Star Wars and Genre: Mystery

Yeah, Sherlock Holmes would be the iconic image to use here . . . but hardboiled detective stories always get so much cooler covers

The term “genre” generally suggests a creative niche — a specific type of art that is for some people, but not for everyone. Science fiction and fantasy, horror, romance — they’re all seen as being for specific audiences, not broad-spectrum stories with universal appeal. Mystery, on the other hand, is a wildly popular genre. From Sherlock Holmes to CSI, mysteries are among the most well-known, widely consumed, and, to a lesser extent, acclaimed books, TV shows, and films out there. It seems like it would make sense to fuse Star Wars with such a booming genre, wouldn’t it? Heck, how could Star Wars escape dipping into such a prolific and fundamental genre now and then?

It’s easy to understand how mysteries can be so popular. The genre is based around the investigation of some type of mystery, usually a crime, creating a clear narrative and providing ample avenues for conflict, suspense, action, and revelation. Mystery provides all the fundamentals of a thrilling story in a neat package.

As with any mammoth genre, there are countless varieties of mystery story. Some are focused on creating complex puzzles for their heroes, and implicitly the reader, to solve, as in the classic locked-room murder. Others, in a trend started by hard-boiled detective fiction, are less interested in the intricacy of their solution, and emphasize the action and atmosphere of a criminal case. A mystery may save its solution until the last moment, or give away the perpetrator early in order to focus the story not on the answer, but on the protagonist’s pursuit of the truth and/or the suspect. Some follow police investigators, some private eyes, some lawyers, some ordinary civilians sucked into a case. And that’s barely getting into the variety of forms and tones mysteries can take. Some of these forms may be more easily adaptable to Star Wars than others, but all are worth thinking about in this context.

Of course, there are many Star Wars stories that have revolved around some kind of mystery — so many stories of all kinds do. If I started listing all the stories with some kind of mystery element, I could start with the Thrawn trilogy’s Delta Source and keep going all night.

So instead, I’ll simply state that I think this is something that could be played up even more. When information simply drops into characters’ laps, or disseminates instantaneously without effort, it’s boring. When they have to work to discover something, when there is an actual process of investigation, it better exploits the story potential of any mystery, and adds excitement to the process. To pass over the mystery aspect ignores the narrative potential of one type of drama — the investigation — in favor of solely focusing on action sequences and getting to that drama faster. Variety is the spice of life, not twenty-four lightsaber fights one after another.

Obi-Wan as detective: the best part of Episode II

There are some Star Wars stories that have been entirely structured as mysteries, though fewer than you might think. It’s worth noting that a significant chunk of Attack of the Clones was a mystery plotline — Obi-Wan investigated the case of Senator Amidala’s attempted assassination, in the process stumbling upon yet another enigma, the secret clone army, in classic mystery fashion.

Within the Expanded Universe, Survivor’s Quest stands out as a mystery. Not only does the question of Outbound Flight‘s fate hang over the story (to be answered not within, but via prequel), but more importantly, the story is structured as a classic closed-environment, who’s-the-killer mystery. Luke and Mara travel aboard a starship with an expedition featuring personnel from multiple factions; when sabotage starts occurring and it becomes clear that someone must be secretly undermining the mission, they must figure out who. The book is a good example of how a story need not be strictly a murder-case-style professional-detective story to function as a mystery within the Star Wars universe.

Scourge, recently, featured a Jedi investigating the death of his apprentice. Millennium Falcon used twin investigations to uncover the ship’s history, riffing on The Maltese Falcon in the process. Twilight built a mystery around the amnesiac Jedi Quinlan Vos. Star Wars mysteries are out there.

Coruscant Nights: not quite the noir this cover promised

Overall, however, stories about characters puzzling out mysteries are rare, especially as mystery elements usually take a backseat to action-adventure. Coruscant Nights was sold on the concept that it was a film noir-inspired trilogy about a Jedi on the run working as a private detective. As it turned out, there was a Jedi on the run, but he wasn’t really a private detective, and aside from the cover art, the story never bothered to be particularly noir. In one book, the protagonists were handed a murder case, but the book never truly functioned as a mystery. The story instead revolved around the characters’ other, Jedi-on-the-run/proto-Rebellion concerns, largely ignoring the murder case, until an outside character showed up at the end of the book to hand them the solution on a silver platter. Mystery plotting can be hard for authors without expertise.

