Note: I know it is a very frightful time right now for finding The Last Jedi spoilers sprinkled throughout the internet, but don’t worry: though this article will delve into full spoilers for The Force Awakens and the rest of the previously released Star Wars films, no plot details or other potentially spoiler-y bits of information from The Last Jedi will be revealed. Any assumptions or predictions made about Rey’s potential character development in the next few movies are simply that: predictions. Like Jon Snow, I know nothing about how this particular story will actually pan out. With that long but necessary disclaimer out of the way, let’s get right into it.
When I think back to middle school and the time in which I was taught the basic fundamentals of storytelling in a substantial way, I am left with one rather distinct memory, one that I return to time and time again as both a consumer of storytelling and a creator of it.
It was a run-of-the-mill English class right at the start of the school day — that dreaded time of consciousness where you were technically awake, but your brain had yet to get the memo. The class featured both the students eager to learn what the teacher was trying to teach, and those who would prefer to simply stare at the clock in hopes that they could somehow move time backwards and return to their nice, warm beds. Judging by the fact that I am spending my free time writing a long, meandering piece about character development, you can probably guess which category I belonged to.
In any case, my teacher was valiantly trying to teach a crowd of New Mexican public school attending seventh graders (49th in the nation, woohoo!) the tenets of characterization in literature and, seeing the glazed over eyes of many in the crowd, pulled out an age old tactic: the pop culture stand-in. Rather than explaining the contrast between the static and dynamic characters of the short story from the literature book that none of us (not even the indoor kids like myself) read, my teacher decided to illustrate his point by breaking down the characters of a hit blockbuster film that he assumed we all saw. Off the top of his head, he chose Pixar’s Cars, which was the style at the time.
Opening the floor to the class, he asked them to explain what made main car-guy Lightning McQueen a dynamic character, one who changed and developed throughout his story. Most of the students explained that Lightning was dynamic because he started off the movie as the best racer, and ended it by no longer being the best racer. Our teacher listened to their comments, but pushed them to explore deeper. According to him, all those developments were just plot points, merely skin-deep readings of what happened through the course of the film.
To explore characterization further, he wanted us to examine how the Lightning McQueen character behaved, how his attitude towards others and himself was, and how he changed throughout the course of the film. He explained to us that Lightning began the film as arrogant and self-centered and, through his experiences interacting with the people (err…cars) of Radiator Springs, he grew into a more kind and thoughtful person. Lightning McQueen was a dynamic character not because his status changed in the film, but because his world view did. Because he grew as a person not through an external conflict, but an internal one. As my teacher continued to explain, Lighting’s story fell into the first category of conflicts in literature: man vs. self.
Now, obviously, Cars is not a paragon of complex character development, nor should it be — it’s a kid’s movie, and not even one of Pixar’s more thoughtful ones at that (for the record, I hadn’t even seen Cars yet at the time of this lesson, and was mostly wondering throughout the demonstration why we weren’t talking about Monster House instead. I really liked Monster House.)
And if you’re reading this, I imagine you were taught the same principles of characterization that I was back in school, and probably understand them quite well. I am certainly the last person in the world who should feel obligated to teach the fundamentals of storytelling to the public at large, because I’m far from an expert at them. But I like to think I know a good character when I see one, and can adequately explain why to boot.
So when I see people bashing Rey of Star Wars: The Force Awakens for being a poor character and, most pointedly, a “Mary Sue,” sometimes I wonder if we could all use another trip to middle school English class, to learn a thing or two about what really makes a well-developed character.
Because characters in fiction are more than just their base collection of skills, a simple list of the things they can and can’t do assembled on some spreadsheet of power rankings. In my mind, what makes a well developed, “good” character is that they have character flaws (be it emotional or physical or mental or pretty much any other combination of “-als), and they fought to overcome it throughout the course of a story (or many stories, as the case may be.) And, when it comes to Rey, she ABSOLUTELY fits that bill. In fact, her emotional arc and character development is stronger than pretty much any other Star Wars character I can think of.
Which, admittedly, isn’t a tall order. It’s true that most Star Wars characters don’t have the strongest arcs, and those that do have them are rather simplistic (character does A, regrets A, decides to do B.) There’s nothing wrong with simplistic, especially within crowdpleasing blockbuster movies, but it wouldn’t be unfair to say that Star Wars puts spectacle and fun ahead of in-depth character retrospection. But in all the defenses I’ve read or heard about how Rey isn’t a Mary Sue character, almost all of them resort to a straw man fallacy of sorts — they jump to explaining the character of Luke Skywalker, and how amazing his abilities were, and how no one seemed to particularly mind back then.
