Obsessive Canonization: World Building Vs Wonder
Saw a tweet from Sam Sykes the other day which has been kicking around in my head ever since. I tried to find it to post, but I can’t seem to track it down, so you’ll just have to put up with a loose paraphrase. Essentially, Sykes, in response to the newest Star Wars movie, Solo, observed that he kinda preferred not knowing exactly what the Kessel Run was or what Han and Chewie got up to. He worries that this “obsessive canonization” cheats the audience out of their own imaginations, which are more evocative and powerful anyway.
The thing that stuck with me here is the simple fact that I love worldbuilding (and I get waaay too obsessive about it), but I also very much understand that worldbuilding does not create story and, in fact, it can potentially take away from story. I think Sykes has a really important point there – leaving spaces in your world building allows the reader to fill in blanks in potentially wonderful and exciting ways. As a writer, you shouldn’t even try to explain everything – you merely need to fill in enough so that the audience can do the rest.
Reading is a collaborative process. That sounds weird – reading is done alone and writing is done alone, so how is this possible? Well, the reader and the writer are still engaged in a kind of collaboration, just one that is separated by space and time. If you read a book of mine, you are getting my end of a story. You, however, as reader fill in many of the gaps in that story. And furthermore, you fill them in typically in a way that makes the story more interesting to you. The more I fill in for you, the less work you have to do (which can be good), but also it makes your imagination do less for you. Imagination is key, though – as a writer, you want your book to set the reader’s mind aflame with possibility and wonder. Too much detail can kill that magic.
Star Wars is a perfect example of this. Much of the magic of the original trilogy was rooted in the fact that it hinted at a much larger world, but didn’t bother to codify that world. You were left to wonder what Kessel was, why Tibanna gas was valuable, what the Old Republic was like, etc., etc.. For every mystery it revealed, it hinted at more mysteries. People sunk themselves into that world because they wanted to explore (and they could explore!).
Think, then, of the let-down that the prequel trilogy was. We saw the old republic and fought the clone wars and they were, well, kinda lame. The Jedi were dull. Even Palpatine was a bit of a bummer. Anakin Skywalker? We didn’t even like the guy. The desire to reveal too much about the world – to canonize even more – was a killer. When you throw in the obsessive canonization contained within the EU, we quickly arrive at one of the major reasons The Last Jedi got such negative reactions from hardcore fans. They felt as though they already knew what could and should happen, and then the movie changed that. They felt as though they were dealing with an already explained world and that TLJ was breaking the rules. And, in a sense, they were right, except that the world they thought they knew was being rewritten, and so all the old stuff doesn’t apply anymore. This, incidentally, is good for the long term health of Star Wars, but it doesn’t seem that way to people who have gotten themselves invested in what is “canon” and what isn’t.
All of this is a roundabout way of saying that every detail you nail down in a story is a detail you can’t change later very easily. The more you nail down, the less can change. The less that can change, the more stale the world becomes until, at last, it is rigid and boring and only appeals to those old hardcore fans (who are always the minority, anyway). As a writer, then, it becomes an important challenge to figure out how much to reveal to keep the story evocative and immersive and how much to leave blank so that the audience can build an even better world into their imagination.
The Solo Paradigm
Upon the advent of the latest Star Wars Trailer, I feel this is apropos.
Tell me you don’t miss him. I dare you.
There’s that moment when you’re watching Empire Strikes Back, right near the beginning, when you hear the hum and roar of the Echo Base hangar and watch Han cuss out Chewie for taking something apart he just tried to fix, when you realize: I love these guys. And you do. You want to live with them; you want to sling up a hammock in the Falcon and ride along for their adventures, no matter where they lead, because Han is awesome and Chewie is like the best friend you never had and you want to know what the inside of that ship smells like or how the air on Hoth feels against your cheeks. It is at that moment that, against all reason, the world of Star Wars has you. Your heart is in your throat for the rest…
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Of Han and Luke…
As usually happens with me, I just saw the movie Red as its sequel hit the theatres. Enjoyed the hell out of that movie, so I’ll probably go catch Red 2 by the time the third one is out or they’re releasing the 25th anniversary edition or something.
It occurred to me in watching this movie that one of the things that I loved about it is that all the heroes were old hands at their profession – they were the best of the best, with decades of history, coming out for one last hurrah. This always plays well with me and, indeed, it occurs to me that those are the kind of heroes I love. I like veterans, old pros, grizzled campaigners; I like to watch the young whipper-snappers underestimate how badass they are and get their butt handed to them. Most of my stories and novels feature such characters prominently, often in the starring role. When I play an RPG, I often play a character that once had their heyday, but now are fading with age or disillusionment or injury. I love giving them that leg-up on the opposition and I love all the trouble that having that many enemies (or friends!) brings with it.
It occurs to me that, to some extent, our heroes are often struck in one of two molds, of which the above description is one. They are either young, scrappy up-and-comers (Luke Skywalker) or older, more experienced, more cynical veterans (Han Solo). Granted there’s a lot of variation in there (more a spectrum than a dichotomy), but I do think the basic distinction has a lot of legs.
