Character Studies: How Did Writing Star Wars Fanfic Get Me Here?

Me in the summer of 2008
Me, circa 2008. Because I can’t find any photos of me from around high school and this is as close as I can get. :)

Confession is good for the soul, or so I hear. It’s amazing what a little introspection can do, especially when you’re wracking your brains for new story ideas, waging that never-ending war against writer’s block. Of course, I’ve spent almost half my life now writing, and it’s good every now and then to stop and look back at the progress I’ve made. I think it’s a habit that every writer should get into, just to appreciate how they’re improving.

So let’s talk about Beren Teleriand, my Jedi Knight OC from my high school-era Star Wars fanfiction.

Who really was Beren? Well, he was an amalgamation of everything I liked at the time: Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings. He was named after Beren from The Silmarillion and his love interest was a blatant ripoff of Arwen, Aragorn’s love interest. Even his last name is just Beleriand with a “T” because the name sounded “cooler.”

He hailed from Naboo, because that was a planet with culture, you see. But Beren wasn’t just a man of culture, who read history and philosophy books in his spare time. He was man of action! He was at the forefront of every battle! He was the first to volunteer for every secret mission that would turn the tide of the war. He was so awesome that the canon Star Wars heroes and all the other Jedi Knights couldn’t help but talk about his accomplishments.

Beren was a man whose every struggle came out of nowhere and then resolved itself just as quickly. He’d always come up with some B.S. superpower, some newfound deeper connection to the Force, and he’d win the day.

Beren Teleriand is the sort of deep-minded action hero that a philosophy geek like Teenage Alex would create. But, of course, all he wanted to do was stay at home and enjoy a quiet life with his wife Arwen, who ended the entire fanfic series with a pregnancy after he defeated his final villain, another B.S. warlord who was somehow responsible for sponsoring every other villain he’d ever fought. Of course, I will say that the villain didn’t set out to ruin Beren’s life. He’d just sponsored these warlords and Beren kept getting in his way, so the villain went after Beren directly in the finale. So, in that sense, my writing wasn’t totally horrible then.

I never gave Beren a chance to be anything but wish fulfillment. But that’s okay. Beren was supposed to be whatever cool thing I wanted him to be. A self-insert into a Gladiator-style plot? Done! A chance to recreate the fight between Holmes and Moriarty at the Reichenbach Falls? No problem! Reenacting every single battle from the Lords of the Rings movies with Star Wars? I mean, that’s why I got into fanfic in the first place. I wanted to tell stories as awesome as that. I wanted an outlet for all the nonsense that I put up with in my teens, all my stress and insecurities. And I got that with Beren.

Years later, I did something similar with my recurring protagonist Edward in college, and that ever-changing Alpha Trilogy. It wasn’t until I wrote Trace Wilson (from my anthology Digital Eyes, Family Ties) that I wrote someone who wasn’t me in fiction. It wasn’t until I got into heroes like Trace and Holly (from “The Joy of Deduction” and other short stories) that I got better at storytelling. I stopped trying to escape into a fantasy world and tried to find a good story from someone else’s world instead. I stopped looking for wish fulfillment victories and started writing heroes who could only win when they made a serious sacrifice by the tale’s end—something that High School-era Me wouldn’t have considered.

So here’s to you, Beren Teleriand. You were my first creation, and you’ll always be a reminder of how far I’ve come and how far I’ve yet to go.

So, readers, do you have your own embarrassing, fan-inspired skeletons in the closet? Do you still revisit them from time to time for your own writing? Share your experiences in the comments below!

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story: Saving the Dream of ’77

Copyright 2016 by Lucasfilm Ltd.
Copyright © 2016 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

In 2015, Disney proved something: it could tell a Star Wars movie when it released The Force Awakens. George Lucas wasn’t at the helm, and the cast was different, but we could recognize the same elements of the saga in its story and special effects. From its opening scrawl of text to the last notes of the John Williams score during the credits, we knew what we were in for.

Last December, Disney took a chance with Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Here’s a film that took a step outside the usual arc: a Star Wars installment with no Jedi Knights, no Skywalkers, and almost none of the familiar faces.

And it proved that, yes, you can tell this kind of story.

Rogue One is set mere days before the events of A New Hope. When an Imperial pilot defects with a message from one of the top scientists, the Rebellion puts into motion a plan to use the scientist’s daughter, Jyn Erso, to retrieve the pilot from a more dangerous Rebel cell. What’s set up to be a simple operation goes astray quickly when the Empire tests out its new weapon, the Death Star, on the planet where all this is taking place. But from there, Jyn, Captain Andors, and the rest of their cobbled-together team will go on a series of raids to track down Galen Erso and the plans for the ultimate weapon before it’s too late.

