Star Wars and Genre: Romance

This Valentine’s Day special is about as blatantly romantic as Star Wars gets

To bring up romance as a genre may summon visions of trite romantic comedies and Harlequin novels with names like The Italian Billionaire’s Pregnant Bride and Reluctant Mistress, Blackmailed Wife. Yet romance has a long and distinguished history. Whether it be the chivalric romances of medieval bards, the theatrical comedies of Shakespeare, the novels of Jane Austen and the Brontë sisters, or classic film romances like Casablanca, stories focusing on romantic relationships have been central to literature and drama throughout time.

Love is a powerful emotion, fundamental to the human experience, and it is no surprise that so many writers have tapped its potency to enrich their stories. Romance as an element stretches well beyond genre walls, and has its presence in nearly every story. Therefore, for this Star Wars and Genre entry, both romance as a genre — stories that focus closely on one or more romantic relationships — and as an element added to other stories will be an important part of the analysis.

In an action-adventure franchise, it is true that room for pure romances realistically would be limited. A distinctively genre novel focused purely on romance, in the manner that Death Troopers and Red Harvest were distinctively “Star Wars does horror” novels, would be possible but would be unlikely to become a model for frequent storytelling. Valentine’s Day tie-ins like the one-shot comic A Valentine Story and the honeymoon short stories Judge’s Call and Corphelion Interlude demonstrate that publishers are willing to put out explicitly romantic material when there is little commercial risk, but publishers tend not to see the market for pure romance stories and space adventures overlapping. This perception is probably not accurate, as the proliferation of romantic fan fiction suggests that the market is real but thoroughly underserved by official outlets, but it seems unlikely that publishers would seek to go “pure romance” as more than an occasional stunt when it is easier, and friendlier to the franchise’s overall image, to integrate romance into traditional adventure tales.

Soontir and Syal Fel’s honeymoon

Publishers are not wholly resistant to romance, however. Important and marketable central-character marriages spawned Union and The Courtship of Princess Leia, and an outcry for more focus on main-character relationships generated the dual Han-and-Leia and Luke-and-Mara novels Tatooine Ghost and Survivor’s Quest, respectively. Combined with the recent trend toward genre experimentation, there may well be a “Star Wars does romance” novel in the future. I have always thought that the relationship of Soontir Fel and Syal Antilles would make an ideal romance story: young runaway becomes one of the galaxy’s biggest movie stars, finds a handsome country boy from home in the middle of the Imperial court (who just happens to be an ace fighter pilot and, later, a baron), falls in love, overcomes her angst over her secret identity as the sister of his outlaw fighter-pilot rival to marry him, and lives happily ever after. There is rich emotional material there to explore in Syal’s feelings, and a satisfying arc to their story. It is easy to see how a novel could tap into that and be both compelling romance and identifiably Star Wars story. An attempt at a romance novel might shoot for more recognizable characters — Han and Leia or Luke and Mara would be the most likely targets, followed by Anakin and Padmé — or seek to tap into an “event” in the manner of Union, such as Jaina and Jag’s recent marriage or setting Ben up with his future wife, but the potential for that kind of relationship-centric novel is there.

Indy and Marion: Just part of the story

More likely, however, is material that does not focus on a relationship in such depth, but incorporates romance into an adventure story. This is the most common way we see romance in entertainment — whether it be Bogart and Bacall’s characters coming together in the middle of The Big Sleep‘s noir mystery, the love triangle in The Departed, or Indiana Jones flirting with Marion Ravenwood, romance is often a component of a larger story. Both trilogies had their own romance component, and many stories since have incorporated both the romances seen in the films and new relationships between original characters.

These romances are easy to stage; traditionally, two characters meet during the course of whatever action is occurring and fall in love. Wartime compatriots, Jedi on a mission or in training together, a smuggler rescuing a princess or picking up a passenger — the variations are endless, but the setup simple. Writers may want to look into methods of variation in romantic stories — imagine a story in the vein of a medieval romantic epic, about a Jedi Knight whose boyfriend is captured by pirates whom she must chase across the galaxy. Her thoughts about him could drive flashbacks to the earlier days of their relationship, while her commitment to him might be tested by the stress of her quest or a handsome warship captain aiding her search.

“So you’re the main character, right? Do me!”

