Bear with me here, because I'm not going to do a Joseph Campbell reading of Star Wars and the Hero's Journey. It's been done. It's really cool and you should check it out.
What I want to talk about is the relationship between character and reader/viewer experience. The difference between the Star Wars prequels and originals illustrates this relationship well.
As a fictional character experiences new things, thoughts, and emotions, how are these same feelings translated to the reader? I don't know how other people read stories or watch movies, but I have to "inhabit" a character to really enjoy myself. I have to participate in the story through that character's eyes and become them in my mind’s eye. If I can't make that transition, well, I'm not able to enjoy the story as much. This doesn't mean I have to want to be like the character (that whole likability conundrum), I just have to want to experience what they are experiencing; escape to their reality for a while. For simplicity, let's call this the "inhabitation effect" (and if anyone has a better name to use, do share).
The inhabitation effect is not a new idea. What is new to me is the realization that I have to create the inhabitation effect myself in order to write a good story. If I can't get the reader to take on one of the character's perspectives or motives, then I've failed.
I realized this while watching The Phantom Menace again for the first time since it originally came out. This movie is not good, to put it bluntly, but (and this deserves a post of its own), I think we can learn a lot from bad storytelling, almost as much as we can learn from examples of the good.
Here's the problem in The Phantom Menace: the Star Wars universe doesn't surprise, excite, or scare any of the characters. They seem totally blasé about everything they encounter. I think the fact that the narration almost uniformly follows highly established characters (fully-fledged Jedi, the Jedi order, a Queen, the Senate) hobbles the story’s inhabitation effect. All the characters already seem to know everything about the Universe they inhabit. Here's the best example I can remember (and I looked for this on YouTube, but there were too many fan videos to wade through and find it):
Which brings me to my counter example. The Star Wars episode IV cantina scene is one of my absolute favorite in all cinema because it communicates so much information, so quickly. Luke enters the cantina and we learn not just how many aliens there are in this universe, but also implications from that regarding inter-stellar travel, galactic economies, and probably crime. Up to this point, I guess we had encountered people, droids, and Jawas. The cantina really shows the diversity of life that’s interacting in this galaxy. And Luke looks utterly out of place there. He’s the farm boy. He clearly doesn’t normally hang out with bar-scum. His body language in that scene says a lot. He’s trying to act cool. He orders a drink to seem normal, but he’s also looking around at everything. He’s clearly very uncomfortable and out of his element, but also incredibly curious.
Therefore, you, the viewer, are a little uncomfortable and curious. You feel that sense of wonder, which is also kind of scary. You feel at risk, because he’s feeling at risk. This is the inhabitation effect at its best. This is what makes great storytelling. It’s not just about plot movement. It’s about getting the reader/viewer to follow an emotional arc through a character that gives a shit about their surroundings.
So how do we do this in our own writing? First, I think we need to choose characters that are inexperienced or uncomfortable with the situation we place them in. I guess this is usually referred to ask the problem element of the story, but problems mean more than just plot driven issues. The character needs to have an internal problem with the situation. They should be unfamiliar with it and their setting to some extent.
I don’t know why, but that’s harder to do than it sounds. Maybe when you are a young writer, you feel insecure about your stories and so gravitate towards characters that are confident and knowledgeable. I think we need to fight this tendency. I know I struggle with it. Or I struggle to write characters that are emotionally engaged in the story. So I’m trying to remind myself as I write to let my characters be uncomfortable. Be like Luke and use the force badly at first. That opening light saber scene in The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke has been capture by the Wampa…kills me every time. It’s so good because it’s unexpected. We didn’t know he could do that, which makes it so much more exciting.
Anyway, clearly you can tell I’m a Star Wars nerd. The originals aren’t perfect movies, but they have some great elements of storytelling.
What stories or movies have inspired you or helped your writing? Drop me a line. Or, feel free to nerd out with me about Star Wars. I'd be cool with that too.
In the scene where Qui-Gon Jin and Obi Wan Kenobi meet Jar-Jar Binks, Jar-Jar suggests they follow him to the Gungan city. He dives into the water and swims away. The two Jedi don't even blink. They just whip out their fancy under-water breathing devices and wade in. See, they aren't impressed or excited to be traveling under water, so why would the viewer be impressed either? This is totally boring to them, by all outward appearances. Just another day on the job. You could go through this whole movie and find example after example of exactly this type of behavior that completely ruins the inhabitation effect. Remember Anakin Skywalker jumping into the fighter ship at the end and owning everyone in the space battle? I mean he’s small child and yethe doesn’t even seem remotely scared or surprised by it all. How about the prequel’s explanation of the Force? It’s not a mystical energy that surrounds us and binds us. It’s just microorganisms in your blood…where’s the mystery there? Anakin is like, oh ok, cool, and wanders off after Qui-Gon tells him this information.
If the characters of the Star Wars prequels experience this world with total boredom, then why wouldn't you feel bored too? I think Lucas would have been better served to concentrate from the beginning on a story from Anakin Skywalker's perspective instead of getting bogged down with master Jedi and politics. I think it's natural to be more interested in a character that has new things to learn, rather than follow someone who has already done it all.
Writing, editing, and doing science when I feel like it. Just a book without a genre.