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Prince Zuko vs. Kylo Ren: A Study in Effective Character Writing: Part 1 -The First Act.

I feel that given the current state of discourse in the Star Wars fandom I need to say this. I love Kylo Ren/Ben Solo as a character. However, I love him because of the way my brain has filled in the blanks left by many of the gaps in his character as shown by the Sequel Trilogy movies. Opinions on the ST aside, the Last Jedi did a phenomenal job developing his character and creating a compelling arc for him. The problem is the movie before, and the one after don’t really do that much with him. In fact, I’d contribute much of his character development in VII and IX to Adam Driver’s skill as an actor, but I digress.

There’s another character from another series with an arc very similar to Ben Solo’s.

Prince Zuko from Avatar the Last Airbender!

Let’s look at the similarities between them.

  • They are both royalty: Zuko as Prince of the Fire Nation, and Ben as the son of Princess Leia.
  • They are both set up for a redemption arc.
  • They are both a part of a popular “enemies to lovers” ship on the internet.
  • They both desperately want to live up to their family’s legacy
  • They both have evil grandfathers: Fire Lord Azulan, and Darth Vader.
  • They both have good in their ancestry: Avatar Roku, Leia, etc.
  • They both feel betrayed by someone they idolized as a mentor, sparking deeply rooted emotional conflict in them.

I could go on much longer, but suffice it to say that they’re remarkably similar characters. Yet, I believe Zuko is a much better character in terms of how he was written.

Now, I would be remiss to not mention that it’s significantly easier to flesh out a character over 60+ episodes of a TV show than 7 hours worth of Movie. However, even on a tighter schedule there are things that can be done to close the gaps, in a sense, with Kylo’s character that Avatar does so well with Zuko.

For the purposes of this I’m going to treat each ATLA “Book” as the direct analogue to one “Episode” of the Sequel Trilogy. Each riepresenting an Act1/Act2/Act3 for the character. Also, I will only be discussing their on screen appearances. I know both of them have extensive arcs in side projects like comics, but we are only looking at the movie/tv shows as though we’re watching them with no other information about the characters.

Act 1: The Force Awakens/Book One: Water

In act one, both characters are pretty one-note on the surface, but where The Force Awakens does very little to create depth to Kylo Ren beyond some small moments of exposition, Avatar creates a ton of depth for Zuko. It is possible to have a character with a single minded focus still contain many layers of depth.

A great example of this is during both Characters’ first appearance. Interestingly enough both Zuko and Kylo Ren make their entrance by raiding a village they believe to be protecting the secret whereabouts of the one person who poses a threat to their empire. Yet they approach this situation in entirely different ways.

With Kylo we get a small bit of exposition about not denying the truth of family, followed by a brief display of power (stopping a blaster bolt mid-flight) capped off by him ordering the killing of the entire village.

With Zuko we see reluctance, and hesitation. His motivations are similar to Kylo’s. He wants to prove to himself that he is worthy of the admiration of the family member he idolizes most by accomplishing what they couldn’t. Despite this we see a conflict building with Zuko, when Aang offers him a deal. I go with you, and you spare the villagers. Zuko immediately accepts, almost relieved that he doesn’t have to resort to those methods. Don’t get me wrong, it’s clear at this point Zuko would if he needed to, but you can see how badly he doesn’t want to.

This scene lasts about as long as the one in Episode VII, yet it does so much more to establish the point of conflict that the character will be trying to work out across the rest of the series. Kylo’s scene doesn’t really do anything at all. A case could be made that it’s designed to show how far he’s fallen, but that wouldn’t make a lot of sense given that we don’t really know much about him at this point.

When we compare these two scenes, we are presented with a stark contrast in storytelling quality. In act one we should be learning about our characters’ traits and motivations, and beginning to see the conflict that will be the driving force behind their character arc.

With Zuko we’re beginning to see the picture come together as to who this character is, his motivation and the internal struggle he’s experiencing. The conflict in him is clear, I desperately want to earn my father’s love by capturing the Avatar, so that I can restore my honor, but I feel guilty about the methods used by my people.