As you’d expect from a synopsis like that, this isn’t the Star Wars of twirling lightsabers and brilliantly colored starfighter battles, though (spoiler warning) there are a couple of those here. This is the saga with grit and blood on the lens. We get to see what the galaxy far, far away looks like from a pedestrian level, where there is no hope, but a band of desperate Rebels (emphasis on the “desperate”). All the humor in this movie is dark, especially when news of the Death Star breaks. And we can see firsthand what its firepower does to even a city, let alone to a planet.

Now, when I first saw the original photo of the Rogue One team, I had a single thought: “Boy, am I gonna tell any of them apart?” But their dark appearance, while it fits with the film, doesn’t show you how different they truly are onscreen. Every character in the squad stands out. Jyn Erso is the cynical resistance fighter with a heart of gold. Cassian Andors is a quick-witted and coldhearted Intelligence agent. K-2SO is a massive droid with a sardonic wit and extremely efficient killing methods (picture HK-47, but more cinematic). And then you have more optimistic characters like the defector Bodhi Rook, the loyal gunman Baze Malbus, and the Force-worshipping martial artist Chirrut Îmwe (played by the great Donnie Yen) on the other end of the spectrum. Everyone is well-cast in this movie, from its heroes to its villains.

And just to clear that elephant in the room, here’s my take on the CGI effects used to “resurrect” a few faces from the original 1977 film: they’re fine. I know of a few moviegoers who cry “Uncanny valley!” about it, but I think they do a good job within the context of this film. We’ve certainly come a long way from the days of trying to insert an entirely different actor into the role and just pretending that nothing’s changed.

If I had a single note of complaint, it would be that the pacing, at times, felt a little rushed. Not that it was bad, but more that it was the kind of breakneck speed that felt more suited for a movie’s Act 3. And once we got to Act 3, that kind of frantic editing was amazing, but it did leave me a little disoriented up until that point. Even so, I loved Rogue One from start to finish. We got to see an amazing story told with a diverse cast and some spectular visuals, all to set up what we know and love about the original Star Wars movies. This was everything that I ever wanted from the prequel trilogy that Lucas gave us in the early Aughts.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is available through Lucasfilm and currently playing everywhere in theaters.

Bibliography: Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur, and Simon Emanuel. Screenplay by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy. Based on characters by George Lucas. Perf. Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Jiang Wen, and Forest Whitaker. Lucasfilm Ltd. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. Original release date: December 16, 2016.

Star Wars: The Old Republic and the Art of Time Management

Copyright © 2015 by BioWare and Electronic Arts
Copyright © 2015 by BioWare and Electronic Arts

I know it’s been out for a while now, and what with all the the recent press about the new Knights of the Eternal Throne expansionI decided to finally buckle down and give the MMO Star Wars: The Old Republic a shot.

One week later, I had logged on multiple hours playing through 3 different character paths on a single server (Smuggler, Imperial Agent, and Sith Inquisitor, if you want to know). And yes, I took the free-to-play option. I might be willing to sacrifice ungodly hours of my time on long, repetitive gameplay, but I certainly won’t cough up a few dollars per month for the privilege (not yet, at any rate; if I continue to play the game, I just might).

So, having said all that, here’s a few thoughts about SWTOR and what it offers.

Story-Driven Missions and Side Quests

I have to say, I’m impressed at how well each class you choose has its own in-depth story arc, from the planet you start out on to your journey across the galaxy. Each class has a distinct antagonist (or multiple enemies, depending on your role), as well as a route of progressing as either a hero or villain depending on your choices. While some of the enemies didn’t seem too engaging (I’m looking at you, Skavak), the stories themselves were, even if the missions built into their fabric were a lot of hustling back and forth over the same terrain for multi-part objectives.

A Very Colorful Cast of NPCs

This is to be expected, considering that BioWare is one of the big developers. Your player’s companions all have an appropriate contrast to your story arc’s morality (e.g. Corso will be an idealist to your Smuggler’s cynic, Kaliyo Djannis plays apathetic and mayhem-hungry to your Imperial Agent’s patriotism and loyalty). There’s also the various NPCs you fight, take side quests from, or answer to in the course of your missions, covering just about every personality aspect and quirk there is.

My personal favorite had to be Darth Zash, your superior in the Sith Inquisitor route. She’s so bubbly and genteel despite being a dyed-in-the-wool Sith Lord plotting domination and revenge against so many of her rivals (and with quite the big secret herself). Her character design and her personality were a great contrast to the gloomy Sith Empire, and I couldn’t get enough of her.

