I have a few quick thoughts, stemming from the recent release of Phasma, a standalone book detailing the backstory of the iconic Star Wars character Captain Phasma–oh wait, no, she was just an over-hyped character that did nothing in the movie and was put in the movie to sell toys and as a means to push a “strong female character” agenda. I’m going to touch on two things here: the failure of those currently running Star Wars to understand what to do with side characters and expanding the universe, as well as their failure to understand what most of their fans want, based on an excellent post by Bradford C. Walker.
On the first point, they are making a mistake that isn’t new to Star Wars, and falling into the trap of over-explaining everything. I understand the compulsion to do so, I truly do. I am building my own galactic setting, and there is a part of me that wants to write infinite little details, and show the histories of everything. But what this often leads to is the ruinination of side characters, and remove any sense of awe and mystery from the universe they have worked so hard to build.
Going back to the original Star Wars trilogy, the character of Boba Fett became a fan-favorite simply because he looked really cool. While he did more than Phasma has, and actually had some impact on the plot, it was a very minor thing and in Return of the Jedi he was killed by accident by a blind Han Solo. What a legendary character. But the mystery behind this masked bounty hunter persisted, and, so, stories were written featuring him. However, to the best of my recollection, these older stories featured Boba Fett essentially as we knew him from the films, on bounty hunting adventures. Which was fine, and fun at times (even with the retcon of him surviving falling in the Sarlacc–he fell in a second time in a book, by the way, only to escape again.) He would later get hyped up, unfortunately, as some sort of uber warrior later in the old Expanded Universe (now Legends,) which really felt like the popularity and perceived importance of the character to us meant he had to be super important in his universe.
But then, Attack of the Clones happened, and we were introduced to kid Boba Fett, and his entire history from that point on has been explained in excruciating detail in books, the Clone Wars show, and probably comics as well. Any sense of mystery of this elite bounty hunter that outsmarted our heroes in The Empire Strikes Back was removed, making him a far less interesting character.
We saw a similar phenomenon with Darth Vader as well. We didn’t need to see Anakin’s whole backstory and fall to the dark side. Even if the prequels had been good movies, it was still an unnecessary story in many respects. In another angle, the EU also told us far too much about the details about Darth Vader’s suit, which we didn’t need at all, to the point where it basically became a joke. I’ve watched this RedLetterMedia video where they read from Wookiepedia (the Star Wars wiki) directly, about this, and it’s hilarious while also kind of sad, making Vader into almost a joke. We have seen similar phenomena elsewhere, with unnecessary books focusing on backgrounds of other minor characters.
Which brings us back to Phasma. I’ve listened to some reviews, which have confirmed that this gives us her entire backstory. Do we need to know how this woman ended up as a commander in the First Order? No. The character she was built up to be, as a new Boba Fett type, was not one whose life story we should have gotten, at least not in that way.
What would have worked, you might ask? Giving her more to do in the main story, which would allow her to convey her motivations, and some tidbits about her past, which would allow us to actually care about her while still maintaining a sense of mystery about her. This isn’t to say that no stories could be written featuring her, but as I said earlier, the full backstory isn’t the right one. Also, I’m not convinced that this character deserves a whole book to herself. What would work very well would be a shorter story starring her, where we get more insight into her personality and motivations, possibly as part of an anthology book with stories featuring other minor characters, as a nice little way to expand on what we already know. We don’t need to see how she grew up on Mad Max world (not joking), or how she joined the first order. All we need is a couple lines from her in the main story about her hard early life, and why she joined the First Order. I hope I’m not repeating myself, but I really want to get my point across.
But Yakov, you might be asking, weren’t you just recently heaping praise on Twitter about Thrawn, which is also book dedicated to the backstory of a minor character? Yes, I was. But there are some key differences. First, Thrawn has been long established as a very interesting an nuanced character (even though the original books are no longer canon, most of his personality, background, etc, has been carried over whole cloth). He’s a very detailed personality, and this leads us to want to see things from his perspective, to see him doing things. Second, we already knew a basic version of what happened, how he came to the Empire, and some of what he had to persevere through to achieve his high rank. Of course, I will concede that seeing firsthand his entire backstory wasn’t necessary, but because he was a character so many of us truly enjoyed and cared about prior to this, because it was really just building on what we had already learned previously, and because it was done so well, it worked and didn’t feel pointless. (While Phasma is written in freaking present tense for some ungodly reason.) Thrawn, also, is not a movie character, and thus the issue with Phasma, that we should’ve learned something about her in the main story doesn’t apply to him.
The fans aren’t dumb; they’ll be able to piece together a character’s backstory, the parts that matter, anyway from just a few lines of dialog, and from how they act in the films.
This is why the Han Solo spinoff film will be terrible. He is not a character whose entire life story we need to see, or even should see. It’s going to ruin the mystery behind him, and be a mess of pandering. I’m sure i’m going to enjoy rewatching this RedLetterMedia video where they try and predict the movie more than the movie itself.
On to the other point, which Bradford focused on in his post, is that Phasma, in essence, is an attempt to damage control for an over-hyped character that did nothing, and to provide nuance and background that should have been in the movie. The vast majority of Star Wars fans only watch the movies, and will not even think about reading a book about the chrome stormtrooper that got tossed in the trash at the end of the movie (but somehow escaped before the base blew up.) As he says, if they want to try and include this new material on her in the next movie, they’ll have to repeat it there anyway, because they can’t assume the book will be read by the moviegoers. If there is a problem with a character in the films, fix it there, not in a spinoff book. The people behind Star Wars do not understand their fans, and eventually, the shine of new Star Wars will wear off, and the decline will be undeniable. For all the great effects and backgrounds in the films, by and large Star Wars greatly lacks genuine creativity right now, and more and more fans are going to get bored.
But I suppose that leaves an opening for people like me, who are building their own galactic space opera universes, inspired in part by Star Wars. I will do my utmost to avoid falling into the trap Star Wars has fallen into, and make use of short fiction to showcase minor characters and expand the universe I’m building, while ensuring that everything the main series needs is in those books.
On that note, you can get in on the ground level of this new, exciting universe with my debut novel, A Greater Duty, which is available on Amazon. Its sequel, A Looming Shadow, will be out this fall, and I hope to start releasing short fiction set in this galactic setting next month, available free of charge to anyone subscribed to my email list (I will never spam you, don’t worry.) I hope you will join me in the Galaxy Ascendant soon; you’re going to love it here.