Yet a few more straight Star Wars mysteries are an avenue the Expanded Universe really should pursue. Mystery is a popular genre that scads of people are willing to read. It is full of fairly talented authors who would be willing to write a tie-in for the exposure and payday. And most of all, it’s a great way to add distinct variety in the types of stories the universe is telling and sources of drama it’s using (which are growing increasingly repetitive) in a way that could avoid being a niche story type that would carry only a limited group of readers with it or not be sustainable as a significant segment of the storytelling.

Corran Horn and partner Iella Wessiri, Star Wars detectives just waiting for a story

It’s not inconceivable that a classic detective story could fit into the Star Wars setting. One of the most popular and significant figures in the EU, Corran Horn, has a past as a police detective, a setting that could draw many fans. Jedi can also be used as investigators on relatively traditional cases. Corran investigating high-profile murders or thefts as a Jedi could be just as intriguing. Ben Skywalker, trained in police techniques during his teenage years in the Galactic Alliance Guard, would likewise prove a potent protagonist in Jedi-starring detective fiction. Have him liaise with a police unit on Coruscant for a few years, getting readers invested in a larger cast of ordinary cops, and you could have the X-wing of police series on your hands. The partnership of Jedi Nejaa Halcyon and CorSec officer Rostek Horn, fighting crime on the streets of Corellia, could be great story material that would move beyond a solely Jedi-centric storyline.

And those are just existing characters with strong detective hooks; there is nothing stopping authors from writing about Luke, Jaina and Zekk, or Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan tracking down jewel thieves, assassins, or serial killers. Or from creating a comic about Han vowing to find the murderer of an old smuggling buddy in the shady depths of Nar Shaddaa, or a novel about Lando Calrissian gambling aboard a luxury spaceliner when a prominent passenger is killed and he’s caught up in the mystery. That doesn’t even touch on new characters.

A professional thief in the big (big, big, big) city. Let’s see some stories about the heroes trying to catch her.

Beyond the most recognizable traditional detection setups, there are yet more stories available. Stories about characters tracking down piracy or smuggling rings’ secretive operations and mysterious, powerful backers would revolve around the same mystery elements if the story focused on the process of acquiring and following clues. A Rebel cell figuring out which of its members is an Imperial mole could be structured as a mystery. So could the hunts for an assassin lurking on Coruscant before he strikes the Galactic Alliance’s chief of state, a saboteur threatening a Republic base, or a spy who has stolen crucial New Republic data.

The opportunities mystery stories offer the Expanded Universe are virtually endless, and the genre is in prime position to be exploited. Fewer galactic wars and more mysteries could keep the galaxy far, far away just as exciting, but with much fresher and more diverse storytelling.

Star Wars and Genre: The Exploration Story

Space explorers from The Essential Atlas — who just so happen to be real life’s greatest Star Wars space explorers, Jason Fry and Daniel Wallace

Exploration stories are a staple subgenre of pulp adventure. These are tales centered on heroes who venture to strange, usually untamed lands and their encounters with nature and other peoples. The genre is characterized by the use of unknown or ancient civilizations and man-against-nature themes that lead to frequent use of natural threats like avalanches, quicksand, floods, sandstorms, and dangerous wildlife. Some stories, like H. Rider Haggard’s Allan Quatermain novels, feature intrepid explorers who make careers of penetrating the wild unknown. Others, like Robinson Crusoe, star ordinary individuals thrown into extraordinary circumstances. Some are active stories of expeditions for exploratory or scientific purposes (Journey to the Center of the Earth), sometimes emphasizing the discovery of lost civilizations (The Lost World), the exploration of ruins (At the Mountains of Madness), and/or treasure-hunting (The Mummy). Some follow the Robinson Crusoe pattern — the Robinsonade subgenre — of emphasizing the struggle for survival in and mastery of wild nature. The uniting element is the protagonist (or in the case of ensemble-focused stories like The Swiss Family Robinson or The Mysterious Island, protagonists) discovering something or encountering the unknown in a foreign environment.

Don’t judge a book by its cover — unless it has a rampaging elephant on it, in which case, pick that shit up. You just got promised ADVENTURE.

