As with so many things, this might seem a little obvious, but before you snort and think ‘she’s at it again’ sometimes it’s worth taking a second look at the obvious. Sometimes things are so obvious they get overlooked and then, when the misinterpretations and abuses crop up, we don’t recognise them for what they are.
Character too often comes at us like a laundry list of traits, a static and unengaging wishlist; relationships are the sharp, working end, where what you want can be brought to life and cliché and stereotype shaken off. Or at least they offer that opportunity, if we pay attention to them.
The hidden part isn’t so much what they can do to reveal character, it’s that a good writer knows that character often exists in service to relationships. Because relationships aren’t merely the who, but the what, serving to not only further the plot but very often they can and do become subplots of their own. Many times they are the reason your reader is still with you, the true driving force of your story.
Take one of the most despised films of recent times; take a trilogy of them: The Star Wars prequels. People – not just sci-fi freaks like me – loved the original trilogy. When the prequels were finally announced as going ahead they’d been nineteen years in the making and anticipation was high. But even so there were already stirrings, how could they live up to the originals?
But what was it precisely that made the originals so good, so good that our love has only grown not faded?
Not the special effects. We’ve kinda beat those. Advancements in technology were always cited as the principle reason Lucas started half way through his story with episode 4, fearing he couldn’t bring his vision of the first three to life until the special effects caught up with his imagination.
Not the acting
Despite the late great Alec Guinness’ best efforts.
The recent episode, The Force Awakens, clearly believes it was all about the world, as it offers us substandard acting and mediocre special effects all bundled up in a story free nostalgia fest of OT memorabilia: canteenas, the Millenium Falcon and sand. A lot of sand.
I’m standing with Lucas on this one. I think the world building was one of the few things that he got right, along with far superior battles, for the most part. Where he got it wrong was his relationships.
I don’t merely mean the romance, although obviously the time put in to try and erase the image of a grown up Natalie Portman tucking wee Anakin in just served to bog the pace, leaving a bad soap-y taste in the mouth and damaging the entire trilogy timeline.
I mean the relationship at the heart of our intrigue: Obi-wan and Darth Vader, master and pupil, battling to the death. The most iconic and intriguing scene from the OT.
Lucas did show at least an inkling of an awareness of this by the last film, Return of the Sith, which is centred around the showdown of Obi-wan and Anakin, completing his transformation to Darth Vadar. The anticipation for this battle, I think, is why so many want to count it as the best of the three, as it finally gave them what they had been waiting for.
However, the ground work had never been laid. Our investment in their relationship was still best encapsulated by that original scene. In the first film not only are we stuck with cute kiddie Anakin, trash talking insect racers and eyeing up Padme – ewww – but the relationship being built is between him and Qui-gon-jinn. Obi-wan is stuck in the ship and doesn’t even meet him until a good way through the film, where their sole interactions consist of talking about each other to others. It is Qui-gon who risks everything for the boy, Qui-gon who has Obi-wan’s devotion. The boy is an obligation and not even one that risks anything. As relationship set ups go that’s about as interesting… as.. well… any other risk free obligation. A teenage/young adult Anakin stealing his master’s admiration and trust, an almost equal, always threatening to usurp, yet still needing him, bound together in their admiration of the lost Qui-gon, now that might have held our interest.
And the fact that yet again in the second and third films they spend most of the time apart, wouldn’t have mattered.
All those vital elements that we aspiring storytellers are beaten over the head with, tension, conflict, agency, rise and fall, all of these exist organically within relationship. It is by definition what happens between two or more characters, it cannot be told, it must be realised by what unfolds, what is said and done. It is where story and character meet.
What is character but determination of incident? And what is incident but the illustration of character? – Henry James
Romance is predictably where most minds will go whenever you mention relationship, but as with Anakin and Obi-wan, they are often not the one we invest in. An interesting side-note on this can be found in fan fiction, a place rather interestingly were relationship has become a verb. The sheer volume of shipping that goes on between characters whose base relationship is antagonistic, troubled, platonic or any thing other than what the writer intended, shows that we invest in far more than what we are told to. I’m not sure that is always a credit to the writer. Relationships exist like an undercurrent, opposing riptides pushing and pulling at our emotions. However often I feel that the gap between what the writer seems to presume we want to read and what the reader actually plucks from the pages, is indicative of a rather rote and formulaic approach to relationships which relies, as does character, far too heavily on tell.
