Personally I’ve (only) seen The Force Awakens 3 times in the theater — my plan is to watch it that many times more April 1st when it’s available on Amazon Prime — but I can honestly and willing say that it is now my favorite of the Star Wars movies. As a child of the 70s who was “there” for the originals this is huge. Believe me when I realized I felt this way I didn’t admit it right, especially to my die-hard Star Wars friends, right away. So imagine how I felt when I started to realize that Kylo Ren is actually the best character in the Star Wars universe!
As Jason Guerrasio said,
The performance that Adam Driver gives as a conflicted pupil of the Dark Side is such a revelation. I didn’t think the “Star Wars” franchise could create a character like this. The daddy issues, the spouts of rage — it’s everything George Lucas tried to make Anakin Skywalker but couldn’t pull off.
I couldn’t agree more and, like I said, no one was more surprised than me. The fact is though when it comes down to it to define a great character you have to have a series of standards and guidelines. You need to meet and a GREAT character has to meet every one of those standards on every level. Otherwise it’s one opinion against another (spoiler alert… it still is but the standards help).
So the question is does Kylo Ren meet the standards? Let’s have a look…
If a character isn’t interesting, if they aren’t an individual with differences in the way they think, feel and behave from all the other characters in the story then they’re going to be flat and dull. They have to be distinct and that equals personality. Kylo Ren, with all his “Vader-like”, Sith-Lord wanna-be looks and actions is unique. He has personality. He may have his faults — we’ll get to those later — but he has personality.
This is a fancy word in character talk for “choice”. Basically in order for a character to have agency, they have to have a choice to make. Kylo’s story is full of choices. There’s hardly a scene in the film that he’s not making a choice. So yes… he is fully agency.
3. MOTIVATING FORCE
Characters want and need stuff. They’re motivated by these things… in fact the great acting teacher Constantin Stanislavski said there should be ONE thing that is over all these other things as a primary motivation. He defined this as “the motivating FORCE.” This is always a “to do” and never a “to be.” For example, Kylo Ren’s motivating force might be something like, “To make people believe he is as fearful and powerful as Darth Vader by wearing similar robes, covering his face, displaying use and control of the Force, and being ruthless in his dealings with others.” How this plays out into his every individual action and smaller motivation is where we find out if that motivating force is truely “IT” or not. Kylo Ren has a very powerful motivating force and therefore very powerful motivations; regardless if I got it right or not — only Adam Driver can really tell us what it really is for sure.
Characters need fear. Without it they are dead. They also must confront their fear — it’s not whether or not they’re successful in overcoming it that’s the point it’s just that they must face it in the story. Again, Kylo Ren is a perfect example of fear being present in a character. He is fearful of failure: fearful of “being found out” (that he’s basically inept… and fearful…) fearful that he won’t be able to do what he needs to do when the time comes. All things we see and understand very clearly throughout the film and all which connect directly to his motivating force.
5. INTERNAL CONFLICT
If I have to explain this one in regards to how Kylo Ren exhibits it in the story then you need to see the movie again. Fighting with himself is most of what Ren is doing and Adam Driver does it beautifully! His eyes — and even his head tilt, etc. when he’s wearing the helmet — are so perfectly done that you can’t miss he has internal conflict.
6. EXTERNAL CONFLICT
Give a character internal conflict great but without external conflict he’s going to have to be in a padded room. Ren’s battle damaged helmet shows us he’s been through conflict and his story in the film doesn’t disappoint in delivering more of it. He is conflicted on all sides and by foes and allies.
Not only is the connection a character has to other characters important but so is the connection that we have, as the viewer, to the character. Not everyone loves Kylo Ren but that’s okay because it doesn’t have to be a positive connection… it just has to be a connection. I doubt you could find anyone who saw The Force Awakens who wouldn’t have an answer to the question, “What’d you think of Kylo Ren?” He created a connection with us not to mention with the other characters in the film.
Characters who aren’t good at anything at all are duds. No one wants to see a superhero who’s just a guy and doesn’t really succeed or can’t do anything. No one wants to see any character, even if they are “just a man/woman”, who is just okay at everything! They need to have skillz. They need to excel at something. Does Kylo meet this one? You bet. He excels at the use of the Force (for one) in ways that we’ve never seen on film. In fact it is his skillz that make his faults so wonderful… which leads us to…
If a character is perfect he can’t go anywhere fast. Every character must have their “Kryptonite” as it were. Kylo Ren is full of faults. It’s a cascading avalanche starting with his motivating force, pouring through his fear, conflicts, connections and skillz pooling into a cauldron of faults that bubble back up through the layers. Each is connected and they all inform and are informed by the others. It is the base of Ren’s faults that make everything else so wonderfully rich though. It’s the fact he is inept, the fact he throws tantrums, the fact he is “just a dude with 70s hair” and not imposing at all, that make everything else work so strongly. Without his faults nothing else would matter.
There’s a reason a character is described when you first meet them in a book. There’s a reason sometimes characters aren’t shown right away in shows or films. There’s a reason that so much time is spent on defining what a character in a film like The Force Awakens will look like. It’s because it matters. First off let me say that I think every part of The Force Awakens visuals were perfect… that being said, Kylo Ren is certainly part of that perfection. He isn’t Darth Vader. He isn’t Darth Maul. He isn’t Anakin, Luke, Han, Chewbacca, Yoda, Obi-Wan, or anyone else that’s ever been in any of the Star Wars movies or universe. He IS Kylo Ren. Period. Perfectly, completely, Kylo and that makes him possible.
Even Tuvok or Mr. Spock would agree that emotions are crucial for a character. If we can’t FEEL with them — even if we’ve never felt what they’re feeling — then we can’t connect. We won’t believe their fears, won’t smile at their skillz or be frustrated by their faults. Emotions are a must and again we see that Kylo Ren has emotions to boot. His motivating force control a lot of his emotions but it works the other way too.
If we know everything about a character there’s no where they can go. They’re done. They’ve reached the end of their ability to be interesting in any way. We’ve all seen this happen. Sometimes we’ve seen it mid-movie or read it mid-story. It makes characters seem trite and sort of silly and annoying — but not in a good way. Kylo has plenty of unknowns. Where’d he get Vader’s helmet? Why is he bad? What’s he really doing? It’s the unknowns that make us want to see more of him. It’s the unknowns that keep him interesting.
This may be one of the most important things to me. It’s why Tony Soprano, Dr. Gregory House, Frank Underwood, Rick Grimes, Walt Longmire and so many other current and pop-culture characters are so great — they are all consistent. You know what they’re going to do when they’re going to do it. Does this mean they can’t surprise you? No! Not at all! The first time I saw The Force Awakens I was surprised Kylo Ren didn’t kill an officer but his reaction, while not killing him, was perfectly consistent with his character. In fact every single thing he did during the entire film was consistent. He was Kylo Ren every scene, every moment.
So it’s hopefully pretty obvious by now that Kylo Ren is a great character but is he the greatest character in the Star Was universe? The reason I think the answer to that is, “Yes,” is simply this… there is no other character that meets all 13 of these points as strongly as he does. Certainly there are others that meet them all — I think Finn, Rey, Poe and even BB-8 do! — but not as strongly as Kylo Ren and that’s why I’ve accepted him as the greatest Star Wars character yet.