Sunday, June 19, 2011
Character Development: How Anakin Skywalker Killed Darth Vader
So I've been trying to figure out what kind of advice I could offer. After all, I may not be an expert, but I have been writing for a lot of years. Surely there's got to be something I learned along the way that could help others.
Then Spike TV ran their usual Star Wars marathon over the weekend.
Let me first and foremost say that I am a Star Wars fan. I'd stop myself short of calling myself a Star Wars nerd/geek because I can't speak the alien languages, have read very few Star Wars books, and I don't own nor do I plan to own a lightsaber. Unless it was real. And cheap. And turned everything it touched into candy. As long as it's not licorice. Or apple. Strawberry is good. Orange, too.
Where was I?
I do enjoy the Star Wars movies. The original three (ahem - the originals, not the special editions) still rank among my favorite movies of all time. And while there were a number of issues that kept the prequels from being nearly as good (Yoda should have remained a puppet, and his lightsaber duel, while entertaining, did not fit with his character), I still found them to be overall enjoyable movies.
Still, there is something that I, along with many other Star Wars fans, cannot look past.
Which brings me to the purpose of this post: Character development. I'm going to explore the characters of both Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader in an attempt to illustrate what can both make and break a good character in the eyes of the audience.
Think back to the first time you saw A New Hope. The doors slide open, and in walked Darth Vader. Clad in black, shrouded by a flowing cape, and his ominous breathing left you wondering just what exactly could've been behind that mask. And as the movie wore on, we were shown a ruthless dictator. He was a being that would choke the life out of someone who simply disagreed, a figure that didn't hesitate to slay his former master at his first chance, and a heartless murderer who sat back and watched while his beloved Death Star blew Alderaan outta the sky. Or stars. Whatever.
Then came The Empire Strikes Back. We find that Vader is obsessed with finding young Luke Skywalker. One would presume that he sought to exact vengeance upon the man responsible for the destruction of the Death Star. But we soon learn that Vader is interested in turning the boy to the Dark Side of the Force. That idea is even more chilling. For Vader, killing Skywalker would be nice, but it would be far more satisfying to turn the Rebellion's newest hotshot pilot against them.
But then we find out the truth. Luke is Vader's son. So it is a man in there, after all. And he's a man with at least some measure of compassion, because he'd rather have his son standing by his side than as another corpse on the battlefield. Luke, of course, refuses before making his dramatic escape. And although you can't see his face, you can tell that Vader is disappointed. Not angry, but disappointed. Seems the man in black might have a heart after all.
Return of the Jedi saw the culmination of Vader's continuing quest to find his son and convert him to the Dark Side of the Force. By the time they meet face to face once again, Vader almost seems unhappy to have to take Luke to the Emperor. He knows, as the audience does, that Luke Skywalker will die if he does not turn to the Dark Side. Yet at the same time, he can't deny his own feelings of compassion that he has for his son. Even when Luke accuses him of having good within, Darth Vader doesn't deny it. He simply turns the conversation in a different direction. He's a conflicted man, dedicated to his duty and loyal to both the Emperor and the Galactic Empire. But inside, there is a part of him that can't argue with his son. He knows Luke to be right.
And of course, in the end, we see Vader's repentance. After seeing the truth with his own eyes, perhaps even inspired by Luke's refusal to take his father's place beside the Emperor, Vader finally does the right thing by sending the wailing old Sith falling to a bitter end within the Death Star's reactor. Or wherever those giant pits all over the Death Star lead to. Seriously, those space stations were riddled with design flaws.
So there it was. Darth Vader, ruthless murdering Lord of the Sith still knew right from wrong. And in the end, even he was capable of repentance. It was a powerful story and a great message.
Then George Lucas decided to go back to the beginning and tell the stories of how Anakin became Vader in the first place. This, he said, was his plan from the beginning. After all, the first Star Wars movie was Episode IV.
And this, ultimately, would tarnish the name, image, and character of Darth Vader, who up until that point had arguably been one of the greatest villains of all time.
In Episode I, we were introduced to the wide-eyed youth named Anakin Skywalker. Cheesy dialogue between he and Padme aside, little Anakin was portrayed as the shining example of innocence, a light in the darkness. And while that's fine considering he was just a boy, the seeds of Darth Vader needed to be sown from the very beginning. Given the cold-blooded nature of the man in the black mask, one would've expected that at least a hint of those tendencies should've shown in little Anakin Skywalker. More specifically, a dose of anger could've gone a long way.
Vader's most defining trait was his anger. His temper got away from him so frequently that he nearly choked a man to death just for disagreeing with him over the power of the Death Star. When one of his admirals made a slight tactical blunder, Vader choked him out too. Anger was his weakness. That was made very clear throughout the entire original trilogy.