The greatest challenge facing Star Wars romances, though, is not lack of variety in format; it is shallowness. Too many stories treat romance superficially rather than placing it as an integral component of the story and digging into it. Too often, the common convention of the lead character’s romantic interest is treated so routinely as to be almost perfunctory. Call it Bond romance — as seen in so many Bond movies, it’s taken as sufficient to justify a romance that the male lead be handsome, the female lead be beautiful, and they be in the same story. Little thought is given to making the relationship itself compelling, realistic, or genuinely romantic in the sense that it would evoke romantic feelings in the audience. Luke, for example, had a long string of brief romances due to the women who kept falling for him, but most of them were not particularly well-developed relationships. No one is going to remember the depth of his feelings for Tanith Shire, and Protagonist A finding Pretty Lady B attractive won’t keep genuine romance alive in the Expanded Universe.

It is the deep, strongly developed, lasting romances that readers remember and that genuinely add to the story, transcending the trope of the love interest or damsel in distress. It is these sorts of relationships that writers and editors should be looking to focus on more.

Wedge and Iella

The X-wing series offers a solid model for romantic subplotting. The series created multiple relationships of different natures, treated female characters as important and fully developed them rather than pigeonholing them as love interests, used the relationships to raise issues relevant to the narrative, explored the emotions and attitudes of the characters, and delved into the functioning of the relationships rather than treating them superficially. The relationships were treated as an important part of the whole. Corran’s love for Mirax was part of who he was, and he devoted considerable thought and self-reflection to it. Gavin and Asyr’s interspecies relationship reflected the difficulties of bridging differences within a couple, inspired resistance from Borsk Fey’lya, and affected the decisions they made about their lives. Tyria Sarkin and Kell Tainer’s love exposed the shallowness of so many fictional romances when Tyria rejected Kell’s initial superficial infatuation and waited for his feelings to blossom into a genuine and intimate person-to-person connection. Wedge and Iella’s long flirtation was often interrupted by life events, culminating in an extremely cathartic scene in which they finally spoke openly about their feelings and the hurt they had caused each other before Wedge worked up the courage to reject excuses and overcome that pain. The result of this serious and thorough treatment of romance and emotional depth was a slate of strong romances that moved readers to invest in them and remained an important part of the Expanded Universe.

Many stories end with the blossoming of a romance, but in an ongoing franchise like Star Wars, romance cannot simply end at the altar. Keeping the romantic element alive beyond the courtship can be a challenge, but the Expanded Universe should make an effort to continue the romances of its main couples. Relationship storylines can get at emotions and romantic feelings even after the first blush. The New Jedi Order did a reasonable job of keeping romance alive in its main couples by giving each of its married couples relationship storylines. Luke and Mara came together to battle Mara’s illness, helping put their marriage front and center, then conceived, bore, and began raising a son, moving their marriage into a new phase. Han and Leia’s relationship was strained by Han’s grief over Chewbacca’s death, allowing for exploration of difficulty in a relationship and for their reconciliation and bonding, especially as they then shared the burden of their son’s untimely death and came out with their marriage stronger than ever. The couples got plotlines that emphasized them as couples and brought their feelings for each other to the fore.

From Han and Leia, through Anakin and Tahiri, down to Revan and Bastila, romance has been an important component of Star Wars stories. It deserves fair, full, and thoughtful treatment as a major element of the universe, and creators looking to expand the boundaries of Star Wars’ “genre” offerings could do much worse than attempting a Star Wars romance novel. They might be surprised at how many fans would respond.

Jedi, Sith, and Force Tunnel Vision

Jedi vs. Sith is a fantastic comic, but its title should not be applicable to the entire EU

No, Force Tunnel Vision isn’t a Force power you’ve never heard of. It’s the tendency that has emerged ever since the release of the prequels to focus stories on the Jedi and emphasize the Jedi-vs.-Sith conflict as the core of storytelling. This has compounded the issue of supporting cast underuse in the post-Return of the Jedi era, as the focus has become too narrow to take in much of the wider universe. In all eras it has resulted in repetitive storytelling as the Sith are trotted out again and again to fight Jedi protagonists. In this post, I will cover how the prequels transitioned Star Wars from stories that included Jedi and Sith to stories that were about Jedi and Sith, just how monotonous this has made the Star Wars universe, and how this has damaged the Star Wars universe by excluding non-Force-sensitives from the story.

