We’ve seen how our usual way of thinking about heroes and villains may not be correct (link), especially when you look at it through the single lens of tactics (link), but what happens when you look at motivation?
Luke Skywalker has always been the archetype of the Light Side. He keeps his friends safe, never betrays his own moral compass, and puts everything he can into his own training. But how did he get there? It wasn’t an overwhelming sense desire to defend the weak. What really sent him running to the Rebellion was revenge. How long would he have stayed on Tatooine if the Empire hadn’t swarmed down upon him? No matter how many lives he saved, wasn’t his first motivation just revenge?
Luke’s perfect counterpart is General Hux of the First Order. Hux should be an extension of the organization he helped create. Sinister, overpowering, and tyrannical. When it boils down to motivation, though, he was running on fear. Hux was brought in to the First Order when he was young by his abusive father. The eventual leader of the First Order spent most of his time hiding. When he was offered the power that started his ascent, he didn’t accept it for malicious reasons. He was only trying to protect himself from the abuse of his father.
If Hux had known anything other than fear in his early life, The First Order may never have taken off. He could have taken a different path, perfectly mirroring Luke’s story. If Luke had known real fear in his early life, what would his motivation have been and where would it have taken him? Instead, he saw it too late and acted out of revenge.
When looking at motivation this way, it’s possible that Darth Vader is more than the mass murderer we know. Before his youngling killing spree, he had one clear goal— save his wife. While selfish, the motivation alone can’t make him terrible. It’s almost endearing. Which leads to the question- what about his want-to-be-protege?
What are Kylo Ren’s motivations? Is he as evil as we make him out be or can we even decide that with such little information about him? Aside from his patricide, all we know about him is what other people have said- he turned on Luke, he leads the Knights of Ren, he didn’t know about his family’s dark secrets. What we don’t know is why. He could have a selfless reason for all these acts. Like Hux, it could be for protection (either his own or even for the galaxy). It’s not hard to speculate that he could have a good reason for his actions, making him more a tragic hero than a villain.
Darth Vader and potentially Kylo Ren make it hard to say if a selfish motivation is good, bad, or neutral. A new fan favorite takes this question a step further, since she often switches side. Dr. Aphra has not only worked for both the Empire and the Rebels, but she’s betrayed both sides, too. Every step of the way, she’s been driven by one of two things- money or the desire for more knowledge. She never has ill-will towards a certain person or cause. How can we decide which side she falls on?
One character who would typically be thought of as a hero does have ill-will– Hazram Namir of Battlefront: Twilight Company. A strong soldier and reluctant leader in the Rebellion, Namir has all the decorations of a hero. He just doesn’t want to be. His only motivation is survival and using his background as a fighter. It’s easy to think that he doesn’t care which side he’s on, as long as he’s fighting. He even thinks to himself that he frequently performs “acts that felt more like murder than war.” It doesn’t seem to phase him. When someone is so bloodthirsty, it doesn’t matter what side they’re on.
The tactics a character employs are easy to judge. We see the consequences. We can’t always see what prompted them to do so, though. What’s most concerning is the thought that we can’t judge anyone, from Kylo Ren to Luke Skywalker, until we know what drives them. The Last Jedi seems lined up to challenge everything we thought we knew when seen through this lens.