And, hey: that’s a fair point, and does seem to reinforce the underlying strain of sexism that can seem to be a factor in critiques about Rey’s character. While not all of the Mary Sue complains are borne from this inherent misogyny, it seems a large faction of them stem from the same thought process I’ve seen banded about a whole lot now: that writers and directors only chose to make a character a certain gender or race for “virtue points,” and purposely made them vanilla and perfect to further impress all their fellow SJW’s (or whatever the new silly parlance is.)
Not only do I think the thinking behind that is misguided and flush with bias, but that it makes many people warp their view on any character who might not be a straight white male. They chose to focus on the fact that she is super strong in the force, and defeated Kylo Ren, and a good pilot, and a whole bunch of other admittedly positive traits. Just looking at those surface abilities, sure, she does seem like an all-powerful, wish fulfillment character. But, to quote my sixth grade English teacher…explore deeper. Because Rey ISN’T a perfect character. In fact, the girl is actually pretty messed up. But that’s what also makes her so damn great: seeing her overcome her mental and psychological issues works as the backbone for a satisfying — and still very much developing — character arc.
Rey throughout all of The Force Awakens has one primary goal: to return to Jakku, and reunite with her parents. At the beginning of the story, from the moment she rescues BB-8 and becomes enveloped in an adventure she had absolutely nothing to do with, all she could express was how, after the next stop, she was taking off. A little like her brief mentor Han Solo (who, at the time, probably had the best Star Wars character arc by almost default), Rey didn’t want to be involved in any of this. Sure, she got excited by the possibility of being in a dog-fight, and meeting her heroes, and helping the Resistance…but the entire time, there was a very vocal part of her that also couldn’t wait to get out of there, and return to her life of scavenging through derelicts and eating disgusting insta-bread (if you can really even call it bread.) Luke Skywalker, she wasn’t: while that kid dreamed about overcoming his farmboy heritage and becoming a hot shot Rebellion pilot, Rey was hesitant to do anything outside of the immediate radius of her derelict home on Jakku.
And when the call to adventure literally shouted out to here through the lightsaber at Maz Kanata’s castle, she didn’t heed it instantly and become the badass hero who saves everyone, defeats Kylo Ren, creates all porgs, and saves the day: instead, she got the hell out of dodge, overcome by her emotions and feelings that, even with all these things happening around her and all the signs that she could be meant for something more, she was not supposed to get involved. Unlike Han Solo’s departure in A New Hope, her decision to leave wasn’t based on selfishness or self-preservation or not wanting to be blown up by a giant, planet destroying beam — it was born out of self-doubt, and the fear that she simply wasn’t good enough to take on the mantle so swiftly thrust upon her. This conflict created a standard, but still effective, reluctant hero archetype.
But, like all good characters, it’s the cause of her mental setbacks that makes her an interesting character, not the setbacks themselves. And in the scene just before Rey flees from the rest of the group, we get her character motivation clear as day: crippling, very much unhealthy, abandonment issues. You know, the kind of abandonment issues that only perfect, wish-fulfillment based Mary Sue characters get. After all, don’t we all dream of being a character in our favorite properties who suffers from low self-esteem and a crippling lack of self-worth?
Anyways, let’s return to the point. In the scene where Rey touches Anakin’s lightsaber and goes through a whole montage of events, we see our first and only glimpse into Rey’s childhood — the moment she is dropped off on Jakku as a child, left in the (assumingly not great) care of Unkar Plutt, screaming into the sky in a vain attempt to get the attention of those that abandoned her. And while we can only guess how her life unfolded after that based on how we are introduced to her in The Force Awakens, it wouldn’t be a jump to think that her time on Jakku wasn’t pleasant.
Rey spends her days digging through trash looking for anything of value and, most depressing of all, returns home to a life of loneliness, eating that once again awful-looking bread and dreaming that her parents will return and whisk her back to a life full of love and fulfillment. And since she can’t find it within herself to abandon said dream, (the only one she’s ever had since she was a young child) she refuses to move on with her life. She has to believe that her parents will return and save her, because that’s the only thing that she allows herself to believe. After all, she was left there for a reason — surely they will return in time, right? The alternative is a life knowing that she was simply discarded, thrown away, to never be found again. And no one wants to live life thinking that.
