We crossed an important threshold in our home this past weekend: My eldest daughter finished watching “Star Wars: A New Hope.”
It was a film viewed in starts and stops. Those long, panning shots of the Tatooine desert are not of particular interest to a six-year-old. More than once she (and I) fell asleep. But once we got to Mos Eisley and met up with Han Solo and Chewbacca, we were set. We boarded the Millennium Falcon, set off for the (spoilers) remnants of Alderaan and the rest is history. Interest was piqued. Fandom was born.
But Han Solo, for my six-year-old, posed something of a conundrum.
“Is he a bad guy, Dad?”
I glanced over at her, eyebrows raised. “What? No, of course. He’s one of the main good guys.”
She nodded slowly. “Are you sure? He’s being pretty mean.”
“Yeah, well. Character development takes time.”
She nodded again like she knew what that meant.
We revisited that conversation several times: Han Solo is kind of a jerk when Luke and Obi-Wan meet him. He’s kind of a jerk when he meets Princess Leia. He’s a jerk about the Force and he’s a jerk about the Death Star and he’s a particular jerk when he abandons the Rebels to spend the small fortune he’s made instead of helping his friends.
After a while, I started to wonder: Is Han Solo the bad guy?
But then he returns and saves Luke and consequently the entire Rebellion and the day itself. Han Solo is now a hero. Give that guy a medal!
“You see?” I nudged my daughter. “He is a good guy.”
But I’ve sat on that conversation for a few days now. I’ve made mental lists of Disney villains my girls are well acquainted with. You have your unpleasant mothers that appear good until suddenly they’re nothing but evil (e.g., Mother Gothel from “Tangled”). You have your princes and your kings who seem nice until their power-hungry impulses are revealed and, again, now they’re nothing but evil (e.g., Prince Hans from “Frozen;” King Magnifico from “Wish”). And you have your straight-up villains — they started out evil and they stay that way (e.g., Ursula from “The Little Mermaid; Scar from “The Lion King”).
For children, perhaps, it is important to draw these clear lines between good guys and bad guys. We remove the ambiguity. When a character turns to the proverbial dark side, their eyes go wild, their clothes turn black, their hair is suddenly an unnerving purple.
But Han Solo — well, he’s kind of like all of us, right? Nuanced. A jerk at times, but capable of doing the right thing. Of caring and loving and seeing a bigger picture, even when it costs him something. He’s got the makings of a good guy, but he’s also susceptible to the same temptations that make a bad guy.
Because I am who I am, it might not surprise you to know that as I considered this conversation with my daughter, this bit of Scripture came readily to mind: “When I was a child, I used to talk as a child, think as a child, reason as a child; when I became [an adult], I put aside childish things.” 1 Cor 13:11
As children, we may struggle to see the nuance in characters. As children, we may be impatient with character development and story arcs. But as adults, we know that people are complex and multifaceted. It takes time and ongoing effort to be the best version of ourselves, to discover who we are meant to become.
Paul reminds us as much in that letter to the Corinthians: Putting aside childish things means putting aside the temptation to write a person off entirely, to cast them in a single role forever, to remove from their story the opportunity for growth and discovery.
We’re all Han Solo, I think. We encounter Han Solo every day: folks who grapple with the light and the dark, who find themselves torn between self-interest and the desire to love and serve in all things.
So, let’s be patient with those people. Let’s be patient with ourselves. Because we’re all in this story together. And we all need to accompany one another to the story’s conclusion so we can finish our own character growth.
Eric A. Clayton is the award-winning author of Cannonball Moments: Telling Your Story, Deepening Your Faith (Loyola Press) and the deputy director of communications at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States. His essays on spirituality, parenting and pop culture have appeared in America Magazine, National Catholic Reporter, U.S. Catholic, Busted Halo and more, and he is a regular contributor to Give Us This Day, IgnatianSpirituality.com and Dork Side of the Force, where he blogs about Star Wars. His fiction has been published by Black Hare Press, Small Wonders Magazine and more. His next book, My Life with the Jedi: The Spirituality of Star Wars, an exploration of Star Wars through the lens of Ignatian spirituality, is due out in February 2024 from Loyola Press. Sign up for his Substack “Story Scraps” here. He lives in Baltimore, MD with his wife, two young daughters and their cat.