Four Lessons to Learn from Kylo Ren
Before we begin, let me say that I love the Star Wars franchise and felt this movie was fantastic. I've seen it twice and intend to buy it and watch it another twenty times. But, for the sake of learning craft, I feel there are four important lessons we can learn from Kylo Ren.
To be truly effective, a Villain must behave maturely, be consistent, have a memorable name and be unbeatable.
1) A VILLAIN MUST BEHAVE MATURELY
As I understand it, Kylo Ren was not yet a Jedi Master because he hadn't committed himself to the Dark Side. So, for the majority of the film, he vascilated between the Light and Dark sides. This is a great premise. I loved it. Unfortunately, because of the way it was handled, it nearly ruined the villain.
When Kylo Ren heard that the droid escaped with the data chip, he flew into a rage and chopped up a control panel. Then, when he discovers that the girl has escaped, he flies into another rage and chops up a metal chair. But, these two tantrums, instead of making him look powerful or torn or insane, made him look childish.
Why? Because children throw temper tantrums.
The Villain is the backbone of every great story. They're the Ultimate Threat. They create tension by raising the stakes and pressuring the Lead.
Generally speaking, a story will only be as strong as its Villain. So, it's important to create strong villains that propel a story... not weak ones that throw temper tantrums.
So, the first thing we can learn from Kylo Ren is to create strong villains. It's okay if they're emotionally unstable or mentally tortured. It doesn't matter what "issues" we give them - so long as they don't behave immaturely.
If the writers had wanted to show Kylo's struggle between the Light and Dark sides, they should have given him a moral issue to struggle with (after all, isn't morality what seaparates the Light from the Dark side?).
For example, Kylo could have been ordered to kill an innocent person with the Force. But, as he's killing them (committing murder), he draws back (showing mercy). The leader could then address his "unwillingness" to kill the innocent person. In this way, we would SEE Kylo being torn between the Light and the Dark sides.
As is was, there WAS no visible struggle. Only tantrums and pouting.
Which brings up another issue: the murder of Han Solo. Without actually seeing Kylo struggle against the Light side, we don't expect him to kill his father (because there's no need). There's nothing to foreshadow his need to "do something horribly evil" in order to shut him off from the Light.
When Han Solo approaches Kylo on the bridge, the audience should've said, "No, Han! Don't go! He's gonna kill you so he can cross over to the Dark side." Instead, we said, "Why would they kill Han Solo?" We mourned his loss after the fact because his death served no purpose (except maybe to get Harrison Ford out of any future movies).
Without foreshadowing a powerful emotional event, there's nothing to prepare the audience for the event and that can rob the event of all its emotional power.
Even this Great Event was spoiled by Kylo's immaturity. Case in point: When Kylo murdered Han, a woman behind me in the theater sighed and said, "What a spoiled brat." I think we can all agree that that is NOT the kind of reaction we want our audience to have when a major (and beloved) character is killed.
A villain must never come across as a "spoiled brat."
2) A VILLAIN MUST BE CONSISTENT
Darth Vader never took off his mask. That lent mystery to his character. Darth Maul never spoke. That lent mystery to his character. Kylo Ren did both: took his mask off and spoke. That made the audience laugh.
Kylo Ren's character started off really strong. He had an awesome steel mask, a hooded cloak, a deep, mechanical voice, dark powers he wasn't afraid to use and he was merciless.
Everything was great - until he threw a temper tantrum.
The one tantrum might have been overlooked, had there not been another one
And if two tantrums weren't enough, the writers removed Kylo's mask. So, what little mystery of this character remained was thrown right out the window.
Villains must remain consistent, or they lose credibility. If they start off insane, they must remain insane. If they start off tortured, they must remain tortured. Villains must never switch gears during a story. It confuses the audience and breaks the suspension of disbelief,
Kylo Ren started off as a bad-ass replacement for Darth Vader. I mean, have you seen those awesome promotional stills? Look at him! Totally bad-ass. And the beginning of the movie reinforced that bad-ass image.
Then, slowly but surely, bit by bit, as the movie progressed, the character declined into a simpering wimp.
There was a meme going around that said this of Kylo Ren:
"Stopped a laser mid-air. Sucked the thoughts out of people's minds. Showed no fear, of anything or anyone. Took a laser blast to the chest and kept going. Continued to fight in the freezing cold, even when bleeding out. Labeled a cry-baby."
How did this happen? What went wrong?
The answer is, he wasn't consistent. He vacillated. One minute he was all, "I'm the new Darth Vader, look how strong I am," then the next minute he was all, "Help me, grandfather, I'm not strong enough."
Kylo Ren shamed the Vader name.
So, however you start your villain in the beginning of the story, keep them consistent. Don't vacillate. It throws off the audience's perception of the character and can actually cause them to disrespect the villain.