With Kylo we don’t have a very clear picture of his character at this point. We’re given plenty of character traits, but very little in the way of motivation or conflict or tension. Even with the later scene where he’s talking to Vader’s helmet, when we’re finally given our first bit of motivation for the character, we merely learn *what* he wants, we have zero idea why he wants it. We’re given that through exposition, that Snoke manipulated him, but we know nothing about Snoke at this point, we know nothing about how that manipulation happened.

In fact, in the only scenes we get with Snoke, the man who is most responsible for Kylo’s fall, we get almost zero insight into Kylo as a character. All of the dialogue is used to advance the plot, not deepen our understanding of Kylo.

Contrast that with Avatar, where we learn about the fracturing of Zuko’s relationship with his father through a series of flashbacks told to his crew by Iroh. His crew has begun to see him as a heartless tyrant, and Iroh sets the record straight by telling the story of how Zuko got his scar. Revealing that the reasoning for his broken relationship with his father is that he spoke out of turn in a war council meeting in which the Fire Nation leaders had proposed using underequipped troops as cannon fodder.

This harkens back to the conflict we mentioned earlier and continues to solidify Zuko’s character.

I think the reason why so many people seem to struggle with the idea that Kylo Ren can be redeemed is that we have little understanding of why he turned evil in the first place, at least at this point in the story.

Beyond just establishing the internal tension for the character, the early parts of these stories are meant to establish a sense of tension with us, the audience. We find ourselves almost wanting to root for Zuko, but also wondering what’s going to come next for him, and the way they introduce him into the story creates multiple branching pathways we can see him going down.

With Kylo, we don’t really understand who he is, or why he’s doing what he’s doing by the time the credits roll.

To be fair to Kylo, there are some effective moments in the movie, his interaction with Han and losing the saber fight with Rey both serve as excellent set up moments that help us appreciate this character, but there are countless other moments that they should have used to do that before we even got to this point. Killing Han could have been a payoff moment rather than a setup moment had they done that.

That’s my overall issue with Kylo at this point in the story, his arc is just lagging behind where he should be at various points in the narrative. When Rey refers to him by saying she’s “being haunted by a monster in a mask” that’s really all he is to that point in the story. He’s less of a compelling villain and more of a plot device designed to make us go “oh crap Kylo Ren is here” when he shows up on a battlefield.

In my opinion, this is the biggest thing that contributes to his character arc feeling “incomplete” by the end of TROS. We’re really only given a 1.5 part story with him, 2 if you’re being generous. The Last Jedi goes on to set up some awesome ideas for the character, but the problem here is that TLJ shouldn’t have been setting those up to begin with, that should have happened in TFA. If you’re waiting until act 2 to establish the arc for your villain who is the primary antagonist across all three acts, you’ve waited too long.

Again, contrasting this to where Zuko leaves off after we head to act 2. His conflict with Zhao has reached it’s boiling point, and when they meet in the season finale the stakes are so high because they’re so personal, we’ve seen Zhao serve as Zuko’s foil throughout all of season one, a consistent thorn in his side. When Zuko beats him in their fight, it demonstrates significant growth for him, but also we’re given significant insight into Zuko’s character when, despite everything Zhao has done to him, Zuko attempts to save him.

What we see in this comparison between two very similar characters, with nearly identical backgrounds, is a very similar series of events. Yet, because of dialogue, exposition, and story decisions made throughout their stories we have one character at the end of act one with a fully developed motivation and tension that the writers can build and expand on in act two, and another character with no real cohesive direction.

With Zuko you could see countless potential answers to the “where do we go from here” question, but that’s as a result of so many of them being compelling new layers on an already deep and complex character. In Kylo’s case, there are still many possible directions for him, but that’s less because they’ve set that up, and more that the character is still a blank canvas at this point.

With that said, in Act 2 we see some fantastic character development for both characters, but at very different points in their arc. I’ll be covering that next week when we take a look at Book 2: Earth and The Last Jedi.

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