One-dimensional characters. We’ve all read them, seen them on television, and suffered through movies about them. One-dimensional characters experience no change, no character arc, because there is no material to work with.
This week on Character Study: Change and how it helps the reader/audience relate to a character.
Characters change–or they don’t, but things around them change and then that character’s lack of change is noticeable and meaningful. A character’s arc lets us see them change behaviors, attitudes, and even core beliefs in some cases that reflect the changes we expect to see after what that character has been through.
Character Study: Han. Shot. First.
One example is Han Solo from the original Star Wars films. Who doesn’t know the “Han shot first” controversy? Just in case, here’s a nice article with side-by-side video comparison and also a quick text summary:
In the original 1977 cut of A New Hope, the audience is introduced to Han Solo in a scene in the Mos Eisley cantina during which a bounty hunter named Greedo confronts him. They talk. Greedo threatens Han. Han shoots Greedo. End of story.
That is how we are introduced to a hardened smuggler who can kill a person and casually walk out with some cash for the owner and the line, “Sorry for the mess.” With very little time and effort, the scene perfectly sets up this character for the audience.
The scene has actually been altered twice: once in 1997 showing Greedo clearly shooting first and once more in the 2004 special release where the timing has been changed so Greedo and Han shoot at the same time.
I thought of this example because George Lucas recently came out defending the change, saying it was made based on Han Solo’s character—specifically that shooting Greedo first is out of character for Han Solo.
You read that right. Out of character. A defining, initial impression was out of character.
No matter how much I or everyone else disagrees with Lucas’ decision, it’s a done deal and offers an interesting look at how a simple change can affect a character so deeply.
How Does This Affect Han Solo’s Character Arc?
In the original cut, this scene cements Solo as a badass smuggler not to be trifled with. He’s not in it for the rebels, or the Force, or some overarching One True Good thing. He’s in it for the money and for himself and he shoots Greedo to protect himself without a care that he’s taking a life to do it.
First, I think selfish motivations are the most believable and the most relatable. Even Luke, who ultimately chooses to fight for the side of Good, starts out with a simple desire to get off Tatooine and have an adventure. Grandiose motivations aren’t relatable (that’s why Pixar does so well with their small-scale stories about broad topics, but that’s another post).
Second, Han’s character arc starts with “selfish outlaw” and ends with “Rebel hero” (who marries a princess!). How cool is that? It’s a classic Western character arc and one of my personal favorites. Messages of redemption, of personal change (especially when it turns to helping others), and of bad guys becoming heroes inspire the audience/reader to think of the world in shades of gray, not black and white.
With the editing, Han Solo’s character isn’t as firmly planted as a self-centered outlaw and so the transition to Rebel hero is less dramatic and maybe even less compelling, since we don’t really know how ruthless Han can be.
I would argue that Han’s character arc and how his motivations change and shape his behavior throughout the trilogy make him a very relatable character, even if people can’t relate specifically to being an interstellar smuggler. Han Solo isn’t just someone who is has an enviable amount of swagger and confidence, he also undergoes behavioral and attitude changes in response to changes in his environment. When he’s thrown into the rebels’ fight, he begins to empathize and understand how he can help. Sure, there are other initial motivations, but the point is that Han goes from thinking about himself to thinking about others and putting their needs ahead of his.
Han’s character changes are rewarding to the audience because we 1) get what we want and 2) we all can relate to the arc. We all experience behavior, attitude, or belief changes in response to things happening around us so when those same patterns are reflected in fictional characters, it helps us see ourselves in that space fantasy or whatever we’re reading/watching.
That’s it for this week! May the Force be with you.