Your Luke Skywalker types have their future ahead of them. They are often thrust into a world they barely understand, but there’s something special about them that sees them through. We identify with these characters readily – they’re the underdog, and besides they seem so nice. We struggle along with them to retain their values and their heroic nature in the face of evil. We know they have great things in store for them, and so we want to be along for the ride. We can see this in Rothfuss’s Kvothe, in Jon Snow, in Harry Potter, and in just about every other YA Fantasy hero/heroine on the shelves.
For me, the drawback of the Skywalker approach is that one builds from the ground up. There seem to be fewer surprises hidden in the characters themselves and that makes them a little more predictable and gives them a little less depth. Of course, they trade this for clear goals and bold purposes. They are less hampered by cynicism.
Now, as somebody who struggles with cynicism myself, it is small wonder that I find the frequent optimism of the Luke character frustrating. Perhaps because I, myself, am somewhat embittered at the weight of the world, I find it easier to identify with someone who already knows this. Then again, I cheer just as hard for the Skywalkers when they do things right (Kvothe’s victories, especially, strike a chord in me that has me on my feet clapping). Still, I feel a disconnect with them. I don’t see myself as them. Oddly enough, I never did.
The Han Solos of the world, on the other hand, are right up my alley. I love their history. I love their old friends popping up. I love it when a character says ‘I know a guy who might be able to help’, since that guy is always going to mean trouble. The Hans get the best one-liners, romance all the more interesting women, and have the coolest mystique about them. People roll their eyes at Luke – he has to prove himself. Han just jerks his head at Chewie, and people shut the hell up.
The struggle of the Han Solo hero is the struggle of redemption. It’s the story of the comeback. What they’re coming back from varies – from the loss of their conscience or from the weight of age, or the like. Still, it’s a story I love watching. Here is where you find Conan the Barbarian, James Bond, Unforgiven‘s Ed Munny, Druss the Legend, Kvothe (oddly enough – read Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles, and you’ll get it), Tyrion Lannister, Locke Lamora, and so on.
For whatever reason, nothing makes me smile more than the veteran proving he still has it, or the retired assassin finding something to be hopeful about, or the old soldier putting together his life after the long war. I want them to fight their way out of the pit they dug themselves. I find that fascinating.
So, where do your favorite heroes lie on the age-and-experience spectrum? Are they more a Han or more a Luke? Why?
The Solo Paradigm
There’s that moment when you’re watching Empire Strikes Back, right near the beginning, when you hear the hum and roar of the Echo Base hangar and watch Han cuss out Chewie for taking something apart he just tried to fix, when you realize: I love these guys. And you do. You want to live with them; you want to sling up a hammock in the Falcon and ride along for their adventures, no matter where they lead, because Han is awesome and Chewie is like the best friend you never had and you want to know what the inside of that ship smells like or how the air on Hoth feels against your cheeks. It is at that moment that, against all reason, the world of Star Wars has you. Your heart is in your throat for the rest of it, come what may, because Han and Chewie and Luke and Leia are your friends.
It happens again, at least for me, in Willow. There is Mad Martigan, still partially in drag, still loopy from the brownie’s true-love dust, getting screamed at by Willow (again), being charged by Nokmar soldiers…
…and then he gets a sword. Magic happens.
It happens with Indiana Jones running through the South American jungles in Raiders, it happens with Tyrion when he walks out of the Eyrie with a smile on his face, it happens with Jack Sparrow and Long John Silver, with Mal Reynolds and Buffy, with Kirk and McCoy – that single, almost unquantifiable thing that happens when you discover that you really do love these people. You could read stories about them forever, or so you think.
Yet, it isn’t really true.
How we fall in love and out of love with characters (or how we never manage to) is the sort of bottled lightning that probably every author seeks to capture. You try to make your characters relatable, flawed, but also idealized and perfect (somehow). You give them senses of humor, you have them complain about stuff just like a regular person, and then, once you’ve tied the audience to them as tightly as a ship to its anchor, you heave those characters overboard and watch the people squirm. When you watch Han let Lando borrow the Falcon to fly in the Battle of Endor, your heart is in your throat. You can scarcely look as the flames burn up around the cockpit as the ship is trying to make it out of the Death Star and then, for that brief fleeting moment that you think Lando is gone, your breathing stops. You’re frozen, almost as in grief for a real person, but before you can figure it out the ship shoots out into space, the music rises, and you’re there cheering.
Then, wierdly, you can find yourself down the road a bit and looking over the latest atrocious Pirates of the Caribbean sequel and find you no longer care. They lost you. You couldn’t care less if (Captain) Jack Sparrow is tossed over the side with cannonballs around his ankles ten minutes into the movie. Whatever. He’s just some fictional character now; you don’t know him from Adam.
What is the magic formula, then? How can you whip yourself up a batch of loveable characters and keep them that way? The fact is that the answer isn’t an easily quantifiable one. If it were, movies like GI Joe: Rise of Cobra or Cutthroat Island, which try so very hard, wouldn’t fail so miserably. If once you made it you kept it by default, I wouldn’t find myself reading A Dance with Dragons and deciding I don’t really care what happens to Tyrion anymore. There’s a kind of storytelling alchemy at work here, a theoretical paradigm we are all trying to achieve, and there seems to be no sure way to pull it off. Like the perfect game or the hole in one, it only happens once a career if you’re lucky.
But we all keep trying, don’t we? We want that moment where the audience cares for our characters as much as we do, but, like any loving parent, it is sometimes so very hard to see the flaws in those you love with all your heart.