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Continuity vs. Accessibility: The Struggle of Star Wars Writers

Assume you’re a Star Wars fan. It should be easy since you’re on Eleven-ThirtyEight. You’ve watched the movies and perhaps some of the cartoons. You may even own an action figure or two. However, one thing you haven’t done is read any of the books or comics.

Maybe you were too busy living a so-called normal life or perhaps you didn’t have a bookstore in your neighborhood. The latter is especially likely since there are fewer bookstores today than there have been since Star Wars opened in 1977.

Still, you’re open to trying new things and see a copy of a book called Star Wars: Crucible. The cover contains an image of Han, Luke, and Leia—somewhat older but still recognizable. You pick up the book and start flipping through it. Who is Ben Skywalker? Who is Vestara Khai? Lando is married? The Sith are back? What’s a Mortis? Crucible is actually one of the more accessible books because it stars the “Big Three” of Star Wars.

Compare Crucible to Crosscurrent.

Crosscurrent stars Jaden Korr, a Jedi Knight who is going to be completely unfamiliar to anyone who hasn’t played the 2003 PC game Star Wars: Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy. The title should tell you that it’s a spin-off of a spin-off so that would make this novel a spin-off of a spin-off of a spin-off. The character in the book doesn’t even resemble the majority of Jaden Korrs out there since you could create your character model.

Crosscurrent, furthermore, depends on knowledge of other Expanded Universe concepts like the Great Hyperspace War and Grand Admiral Thrawn’s cloning experiments. It’s a book written for an audience intimately familiar with the Expanded Universe and is probably incomprehensible to outsiders.

Since Timothy Zahn wrote Heir to the Empire in 1991, there has been a steady stream of Star Wars novels continuing the series originally subtitled “The Adventures of Luke Skywalker.” Star Wars is one of the most successful movie franchises of all time, if not the most successful, so this makes sense. There’s an immense audience for people who want to read about the continuing adventures of our heroes.

The thing is, the Expanded Universe has gone well beyond that. As of 2013, there are well over a hundred published novels continuing the adventures of the movies’ heroes as well as entirely original characters. One of my favorite Star Wars characters is Galen Marek, a.k.a Starkiller. Movie fans have never heard of him but as the star of The Force Unleashed video games, he is actually better known than most SWEU characters. Yet, how do you explain who Galen Marek is to outsiders? Well, in my case, I explain he’s Darth Vader’s Sith apprentice who rebelled against him.

One sentence. Boom.

This, however, highlights the problem of the Star Wars EU. The reason you can explain Starkiller so easily is because of his relationship to an already famous movie character. It’s the same form of shorthand fans employ to explain Mara Jade (Luke’s wife), Jacen Solo (Han and Leia’s son), Anakin Solo (ditto), and Jaina Solo (Han and Leia’s daughter). Without these identifiers, a lot of people would just go ‘huh?’

The law of diminishing returns means that Star Wars fandom gets progressively smaller the further one goes into the Expanded Universe. It also becomes more difficult for individuals to “jump on” the Star Wars Expanded Universe train. Shatterpoint, starring Samuel L. Jackson’s character of Mace Windu, had somewhat disappointing sales. This despite the fact it was built around a character played by a recognizable actor and one who played a prominent role in the movies. Fans simply weren’t attached to the character of Mace Windu enough to want to buy the book like they would one starring Anakin Skywalker or Luke.

If you’re one of the lucky few to be a Star Wars author, this can be intimidating as it means you’re stuck trying to satisfy two masters. Existing fandom wants to see the continuation of the adventures they’ve dedicated a considerable amount of time and money to following. A fan might not have every Star Wars book ever written but die-hard readers know not only the Solo-Skywalker clan but Dash Rendar, Corran Horn, Kyp Durron, and possibly what the hell a Hoojib is.

These sorts of fans don’t just want to read about the next time Han, Luke, and Leia go to Tatooine–they want a sense of progression as well as new material. In the modern EU, that means we’ve followed Han and Leia marrying, having kids, plus becoming grandparents. They like being reminded of the time the couple visited the planet Dathomir or fought three-eyed tyrant Trioculus. It adds to the illusion the heroes are real people.