The genre became most prominent in the Victorian era, when Europeans were spreading across the globe, discovering new (to them) civilizations, ruins, lands, and species. This colonial past has sparked some criticism of exploration stories as racist. They have tended to focus on white heroes expanding colonial influence, and both due to the racial attitudes of the time and the pulp imperatives toward action, often portrayed natives unflatteringly as dangerous savages whom the white hero must subdue or naive primitives whom the white man must lead and civilize. Even a modern exploration story that avoids the colonial narrative, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, comes in for accusations of racism due to its use of a native cult as antagonists. Many modern takes on the exploration genre continue to be produced, however, and are particularly prominent in video games, with top titles like Uncharted, Tomb Raider, and BioShock fitting into the genre.

Science fiction settings, however, have been able to provide a somewhat safer venue to use the exciting action tropes of the genre with less real-world baggage. Space adventures to uncharted planets are common to pulp science fiction, and Star Trek is practically built on the exploration story. It is less known due to the relative obscurity of the material, but exploration stories are well-represented within the Star Wars Expanded Universe, too.

Early EU featured a lot of crashes on untamed worlds. This sort of thing was the result.

The first EU novel, Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, featured Luke and Leia crashing on a swamp world with a single colonial mining outpost. Stranded, they journeyed across and even underneath its surface, facing Imperial authorities, deadly terrain, spectacular wildlife, and tribal natives in a quest for a gem hidden in an ancient temple. Setpieces featured a giant mud-burrowing worm attack, a journey across an underground lake, and a cave-dwelling civilization of aliens — it was pure exploration pulp. Other early EU was replete with similar stories. Our heroes frequently crash-landed on strange worlds throughout the various seventies and eighties comics, or found themselves exploring remote planets in search of new bases or allies. They found a supercomputer protecting the ruins of a lost civilization, a smuggler hideout, a magical siren, and a monster guarding an ancient city. Han Solo and the Lost Legacy featured Han and Chewie’s quest for the lost treasure of Xim the Despot on a backwater world that featured water monster fights, a lost cult, and ancient vaults. The Lando Calrissian Adventures, oddly so given Lando’s profile, focused on Lando as an adventurer pulled into exploration, discovering the secrets of an ancient civilization within their bizarre ruins in Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu and protecting a newly-discovered species of spacegoing manta rays from exploitation in Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of ThonBoka.

The RPGs have also tended to be good about including exploration elements

The concentration on exploration stories has declined since those early days, but they have not died out entirely. Lando again got an exploration plot in The Black Fleet Crisis, examining a starship that served as an artifact of an extinct species. The Hand of Thrawn Duology sent Luke and Mara into the Unknown Regions to explore Thrawn’s secret fortress, and they returned there for an expedition into the wreckage of Outbound Flight in Survivor’s Quest. Han, Leia, and a Murderer’s Row of supporting characters ventured into strange new ruins within Kessel in my favorite subplot of Fate of the Jedi: Outcast. Empire sent the Rebel heroes to wilderness planets a few times, and added the castaway clone Abel to the cast. John Jackson Miller’s Lost Tribe of the Sith short stories and comic have fruitfully explored the concept of a castaway group mastering and exploring its new, isolated home. Lesser elements from the genre can be found in the treasure hunt for the Katana fleet, Luke and Mara’s trek across Myrkr, Han’s sojourn into Kessel’s mysterious spice mines during his imprisonment there, and the need to find and understand the ancient repulsor technology of The Corellian Trilogy, among many examples. The exploration element definitely has not disappeared from the franchise’s radar.

The mysterious planet Lehon, from Knights of the Old Republic

It could be better exploited, however. Most of the stories have had their exploration elements as one subplot of galactic-scale tales, limiting their page time and thus the ability to get into the meat of the genre. Knights of the Old Republic used a classic exploration hook, the archaeological quest, as the basis of its story framework but buried the concept under a focus on yet another galactic clash and role-playing game mechanics. It was a notionally exploratory story that wasn’t really about the exploration. The days of stories built around uncharted planets and quests for ancient treasures are mostly in the past. Yet now, they would make a better change of pace than ever.

The incredible difficulty of challenging a fully-powered Luke Skywalker has helped drive the tendency toward overpowered villains in epic galactic conflicts. Yet why not challenge Luke with something that couldn’t simply be solved with a lightsaber: a crash-landing on a remote world filled with hostile flora and fauna? Surviving in the wilderness without supplies, battling predators, rockslides, poisonous plants, sandstorms, and floods would provide a legitimate challenge that doesn’t require yet another galaxy-distorting megathreat, and would be fresh and unique to boot.

