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Character Shields & Chronology: To The End!

My fellow contributor Lucas made this comment, in part, on the Fleeing the End piece:

We’ve got over forty years now to tell stories about them going forward, and that time hasn’t been used up yet.

I may have misread his comment but do we have 40 years to tell stories of Luke, Han and Leia? I’m not so sure.

Over the last few years a viewpoint has arisen that argues that the only stories that matter in a franchise universe like Star Wars are those that occupy the furthest chronological point. The reasoning for this is that if there are no stories set after it then no character can be deemed safe. It’s the “character X is in the next episode so why worry” viewpoint, but it goes a step further and posits that this is a problem in need of solution. Is it?

This diagnosis rests upon the need for the characters to be in constant peril of death. The “character shield” of being in the next story is not in place so all bets are off. One problem I have with this notion is that, if a major character is going to die, it is unlikely to be a surprise. That development will be marketed to the max! The last big surprise death was probably Anakin Solo in Star By Star, but after that the fans got wise to the trick and by the time the Sacrifice book came out, bets were for Mara Jade to die. Those bets would have paid out. If Lucasfilm ever decide to kill off Luke, Leia or Han – you’ll know about it months before the book or film or comic – could it be? Who knows? – comes out.

It cuts both ways too. When the comic Legacy series started in 2006, it ended up kicking off a huge amount of controversy over its time jump of around a century. The creative team greatly indulged the “character shield” concept by leaving what happened in the interim unknown. The back-story goes to around 10 years before at most, leaving what should have been a more than adequate gap. Not so! Legacy got blasted for not going far enough ahead and for not using popular successor characters. Yet had they done that they would have also been hit because we would then know character X lived long enough to spawn and procreate!

As the latest Star Wars book, Crucible, looks to attempt the retirement of Luke, Han and Leia, I wonder if that can truly take? Because if it does, then that means the further adventures of these characters will have to be set at an earlier chronological point. There have been but a handful of these books – Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor in 2009/10 and Tatooine Ghost in 2003/4. The focus has been on blasting through the years – twenty, thirty, forty years after the films!

At present Dark Horse Comics are indeed attempting new stories set in the film era with Darth Vader and the Empire running the galaxy. Yet one criticism made at an early point is there is no suspense because the characters are known to survive. One answer to this is new characters should be developed, the trick being to make those new characters of interest sufficient for the audience to invest in and follow. But here that fatal jeopardy requirement rears its head, as if a character is developed only to be killed off, the audience can decide to be more cautious with its investments! The effect of subjecting characters to fatal jeopardy at all times can reduce them to pieces on a game-board, while always moving the timeline forward with abandon.

Solutions? Well, one is that authors are more creative in how they draw their audience into a story, with the aim being to so transfix their attention they never consider the temporal setting! In this respect, both books cited above can be said to have done this. Yet, the viewpoint, if held, is one that’s resistant to being so drawn in. In a way it could be termed post-modern as the reader is deliberately placing their self outside of the story while criticising it. The problem I have with this is that it is highly destructive. Without abandoning character shields and chronology blinkers to a degree, we cannot have an end point for characters while enjoying new, earlier adventures.

Key questions to ask, in searching for alternative avenues to pursue are:

  • Is the future of the expanded universe more important than the worlds and characters that make it what it is?
  • Is plot and jeopardy more important than characters?
  • Can you have fates worse than death in a story?

For all that chronology and continuity can enhance and raise a series up, they can also be lead weights if taken too far and the character shields outlook, applied as far as it has been, for me, represents that step too far. What is the future for Star Wars stories if character shields and continuity are indulged at the expense of all else? Bleaker than the deserts of Tatooine!

Fleeing The End….

That’s why. That’s why most of us end up being drawn to the Star Wars Expanded Universe. When the words “ The End” come up, we do not wish to be the end. That cannot be it? Surely there must be more to it? Surely there must be further adventures? The EU allows us to sidestep that double-edged, bittersweet sense that the best endings have. That the story is over, that it has come to a resounding conclusion and there will be no more. You want more? Find yourself a new story then.

Instead the EU allows us to have our cake and eat it, that brilliant series of films – I’m referring to the Original Trilogy here by the by – is only the start! There’s far more to come. Yet in doing this, a continuing tension is set up within the material because in defying the end, it denies itself an ending. The EU will continue forever, that’s the idea. Stop the train because you want to get off? Sorry, you’ll have to jump, there’s the door, good luck!

Does the EU need an end? Ah, yes. Yes it does, at least in part. The problem is in how to do it in such a way as to carry the fanbase with it. It just so happens that, right now, a book is indeed, by all the accounts I can find, about to attempt the retirement of Luke, Han and Leia. It is going to be fascinating as to whether that actually takes or not. My suspicion is that it won’t, despite it being needed for the characters. As the EU has galloped heedlessly through time like a rampant TARDIS, so have the character aged – the books have covered about 4 decades, but there’s nowhere near the character changes you’d expect in a person across such a span of time.

Why? Because of the nature of the EU – it exists to re-kindle that spirit you felt when watching the movies and that necessitates a certain set of characters, outlooks, events and style for a story. For those who dislike a story, it’s dismissed as rehash, for those who like it, it’s an inspired re-invention. Despite the genre flexibility – which the Cry Havac columns are exploring under the banner of Star Wars and Genre – there are still these essential limits to the stories that can be told. Repetition is wanted but it blocks development and change and any sense of planning for an ending.

My own EU interest is certainly on the wane. It’s been that way for a good few years – but it’s only recently that I’ve realised the importance of endings for a story. Reading Magician’s End by Raymond Feist snapped the last pieces into focus. There, the ending is sharp but also fitting. It’s been well prepared for, but remains surprising in how it unfurls. After reading it, you don’t want more stories because they would spoil what has just been done. In a way that happened with the EU more than once. The saying is: Leave the audience wanting more. It says nothing about giving them more and there’s a lot of good reasons for that.

I don’t have much in the way of plans for this column, but for right now? Considering the EU from a more terminal perspective will be the focus of the next few, unless I see something I really have to write about….