Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Character Arc: Growth

An examination of Han Solo and his interrupted growth arc
Brandi Spencer (formerly B. C. Marine), Secretary-Treasurer Authors 4 Authors Publishing
Since this article is about character arcs, which includes how characters end up, it will include spoilers for Star Wars Episodes IV-VII and Solo. To clarify my personal bias, I like Star Wars, including The Force Awakens, and Han Solo is a favorite. Though his arc is flawed, he’s still a fun character.
For an overview on arcs in general and their definitions, last week’s article covers the basics of growth, transformation, fall, and flat arcs.

Where It Went Right

In the first film (now called A New Hope), Han has a simple but effective growth arc. When he’s first introduced, he’s a roguish yet charming smuggler who only cares about himself and owns it. He’s cynical about everything: the rebellion, the Force, love. Money is all that matters to him. After his adventure with Luke, where he sees Ben Kenobi using Jedi powers and has a few sparks with Leia, he initially takes the money and runs. Although his turning point isn’t shown, there are moments in his interactions with his companions where his choices are called into question, so when he turns around and joins the final battle, it’s been earned, and shows his growth into a (slightly) less selfish person.
This arc carries into The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. He’s often tempted to return to his old selfish ways, but when his friends are in trouble, he proves himself willing to stick his neck on the line. He becomes more and more invested in the rebellion and falls in love with Leia. By the end of the original trilogy, although he’s still rough around the edges, he’s willing to put his friends and loved ones first and sticks around out of loyalty instead of promised riches.
It’s a classic and well-worn arc that many similar characters have followed. It’s satisfying to watch him become a better man over time.

Where It Went Wrong

In fairness, because Han had a neat arc in the original trilogy, the newer films had a difficult task in adding to what was essentially a complete story for him. Did they pull it off? Well…
Aborted Arc
In The Force Awakens, we find out that Han and Leia married and had a son. Yay! That fits the path he was set on. But then it’s revealed that Han left her to go on his own mission because he couldn’t handle what happened with their son. That’s an enormous step backward for him. He has to be forced back into play by the new characters. This actually regresses him further than where he was in A New Hope. That was two movies and a few decades back, and even then, he turned around on his own.
Okay, so we could say his arc has been turned into a fall arc. Given that it ends with his literal death and fall, that would sound plausible. However, he begins trying to make amends with his family before then, and his death is almost more of a sacrifice, which makes his actions more noble. Notice I say “almost.” He is not the one in control of what happens. The pivotal moment isn’t his choice. It’s Kylo Ren’s decision and the turning point for his arc.
To be clear, the plot choice makes sense. As the start of a new trilogy, the new characters are the focus, so their character arc take precedence. But looking at Han Solo on his own, his story gets unraveled, then cut off before it can be tied back together. When compared to his original arc, it’s clear why many audience members were disappointed beyond just seeing a beloved character die. They were seeing a beloved character unmade.
Reversed Arc
The newest movie, Solo, is the earliest in his timeline. On the surface, it seems to make sense. It’s the story about how he became the jaded smuggler at the start of A New Hope. So the focus is on his descent into that life. He starts off in the same place his characterization ends in The Return of the Jedi: he’s a rogue, but he doesn’t leave anyone behind and is fighting to get back to a woman he loves. After a series of betrayals, he ends up running off in search of riches and being the guy who shoots first.
On its own, it’s not a bad arc. It’s a fall, but that’s a valid type. What makes it a bit odd is how it ties in with the other four movies. The original trilogy makes it clear that his default is selfishness, and he’s growing to overcome it. Even the flawed arc in The Force Awakens hammered that home by having him retreat into it when everything goes wrong. By having him start heroic, Solo undermines the learning he goes through later to become less selfish because he didn’t actually have to learn to be heroic; it was already in him.
The Big Picture
All together, when you look at his arc over five films, he lacks a clear arc. He starts heroic, then falls into selfishness, then grows into heroics again, then is selfish, then sort of halfway makes amends before dying. It’s a bit exhausting! His original trilogy growth arc is easier to follow and decern the point of.

Next Time

Join us next week to look examine transformation arcs through Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.

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