The downside is, however, the possibility of what TVtropes.org calls Continuity Lockout. Basically, things have become so complex they’re now impossible for newcomers to follow. As mentioned in Crucible, the Sith are back and there’s substantial changes to our heroes. After all, they’re past their sixties and have dozens of new adventures under their belt. New fans are probably not going to want to buy fifty or sixty books just to understand the latest release already on the shelves at Walmart.

Complicating the issue further is the fact Star Wars fiction has finally exited what many have dubbed the Science Fiction Ghetto. Star Wars has always been Co-Mayor of that ghetto along with Star Trek, but this is a time period when the Expanded Universe is actually reaching the general public. This is due, almost entirely, to the success of George Lucas’ The Clone Wars animated series.

Star Wars has long struggled for respectability in the entertainment industry and the winning of two Emmys (after seven nominations) is a sign it’s achieving that success. The thing is, it’s not the movies which won but a cartoon show which incorporates vast amounts of Expanded Universe material. The Clone Wars has introduced many to Dathomir, the Mandalorian Death Watch, Barriss Offee, Ilum, Ventress, Aurra Sing, and Ryloth.

What has been the EU fandom’s reaction to this? Surprisingly, lukewarm. Fans strongly disliked what they perceived as retcons. George Lucas was less interested in following the continuity created by his franchise’s spinoffs than telling a good story. As a result, the differences stood out all the more and irritated hardcore EU fans while alienating new fans from the die-hards. On TheForce.net, a surprising divide emerged between those who loved the series and who disliked it less for its content than not fitting with their vision.

This is because Star Wars fans, like all fans, tend to develop a sense of protectiveness towards their chosen object of affection. While the Prequels had plenty of ups and downs, a common complaint was they didn’t match the view of the Clone Wars fans had developed in their heads. Fans had come to feel not only affection for it but a sense of ownership. When things appeared they didn’t agree with or changed their view of the “true story” they objected.

This is problematic as Disney takes over the mantle of running the EU. Whether or not Disney dissolves a portion or the entirety of “EU canon”, they’re going to come at it from the sense of wanting new fans to be able to enjoy the series.

For that, old elements have to be reinterpreted and new stories told which are not going to always jive with the series as we imagined it. The Force Unleashed was a very popular video game series, including many elements which made the Saga great as well as a semi-believable drama. Unfortunately, it didn’t always jive with existing fans’ expectations. The formation of the Rebellion, for example, took place in a wildly different manner than previously described. Newcomers to the EU who played the game, on the other hand, loved the sense of power which came from playing such a pivotal character.

Changes like these are an inevitability of serialized fiction. Old stories will be reinterpreted, retold, and repackaged as long as they can bring in new audience
members. How many times have the Death Star plans been stolen? I’m aware of at least three (Bria Tharen, Havet Storm, and Kyle Katarn). Existing fans will continue picking up new material barring something catastrophic so it’s to the benefit of publishers to make new material appealing to the largest audience possible.

Believe it or not, this is actually a good thing. The Clone Wars, in particular, has brought a whole new generation of Star Wars fans in after the Prequels. Ahsoka, much to many older fans’ horror, is a widely popular character. At the very least, she gives Star Wars’ oft-neglected female fans (particularly young ones) another heroine to identify with. We need to welcome these fans just as the new trilogy and Rebels will generate a whole new crop of EU-loving brethren whose favorite Star Wars material may drastically differ from the kind novel fans are used to.

Does this mean Star Wars’ EU must be reduced to a series of standalones? If we are to maximize accessibility, wouldn’t we have to make sure books function independently of one another? Wouldn’t this cripple a major appeal of the EU? No, no it wouldn’t. It doesn’t take that much time to explain who Mara Jade and other pivotal characters are so that a book can serve as an introduction as well as a continuation.