Clever Tie-Ins to the KOTOR Franchise

A lot of us were hoping for a more direct sequel to the first two Knights of the Old Republic games. The Old Republic does follow up on their story, even if it’s set centuries later and with a more skewed and dramtic plot. Even so, there’s some interesting allusions to the KOTOR universe, from the use of the games’ soundtracks to a thousand references to the player’s decisions, such as the overall impact of Darth Revan, the fate of Taris, and the future of HK assassin droids.

Many, Many Hours Required

You’d think that I would love nothing more than to be immersed in the Star Wars universe. And you’d be right. Except for one caveat: I can’t give SWTOR the amount of time it demands.

I’ll happily admit that I’m a newbie when it comes to the world of MMOs. I never played World of Warcraft or EVE Online or any of the other big titles. I dipped my toe into the water and nearly got lost in the whirlpool. I’d be playing from 1 to 5 pm, and then again from 8 pm until 2 in the morning, without any sense of time passing, all while staring into the urban decay of levels like Coruscant and Ord Mantell or the lush wilds of Balmorra and Taris.

So is The Old Republic good? Definitely so. The game has a lot of fun missions and character routes that you can take, and the developers put so much time and effort into making the game look amazing. I mean, the cinematic trailers alone won me over (and seriously, is it too much to ask BioWare and EA to remake the prequel trilogy in the style of their game trailers?). But SWTOR is an MMO, which means it’s a big time commitment. If you want to get into it, then do so, but it’s not a game for someone who’s looking for a casual experience.

Star Wars: The Old Republic is free-to-play and available for download from its official site.

Comparing the Themes of Star Wars and Star Trek

Go into any science fiction forum, or turn any corner inside the labyrinth of Online Geekdom, and you are certain to find a million posts and message threads devoted to that age-old question: “Star Wars vs. Star Trek, who would win in a fight?”

I couldn’t care less about sizing up the firepower of the USS Enterprise (from any era) against that of an Imperial Star Destroyer or Death Star. That’s not why I watched The Next Generation or The Empire Strikes Back as a kid. I wasn’t in it for explosions or space battles (well, ok, maybe a little, but not all of it). What drew me to both franchises were 3 key aspects that they shared in common.

a) A stellar cast (no pun intended)

b) Engaging storylines

c) An immersive and colorful universe

It’s that last point I want to discuss today. Star Trek and Star Wars might both be about heroes struggling to overcome insurmountable obstacles in their path, but they approach the same premise in distinct ways.

Star Trek: The Frontier and the Spread of Civilization

Copyright © 2009 by Paramount Pictures

When you think about it, even in a universe where war with Klingons and the Borg is a reality, Star Trek is an oddly optimistic concept. It’s the future and Earth is actually a great place to live, where money isn’t needed and scarcity is a thing of the past. Science won the day and continues to win, pushing humanity off Earth and into the greater galactic community. There’s always strange new worlds to explore, new cultures to contact, and new forms of life to discover.

In Star Trek, the main conflict is usually between the Federation’s faith in scientific progress and an alien planet’s way of life, hence the plot device of the Prime Directive. Of course, that “rule” often provides captains like Kirk and Picard with ways of subverting the status quo, using negotiation and applied science to solve whatever problem they’re facing. There’s a central theme of going forward, of finding common ground with multiple races, of the hope of peace triumphing over the inevitability of war.

There’s also a recurring dialogue between the power of logic and the power of emotion, expressed most clearly in The Original Series between Spock and McCoy. Compared to the struggle of the light and dark sides of the Force as discussed in Star Wars franchise, where emotion must be contained, the various Captains of the Starship Enterprise have to find a balance between passion and logic, between bold action and rational discourse.

Star Wars: Power Corrupts and Love Redeems

Luke Han Leia
Copyright © 1977 by Lucasfilm Ltd.

By contrast, Star Wars is almost always defined by the occurrence of a war between Good vs. Evil, whether it’s the Rebels against the Empire, the Republic against the Separatists, or the Resistance against the First Order. Most people’s first image of the multi-film saga is that iconic scene of a small Rebel blockade runner trading laser blasts with a massive Star Destroyer over a desert planet in the depths of space. Well, that and lightsabers.

In a way, the lightsaber is the perfect image for Star Wars. It’s a classic sword done in the strongest science fiction style possible. Mythology runs deep in the story, making it less of a typical sci-fi tale than Star Trek. Beyond the Rebels’ fight against the Empire, the heart of the story is a young person seeking to learn the ways of the Jedi, whether they’re called Anakin, Luke, or Rey. Their journey into the mystical realm of the Force stands in stark contrast to the corrupt and faceless enemy forces, who want to unite the galaxy under their technology-driven terror, who let their passions drive their power instead of seeking inner peace and harmony.