Once respect is lost, it's impossible to restore it. The reason audiences didn't pan Star Wars is because 1) the film is fabulously shot and edited, 2) there's so much more to love about it and 3) it's Star Wars.
But, because we don't have the luxury of owning the largest movie franchise in world history, our stories must stand on their own. Our villains must be strong and consistent, so our readers won't lose respect for them and us.
3) A VILLAIN MUST HAVE A MEMORABLE NAME
The Villain is easily the most important character in a story. While audiences were indifferent to Luke Skywalker, they loved Darth Vader. Why? Because he was bad-ass (note: audiences also loved Han Solo, because he was bad-ass, too).
Darth Vader is an awesome name. And it's awesome because it resonates in the human mind. I remember as a kid, after my friends and I had seen the first movie, we agreed that Darth Vader sounded an awful lot like Dark Father.
So, you can imagine how thrilled we were to find out that Darth Vader was indeed Luke Skywalker's "Dark Father." It thrilled us clear to our souls because we were subconsciously prepared for the revelation. Why? Because the name resinated within us.
Now, look at the old Star Wars villains:
Darth Maul. Of course, we all knew the word maul meant to rip and tear something apart - which is something wild animals do. And that's exactly what Darth Maul was: he was a wild animal. Heck, he even had horns!!! So, his name totally fit his persona.
Darth Sidious sounds like insidious. And, insidious means to be treacherous and deceitful. Once again, we were subconsciously prepared for the revelation that Darth Sidious was actually the Emporer of the Galactic Empire, Sheev Palpatine.
Though Darth Plagueis never appears in the movies, Darth Sidious told Luke Skywalker about him when he was trying to turn Luke to the Dark side. Apparently, Darth Plagueis was Darth Sidious' master and Darth Sidious murdered him.
Again, the character's name resonates with us because it looks like the word plague. And that's exactly what Darth Plagueis was - he was a plague that threatened to destroy the Republic.
Names are extremely important. Especially for villains. If the name resonates, it can actually give a deeper meaning to the villain and makes a subconscious connection between us and them.
Now, look at the new Star Wars villains:
The new "head honcho" is the Supreme Leader, Snoke. His name could be a reference to his transparant projection or it could speak to his ability to elude capture (like he's smoke). I have no idea. All I know is, whoever thought up these names should be fired.
And finally, we arrive at Kylo Ren. What's the deeper meaning behind his name? Nothing.
Nothing at all.
Even worse, the name isn't memorable. Nor does it resonate. It's not even particularly masculine. In fact, it sounds like one of those "app names" that are generated by adding the first two letters of a first name to the last two letters of a last name. In fact, SlashFilm.com said as much when they noted that "Kylo is not Ben’s given name. It's most likely a combination of his family names sKYwalker and soLO."
Kylo Ren is pitiful name. And it makes the character sound pitiful.
The only thing I can connect Kylo Ren's name to is the Cactus Wren - a skittish little bird that hides inside prickly cactus. And maybe that's all Kylo Ren is: a skittish little man hiding inside a prickly suit of armor.
Try these tips when naming your next great villain:
And remember, a villain's name won't be remembered, if it can't be pronounced.
4) A VILLAIN MUST BE UNBEATABLE
That's right. Unbeatable. No exceptions.
If the villain isn't unbeatable, it won't mean anything when the hero finally beats them.
Thankfully, they made Kylo Ren a superior fighter. But, it should be noted that, when He fought Rey at the end of the movie, Rey had never used a light-saber and (most of all) wasn't proficient with the Force. So, in all reality, if Kylo was able to destroy the Jedi Academy (with its powerful Master, Luke Skywalker present) then surely, he could have just blinked and wiped out an untrained ameteur like Rey.
However, they did one thing really cool.
If you watch the final battle between Kylo and Rey, all Rey knows to do is thrust her lightsaber at Kylo, because (obviously) she has no idea how to swordfight.
Plus, she spends the majority of the fight fending him off and running away. This is exactly what a person with no proficiency would do - especially against an unbeatable opponent.
And that's exactly what Kylo Ren was: unbeatable.
That is, until he tried to push Ren over the edge. At that moment - when she needed it most - she tapped into the Force within her and gave Kylo the spanking he deserved.
Hence, the name of the movie.
It doesn't matter if you're writing an epic space opera or a romantic comedy, the rule still applies. The Opponent must be unbeatable. It doesn't matter if it's a monster from the depths or a co-worker at the office. It doesn't matter what or who the Opponent is, so long as they're stronger and faster than the Lead.
This is the Lead's challenge. In every great story, the Lead is forced to reach down, deep inside and use their wits (or the Force) to do something extraordinary. And when they do that - when they overcome the unbeatable foe - that's when we feel satisfied. Cuz it makes us feel like, "Yeah, if they can do it, so can I."
And that's what great stories are all about.