My first Star Wars novel was Dark Force Rising, which is close to the beginning but not quite there. My best friend only started reading the series with the New Jedi Order. That series, in particular, was written as a jumping-on point and was actually quite successful for bringing in new fans. Every novel is someone’s first and expecting authors to write to an existing fandom alone is short-sighted as well as a wee bit arrogant. There’s good reasons to treat your core fandom well, not the least reason being they tend to buy a lot of books, but they can’t be the only people publishers seek the dollars of.

It’s why the majority of books will always star named movie characters and there probably won’t be any “passing of the torch” unless it’s in a smaller series like Legacy or to the next generation of movie characters. There’s still ample room for smaller series like the Quinlan Vos comics, X-wing novels, or the further video game adventures of Starkiller because the Star Wars name has an appeal all its own. These will never be the focus of the majority of the EU’s attention, however, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s just the nature of the business.

In the meantime, I’m going to welcome any newcomers and not wince when they talk about the day-and-night cycle of Ryloth.

9 thoughts to “Continuity vs. Accessibility: The Struggle of Star Wars Writers”

  1. Lots of good points here. My first star wars novel was Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, and I get lost in the continuity snarl.

  2. I actually get annoyed with the Meta-plot. I remember getting Millennium Falcon and thinking that it really was just part of the next series. Or same thing with Crucible — I had to stop and think, “Oh, what is that referring to… oh yeah, something mentioned in passing in the last 20 pages of the book… why isn’t it explained again?” I read the books – I generally buy them the day they come out (at least the non-juvenile ones), and I would get lost.

    There’s nothing wrong with a book needing a bit of context or setting – Kenobi does this well. You can pick up on what and where it is… and it was just… nice.

    But if someone wants to join in – that’s great. Of course, I’ll still offer to loan them my copy of the Thrawn Trilogy.

  3. Good points here. I would also suggest that the conflicts between certain portions of the fandom with others over this issue have to do with the spread of Star Wars across multiple media types. Star Wars is a franchise driven in primarily visual media; its popularity draws from the movies and tv and to a lesser extent the video games. In contrast the bulk of the storyline and setting material comes from printed media, from the novels and comics and to a lesser extent the RPG supplements.

    Because the novels and comics have spent so much time as the dominant storytelling voice in the franchise – worth noting here is that prior to the release of KOTOR in 2003 video games had not had a major storytelling function as they were all action vehicles and that TV had no major storytelling role until TCW emerged in 2008 – the small but highly dedicated novel and comic EU fans had come to view the storyline of the EU as ‘theirs.’ However, the novels and comics have always been, and always will be, the secondary media – something that Lucasfilm enshrined officially into canon when TCW was introduced.

    This is a major paradox. The majority of the character development and world-building that occurs in Star Wars as a whole happens in obscure tie-in material – to take one particularly extreme example the Living Force RPGA campaign, a series of table-top adventures that maybe a few tens of thousands of people ever saw, has introduced as many characters to the Star Wars universe as both movie trilogies. The vastness and depth of the EU is incredible, its immensity dwarfs the products with mass appeal (with the possible exception of in-depth games like KOTOR and TOR) to a degree that is difficult to overstate.

    Selling product, of course, requires mass appeal, and mass accessibility, otherwise buries everything beneath a mass of story-killing exposition. The trick, I think, is to draw on products with mass appeal, have each of them become seeds to grow their own particular branch of the EU around them. This has already happened, to some degree. There is an OT-based EU and a PT-based EU, and there is also a small but growing pile of TCW and TOR-based material. Hopefully the ST will produce a new, and vibrant, ST-based EU, and with any luck so will the new Rebels series.

    It’s not for nothing that the consensus weakest section of the EU, and the least read, is the post-NJO era. That material is not tied to any major visual media touchstone. Instead it is tied to the NJO, itself a highly-derived series of novels. It was perhaps a branch too far.

  4. This is overlooking that for a decade, the comics/books/video games were, in fact, Star Wars. And unlike other sci-fi or fantasy franchises, they were telling a coherent story.