Why, then, was little Anakin's "weakness" portrayed as fear over losing his mother? Fear!? Darth Vader knew nothing of fear! It didn't fit with his character at all.
And when Episode II rolled around, the Anakin we were treated to amounted to little more than a cocky teenager. What's worse, his main character conflict became his love for Padme despite the fact that Jedi aren't supposed to have emotional attachments. In order for any of this to make sense, Vader would've at least had to have referenced a lost love at once or twice for the audience to make the connection. But Vader never even hinted at anything having to do with Luke's mother. Vader's motive was always to ensure the lasting dominance of the Empire and to see the will of the Emperor carried out no matter what the cost. His actions, attitude, and ruthlessness came from his deep determination to maintain order in the universe by whatever means necessary. In order for Vader's evolution to have made any sense, Anakin would've needed to share that passion for those ideals.
Granted, there were a few moments when it seemed like Lucas might take the story in that direction. Anakin's conversation with Padme in the meadow, for example, addressed his feelings about democracy. He felt that "someone wise" should make the leaders of the various worlds across the universe agree on political policies. Had that subject been explored a bit more, it would've had far greater effect in connecting the Anakin Skywalker of the new movies with the Darth Vader of the old. It wouldn't have to get overly political; a single scene where Anakin witnesses the bickering of the Senate could've done the trick. Something to further establish his feelings that the Senators could get far more accomplished if they didn't spend every session arguing.
In the meantime, Anakin's slaughter of the sandpeople finally showed us a taste of the anger that drove Darth Vader. The scene that followed with Padme, however, undermined the whole thing. I mean, the dialogue was great as Anakin proclaimed that he'd slaughtered them all, even the women and the children. But as a young man who was beginning to succumb to his anger and hatred, it would've been far more beneficial had he not been tearfully remorseful about it. That took away from the direction Lucas was trying to take Anakin's character. Had he been proud of himself - maybe by brushing off any objections from Padme - it would've foreshadowed the eventual birth of Vader brilliantly.
I will say that Episode III did a better job of depicting the development of Anakin's political ideology than Episodes I and II. With the Jedis' lack of trust in him combined with being denied membership of the council, it was only natural that he would begin to wonder why they were excluding him from their plans. At the same time, a growing need to remove Chancellor Palpatine from power led to the idea of the Jedi taking over the Senate to ensure a smooth transition. With Palpatine in Anakin's ear planting the seeds of dissension and Mace Windu's attempt to kill the chancellor (to which Anakin proclaims, "It's not the Jedi way!"), it made far more sense for him to turn his back on the Jedi and become the Emperor's apprentice. To him, the Jedi had turned their backs on their own ideals. From his eyes, it really did seem as though they were plotting to take over the republic as Palpatine had said.
If Lucas had rolled with that story alone and connected it with with my earlier suggestions regarding Anakin's polical ideals, his purpose and mission would've been far clearer and certainly more believable. But the focus was still on Anakin's relationship with Padme. His main concern was still all about saving her life. For a man on the verge of turning his back on the Jedi, ready to slay them all - adults and children alike - along with anyone else who stood in the way of the Chancellor, the idea that he could still be obsessed with saving Padme seemed unrealistic. His number one focus had become the protection of the newly-formed Galactic Empire. The Dark Side had consumed him through his anger, and morality had apparently slipped away. A more realistic approach would've been for him to blow Padme off entirely. "He ceased to be Anakin Skywalker and became Darth Vader. When that happened, the good man who was your father was destroyed." The Darth Vader of Episode IV wouldn't have cared if Padme was bawling her eyes out. He would've shoved her aside and gone on his way.
No, he would've used the Force to choke her to death before going on his way.
Had that happened, followed by a tense scene in which doctors rush to save the babies, it would've established the Darth Vader we all grew up with. It would've solidified Vader as one of the most memorable villains of all time (although I don't think anything can really change that anyway, I just feel that the Anakin Skywalker we were treated to tainted the legacy of Darth Vader).
Plus, we never would've been subjected to this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WWaLxFIVX1s
Then again, without that scene, we never would've gotten this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjPmjwszr2w
But I digress.
Character development can be one of the more difficult aspects of writing. But I think what I've illustrated here is that the character's actions and experiences must directly relate to what he or she will ultimately become. I mean, think about your own life. We are all products of our upbringing in one way or another. Each memory, each experience, each lesson learned, each battle lost, each struggle overcome, they all come together to form the people we are today one way or another. Characters must be same the way. It's how we identify with them.
And if you can't identify with the characters of your stories in one way or another, why are you writing about them?
Just my opinion.