Q&A: Writing Vader

Earlier on, I saw you answered an ask about a Darth Vader type character. You said that they usually don’t make good POV characters or protagonists, with the role they ordinarily are in; I was wondering if you had any thoughts about if you /could/ make them work in a POV/protagonist role, just out of curiosity?

The old advice: Show don’t tell, is appropriate, though this isn’t usually what we mean. Characters don’t really work like this in prose.

The problem is Darth Vader in Star Wars, isn’t a character, he’s an agent of the plot. He acts to further the story, and creating coherent character to back that up is extrapolation by the audience.

The compelling version of Darth Vader as a character? You created that for yourself. Your version of the character may not match what someone else took away.

Now, moving into Empire, and Jedi, Vader does start to have hints of a character, and ultimately a character arc. But, if you ever accidentally think that you know the definitive version of Vader, remember that Hayden Christensen’s Anakin really is Lucas’s intended vision of the character.

Characters like this work best when the audience is creating their own version of them. To do that you need to restrict the amount of information they have on that character’s state of mind, motivation, and other relevant information. This is easy on screen, but it becomes very difficult in prose.

In most forms of media, you’re an external observer viewing the participants. When you watch a movie, you’re seeing the actors playing their characters. When you read a comic, you’re looking at the characters and what they’re doing. Prose is different, you’re usually inside the head of one of the characters, and reading their experiences.

If your PoV character is interacting with something, the author is probably contextualizing that character’s experiences and perspective on the subject.

In contrast, in a film, when the PoV character is interacting with someone, the audience needs to extrapolate the context.

This is where film viewing becomes incredibly subjective, because you’re being asked to evaluate what you’re seeing and square that with the filmmaker’s intended reading of the character. In the end, you’re asking if the character’s behavior remains consistent and coherent throughout.

This can create situations where two people can walk of the theater with vastly different opinions of a film. An example we’ve mentioned before is The Gambler (2014), with Mark Wahlberg. If you come to the film with an understanding of compulsive gamblers, the film actually makes a lot of sense. I’ve said before, it’s a good film, with some very good performances. However, it doesn’t do much to cue the viewer into the specific psychology of the main character, and many of the reviews I’ve read basically come to back to the point of, “the character’s behavior makes no sense.” It’s pathological, consistent, but not normal, and if you don’t have that frame of reference you can’t get into the character’s head.

Star Wars is content to let you invent your own version of Darth Vader. Chances are, that’s a very scary dude. The film then never, really, tests your knowledge. You don’t need to understand who he is to follow his role in the story. Even when the film hints at structures that make no sense, it’s okay, because you’re prone to just ignore them.

For example: How, exactly, is Tarkin? An officer in the Imperial Navy, holding Darth Vader’s “leash?” A Dark Lord of the Sith, who could literally kill him with a thought? I mean Peter Cushing was awesome, and my biggest regret of the prequels is that Wayne Pygram’s version of Tarkin was, basically, a cameo. But, how is this guy holding Darth Vader in check?

The films don’t care, and honestly, neither should you. It doesn’t impact the film. Being privy to Vader’s inner thoughts on Tarkin wouldn’t enhance those scenes. If anything, it would make it worse, because then the mystery would be lost. We’d know why Vader relented. We’d know exactly what power Tarkin had over him.

This is horror writing. Horror works off of restricting the information the audience has access to. The more you know, the less scary it is. If you’re reading a horror story, you’re probably not privy to the monster’s point of view. I won’t say, “never,” but, it’s not the norm. However, if you’re watching a horror movie, first person PoV shots from the monster aren’t out of the question. These do completely different things. In prose, it would start to inform you about the monster, and start giving you the tools to understand what it can, and cannot, do. In film, it can tell you how much peril the characters are in without their knowledge.

So, what I’m sort of saying is that, Darth Vader has more in common with antagonists like the Terminator or Predator, even though he exists in a much more politically complicated environment. You can’t really tell stories from their perspectives without destroying the horror, either, if you’re wondering.

The once place where you can, absolutely, tell stories about characters like this as the protagonist is video games. You want to see what Darth Vader looks like as a protagonist? You can look to the 2016 remake of Doom. All you know is that the denizens of hell are extremely terrified of the player character, to the point that they gave up on the idea of even killing him, chained him to a slab, and locked him away. In the context of a game, the idea that your foes are terrified of you just feeds into the power trip, and you don’t need a full explanation for why.

So, yeah, you can create a character like Darth Vader as the protagonist, but, prose is not the best form of media to present that kind of a story.

-Starke

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