Just as Obi-wan tells us – you were like a brother to me! – while we’re left to presume the bickering, rivalry, one-up-man-ship, and intimacy of a true sibling relationship, too many authors just tell us what our characters feel for one another. We’re told of their great passion – actually we’re told ad nauseum. Emphasis on the nauseum. It’s become de rigueur to build entire scenes around two characters telling us of their passion/love/devotion, and then through these endlessly repetitive scenes build entire relationships, build entire stories.
I can just about forgive this in romance. It’s one of the main reasons I don’t read the genre. I couldn’t stomach talking about my own relationships to that degree let alone reading about someone elses. However if it is something readers of the genre do enjoy, who am I to suggest another approach. In other genres, as the shipping fan fiction shows, many, many readers are far from satisfied with what is presented. Insta-love has become like Mary Sue, a put down of a very particular type of story, usually young adult and usually with paranormal elements, wherein story and plot and character are all side-lined in favour of what is called relationship but isn’t. Rather than show an interesting dynamic playing out between two interesting characters, we’re told about how interesting, nay amazing, these characters are and that alone apparently suffices.
Plot is a vital side to relationships. What happens shapes, guides, reflects back on who they are, who they might be, connecting and binding them. Too often these things seem to be kept distinct, or reduced to points of such base simplicity that story can only be the victim. Love is proven in acts of self sacrifice, but it’s never developed through acts of self. To return to Star Wars (cause why not) the love story that worked was Han and Leia. It draws on an abundance of well established tropes, which you are quite within your rights to call clichés, love/hate, opposites attract, even that initial latent hint of a love triangle (perhaps I saw them when I was too young, that never seemed too convincing to me) but interestingly, the one who rushes to her rescue is never Han. Luke is forever coming to save her, throwing off his training, abandoning his family, facing Darth unprepared, all recklessly for her (and later Han too). It becomes part of his personality, a hint at the recklessness we know undid his father. While Han is forever reluctant – a volunteer for Luke’s respect in the first film; a helpless patsy in the second; and the rescued in the last, by Leia herself, who like Luke has already shown her willingness to take risks and suffer for her beliefs. Perhaps that has categorised her life, all of it that we have known. Her actions don’t prove her love, they’re a natural part of story and character as we’ve already seen, it’s their cute bickering that we invest in, their innate differences, his arrogant ‘I know’, the way she echoes it back to him, the dynamic that’s peculiarly theirs, however stereotypical.
But romance is such a limited perspective. It doesn’t even have to involve two characters. Sometimes the most important relationship is between a character and society in general. The strict code and layers of bureaucracy that surround and bind the Jedi’s, create an interesting dynamic when juxtaposed with a boy raised in slavery, both shackles that deny him, both threaten to take what he loves. A dynamic yet again that the prequels squandered. In part because Anakin spends more time as Jedi than slave, and as a young boy he is presented as angelic and hopeful. Plus, ya know, he pod races in his spare time, instead of doing his homework which makes it difficult to sympathise.
Sometimes it is with different conflicting forces within themselves; light and dark, past and present. Beyond even Obi-wan, perhaps the most anticipated aspect of the prequels was the relationship between Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader, beautifully illustrated by this image.
Yet you cannot help but feel that image became part of the issue. The contrast between innocence and evil would not have been nearly as stark if we’d replaced the young slave boy with a sneering (although quite sexy) Hayden Christiansen. What works in one medium doesn’t always translate. Even here that decision to cast the younger Anakin throws its shadow over everything that follows, as if the extreme actions of the last film, the slaughter of the young padawans, were yet again driven by the desire to wipe our memories of his saccharine sweetness. The beginning and the end weren’t ever in doubt, it was Lucas’ job to show us the journey, the decisions that led him to the dark side, and convince us. Because the most important relationship of all is that between writer and reader.