny man with nothing but the good of the people in mind need to read his biography. It is frightening what the man did to ensure that his ideals won out in the end.
The Rebel Alliance in Star Wars was one of those shiny rebellions in media during the early days of the series. There was nothing but good intentions in their hearts, and everything they did to sweep the Empire's feet from under them was justified by what they meant to accomplish for all people, not just the human men who ruled at the time. It was good to root for them, but left the cause without many dimensions. The mention of Bothans who died to get the information on the second Death Star in Return of the Jedi was practically the only sign of subterfuge in the name of the Alliance we saw that entire time.
Rogue One shows us something different. Something dark and a little disheartening, but something important. The male lead of the movie, Captain Cassian Andor, is not afraid to take actions most of us would consider pretty dark to delay or destroy his enemy. Killing innocents, potential allies, and those who have risked themselves to help him in some way. He states in no uncertain terms that the Alliance has been willing to murder, sabotage, and otherwise be bad people to accomplish their goals. It's the opposite of the man who does the right things for the wrong reasons, and even though we like the darker characters more, what they do can make us uncomfortable.
The thing is, both these characters are needed to make a cause succeed, and that is something writers need to remember when writing for the young adult crowd and up. People don't want to see a Disney Prince Charming ride in wearing armor as shiny as his morals because that just isn't a real person. That's part of the reason why Rogue One is a good thing for Star Wars. Aside from when Darth Vader was going through a bit of inner turmoil near the end of Return of the Jedi, the Empire was a pretty cut-and-dry bad guy through and through. Its members were willing to put rule by fear over the common interests of their citizens, and by in large considered the deaths of their superiors to by welcome shortcuts to greater power themselves. The Rebel Alliance fought them bravely, mourning the loss of each precious member and resource, but as a wise man once said: "The road to power is paved with hypocrisy and casualties." Rogue One shows us the side of the alliance which was ruthless and conniving and just not good in any sense of the word, the kind of dark side which could easily become some manner of secret police in the New Republic.
Perhaps the best example of this grey morality I've seen is in the novel and subsequent anime series Legend of the Galactic Heroes. The two sides of the conflict which drives this series are the Galactic Empire, an absolute dictatorship, and the Free Planets Alliance, a democratically-elected government. Most of us would like to think that the democracy is the better of these two, but in truth both sides have their shining models of righteousness and downright deplorables. Both make excellent points for why their system works, as well as showing times when it is lacking in some vital way. More importantly, the characters are forced to make decisions and take actions they do not like, but see no other choice in order to accomplish their ultimate goals. It's fantastic, and the characters feel real, which is the most important thing for a science fiction or fantasy story, where characterizations need to be strong in order for readers to latch on, as so often the places they go and actions they take are completely new or somehow alien to the everyday world.
A subject which goes along with this, **and yes, this is where things get a little very spoiler-y for Rogue One,** is the idea that individuals and causes are not equal. Yes, there are people who come to embody a movement, such as Gandhi for the liberation of India from British colonial rule and Martin Luther King Jr. for civil rights in the USA, but in the end, these people are just one piece of a much larger ideal. In some stories, almost all of them, the tale would end without the hero. Without them, there is no way that the evil can be vanquished, and while I'm not saying that this is necessarily wrong, tales where a character is foretold to be the salvation of the world can end up giving that character and almost annoying sheen of plot armor. This then takes any drama out of a life-or-death situation, as the question becomes less "will they survive?" and much more "okay, how will they get out of it this time?"
Now, I'm not saying that we should not have strong main characters with an air of destiny surrounding them. In the novel I am currently wrapping up and looking for agents and/or editors for, the main character certainly has this going for him. However, much like black and white morality, those who read many stories will eventually get to the point where this just plain bugs them, especially when the story is trying to go for a more realistic, gritty tone. Some of you might wonder where this doesn't rear its head, and I can point right to my favorite series, The Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson, who I finally got a chance to meet at a book signing in my area (Brandon, if you ever see this, come to the East Coast more often!). While all three of the main characters certainly have a sense of importance to them, any one of the could die and the story would continue. It would be a loss, but there are other strong characters with just as strong a sense of purpose and importance in the story to hold it up, and there are other characters who, if they so happened to pick up the position left behind, could do so believably.
Here's where the spoilers start, by the way.
Rogue One showed us a story where all of the characters we were made to fall in love with did not make it. To a man, woman, and droid, they fell in battle. Now, you could scoff and say that the Star Wars universe could not contain them. Where would they, having become such big heroes, have been during the events of Episode IV and onward? They had to go, and while that sucks for the characters and their actors who will not be making any further appearances in the franchise proper, it showed us a bit of the heroism which went into getting that vital information Princess Leia is guarding in the subsequent events, just how desperate they all were to get away from the Empire, whom they had so recently struck an embarrassing blow against before narrowly escaping with their lives.
I will never take character death lightly. When I once saw a person asking blithely whether they should take such an action just to spice things up in their story, I gave them a good, hard stare over the Internet and asked what actual impact it made. Characters dying for no reason is just a shame, tossing possibly useful tools for the future down the tube for a flash of drama before their time. But if you ever think of the deaths in Rogue One are frivolous, think of the Rebels who, after committing horrific acts for the cause, died to deliver the hope their rapidly fading rebellion needed. Think of the temple guardians who saw their faith rewarded in the moment they needed it most, leading into the events which would prove that faith worthwhile as the Jedi returned. And, of course, think of the daughter who salvaged the legacy of her family from a mire of shame and destruction, and in doing so finding something worth living – and dying – for. These moments are made all the more precious by the fact that those who experienced them did so in the pursuit of accomplish a greater goal, and that they were able to accept death for that cause makes the cause much more significant in light of their loss. I think that it was a very good addition to the series, and made me care much more about the Alliance, as well as questioning what actions they were willing to take in the films thereafter.
Well, I'm tired now. Enjoy the rest of the night, all. Here's to hoping that you see more of me soon!
Francis van Zandt writes about writing, fantasy, and fantasy writing. Updates come once a week or so, time and inspiration allowing.