Everything Disney Needs to Know, It Can Learn from Greg Keyes

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This is an unprecedented era of change for Star Wars, with whole new vistas of storytelling possibilities opening up in every medium. One author who needs to be at forefront of this brave new world is Greg Keyes.

With the new sequel trilogy and the slew of books, comics and TV shows sure to be produced as a result Disney seeks to tap into a new audience while appealing to the core fan base. They seek to elevate a whole new generation of heroes to the pantheon of our film and ‘legends’ canon favourites. To achieve this Disney need only look to the blueprint set out by Keyes in his Edge of Victory series and The Final Prophecy.

Small scale isn’t bad

The nature of a still-uncertain plot for the movies means no grand galaxy-defining stories such as the NJO or Legacy can be told in upcoming books or comics. While there are those who bemoan this as the start of a series of filler books between movies, Keyes shows us that this is in fact a wonderful opportunity. Writers of new Star Wars projects now have the chance to write new engaging characters in memorable adventures without being tied down by having there be galactic stakes involved. With the plethora of new characters that will be introduced in various media in the coming years, Disney must seek to make them as interesting and beloved as those in the ‘legends’ canon.

In broad terms Edge of Victory: Rebirth is about stopping the invasion of a single planet in a pan-galactic war. The Final Prophecy is about characters getting from Yuuzhan’tar to Zonama Sekot and what they find there. I am of course describing the bare minimum but my point is that by downplaying the external narrative Keyes brings the internal narrative to the fore, showing us what characters feel about themselves, each other, the war and the nature of the force and the Yuuzhan Vong gods. The smaller scale of the stories allow Keyes the time and creative freedom to develop what would otherwise be peripheral characters. In doing so he gives us some of the most morally ambiguous, conflicted and compelling characters in the whole NJO series, and in terms of this reader’s interest ascending them to the level of the Skywalker and Solo clans.

Keyes’ writing illustrates perfectly the benefits of having a smaller-scale story. Great as we hope the new films will be, they cannot highlight all the characters in the space of two hours. By restricting how far-reaching the effects of the story can be it puts more emphasis on writers to write multilayered, exciting and most importantly fun characters that we hope will last as long as those that came before them.

Gray is the new black

Star Wars has always been propelled by the popularity of its villains. Whether it’s the tragic fall of Darth Vader, the cool factor of a double-bladed lightsaber wielding Darth Maul or the charisma of Palpatine, Star Wars is defined by its antagonists just as much as its heroes. But times have changed since the franchise began in the 1970s and even since 2005. Audiences now look to empathize with a character even if they can’t relate to them. Gone are the days of the absolute between light and dark; now we want to see the ‘gray’.

Characters such as these are more complex more morally ambiguous then the simple villain wanting power or to destroy the hero. Disney’s other company Marvel has produced such a character in Tom Hiddelston’s portrayal of  Loki, who has gone on to star in multiple films and turn a largely unknown character into one of the most recognizable and popular villains of recent times. To unlock such a creative and financial tour de force in all forms of Star Wars entertainment once again Disney need to look at Greg Keyes’ work. Keyes writes one of the most complex, morally ambiguous and compelling antagonists in the history of the franchise in Nen Yim. Nen Yim is introduced in Edge of Victory as an anomaly: a realist in a race of fanatics, more she is an agnostic bordering on atheist, an anathema to the theologically fueled Yuuzhan Vong. Her entire character arc is the protection of her people regardless of the personal cost. This begins with her helping to brainwash and ‘shape’ Tahiri Veila into a Yuuzhan Vong to counteract the threat she and her mentor believe the Jedi present to their people. This results in Tahiri escaping and the heretical nature of Nen Yim and her mentor’s experiments being revealed, and her exile to tend to an ailing world ship. She stoically accepts this and does her best to repair the ship and save the thousands of Yuuzhan Vong on board leading her to once again use what the Vong would deem heretical ideas to stave off its destruction. Eventually her path leads her to the court of the Yuuzhan Vong’s Supreme Overlord Shimrra himself who commands her to use these new techniques to help in the war effort. She accepts knowing her life is forfeit as he could never admit what the Vong believe to be gifts from the gods are the work of one of their own. Eventually she learns of the living planet Zonama Sekot and how important it could be to her people for good or ill. Betraying her masters and sacrificing her influential position in the hope of protecting or redeeming her people she joins friends and foes alike to journey to the strange new world.

