It wasn’t until I started writing these essays teasing out the influences behind my space opera trilogy that I even considered the large shadow cast by Princess Leia.
At first, I thought Leia’s chief impact on Raena’s story was the torture scene in A New Hope. As you remember, Leia has been captured by Darth Vader’s Star Destroyer and taken to Governor Tarkin. They know she had the stolen plans to the Death Star, but they haven’t been able to locate them. The audience never learns the evidence against Leia. She really did have the plans and really is working for the Alliance, so there’s no reason — and no time in the movie — for the Imperials to prove her guilt as a traitor. It’s just taken as given.
Twenty-year-old Leia is thrown into a detention cell on the Death Star (with her boots, belt, and hairpins) and left alone to consider her fate. She’s fairly confident that her diplomatic status or royal title will protect her, until Vader arrives with a pair of guards and an interrogation droid.
The database at StarWars.com informs us that these floating spherical droids were designed in secret by the Imperial Department of Military Research “to exploit a prisoner’s mental and physical weakness.” They “inject drugs that lessen pain tolerance and block mental resistance, and use hallucinogens and truth serums to influence victims.”
We don’t see Leia get tortured. In fact, the torture we see is limited to watching a droplet form at the end of the droid’s hypodermic. Later, however, Vader is impressed by her resistance to the mind probe. One can only imagine what he did to her in that cell. Whatever it was, it didn’t leave a mark or even stain her white dress.
To illustrate the concept that what you don’t see is worse than what you do, that interrogation scene preyed on my young mind. Raena didn’t start out in my initial short stories as an assassin. (That was actually an interpretation that my editor added in his description of The Dangerous Type, but I liked it, so I kept it.) In the original stories, Raena served simply as Thallian’s aide. While he was nominally a diplomat who plays at assassination politics, his real love is torturing the enemies of the Empire. Raena watches him refine his skills and learns all she can at his side.
Throughout the Star Wars movies, Leia continues to be amazing: she can fire a blaster more accurately than a stormtrooper, she can fly the Millennium Falcon, she gives inspirational speeches to men she’s sending to their deaths, and she rides a speeder bike through the forest on the Endor moon. But she does those things so effortlessly that they fade into the background of the movies, passing without notice. This is a 20-year-old who is the princess of her planet’s ruling family, who serves in the Imperial Senate while running messages for the Alliance. I’m not sure when Leia had time to learn to pilot a spaceship, but damn, girl.
In reaction to Leia’s impressive and varied skillset, I wanted Raena’s talents to be more focused. She grew up learning to fight in a paramilitary cult. She knows weapons from running around with Ariel. Thallian taught her how to destroy things and the variety of ways to kill people. And he taught her to like it.
Re-watching the original Star Wars movies this month, I am even more amused that Publishers Weekly accused me of bringing grimdark to space opera. Have they scene the Star Wars films? Torture (Leia in Star Wars, Han in Empire, Luke in Jedi), planetary genocide, slavery, all sorts of limbs being lopped off, crawling into the dead body of the tauntaun to keep warm, the burning bodies of Luke’s aunt and uncle… Beneath the Ewoks and the triumphant dogfights in space, the Star Wars universe is pretty grim.
I guess the earliest influences really are the strongest.
What strong female characters have inspired your characters?