    I wouldn’t expect to introduce someone to Star Wars by showing them “Return of the Jedi”. Why would I have them start with “Crucible”? I would start them on the Thrawn trilogy. And what I do see if I go to the bookstores – which is something that will likely change if the Expanded Universe in its current form is ended – is copies of that series still on the shelf. And the X-Wing series. These are books that are 20 years old or more, and yet they are still publishing them alongside Dune and Lord of the Rings. It makes good business sense, much like making multiple movies in a series, to publish interrelated novels.
    It’s also the core of the Expanded Universe. Timothy Zahn was given WEG’s Star Wars RPG material as background for the Star Wars universe, which initially he was resistant to use. Why was he given this material? Because there was no direct background material for Star Wars. The aliens in the cantina were nameless characters given silly nicknames, nothing more. What Zahn realized was that he was handed an existing background of planets, races, ships, characters, etc. that he could readily draw from to write his novel. From there, it eventually culminated into a fully fleshed-out universe, which is unusual for shared universes to do.

    Maybe it’s an inevitability, but I’m sensing here a call to current EU fans to embrace the potential “new” EU because it’s labelled Star Wars. That, I think, would rather be a mistake. If they do away with the old and start with the new, it should be treated as such; taken for what it is by itself and not trading in on the former EU’s reputation. If it boils down, as unfortunately it sometimes does, to wiping the slate clean to appeal to a new fanbase while also trying to retain the prior one without offering them anything, well… that would be a shame.

    As far as the Clone Wars animated series, my distaste stems from a disconnect from the framing movies and poor storytelling rather than misusing a planet from the Expanded Universe. But you bring up a good point – why bother using the Expanded Universe if you have no interest in using the Expanded Universe? There was no real reason to use the name “Ryloth”, or “Maridun” or the Jedi “Quinlan Vos”. The Prequels and Special Editions had amusing easter eggs regarding the Expanded Universe. Why, suddenly, was there a deluge of misuses of the Expanded Universe? The issue with Ryloth that you alluded to at the end is not “nerd rage” over a miniscule point – it’s confusion over why use Ryloth at all if the details of the planet didn’t fit the story. Casual viewers couldn’t care less, nor are they going to be drawn to find out “more” about Ryloth; similarly, it isn’t going to endear itself to fans of the Expanded Universe. It’s a complete negation of Timothy Zahn’s approach. No one is expecting the movies or TV shows to “bow down” to the Expanded Universe, but if it doesn’t fit your needs, don’t use it.

    In the end, I realize that none of this actually matters. Episode VII is still devoid of anything but the merest wisps of information, and there’s currently no end to the Expanded Universe set, nor any indication what would happen afterwards. Still, I can imagine a couple of scenarios where everyone could be happy. Zahn suggested having the existing EU continue as an “alternate universe”, and the new movies have their own tie-in material. I suppose in that case, one could see their point proven or disproven passed upon the relative sales; but me, I’m just more interested in seeing more of the Expanded Universe.

  5. I personally think that anyone wanting to take their first plunge into the Star Wars EU would look for whatever book addressed the era or characters such a one cared about. For instance, someone wanting to know what happened to Han and Leia after Return of the Jedi would, after becoming aware of just how many Star Wars books there are, research until they found a story that is chronologically close to ROTJ, and purchase that. Of course, not everybody would be willing to do research like that. If you’re just a regular Joe walking into a bookstore, and you see the latest Star Wars book and think, “Huh, that looks interesting,” you may quickly discover that there are a lot of facts related to Star Wars EU that you are just not familiar with. This could be either discouraging or motivating, depending on how eager you are to read a Star Wars book that you can actually understand. I guess it all comes down to just how interested in Star Wars you are, and then what aspect OF Star Wars interests you the most: which era, which character(s), etc. For anyone just looking for a place to begin, I would recommend the Thrawn trilogy, simply because those three books were among the first to ever be written, and therefore they don’t really have any extraneous information included; that is, information that would have had to have been previously learned about from other EU projects.

  6. Certainly the Thrawn trilogy and other, older EU material still sells, and that is a good thing, and an important financial reason to keep the EU in essentially its entirety (which I support).

