- Matt Wilkins
Star Wars New Jedi Order: Round Robing Interview (Part 4)
DR: How much of a role did George Lucas play in shaping the series?
LW: George Lucas has been involved in all of the spin-off Star Wars publishing, but only on big concepts or plot points. The initial five-year NJO plot outline and early thoughts on who might die were sent to him in the form of a Q&A memo and subsequently discussed by phone.
SS: I would characterize his role as limited but important. He’s the one who said the alien invaders could not be dark side Force-users, that we couldn’t kill Luke, that we had to kill Anakin instead of Jacen (we had originally planned it the other way around). Other than that, he occasionally answered some basic questions for us, but that was rare. Mostly he leaves the books to his licensing people, trusting them to get it right.
JL: Several times at Skywalker Ranch, George was sitting almost within arm’s reach, but I never got to speak with him. But he played a major role in giving shape to the NJO by commenting extensively on the early version of the five-year story arc, as Lucy and Shelly have said. His objection to Anakin Solo being the main series protagonist was, I think, possible confusion with Anakin Skywalker in the prequel trilogy of movies. There would be too many Anakins out there! And I distinctly recall George’s taking particular exception to our careless description of Onimi as “dwarfish.”
When we received his feedback, suddenly we were faced with having to create a new enemy . . . and yet somehow differentiate that enemy from the dozens already developed by various authors of the Bantam books. Worse, we were stripped of the one character from the Bantam line who was ideally set up to inherit the Jedi mantle from Luke. Even so, Shelly and I emerged with a lot to work with, and over espressos in Sausalito and pizza at Point Lobos, we sketched many of the characters who later became prominent in the series.
DR: Like the original film trilogy, the NJO, both as a whole and in its individual books, follows Joseph Campbell’s concept of the myth of the hero’s journey. Is that Lucas’s influence at work?
SS: Not in the sense of him directing us to use it. I don’t even think he knows we did it! But we wanted to use the hero’s journey as a template because it is so basic to Star Wars and to what George has done with his mythos.
JL: We had many discussions about archetypes and mythic themes, mostly at the behest of Lucy, who would frequently have a chalkboard brought to the conference rooms and make detailed outlines of the character arcs.
LW: In order to tell the best stories, we pull ideas from a variety of sources to come up with themes that can then be woven through the various works of new Star Wars fiction. In our big creative meetings, we work with publishers, editors, and our writers to develop strong stories with multiple levels, including: the pacing of basic plot points (beginning, climax, resolution); themes (both mythological and biblical themes have been presented, among others); and individual character development arcs (with specific levels of development and attributes depending on whether Jedi, Sith, alien, good, bad, or other). It’s the combination of these elements that makes the stories fit into the structure people associate with Star Wars. It’s not George Lucas’s decision that requires us to do this—rather, we have learned by observing his techniques and have then applied the same development process in our dealings with our print editors and authors.
SR: One of the advantages of using Campbell’s template is that it’s very familiar to us all, on both the minute and the grand scale, on an instinctive level. We are each challenged in ways that bring out either the hero or the villain. We each have choices and are accountable for those choices and their consequences. We are sometimes thrown into situations we thought we could never handle, and how it comes out is not the point—the point is the journey itself.
We discussed the hero’s journey at length in the first creative meetings. After feedback from George, we decided on Jacen as our “hero” and the character who would undergo the most dramatic changes—in many ways, the NJO is really his series. At those meetings, we charted the character threads for each of the main characters and how these threads would interact with Jacen to show him as an indecisive young man who grows into a strong and confident Jedi. We talked about Vergere and the role she could play. We also charted other characters’ journeys: how Han would react to Chewie’s death, his blaming Anakin, and how something like that affects a family. We discussed how Anakin was the stronger of the siblings, and how his death would affect things, since he was the obvious choice as Luke’s successor.
SS: A template such as Campbell’s can be a very interesting reference for an author, a reminder of ways to keep a story exciting and keep it growing and developing. But I don’t advise writers to use it as a rigid framework for a story—in other words, following it slavishly would probably result in a stiff, unlifelike story. Stories need to grow, to at least some degree, organically, with elements developing out of what has gone before. If meeting the mentor really wants to happen before the call to adventure, for example, it should happen that way, instead of having the story forced into a mold it doesn’t want to fit. Fortunately, the hero’s journey model allows for a lot of flexibility, and is terrific as a reminder that stories move up and down, forward and backward, have climaxes and crises all along the way. Although frankly, this aspect of the series didn’t end up as well developed as I would have liked—probably due to the complication of using multiple authors. Individual books had it, like Matt Stover’s, but I would have liked to see the mythic dimension, the hero’s journey, evoked a little more, I don’t know, cohesively, in the series as a whole. On the grand scale.
JL: I’ve never before been involved in a project where the template was afforded so much conscious attention. I’m aware of the template when I write fiction, but I usually rely on my subconscious to provide archetypes, and most of the time I don’t recognize the mythic elements, the “heroic” elements, until I’ve reached the end of a book and can look at it objectively.
Star Wars is a unique blend of romance and pulp, but what works well on screen doesn’t always work on the printed page—especially when you’re dealing with a series of twenty or so books, and you feel duty-bound to have not only each book incorporate elements of the template, but also the series as a whole. Lord of the Rings succeeds in doing that, as does Harry Potter, though to a lesser extent. But in the NJO we lacked clear-cut archetypes, and those characters who were clear-cut—Luke, Han, Lando, Leia—had, in a very real way, already completed their journeys. That said, authors Elaine Cunningham, Matt Stover, Aaron Allston, and Walter Jon Williams made terrific use of mythic elements, regardless.