The way it was

Jedi and Sith were both present in the original Star Wars trilogy. It was central to the films’ story that Luke Skywalker learned to become a Jedi Knight from Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda so that he could defeat the evil Force-user Emperor Palpatine and redeem his father Anakin Skywalker from life as Darth Vader, Dark Lord of the Sith. How, then, can I say that the prequel trilogy changed Star Wars’ focus? The difference is between stories that include Jedi and Sith as a component and stories that are centrally about Jedi, Sith, and the struggle between light and dark sides of the Force. The issue is the context in which the Force elements of the storyline are placed.

In the original trilogy, the conflict between Luke and Darth Vader, and later the Emperor, was vital. The introduction of the Jedi Knights and the light and dark sides of the Force were key components of Star Wars’ unique universe. The story, however, was not simply about the Jedi. Luke’s conflict with the dark side’s servants was one component of a much larger storyline concerning the war between the Rebel Alliance and the Galactic Empire; the light and dark sides were merely elements of the struggle between freedom and tyranny, good and evil in the broadest sense. Luke did not fight alone, but as part of the Rebellion, alongside the gunslinger Han, political leader Leia, scoundrel-turned-administrator-turned-Rebel Lando, and ordinary warriors like Wedge Antilles, Admiral Ackbar, and General Rieekan. He and his allies fought not only Darth Vader and the dark side, but also Forceless manifestations of tyranny like Grand Moff Tarkin, Death Stars, and stormtroopers; and Forceless agents of criminal corruption like Jabba the Hutt and Boba Fett. Jedi and Sith were one component of the bigger story, which included ordinary soldiers, political figures, and the criminal underworld.
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The Rise and Fall of the Supporting Cast Post-Return of the Jedi

The New Jedi Order featured tons of supporting characters

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.
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Antagonism: The Next Generation

Should the Empire still be the primary antagonists of the Sequel Trilogy, or can the film saga move on and still remain relevant? What can we learn from the Expanded Universe about this?

Mike: While I’ve always been quick to point out how crazy it is to believe that the entire Galactic Empire just folded their cards and went home after Endor, I’m on the fence about whether they should remain the villains of a bona fide Episode VII. On the one hand, I think the New Jedi Order series is hands-down the closest the EU has come thus far to giving us a Sequel Trilogy in terms of tone, and something as wholly different as the Yuuzhan Vong would be awesome on the big screen and would go a long way toward rejuvenating what’s bound to appear to some as a tired, extraneous post-Return of the Jedi status quo, but on the other hand, George Lucas really did tie his story up in a nice little bow there.

The question, really, isn’t do the films need the Empire, it’s do the films need Palpatine? Even Lucas has admitted that if he were to have done sequels himself, Dark Empire—wherein the Emperor returns in a cloned body—came the closest to what he’d have come up with. In fact, given that Michael Arndt is ostensibly working from Lucas’ own outline, it’s entirely possible that a reborn Palpatine will indeed be what we end up with.

I don’t know if we need to go that far, but I can see the argument that the threat has to come from Palpatine in some direct way—maybe a cult of rabid non-Sith followers sowing dissent, maybe even a crazed and manipulated Jedi like Joruus C’Baoth. If the Prequels were about the Republic crumbling from within, and the Classics were about the ideals of the Republic rising anew, then the Sequels need to be about demonstrating that new Republic’s fortitude, and most importantly, showing that it—and our heroes—have learned the lessons of the Prequels and created something better, in terms of both the government and the Jedi Order. Anything that doesn’t deliberately and aggressively make that case—whether it’s more Sith, Imperial remnants, or an alien invasion—won’t truly feel like the same story. Jay, am I right?

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Star Wars and Genre: The Crime Story

Jabba the Hutt, Star Wars’ original gangster

The criminal underworld is a rich part of Star Wars’ tapestry. Han Solo was one of the three main characters of the original trilogy, and supporting characters like Lando Calrissian, Boba Fett, and Jabba the Hutt abounded. Our introduction to the “wretched hive of scum and villainy” was one of the most memorable moments of A New Hope, and Return of the Jedi spent its opening act in Jabba’s palace. Smugglers, crime lords, bounty hunters, pirates, and grifters all play major roles in many Expanded Universe stories. This is fairly natural, as crime stories are a major part of modern fiction in general. The number of popular movies, TV shows, and books about crooks is massive, reflecting the tremendous storytelling potential of criminality, which comes prepackaged with loads of the element most key to storytelling: conflict.