    Despite this, there is a legitimate issue in the difficult of providing popular access to EU materials that are significantly removed from a major Movie/TV/Video Game anchor point. And accessibility matters, because it controls budgeting and sales, and those are needed to get series both off the ground, and to continue. There have been major losses in the realm of comics, Agent of the Empire, Invasion, and so forth, that can be traced in part to this issue of accessibility.

    Think about what it takes to really understand what is going on in Crucible – the reader needs to be at least familliar with major events regarding 40 years of fictional history. This is a novel aimed at people who have read 20+ other Star Wars novels. You simply cannot sell a lot of books that way. Compare that with say, The Old Republic: Decieved, which is largely accessible to people who’ve seen the films and a pair of video game trailers. A book whose audience pool is already limited to ‘people who regularly read Star Wars novels’ is working in a very small pond.

    Hardcore fans simply cannot expect the lesser aspects of the EU to drive the main story anymore. Yes, they did that, but that’s an artifact of an unusual circumstance where, for a decade or more, everyone thought that Movies and TV were never going to happen and no one understood the storytelling potential of video games. We are no longer operating in that media universe. The novels and the comics will not be driving the storyline from this point forward. A relationship much closer to what we saw with TCW – which has novels and comics attached to it – is almost certain to be the new standard.

    I think the should actually be an impetus to change the way Star Wars novels are produced. Del Rey, or whomever acquires the liscense, should stop focusing on high-margin hardcover releases and and instead switch to low-margin e-book only productions that can fully please the small but rabid fanbase and still tell very interesting Star Wars stories.

    1. “Rabid” ? That’s a poor choice of terminology to opt for given that you’re a smart guy Michael. It undermines a very good overall point.

  7. There’s an implicit assumption in your example, though: that the reader has played the MMORPG. I haven’t, and have found the books themselves to be uninteresting. I have no idea what’s going on, and I can’t say that I care too much either. And this is coming from someone who has played the two stand-alone KOTOR games.

    Crucible is the end of a series of novels. Again, I’m not going to hand someone Return of the King and tell them to start there. Ongoing series should have ‘jumping on’ places, such as the start of the Legacy comics, for example, although starting right away and having the reader pick up the current situation can work in the right circumstances, such as in Heir to the Empire.

    The Clone Wars animated show isn’t exactly a sterling example The comics were undercut twice by the show itself, and at best the books and comics were ignored. There was no ‘multimedia project’ involved and they were not interrelated. If this is the model going forward, then again, I’ll point to examples (a) and (b) – either the secondary material will accept being Infinities or they’ll have to tell stories that can’t change or do anything, have no consequences – in other words they won’t be expanding the Star Wars universe. I don’t consider either of those cases to be ‘very interesting Star Wars stories’.

  8. Yes the assumption is that TOR tie-in material will appeal primarily to those people who have played TOR. The point is that group is much, much larger than the people who have, for example, read any portion of the NJO at all.

    The point is to maximize the potential pool of purchasers. Yes there is a subgroup of people who will eventually purchase nearly all Star Wars novels or comics, limited mostly by their financial constraints (I’m one of them), but that’s a small group with very real limits on its overall purchasing power. If you make the bulk of your material accessible to only hardcore completionists you’re basically just dividing up the same pile of money into smaller and smaller chunks.

    TCW is very much a multimedia project. It has it’s own comics, it’s own novels, and it’s own video games. It undercut the older, prior material in other media, but it very much did introduce its own (many fans are not highly aware of this material because it was generally pitched, like the show itself, towards a younger audience).

    Relegating novels and comics to smaller-scale stories does not mean they can’t change or do anything. It just means they can’t manipulate the fate of the galaxy as a whole. The Star Wars galaxy is huge, the fate of a planet, or even a thousand planets, still qualifies as a ‘small’ story. The simple act of stepping away from Coruscant’s rareified halls of power is often sufficent to free a story from any major conflicts with continuity and very much allows it to remain interesting. If any the novels are guilty of imperilling the galaxy and unleashing ‘big’ crises simply to make themselves seem important way too often.

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