One of the most distinctive features about the post-Return of the Jedi Expanded Universe is the wealth of characters who have become part of a large, unified cast supporting the small group of movie leads. This sort of cast is a fairly unique asset for a franchise, and even for an era within this particular franchise, yet in recent years it has been dismally handled. Not only have fewer members of the secondary cast been used and been used more poorly, but the focus has crept from a large cross-section of the galaxy squarely onto members of the Jedi Order. In this post, I want to address how this situation came to be and make the case for better use of the unified cast, to be followed up by a post specifically focusing on the implications of limiting stories to an emphasis on Force-sensitives.
The road to the unified cast
The initial EU did not set out to create a large-cast universe in the way of, say, A Song of Ice and Fire. This makes a certain amount of sense, as the original films had not featured a big recurring cast. They did, however, set the stage for the eventual expansion of the cast.
Aside from the villains and the core cast of Luke, Leia, Han, Chewbacca, Artoo, Threepio, and eventually Lando, the films featured almost no recurring characters. Wedge Antilles was the only supporting good guy to make it through multiple movies, much less the entire trilogy. The focus was clearly on a small band of heroes. But what the movies did have was a large-galaxy aesthetic resulting from the use of a lot of supporting characters who just didn’t recur. We didn’t get a consistent Rebel leader throughout the films, but in getting General Dodonna, General Rieekan, General Madine, Admiral Ackbar, and Mon Mothma, we got a large body of distinctive, interesting leaders who could be used and expanded on in further stories, along with the sense that the Rebellion was big and full of important people. There was a lot there for the EU to work with, and a sense that the Star Wars galaxy should have a deep bench of characters.
A natural part of expanding the universe was to take the secondary characters and run with them, one that was aided by West End Games’ creation of backstory for almost every character to appear in the films. Important figures like Mon Mothma and Admiral Ackbar became cornerstones of the setting, central recurring characters who could be found in story after story and, as we became more familiar with them, could drive narratives more and more.
But something even more important was happening: the Expanded Universe was creating its own characters. The main cast got new people to interact with. The most important and influential ones, like Mara Jade, Talon Karrde, and Kyp Durron, started appearing in multiple stories and became significant recurring characters themselves, while others got namedrops or were expanded on in reference sources; a few were politely ignored.
Side stories that didn’t feature the main cast also became an avenue for character building. Mara and Karrde got their own short stories; Mara and Kyp each got their own comics. Wedge Antilles became the lead of the extremely prolific X-wing series. The X-wing miniverse developed its own co-lead in Corran Horn, who got his own standalone novel; established secondary characters like Mirax and Booster Terrik, Tycho Celchu, and Face Loran; and highlighted peripheral characters from other sources, like Winter, Hobbie and Janson, and Airen Cracken, as major supporting characters.
By the end of the Bantam era, there were a lot of supporting characters established, but few were used consistently. Each Bantam book seemed to introduce a new lead supporter for Leia in the Senate rather than referencing an extant character, and aside from the film characters and the most toweringly influential characters like Mara and Karrde, almost all the limited character recurrence was the result of the characters’ creators writing multiple works, or the axis of character sharing established among Zahn, Stackpole, and Allston.
The unified cast
The New Jedi Order was crucial in fusing the large number of secondary and tertiary characters into a regularized cast. As a large, centrally-planned series of nineteen books progressing chronologically, it provided the guidance in developing a cast that the scattershot, simultaneous, standalone Bantam novels had lacked. All the major supporting characters who had been developed got pulled into one ongoing story.
Previous stories not set at the Jedi Praxeum had tended to show Luke with only one or two Jedi students at a time, if at all. Now, all the major Jedi characters were shown as part of one organized Jedi Order, constantly interacting with each other and going out on missions even as more Jedi were added to the Order and were used by author after author. Corran Horn, Tycho Celchu, and Gavin Darklighter were plucked from the X-wing series to become recurring supporting characters of greater and lesser significance. Just as the Solo kids became leading characters, their supporting characters from the Young Jedi Knights and Junior Jedi Knights books were folded into the general supporting cast. One-off characters like Etahn A’baht and Belindi Kalenda were plucked from obscurity and reused in roles suiting the characters rather than creating new one-off characters to fill those roles. A new character like Wurth Skidder who might have been a one-off in earlier days got reused until he went through his own character arc. An Advisory Council of leading senators was introduced, the senators were actually developed as characters, and they were reused consistently throughout the entire run.