But the theme of being thrown away is a powerful one for Rey, and the point in which I get completely college-level essay all over this assignment. Because Rey’s choice of occupation (if you want to call it that) isn’t simply a coincidence — it’s a pretty simple metaphor for her character arc in The Force Awakens. She is a scavenger, literally scouring thorough garbage in order to find the things of value it might contain. The things that were thrown away or left behind by people, but that can ultimately still can serve a purpose somehow.
You see where I am going with this, right?
Rey believes herself to be a discarded thing of little worth, but as The Force Awakens shows, the opposite is true. She’s one of the valuable objects — a diamond in the rough. She’s powerful in the force and has a variety of skills, yes, but more importantly, she’s a kind and compassionate person who can be a force (ugh, really, no pun intended) for good in the universe…if she only can gain the willpower to push forward with her life and take control of her own destiny. In fact, that part of Rey’s characterization is one of the reasons I am desperately hoping that her parents turn out to be of little importance in the grander scale of things, and that her abandonment doesn’t have some big complex conspiracy at the center. For me, the “mystery” of why Rey was abandoned on Jakku is pretty much an afterthought — in fact, I would be totally fine with us never finding out the root cause. Rey being a character of no real importance, who determined her own path and forged her own destiny outside of her lower status, is an infinitely more satisfying story and character arc than her turning out to be Ponda Baba’s grandaughter or whatever.
But even with that unlikely to happen, I still feel we are left with a pretty compelling picture of who Rey is as a character, and what internal struggles she had to go through to end up where she was by the end of The Force Awakens. And, look, I’ll even meet you Mary Sue truthers halfway — maybe you’re not wrong. Maybe Rey is super powerful, and maybe all her abilities do make her something of a wish-fulfillment character. But A) there’s nothing wrong with having a character others wish they could be and B) if that’s the case, then maybe deciding whether or not a character is a Mary Sue is just a stupid way of judging a character’s worth.
Because, if Rey IS a Mary Sue in terms of skills and powers, that’s still ignoring the second half of the equation here. In fact, maybe Rey being a Mary Sue is part of the plan after all — maybe she IS the most powerful Jedi ever, who will beat Snoke with two hands tied behind her back, restart the Jedi, convince Captain Phasma to take her damn helmet off, and push Finn and Poe into finally becoming the couple we all want them to be. Sure, Rey might be capable of all that. But Rey’s internal struggles cripple her in a way that no Wookie bowcaster or lightsaber swing can: until she can overcome her self-doubt, it doesn’t matter how powerful she is on paper — she still has a lot of development to do until she becomes an all-and-out hero.
And while you might roll your eyes about the conclusions I’m making in this piece and how stereotypical and boring Rey’s internal struggle might be…you do realize this is LITERALLY EVERY SINGLE HERO’S JOURNEY EVER, right? Batman isn’t interesting because he trained and became a ninja — he’s interesting because he suffered a trauma when he was young, and copes with it by doing something that may or may not be healthy for him. Spider-Man is a character I love to watch not because he’s fighting a bunch of powerful foes, but because he’s doing it as a young kid juggling the troubles of teenage life, and what responsibilities he owes to the world he occupies.
Or, to go to one of my favorite versions of the heroes journey in recent years, Aang from Avatar: The Last Airbender wasn’t a dynamic character because he only knew air-bending at the beginning of the series but, by the end, he knew all the elements. He was dynamic because he doubted his ability to be a hero at the beginning of the story but, through episode upon episode of character growth, embraced his destiny in time to (spoiler alert) save the world. Sounds familiar, huh?
And Avatar: The Last Airbender is an interesting comparison here because, in my mind, judging Rey on if she’s a successful character based on The Force Awakens alone is like evaluating the entire character arc of Aang based on the end of the pilot episode. By the conclusion of The Force Awakens, Rey’s journey has literally just begun. She was able to overcome her arrested development in the first film, but her self-doubt still seems to very much be at the forefront of The Last Jedi, if the trailers are any indication.
Which might make my proclamation in the headline a bit contradictory: I can’t say that Rey has the best character arc overall in the Star Wars franchise, because we have yet to see it completely take shape. But is it one hell of an introduction to her, one that does an excellent job of explaining her motives and exploring her psychological struggles, perfectly setting up what I hope will be a powerful emotional journey for our main character?
I just wrote like three thousand words about it, so what do you think? At the very least, I know one thing for sure: I can’t wait to see what happens with the character next. And shouldn’t that be the entire point?
Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens in theaters this Friday. But I doubt you needed me to tell you that, nerd.
Also published on Medium.
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