For writers, the world is our oyster. We can take everything and use it as a lesson to hone our craft. After a while, we even begin to view the world through fresh eyes; no longer does everything bother us. That jerk at your day job now seems powerless to offend you, because through your writer’s eyes he is an object lesson in Antagonist 101.
So it is with characters in movies.
You begin to recognize well-written scripts and characters. On the flip side, you also notice how poorly written some of them are, so that this power of writerly perception can, on occasion, ruin your move-going experience.
Luke vs Rey: The Epic Battle
As a writer, odds are you noticed the vast differences in the way Luke Skywalker and Rey are written, character-wise.
Unfortunately for insightful viewers who like their heroes to be intelligently written, to have depth, Disney decided to forgo any character development when it came to Rey. In place, she is given numerous inexplicable talents, namely the ability to master anything immediately, without training and practice.
Don’t think I’m simply dismissing Disney. On the contrary, Disney intentionally wrote Rey the way it did, knowing full well that audiences today prefer to be entertained by mindless action and beautiful plotholes rather than to enjoy movies that cleverly unfold, movies filled with characters that develop naturally, making them more realistic and therefore relatable. Disney knows its audience well—because it spent years creating its audience, an audience tailor-made to receive shallow, undeserving star characters as their modern heroes.
Disney took the fantastically-written and iconic Luke Skywalker and cloned him. Only they didn’t stop there. Disney:
- Stripped the character of meaningful familial connections
- Deleted interests and smart-alecness
- Made him female (because Hollywood knows this technique automatically forces viewers to appreciate the MC, or else risk being viewed as misogynistic)
- Relieved him of a smoldering deep-seated frustration with the galaxy (‘I hate the Empire, but it’s not like I can do anything about it right now’)
- Elected to gift her with the ability to instantaneously master every known skill.
Yeah baby, yeah!
To better illuminate the differences between the lynchpins of either trilogy, let’s compare the characters of Luke Skywalker and Rey No-Last-Name a la Me the Anonymous Blogger, by which we shall prove that Rey is the most expensive and glaring example today of lazy writing.
Here it is, the ‘Everyone Loves a Good Comparison’ Comparison List. Remember: We are looking at them through writer’s eyes, with all the attendant biases and judgments and experiences as big time readers and experienced word-slingers.
1 – Luke Skywalker (herein known as Luke) was introduced during a critical period in his psychological and personal development. The situations he faced helped shape his burgeoning character.
1 – Rey was introduced during a dull period in her life. She was already alone. Events did not shape her, because (as was shown ad nauseum) she already possessed the capacity for mastering every known ability and skill in the galaxy instantaneously.
2 – Luke has flaws, which serve to make him relatable as a fellow flawed human
2 – Rey has no known weaknesses or flaws. She can do anything and doesn’t even whine when the galaxy throws a bucket of wrenches at her
3 – Luke needs a translator to understand R2-D2
3 – Rey understands BB8 instantly, as if ‘droid’ is a universal language. And she knows Wookie!
4 – Luke needs Han to save him—which was realistic
4 – Rey saves Finn, steals the Falcon, and then gets Han killed (Major minus points right there)
5 – Luke is willing to learn the ways of the force, to train under Obi and then Yoda
5 – Rey just knows how to use the Force, because that’s easier (aka lazy writing)
And that right there is why Luke is by far the better written character. Rey never earned her powers.
As any writer worth her weight in paper knows, your characters must earn their power or authority to win the respect of insightful readers. Harry Potter doesn’t have a hope in Hogwarts of defeating Voldemort, unless he first learns all manner of magical defense against the dark arts. He earned his power, through training and sacrifice and suffering.
Luke loses his aunt and uncle. No matter how annoying Uncle Owen was (‘You can waste time with your friends when your chores are done’) Luke loved him. He suffered when they were killed.
Rey doesn’t suffer. Sure, she was abandoned when she was like 5, but that gave her 14 years in a wasteland to harden into a self-reliant dynamo. She has nothing to lose.
Throughout the series Luke is shown studying under Jedi Masters; even if he is never a good student (failing to raise the X-Wing, he says ‘I can’t, it’s too big’—something we’ll never hear Rey say), Luke struggles to learn. And through trial and error he totally earns his kick-butt scene in Return of the Jedi, when he warns Jabba not to underestimate him, and then promptly destroys every last bad guy in that desert. Except for the sarlacc, which was busy eating another bad guy who actually survived.
Wait a second, if Boba Fett is alive, why in tarnation did they serve up a Solo origin story instead of a Fett solo run? That’s bogus, man!
As writers, the lesson here is clear: Your MC must earn her powers, usually through practice and sacrifice, suffering and failure.
Some people like to point out that Rey is a better character because she does the rescuing, whereas Luke is constantly in need of being rescued. But that’s kind of the point, isn’t it?
Luke does not start off as a hero. His story is the classic—and likeable and believable—Hero’s Journey. When we see Rey climb into the beloved Millennium Falcon (after calling it a piece of trash) and fly it like an old hand to save Finn, we are not amused or impressed. She didn’t earn the right to fly it. She didn’t earn the skills to fly it—or rather, if she did, we were not shown or told that she did. We simply must assume the Force is head over heels in love with her.
One of the most important plots in the film is Luke’s flying ability, which is enhanced by his willingness to listen to Obi-Wan’s Force instructions. His piloting skill is foreshadowed early on, in the cantina on Tatooine. Foreshadowing is the art of subtly informing your readers (or watchers) that something now will be important later on in the tale. The ability to foreshadow, and to do it expertly, is the mark of an accomplished writer.
Because we knew early on that Luke was a capable pilot, we are not left bamboozled as to how he was later able to execute that perfect Meridian Trench proton torpedo run (with the help of the Force, of course).
Sure, Rey used the force to escape that telepathic/chair thing and fight Kylo Ren, but there was no foreshadowing involved, and, more importantly, no training. She’d spoken with Han about the Force, and had to listen to the mutterings of Maz Kanata—that was the extent of her training in the Force. She did not earn the power, the right, to survive an encounter with a trained Sith.
In sum then, earning and foreshadowing are vital points in the development of any character. Without them, it is nearly impossible to create a believable character.
Rey is like Samwise Gamgee; she’s almost too perfect. But unlike Sam, she doesn’t develop a biased/funny rapport with a despicable character—Gollum—and she does not enjoy the essential ‘arc’, that is, character development.
Early in LOTR, Sam is shown to be a smidgen intimidated around Rose Cotton. Through his adventures and suffering, he grows as a character. This is shown brilliantly and movingly when he faces off against Shelob. ‘Get away from him, you filth!’ is perhaps the most realistic line in the entire book, and it shows how much he has grown as a character.
Rey does not have that arc. She is already perfect, which is fine, but unrealistic and boring, from a writers’ perspective, anyway. (Watching the movie, at least we have Daisy Ridley, who is not boring to look at.)
Because she perfect, it is very difficult for anyone over 12 to truly relate to Rey. She is not an everywoman. She can do anything, and do it well, first time: Master an unfamiliar space ship and inherently know all its maneuvering capabilities, use a blaster with pinpoint accuracy the first time she uses it, swish and flick a light sword like a pro against a trained Sith, and anything else that needs doing.
Luke, on the other hand, is an everyman. Because he is boastful and occasionally snarky, and takes a while picking up on things, we can easily relate to him.
So remember, as a writer you can enjoy your movies, but you can also improve your craft if you pay attention to what makes some characters great, and what makes others . . . unbelievable.