The greatest gangster epic of all time

Not every story featuring criminals or crime is what I would count as a crime story. Crime fiction focuses on the stories of the criminals — unlike, say, mysteries, which tell the stories of the people investigating the crimes. It can come in many forms. The great “gangster movies” of cinema — The Godfather and its sequels, Goodfellas, Once Upon a Time in America, Casino — have associated the genre with stories of the rise and fall of organized crime figures (and primed audiences to expect Robert De Niro to play a major role). A very different type of crime fiction is the heist story, following crooks who execute a complex plan to make a major theft. Many films noir documented an individual — crook, innocent, or investigator — caught up in a web of crime that threatens to consume him. Think Out of the Past, Double Indemnity, Night and the City, and The Killers. The varieties of crime story are even more numerous than the varieties of crime.

As might be expected of a franchise with such a large share of criminals among its cast, Star Wars features a reasonable number of crime stories. The recent Scoundrels is a high-profile example of a heist story, and I could stand to see several more such capers from Han, Lando, or the other scoundrels of the setting. The Ahakista Gambit is an overlooked entry in the same subgenre, and similar caper elements can be found in almost any story involving the execution of an elaborate plan, the Knights of the Old Republic comic series being a good example thereof. In its depiction of an underworld broker caught in a nightmarish scenario as a result of a bad deal, Darth Maul: Shadow Hunter has a great deal in common with the film noir style cited above. The Han Solo Trilogy does not engage in particularly heavy use of crime story tropes, but it is certainly the story of Han Solo’s criminal career.

The cantina scene was such an iconic introduction of the fringe that it got its own short story anthology

Far more stories make heavy use of “the fringe,” the Star Wars underworld, in a way that brings criminals and crime-story elements into play without revolving the entire story around crime. The pirate Nym plays a lead role in the Starfighter games. Talon Karrde’s smuggling and information brokering storylines play a significant role in the Thrawn trilogy and The Hand of Thrawn Duology. Scourge explores the Hutt crime syndicates, Darksaber uses a Hutt kingpin as a major villain opposing the New Republic, the comic Darth Maul sets the Sith Lord against the gangsters of Black Sun, and Shadows of the Empire plunges the heroes deep into the criminal underworld to face the galaxy’s biggest crime lord, Prince Xizor. The fringe was central to West End Games’ roleplaying game, which envisioned players acting out their own underworld stories, and it is reassuring to see the fringe again taking a leading role in Fantasy Flight Games’ RPG. Of the many genres I intend to tackle, the crime story is certainly one of the best-represented in the EU, with numerous stories revolving around criminal endeavors.

Booster Terrik is a badass. Write me more stories about Booster Terrik.

Yet for all the presence of the underworld in the Expanded Universe, it could still stand to show off a greater diversity of crime stories and to focus more on stories about crime, rather than about petty criminals who get caught up in bigger Empire-and-Rebellion plots. We get some smuggler stories featuring Han or others, but efforts to make a major storyline, something on the level of a novel or comic arc, out of Han’s criminal exploits have been relatively lacking. A story about one of Lando’s grand con games wouldn’t be amiss, but Lando stories are depressingly rare to begin with, and those that do feature him have tended to look elsewhere for their material. Efforts to get a fringe-set game off the ground at LucasArts have come to nothing, most recently with the cancellation of 1313. The rise and fall of crime kingpin Jorj Car’das, together with the rise of Talon Karrde as his successor, cries out for “gangster movie” treatment in a novel or two. Star Wars has many bounty hunters who could hold down a gritty novel about tracking down dangerous criminals. A war between crime syndicates could provide a fertile setting for storytelling. Everyone likes pirates, and a pirate crew could make interesting protagonists. The proliferation of fringe supporting characters in his circle — Karrde, Booster Terrik, Droma — and the breadth of enemies in his past offer many avenues for a story about an older Han (and Lando) being dragged back into the fringe for a bar-brawling, cargo-smuggling, con-playing, card-sharking adventure in the classic “one last job” tradition.

Scoundrels was great, and it featured Lando, two related qualities. Feature Lando more, EU.

The underworld has gotten a lot of mileage as a key Star Wars element, and is among the genres most exploited in the Expanded Universe. EU storytellers could still stand to do more, however, as many potential angles for crime fiction remain underused. Hopefully, with Scoundrels and Scourge leading the way in the recent embrace of standalone stories and genre exploration, that will change.