Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The characters of Star Wars: Luke Skywalker

Our hero: Luke Skywalker watches the binary sunset in Star Wars

To create a great story, you have to have a great mix of characters.

George Lucas got that right with American Graffiti. He got it spectacularly right with Star Wars. And he would struggle to get it right again.

If you're creating a story like Star Wars, your characters don't necessarily have to be psychologically rounded, believable people. In fact, it can help if they already seem vaguely familiar from other stories. But they have to resonate with an audience. We have to understand and know them.

In the first of several posts about the characters of Star Wars, I'm going to consider the story's protagonist – Luke Skywalker.
Star Wars is, in some ways, an unusual piece of story-telling. One of the ways it is unusual is that it doesn't introduce its hero until almost twenty minutes into the movie. And yet, when Luke Skywalker appears, we instantly understand something about him. He's us.

He may live on another world. He may be at ease among robots and the more exotic life forms of Tatooine. But he's us nonetheless. He's the one through whose eyes and ears we're going to experience everything that follows.

Not too old for toy planes: Luke Skywalker at home

We don't know exactly how old Luke is (the film's screenplay says he's eighteen), yet we get the idea that he's old enough to really want to leave home, but young enough for that not to be an option without the blessing of his adopted family. To all intents and purposes, he's a teenager.

Like many a teenager, Luke yearns to discover a world beyond home. He's bored to death on the family moisture farm. Like most teenagers, he's convinced that the place he's living in is the most tedious location in the known universe, and says as much to See-Threepio. He's capable of almost childish enthusiasm once he's away from the farm, but while he's there, he's weary and dejected.

In a sub-plot that was filmed but deleted form the final movie, we were to learn something else about Luke: He didn't fit in with the other young people of Tatooine. Those deleted scenes show him being ribbed to the point of bullying by the self-appointed leader of his peer group, Fixer. His only real friend is Biggs, who has been a role model to him but who has joined the Space Academy and is looking to join the Rebellion.

Even though those scenes were cut, they still existed in the novelization and the comic books, and so they still informed the way we first generation fans saw Luke's character. And the 1981 radio series was to expand on them very effectively, with Biggs pointing out to Luke that his pals are jerks and that the real reason they won't accept Luke is that they know he's destined for something greater.These should be heartening thoughts for any young person who's ever felt themselves an outcast among their own generation.

"I don't know these people": Luke Skywalker and family

But the key fact about Luke is this: He's an orphan. And he is desperate to know more about his father, who he believes to have had an exciting life in space. In this first film, of course, there is no suggestion that Luke's father in fact Darth Vader. (George Lucas would have us believe he had decided not to reveal that yet. Far be it from me to suggest that the reason he had chosen not to reveal it was that he hadn't thought of it yet.) But we know that whatever his family history, Luke does not belong where he is.

This is a common trait in heroic characters, from the New Testament to Harry Potter via Superman. Luke is not like the people around him. He is not descended from the folk who talk all the time about vapirators and the moisture harvest and who forbid talk of adventure. Destiny has marked him out for something special. (I can imagine many of the world's brilliant adopted parents getting really irritated by stories like these. But then teenagers tend to feel they don't belong to their families even when they are biologically related to them.)

It's significant that the most successful film of the 1970s – an era when family breakdown was growing dramatically – had at its centre a fatherless character. In this first story, the orphaned Luke knows three or four surrogate father figures: Uncle Owen, Biggs (if we count those deleted scenes), Obi-Wan Kenobi and Han Solo. Luke has to choose whose guidance he is going to follow, and I think there's a sadness – albeit not fully explored – in the fact that his chosen father figure, Obi-Wan Kenobi, is gone almost before he's had a chance to know him.

1 comment:

John White said...

I alsways get fed up with people saying that Luke is "whiny".

I really liked him as a kid and still do. After Empire though, he became a lot duller - like the boring, monotone, facially stiff, and slow Jedi of the Prequels.