In the Star Wars universe, where I occasionally travel, but do not live, one of my favorite controversies is “Han Shot First.” When George Lucas decided to revise his existing masterpieces and rerelease them, one of the most disturbing changes was to the Star Wars cantina scene where Han kills Greedo (a bounty hunter about to kill him). In his 1997 update of the film, Lucas added footage of Greedo firing before Han does-- and hitting a wall despite being at point blank range. When fans protested the absurdity of Greedo missing and the absurdity of Han needing any such justification to shoot, Lucas accused them of wanting Han to be a “cold-blooded killer.” Lucas also claimed that Han had always been returning fire—the audience just couldn’t tell because of Lucas’s self-proclaimed poor footage.
At the point that Lucas committed this sacrilege, Han was not just a well-liked character, but a beloved character. Yet Lucas seemed to be claiming Han was misunderstood. Or maybe he thought we liked Han for the wrong reasons? Either way he didn’t seem to want Han to be the scoundrel we all knew him to be—at least at that point in the movie. And this, I think, is the real issue. Lucas, like the rest of us, knows Han is good at heart, a hero in the end. But in his revisions, Lucas wanted to reinvent Han as a hero from the start. He didn’t seem like the old Han anymore—the one who (of course!) shot first.
But Han at the start of the movie is compelling, a pleasure to watch, even when he is being kind of a jerk. He may not be relatable, but he is believable, and he may not be likeable, but he is desirable.
Sometimes I ask my students to free write on the people they most like to spend time with and why. It turns out we don’t choose our companions merely by their kindness or their tendency to resemble a blank slate (beginning students constantly insist that readers can only relate to characters who have no defining characteristics whatsoever). This exercise can help students see the particulars of what draws them to certain people.
The people I most like to spend time with are actually pretty kind, but they also make me laugh, they teach me things, they introduce me to their passions, they give me much to think about, and sometimes they make me a little crazy.
And so, too, do the literary characters I most like to spend time with.
In John Edgar Wideman’s memoir, Brothers and Keepers readers meet Wideman’s brother, Robby, who is incarcerated for armed robbery and murder. The book’s structure forces readers to compare the brother made good (acclaimed writer) and the brother done wrong (life sentence). But this comparison is complicated, deepened, humanized by Wideman’s admissions of his own wrongs and the understanding that he reaches of who his brother really is. In the book, Wideman writes, “The problem with the first draft was my fear. I didn’t let Robby speak for himself enough. I didn’t have enough confidence in his words, his vision, his insights. I wanted to clean him up. Manufacture compelling before-and-after images. Which meant I made the bad too bad and the good to good.”
But then Wideman realized “The worst things [Robby] did followed from the same impulse as the best. He could be unbelievably dumb, corrupt, selfish, and destructive but those qualities could keep him down no more than his hope, optimism, [and] refusal to accept a dull inferior portion could buoy him above the hell that engulfed black boys in the Homewood streets.” Robby from the time that he was a kid wanted to be larger than life, special, a star. And this lifted him up, until it dragged him down.
This idea that the same impulse drives multiple kinds of actions (good and bad, selfish and unselfish) is one of the most useful things I have ever heard when it comes to conveying complex—and therefore compelling, believable, relatable—characters, not to mention complex, believable, relatable plots.
Han shoots first because he’s a proactive guy, someone willing to risk doing wrong, and determined to save himself. When he comes to Luke’s aid at the end of the movie, he’s still that guy, but determined to save some other people, too. It’s not as big a change as George Lucas may fear.
Our best qualities might drive us to our worst actions. Likewise, our worst qualities might drive us to our best actions.
So, too, in the characters we create.