The result was that the cast gained continuity and stability. No longer was someone like Booster Terrik a supporting character in a few books; he was a supporting character in the general universe, someone with an established role to play in a coherent, standardized cast. The idea of characters belonging to a particular corner of the universe gave way to a generalized mingling of all those characters into a rich, interactive, complementary cast. There was the sense that the creators were finally aware of all the characters they had to play with, and were being disciplined about consulting the material to use them consistently.
It was not that each character appeared in every story, but that every story appeared more or less aware that the characters existed and used them when appropriate. Characters were not highlighted all the time, but everyone got his or her own turn. Kam and Tionne Solusar were in charge of the Jedi Academy, so when stories were set there or called for input from the Jedi leadership, they were included. Ganner Rhysode was introduced as a major supporting character and developed in the Dark Tide books, got used as essentially a Jedi extra in the Agents of Chaos duology, disappeared for a bit, popped back up in a medium supporting role in Star by Star, continued as a minor supporting character in Dark Journey and an extra in the Enemy Lines books, and came back to prominence as a major supporting character in Traitor, where his arc concluded and he died. We didn’t see Talon Karrde or Garm Bel Iblis all the time, but we always checked in from time to time at least.
The neglect of the unified cast
After The New Jedi Order, the big cast slowly slipped away, however. Dark Nest, Legacy of the Force, and Fate of the Jedi were decent at keeping the names of the various Jedi characters in circulation — various Jedi crowd scenes ensured that — but have otherwise been extremely disappointing. With stories that revolved around Jedi, the rest of the cast — the diverse array of military, political, and underworld figures who flesh out the setting — were almost completely forgotten. Whereas The New Jedi Order gave us the Senate’s temperature via the Chief of State, the Advisory Council, and a handful of other senators, the post-NJO stories have reduced the Galactic Alliance to one character: the Chief of State, who symbolizes the entire government. Aside from the Chief of State and occasionally one designated underling who gives the Chief someone else to be in scenes with, there has been simply no attempt to portray figures in government. The Senate has had no role to play in the story. Fringe characters like Karrde and Booster have disappeared almost entirely, and when Booster did appear it was as a mere Jedi auxiliary. The military was represented through Troy Denning’s pet character Admiral Bwua’tu; the days of Rogue Squadron playing a supporting role were gone, and we no longer saw GA fighter pilots nor even knew who Rogue Leader might be. Instead, Jedi squadrons took over the role of fighter support, just as Jedi have come to completely dominate the storylines.
Even the Jedi who did get used lost their significance as supporting characters. During the NJO, various Jedi had roles in the story; Kyp might go on a mission with Jaina, while Luke would talk with Kenth Hamner and Tahiri would go through a character arc with Corran as her mentor. Non-Skywalker or -Solo Jedi got lead and major supporting roles, rotating focus throughout the books, and had character development that played on their history and maintained their unique voices. The move to Jedi-only casts, through, has not led to the same result. Instead, the Jedi have been made generic; multiple Jedi would be namedropped in Council scenes, but were not uniquely voiced, and they were limited to appearing in Council scenes or as generic figures in Jedi crowd-action scenes rather than getting things of their own to do. Corran Horn may have appeared in an awful lot of post-NJO books, but it’s hard to feel that we’ve gotten any real time with him since The Final Prophecy. Aaron Allston was better about this than some authors, but it was not enough to keep the overall trend toward blurry Jedi masses from overwhelming the characters forced into roles as famously-named extras.
The result has been a universe that feels very small, smaller even than in the Bantam days. The feel of the stories has been that of a return to the movie paradigm in which the focus is on a small group of protagonists who happen to be surrounded by a sea of undeveloped faces. And this is a problem.
