Monday, February 8, 2016

All I Ever Needed to Know About Writing, I Learned From Darth Vader

Quite possibly the scariest thing on the Internet

When I was about four years old, I had a doll named Princess Vader. I don’t remember where I got her or even what she looked like, but I do remember where she was kept and that was underneath a lot of junk at the bottom of my toy box.

Princess Vader rarely made an appearance outside of that box, but sometimes I would peer inside of it to make sure she was where I had left her. If ever she was MIA, I would get very upset until she was found and returned to that place beneath the blocks and Fisher-Price Little People houses where she belonged. I may not have wanted to play with her, but that didn’t mean I didn’t want to know where she was at all times. Tabs were kept on Princess Vader. I had strong feelings toward this doll, despite my lack of memory of her physicality, and that is because she scared the hell out of me.

I don’t remember how Princess Vader acquired her name. I’ve googled the phrase just to make sure there wasn’t some awful, 1980s Hasbro attempt at creating a female version of Darth Vader to appeal to the little girls of the Star Wars era. There wasn’t, but there is this which is arguably worse.

It’s possible that I had named her myself, though I don’t know what would have possessed me to do such a thing.  It’s also within reason that she was given to me by my dad or an uncle who named her Princess Vader as a joke to tease me, since torturing me in that way was something almost anyone in my family would have done for a laugh.

But regardless where she came from or whoever it was that bestowed her name upon her, to this day whenever I happen upon that old toy box, emptied and repurposed for the storage of old books and candles decades ago, my first thought is that I hope she is in there, and I hope she doesn’t come out.

No, thank you.
As far as I can remember the doll itself wasn't particularly creepy-looking. She wasn’t even one of those possessed, My Buddy/Kid Sister that inspired Chuckie from Child's Play. But it was her guilt by association—her name, her Vader-ness—that caused me to reject her entirely. With a name like hers, I feared the connections to the darkside she may have. I feared that those connections might someday come back, looking for their lost Princess.

As for me and likely everyone else from my generation, Darth Vader was the embodiment of all fears. In fact, I can still remember my blood running cold in my veins the first time I laid eyes on him. My uncle had just purchased a VCR and then bought Star Wars to watch on it (because the fact that you could actually own that movie was the number one reason people bought VCRs in the early 1980s). I remember the opening story scrolling (just that it was there, not what it said because I couldn’t read). Then, all of a sudden there were spaceships and lasers and shiny robots and battle guys in white armor, and it all totally captivated me in a way that shows like Sesame Street never had. I had no idea what was going on, but I was amazed—hooked from the beginning.

I then remember after the initial fight scene, there was a small pause in the action. Out of the dust of battle there emerged a caped figure in black, loudly breathing in a reverse snore. He seemed to tower around the fallen storm troopers as he surveyed the carnage of war through his mask—his black, eyeless mask—and said nothing. He just breathed.

It. Was. Terrifying.

For the average, older-than-preschool aged person, I imagine Darth Vader seemed like a menacing character too (black costuming is traditionally a dead giveaway that someone is a bad guy, after all). Once his bad-guyness has been established though, an older viewer would move beyond it to wonder more about him: Is he a robot? Is he a man? Does he have asthma? What’s his beef with the Princess? But being that I was four when I encountered Darth Vader for the first time, I didn’t really care to know more about him. All I could focus on was that I just didn’t want him to get me.

Even now, in a galaxy far, far in the future from the first time I laid eyes on Darth Vader, I'm not ashamed to admit that I find him intimidating. There’s surely some psychology out there to back this up, but I’m betting that because I was so profoundly scared by him when I was young, I’ve never fully grown out of that fear. There’s something about spending a few years trying to squeeze yourself in between your mattress and the wall of your top bunk at night in hopes that when Darth Vader comes to get you in your sleep, he’ll take your sister from the bottom bunk instead that doesn’t quite leave your psyche, even well into adulthood. Even recently on a trip to Disney World when I had the opportunity to meet a fully costumed regular man dressed as Darth Vader, I almost wet my pants in fear for my life. I swear that I'm mostly a reasonable, realistic person, but when the doors opened and my family and I stepped into the character greeting room where he stood breathing loudly and staring at us, I audibly gasped and probably swore.

From a safer physical distance though, as an adult I have come to have an appreciation for Darth Vader. When I reflect on his complete story (as told through Episodes I-VI), I find him less scary than complex and compelling. I almost wish I was an undergrad English major again so I had an excuse to write a ten page essay comparing him to Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights or The Creature from Frankenstein. I want to verbally dissect him, to break him into literary molecules and understand what exactly it is about Darth Vader makes him so iconic. 
This is a real thing you can buy.

A lot of people would probably love to understand that, actually. What does make an icon? What's the formula for a character whose popularity endures almost forty years with no sign of stopping? Judging by merchandise alone, the cultural relevance of Darth Vader is still full-steam ahead. There are millions of writers out there who'd like to milk a cashcow like that. Who doesn't want to be attributed with starting a cultural phenomenon? 

As a writer myself I am always fascinated when other writers seem to discover the equation for massive success with a story. Even if I'm not at all interested in what they're writing, I still want to know every last detail of why so many other people are. After following the trends and trendsetters, what I've come to believe about the success stories of writers is that no matter which dystopic society or supernatural creature is the flavor of the week, what makes something popular will always be a bit elusive. Sometimes the iron is hot by luck, and sometimes it is struck by luck. There are perfect storms from which whirlwind successes emerge, but like storms in nature, there's only so much anyone can do to predict their paths. 

Inasmuch as success is able to be controlled, however, I've learned that there is no substitute for authenticity and creative imagination. George Lucas didn't generate Darth Vader from a computer program that guaranteed him the perfect super villain. He merely tapped into his own hopes and fears and illustrated them in a way an audience could relate to them, too.  This is how I want to tell stories. Sometimes I get lucky, and what I write finds its way to readers who can relate to it. We'll connect through the fear or pain or joy that is transmitted through the the language of story. Other times, I pour my heart into something and it gets dismissed by everyone who lays eyes on it. Both results usually take the same amount of work. 

But, when the iron is cold and the critics are loud, it's Darth Vader that keeps me going. Maybe not him specifically (though, if someone were dressed like him standing over my shoulder and giving me deadlines, I'd be interested to see what I could pump out), but the knowledge that all he is began as an idea in the mind of a writer. So do and so will all the other complex and compelling characters that we will ever love or fear or name the dolls we keep at the bottom of the toy box after.

I'd be interested to hear from any one else who has this sort of strong emotion connected to a character from their youth. Who scared you? Which fictionalized bully did you hate? Who were you in love with? Who did you root for? If you're a writer, do you see any of these characters translated into your own works? 

While you're thinking on that, enjoy this version of Darth Vader, which is way less intimidating that the original. 

1 comment:

  1. I don't remember a specific character ever terrifying me. I was a pretty brave child, and fairly able to separate fiction from reality. But there was one movie that scared the living bajeebus out of me, and that was Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.
    After I watched that movie, I was terrified to let my dogs outside, because they would certainly be pecked to death by birds. I freaked out when I saw a bird in the yard because it was definitely plotting my murder. I lay awake at night just waiting for the thud of seagulls trying to smash through my window.
    No scary character ever got to me, but something about the idea of these completely benign, stupid animals organizing themselves in order to wipe out the human race paralyzed me. I still get nervous around birds. Screw birds.