Even more importantly, the conflict between the Rebels and the Empire is more about individuals against the collective. It’s not just Luke and Rey trying to bring back the light of the Jedi Order to the galaxy. You also have to consider the place of free-spirited folk like Han Solo and Chewbacca, who can barely earn a living under the Empire’s draconian laws. Not even independent Tibanna gas mines like Cloud City are safe from the Emperor’s reach, as Lando Calrissian sadly discovers.

Final Thoughts

I like both franchises for different reasons, as listed above. And I think that it’s a safe bet that people will continue to find new ways to expand and resurrect these stories in years to come, whether it’s the new slate of Star Wars films put out by Disney or the upcoming Star Trek: Discovery TV show by CBS. I can’t speak for what the quality of these stories will be like, but I’m excited for what direction they’ll take on each franchise’s central theme.

Replaying Knights of the Old Republic II

Copyright © 2004 by LucasArts
Copyright © 2004 by LucasArts

Over a year ago, I did a review of my initial playthrough for Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic: The Sith Lords. It was a game that made very little of an impression on me at the time, especially when you hold up against the original KOTOR game.

So imagine my surprise when I found out that there were gamers who enjoyed the sequel or considered it an improvement over the first title. I was baffled. I was bewildered. I was ready to pen a long, angry screed on Tumblr over it.

Then I calmed down, reinstalled KOTOR 2, and played it all over again. I had to know for myself.

This is what I learned.

The Good

  • Crafting new weapons, healing items, and other tools at a given Lab Station or Workbench is a useful addition. It helps free up the clutter of so much loot in the inventory.
  • One mechanic that the sequel codified from the first was Influence. You, the player, can raise or lower your influence over your teammates, whether it’s showing honor in front of Brianna the Handmaiden or playing manipulative around the likes of Kreia.
  • Atton Rand was an enjoyable companion and a nice “scoundrel” foil to Carth Onasi, from his sardonic banter to his numerous trust issues. The same goes for Visas Marr. She reminds me of Juhani in that she’s also a would-be Dark Jedi who’s easily redeemed, who carries innumerable scars from her tortured past, and who bears a quiet, earnest faith in the Exile.
  • Underlying the story is a theme about the scars of war, as exemplified by characters like the Jedi Exile, Atton Rand, Bao-Dur, and Visas Marr. It’s probably telling that these are also the only characters I liked in this game.
  • Nothing makes me happier than asking HK-47 about the definition of “love” or how to fight a Jedi.

The Bad

  • A lot of textures and scenery don’t have the same appeal as they did in the first game. Planets like Peragus, Telos, and Dxun have this washed-out quality in contrast to the eye-popping glamour of places like Taris, Tatooine, and Kashyyyk.
  • Visiting many worlds in our main quest didn’t have the urgency of hunting down Star Maps in the first KOTOR game. I felt this torpid pacing most clearly on Nar Shaddaa, where I couldn’t remember if I was hunting a Jedi Master or trying to work for (or destroy) the Exchange.
  • Darth Sion and his assassins proved to be a good challenge in the opening, but they never had the same gravitas or terror that Darth Malak and his Sith minions could inspire in the previous game. And for all his eldritch horror and hunger, Darth Nihilus proved a bit of an anticlimax.
  • Kreia. Just… Kreia.
  • No, seriously, Kreia was more or less stated to be the author avatar for Lead Designer Chris Avellone. She spouts nothing but cryptic judgments on every player’s decision, forcing the plot this way and that, and all the while critiquing what it means to be a Jedi and learn the ways of the Force.
  • In KOTOR, the player character is the anchor for the story because of their actions and their influence on the team, even with a more experienced Jedi like Bastila on the roster. In KOTOR 2, the player character has influence and weight, but it’s Kreia who calls the shots and fits everything into context. Her obvious role as the greater villain and mentor doesn’t help. Fighting her in the finale has less drama than bringing Revan and Malak together for their ultimate showdown.
  • While I liked the idea of multiple Sith factions competing for power, I never felt like that concept took off in this game. Darth Nihilus just wanders around on his star cruiser, Darth Sion and his assassins show up at random, and Darth Traya hangs around your ship until you’ve assembled all the surviving Jedi Masters. Where’s the infighting? Where’s the threat of multiple Sith Lords wreaking havoc across the galaxy, with the Jedi and the Republic caught in the crossfire?

Final Verdict

I get that we shouldn’t point fingers at Obsidian Entertainment or Chris Avellone for how the game turned out. Of course LucasArts wanted a title ready for the 2004 holiday season. Of course Chris wanted to tell his own story in the Star Wars universe (who wouldn’t?). For some fans, that combination worked out. For others like me, it did not. I don’t regret playing the game, since even a poor gaming experience can be a useful insight in its own way.