Mentors, Guardians, Obstacles & Star Wars

Here’s an unusual situation where both Chris and myself independently answered the same question from a writer. Comparing our two replies is both interesting and also sheds light on two different ways of looking at the same central story structure concept.

A writer asks, regarding the original Star Wars movie (Episode IV):

In your book, Dramatica, you have Obi Wan as the obstacle character. This is counter-intuitive. In every other story methodology, Obi Wan is the mentor, and Dark Vader is the opponent. Darth Vader directly opposes Luke.

Please explain.

Chris Huntley’s reply:

Most every other story methodology does not identify the four throughlines and their significance.

In the “big picture,” the empire is at war with the rebels. The constant warring between the factions causes trouble for everyone. In that throughline, the empire, led by Gran Mof Tarkin, is shown to be the “bad guys,” the rebels are the “good guys,” the farmboy from Tatooine is the hero driving the story forward, the retired Jedi master is the guardian (mentor), and the emperor’s henchman is the one that seems to mess up everyone’s agenda. This throughline is the logical part of the author’s position.

Luke, as the Main Character, is someone who dreams of being a do-gooder, or saving the day, etc., yet he is stuck on a planet as far from the core (and action, he thinks) as is possible. He has Jedi blood, unbeknownst to him, which gives him skills and powers beyond his years. It is raw talent that needs training and focusing. He tests himself by putting himself in dangerous positions, which turn out to be far more dangerous than he can handle (e.g. the Tuskan Raiders, Breaking Leia out of the cell block, etc.). This throughline provides the personal side for the audience to empathize and step into the story.

Obi-wan is Impact Character. He is Luke’s trainer, not only in the use of the Force but in learning to believe in himself — to trust himself…to trust the Force. This throughline provides the influence needed to force Luke to grow.

The relationship throughline is about the Mentor/Student relationship that develops between Ben and Luke. This throughline is the emotional center of the author’s position.

NOTE: In Star Wars (1977), Darth Vader does not directly oppose Luke. In fact, the two only have one somewhat direct confrontation at the end of the story in the trench on the Death Star. In subsequent films, the two come into direct confrontation, but that is, as they say, another story.

Best regards,
Chris Huntley
Write Brothers Inc.

My reply:

The Obstacle Character, by definition, is the one who stands in the path of the Main Character approaching life in his same old usual way. He is an obstacle to staying in a mental rut. It is the Obstacle Character who constantly pressures the Main Character to change his ways, to alter his manner of thinking or of doing things. Clearly that is Obi Wan, not Vader.

Now, while Obi Wan may traditionally be labeled a “mentor”, that label doesn’t work for every Obstacle Character. For example, an Obstacle Character may not like, care about, or even be aware of the Main Character. It could be a rock star whom the Main Character will never meet. But, by following the disintegrating life of the drug-using rock star in the tabloids, the Main Character comes to realize that he must change his ways and does, perhaps. Therefore, this character has been an obstacle to the Main Character continuing down the same path – his original life course, but he would hardly be seen as a stereotypical “mentor”, which is far too limiting a label.

Further, in the original Star Wars movie, “Episode IV – A New Hope” (to which I believe you are referring) Darth does not directly oppose Luke. Darth opposes everyone. He chokes his own people. It is he who comes up with the plan to release the Millennium Falcon with a tracking beacon which ultimately leads to the rebels getting the plans that destroy the death star (“This had better work, Vader….”).

Darth is a character we call the Contagonist – a name we coined to describe this character who is not the head villain (the Emperor as represented by the Gran Mof Tarkin and all his storm troopers is the real villain of Star Wars, as we see even more definitively in the prequels. Darth, in fact, is diametrically opposed to his old master, Obi Wan. That is why the two of them must battle one on one.

Now, this is not to say that Darth is the opposite of Obi Wan’s function as Obstacle Character. There are two kinds of characters in stories: Objective Characters who are seen by their function, such as Antagonist and Protagonist, and two special Subjective Characters who are seen by their points of view, such as Main Character and Obstacle Character. Luke and Obi Wan (and any Main and Obstacle Characters would) have two different perspectives on life, and it is the heart of the story to see if the Main Character will or will not be convinced to adopt the Obstacle Character’s view.

This is what leads to the leap of faith or moment of truth for the Main Character. In Luke’s case, Obi has been on his case for the entire movie to reach out and touch the force, to trust himself and his abilities, even so far as to put him in a helmet with the blast shield down during training so Luke could only rely on his own feelings. That is why just before Luke destroys the death star, he is using the targeting computer and Obi’s voice returns to remind him, trust your feelings, Luke. Luke finally let’s go, trusts in himself and turns off the computer, much to the dismay of the command center. And yet, it is that decision, driven by a story-long pressure from Obi Wan as the Obstacle Character, that brings him to that necessary step if he is to ultimately succeed. (Imagine how unfulfilling it would be if he turned off the computer and as a result failed to destroy the death star, or if that scene had not been even included with Obi Wan’s voice – the ending, though a success, would have lacked something that helped make it so fulfilling).

But, that is only Obi’s subjective character role. Obi Wan also has an objective character role – the Guardian (comprised of Support and Conscience and more). The Guardian is an archetype, meaning it is actually made up of a number of different character attributes that all share a similar flavor, just as in chemistry all the elements naturally fall in to families, such as the rare earth elements or the noble gases. That’s why chlorine and fluorine are so similar, for example.

When all the elements from one family end up in the same character, it is an archetype. So, the opposite of the Guardian is the Contagonist (made up of Oppose and Temptation, among others). By “nature” he opposes everyone, not just Luke. But, his function to oppose is in DIRECT conflict with Obi Wan’s nature to support. Similarly, Darth’s “Temptation” (of the dark side) is balanced and diametrically in conflict with Obi’s “Conscience” (to follow the force).

So, while Luke in the plot must get past Darth who, like many implementations of the Contagonist archetype, is essentially the empires guard dog, it is Obi who opposes Luke’s desire to be part of the system with all its tech toys and weapons and convinces him to trust his own inner abilities.

Of course, there is far more going on in Star Wars than this simple exploration. And, each of these concepts appears in different ways in different stories. But, this should at least outline for you the purpose of the Obstacle Character (also called the Impact or Influence Character) and why Darth, though dressed in black, is not the real villain of Star Wars, just the henchman of the villain.

Melanie Anne Phillips
Co-creator, Dramatica