Before Nen Yim or Harrar there had been no interesting Vong characters, barring Nom Anor. While the various Vong military leaders proved difficult for our heroes to defeat on page  they were somewhat one dimensional and were hardly as engrossing as Vader or Palpatine or even Anor himself. With such rich portrayals Keyes showed us not all Vong were militaristic war mongers, nor can a species as a whole be classed as evil. Yim’s only concern is the safety and well being of her people no matter what happened to her personally. This reveals a level of almost Jedi selflessness that left this reader asking for more and ruing her death both on an emotional level and also for the end to a wonderfully complex character.

Strong but sensitive female characters

In the desire for heroic female characters to lead the new generation of movies, books, comics and TV it’s all too easy to fall into the trap of making them ‘men with long hair’. In making a female characterization so indistinguishable from a male’s you wouldn’t notice any difference unless you saw their names. Disney is renowned for its female leads that are strong yet also possess an inner sensitivity. Keyes explores this to emotionally gripping effect with the character of Tahiri Veila. Throughout his three books in the New Jedi Order saga we see the arc of the character as she starts as an ordinary 14 year old girl and quickly matures with each installment as we see her dealing with the horrors of war and the loss of love all the while dealing with her own existential crisis and finding that her answers come up short.

Keyes writes Tahiri as a skilled warrior, an expert pilot and a great Jedi in the making but through it all remembers that this is a teenage girl coming to grips with herself and the world around her. In his Edge of Victory series Keyes has Tahiri undergo brainwashing by the Yuuzhan Vong so severe it instills in her a second distinct personality and her forging of emotional armour to protect herself from that ordeal. In The Final Prophecy we see that emotional armour crack as she reveals her problems to Corran Horn, exemplified by her tearfully admitting “I might seem like I know what I’m doing but I don’t”. Surely a sentiment any teenage girl, any person of any age or gender can relate to.

Rather than alienate or bore the male fan base as some claim, this inner fragility and humanity made her far more compelling and made me want to read more such stories. By remembering the dichotomy in all of us between strength and fragility Keyes crafts a character that is instantly relatable regardless of what fantastical adventures she’s a part of.

Keyes’ writing is a blueprint for success for Disney in financial terms as well. Look at the box office gross of Disney’s latest cinematic juggernaut Frozen. You don’t get those kinds of figures by having just girls see your movie or product. Kids of that age are exactly the market Disney should be trying to tap into to make lifelong Star Wars fans and customers, they don’t care about what gender their heroes are as long as they’re fun, relatable characters. Disney must remember that and follow the blueprint Keyes laid out in his books if this new age of Star Wars is going to be the success we all want it to be.

Something for everyone

Star Wars like all the great Disney movies has always been multi-generational in nature. When a family sits down to watch Star Wars there’s something for everyone to enjoy; grandparents can enjoy the swashbuckling style of the Flash Gordon serials of their youth, parents can remember with fond nostalgia when they first saw the film and the children can experience the excitement for the first time. The action, dogfights, a young hero thrust into a destiny altering conflict, humour, philosophy and ultimately a morality tale.

It’s a difficult proposition for writers of the new generation of Star Wars entertainment, too much humour it’s a comedy, too much action it’s brainless, too much philosophical musing it’s pretentious. Keyes in his Expanded Universe work balances these brilliantly delivering three of the most gripping, humorous, profound and enjoyable Star Wars books this reader has come across.

In his deft portrayal of his characters Keyes illustrates the timeless nature of the franchise, and why in the right hands new and peripheral characters can be just as much the iconic cultural heroes as those from the Original and Prequel Trilogies. Take Tahiri Veila as analogue to Luke Skywalker: both raised on Tatooine, both forced to grow up early by a devastating war, both confront their warring natures to become stronger. Luke with the dark and light sides of the Force, Tahiri with her human and Yuuzhan Vong personalities. We see the world-wise rogue and leader in Corran Horn as an analogy to Han Solo, and Nen Yim is a selfless strong female character who subverts stereotypical views like Princess Leia.

These similarities are there for a reason: they are the traits that people have always sought in themselves. They have been with us as long as stories have; they simply find new ways to be expressed.

Keyes captures the essence of Star Wars throughout his books and shows us the heroic traits of Han, Luke and Leia can be reused without using the characters themselves. He sees the simplicity and profundity at the heart of Star Wars that has made it so iconic and enduring.

Disney must seek to emulate such a grasp of the franchise and its nuances with its Star Wars projects in the future, and if Disney takes the lessons Keyes has taught us to heart, that future will be very bright indeed.

2 comments

  1. themetresgained says:

    Great piece. I love the books you mentioned but the reason why didn’t quite click until I read this.

  2. Matthew the Hutt says:

    Also there are Pirates in Edge of Victory, which just makes everything better. 😉

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