Xenoarchaeologist Corellia Antilles

That’s not the only application; there are several established facets of the universe that would readily lend themselves to exploration stories if they were only exploited. Jag Fel has an established period as a castaway that could make for a neat survival novel. The Unknown Regions and their many dangers were introduced long ago, dangling the prospect of their future exploration; that promise has yet to be directly taken up by a story built around Unknown Regions exploration. We know that trailblazing explorers were key to galactic expansion throughout the Republic’s long history, but have no real stories built around that aspect of history, other than the use of the Daragons to spark the galactic-war storyline of the Great Hyperspace War. Star Wars already has its answer to Indiana Jones, Corellia Antilles, and her archaeological expeditions could be a perfect hook for classic exploration adventures and a potential window into galactic history. The role-playing game material has made much of the existence of scouts, figures who explore the galaxy and trek across harsh terrain for all kinds of purposes, hailing from the fringe or the government. Their nomadic existence, adventuresome work, and obvious utility to storytelling would seem to make them naturals for inclusion in Star Wars stories, but we have yet to see much of them — one reason I was so disappointed to see Dathomir outback scout Dyon Stadd killed off in Fate of the Jedi rather than made a regular part of the cast.

That’s what I’m talking about

Exploration is an important part of Star Wars’ history, both in- and out-of-universe. It is not only an integral part of Star Wars’ fabric, but a fantastic element to add a change of pace to EU storytelling. In its emphasis on themes of encounter with and discovery of the unknown, it complements central Star Wars themes of encounter with the mystic, knowledge, and self-discovery. The exploration story deserves the attention and consideration of Star Wars creators.

Star Wars and Genre: Spy Fiction

When I say "spy," you think of this guy. Well, one of these guys. Or maybe all of these guys. But you think about them. I know you do.
When I say “spy,” you think of this guy. Well, one of these guys. Or maybe all of these guys. But you think about them.

“Spy fiction” may conjure images of the Cold War, but the genre was already well-established beforehand and has remained incredibly popular long after the collapse of the Soviet Union, permeating film, literature, and television. It’s true that spy fiction blossomed as espionage took center stage in the Cold War, but it was born decades earlier in the balance-of-power struggles of the European great powers, matured in the World Wars, and continues in prominence with the centrality of the intelligence community to the War on Terror. Stories of spies, assassins, saboteurs, analysts, and secret agents have played an important role in our entertainment for a long time, and it is worth considering how they could apply to Star Wars.

From the globetrotting adventure of the James Bond films to the brooding gravity of John le Carré’s novels, spy fiction comes in many forms. The wildly different tones of such major spy TV series of the last decade as Alias, 24, and The Americans attest to the diversity of stories in the genre. Protagonists can be super-competent killers like Jason Bourne or mild-mannered bureaucrats like George Smiley. What unites the stories is their focus on the complex and dangerous world of espionage and its many storytelling opportunities.

The Star Wars films have taken advantage of some of those opportunities and contained some espionage elements. A New Hope‘s plot was driven by a set of stolen blueprints to an enemy weapon system. In Return of the Jedi, spies discovered the existence of the second Death Star, only for that information to be revealed as the result of a wartime intelligence effort by the Empire designed to bait the Rebellion into a trap. Attack of the Clones featured political assassination attempts which led Obi-Wan to investigate their source, discover a secret clone army, and learn the war plans of the Confederacy of Independent Systems.

Many Bothans died to bring you this storyline

The films did not make espionage a significant theme, however; the real intelligence efforts in the original trilogy happened almost entirely offscreen. There were no spy or secret agent characters. Consequently, spy stories have not gotten a great deal of attention in the Expanded Universe. Main characters occasionally go on secret missions or must unmask a spy, but these are usually cast as general adventures.

Espionage is most often one element of a larger story. Timothy Zahn’s novels, with their focus on the importance of information, did more to incorporate espionage elements than most others. Thrawn’s Delta Source and the New Republic’s consequent counterintelligence effort; Thrawn’s black ops against Leia, Ackbar, and Mara Jade; the missions to obtain information about Thrawn and the Katana fleet; Wedge, Corran, and Moranda Savich’s counterintelligence operation on Bothawui; and the various efforts to obtain the Caamas Document all reflected spy fiction elements.