Why the unified cast is important
Though the Expanded Universe has not consistently used its existing supporting cast in the unified, big-cast manner of The New Jedi Order, it is important that that model be used going forward.
A large cast avoids making the setting feel like a small galaxy. The same five people or so don’t need to do everything, and for them to do so in story after story feels silly when there are lots of other characters sitting around. Letting Corran, Kam, or Octa Ramis have their fair share of the Jedi business offers variety and vitality to the universe. Teaming Luke and Ben up has become same-old, same-old; how much more interesting would it be to see Ben play off Kyle Katarn and Jysella Horn, or have Luke team up with Kyp for an examination of their relationship in the wake of their earlier conflicts?
There is also the issue of verisimilitude — the Empire is a big organization, but you would never know it when Jagged Fel stands alone to represent the “good Empire” and Moff Lecersen stands for the “bad Empire,” but the entire organization is, beyond them, a vague and impersonal mystery. Bringing more characters into the picture makes the galaxy feel more real and textured.
Rather than focusing novel after novel narrowly on the same few people coming from the same viewpoint, using the entire cast opens up the stories and thus opens up the storytelling possibilities. Characters like Wedge, Senator Triebakk, Karrde, and Droma offer viewpoints into zones of the universe that the Jedi-centric main characters can’t cover. By using the entire slate of characters, The New Jedi Order was able to tell stories about Jedi missions, military campaigns, political maneuverings, and underworld adventures. Large-scale events came off as genuinely large-scale, affecting all kinds of people — there are few more profoundly epic moments in the entire saga than when seemingly the entire Expanded Universe showed up for battles in Star by Star, Destiny’s Way, and The Unifying Force. Smaller-scale events can offer greater variety.
Using the full cast also gratifies readers. The Rogues, Kyle Katarn, and even the Senate have their own fans, who want to check in with their favorites and see them at work. The New Jedi Order managed that by rotating the entire cast through its focus; subsequent series have not, too often ignoring dozens of side characters even when they would appear incredibly relevant to the story. When Talon Karrde did not show up for readers at Mara Jade’s funeral, not only did it ring untrue within the context of the universe, but it was profoundly disappointing for fans of Karrde or Mara who wanted those characters’ connection acknowledged at the time it was most important to do so.
Going forward, the EU needs to get into the habit of calling upon its entire slate of characters. The recent move toward spinoffs like X-wing: Mercy Kill and Paul Kemp’s Jaden Korr books is encouraging, but those few books are not enough to reverse the slide toward a narrower and ultimately less rewarding focus.
The problem of the diminishing cast
As the story moves forward, there are special problems for the future of the supporting cast. The limited use of an expanded cast in the past decade or so, combined with the tendency toward killing off characters and surviving characters aging out of their roles, means that the slate of secondary characters is shrinking.
Ben Skywalker lacks companions his own age. Rogue Squadron is no longer filled with dear old friends. The senators are all strangers to the reader. There are no currently active links to the seedy world of the fringe who can draw the action in that direction. Fresh new characters like Lon Shevu, Dyon Stadd, and Thann Mithric are killed rather than developed. The grand, unified cast’s stock is diminishing without being replenished, and the Star Wars galaxy looks smaller, hollower, and colder as a result.
If the supporting cast is going to thrive, there needs to be a conscious effort to inject more secondary characters into the stories and keep them there. Keeping Mirta Gev and Vestara Khai alive as recurring characters in Crucible could be a decent start, but the roster of spots to fill is much bigger than that. Some sense of coordination in crafting a supporting cast — a deliberate choice to give Ben a few supporting characters of his own, to give Allana some friends, to show off new Rogues and admirals and generals and senators, to stick a leading fringe character into the narrative somehow — is necessary.
If there is an effort to restock the cast and keep the supporting players in the picture, I think the EU’s future would look a lot better. For that matter, an effort to build up a coherent, interconnected cast would benefit other emergent eras like the prequels and Dark Times, and should be kept in mind by anyone doing spinoff material around the sequel trilogy. But it is the post-Return of the Jedi era that has thrived on the strength of the detailed, diverse supporting cast it has developed organically through so much storytelling in the era, and which I most hope can thrive again.