The most prominent intelligence-oriented stories for a long time were those of the Wraith Squadron novels, but they mixed intelligence work with battlefield action sequences, resulting in more of a genre hybrid. The recent X-wing: Mercy Kill moved the Wraiths more fully in the direction of intelligence operations, but most straight spy stories have been of lesser prominence. A pair of short stories Aaron Allston wrote for Insider featured Old Republic intelligence officer Joram Kithe during the Clone Wars, but the tales are not well-known. More famous during the Clone Wars is the storyline of Quinlan Vos, a Jedi working undercover as a mole inside Dooku’s circle of Dark Jedi.

Agent of the Empire: James Bond meets Star Wars

It took approximately thirty-five years for the arrival of the first prominent story marketing itself specifically as Star Wars spy fiction: the Agent of the Empire comic series, starring James Bond pastiche Jahan Cross. The comic only made it through two arcs before it was canceled, but the adventures of its secret agent protagonist perfectly captured the Bond spirit.

I believe that there is room for a great deal more spy fiction within the Expanded Universe, however. Espionage scenarios are well-suited to adding variety to wartime stories. Rather than yet another story where Luke, Han, and Leia battle the Empire, stories in which they work to convince an Imperial to defect or turn double agent, work with a local cell of Rebels to identify a mole, or engage in an elaborate scheme to feed the Empire false intelligence could provide strong hooks for fresh stories. Likewise, there have been more than enough stories of Obi-Wan and Anakin chopping up battle droids and dueling Ventress; I would like to see a few more in which they go undercover or focus on intelligence-gathering or sabotage behind enemy lines rather than attacking.

Spy fiction also presents an excellent mode for stories outside the galactic war context. Intelligence operations are well suited to providing tension and action in a smaller-scale peacetime context. When big battles are not available, infiltration, covert operations, and counterintelligence give the heroes avenues for action and offer Jedi unique challenges they cannot overcome via brute-force application of the Force. Ferreting out Sith operatives from the Lost Tribe could provide Jaina and Ben something to do without another galactic crisis, while prequel-era stories might call upon Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon to infiltrate a gang of smugglers or terrorists and gather information on their operations.

There is also the potential of adding spies as characters. Luke, Han, Leia, Obi-Wan, Jaina, and the other main protagonists cannot function purely as spies, though they can sometimes play a spy role. Characters who function purely within the intelligence community, however, can bring greater presence of spy elements into the Expanded Universe. Whether it be as supporting characters — an intelligence service chief who provides the heroes with information, Wraiths or other agents who work alongside the heroes on missions or hold down spy plotlines within mainline books and comics — or as main characters in their own side stories, intelligence personnel and others in spy roles could provide storytelling diversity to the universe.

Mara Jade, the most famous secret agent in Star Wars

I am especially intrigued by the possibilities of spies as leading characters. Jahan Cross’s adventures were incredibly fun and fresh, marrying diplomatic intrigue with assassination, undercover work, and pulpy action setpieces. More of that sort of secret agent storytelling would be refreshing; with luck, Mercy Kill will spawn more Wraith novels. A member of the Bothan Spynet could provide limitless opportunities for spy storytelling as a lead character. A taut tale of a Rebel cell operating in secret, trying to avoid the Empire’s counterintelligence agents, would be a change of pace. The ambiguity of the Clone Wars, in which a Republic sliding from decadence to tyranny battled an outwardly idealistic but secretly corrupt Separatist movement, could be perfectly captured by a novel or three about disillusioned, morally compromised spies. The post-New Jedi Order period, desperately in need of non-Jedi supporting characters, could catapult the Zel twins into greater prominence by giving them a spy novel — something Blood Oath may have done if it hadn’t been canceled. Mara Jade could be well served by a book or comic series set during her time as the Emperor’s Hand that isn’t weighted down by additional leads, and her name recognition would give such an effort a better chance of success.

In a franchise that could always use more variety in stories and protagonists, spy fiction offers an easy avenue to expand options with a genre the public loves. Tales of assassination, sabotage, informants, secrets, and double agents are a longstanding element of our entertainment and mesh perfectly with the adventurous, action-packed universe of Star Wars. I am tremendously disappointed by the premature end of Agent of the Empire, but I hope to see more spy stories from the Expanded Universe in the future.

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.

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.