I want to talk about the tragedy of Princess Leia’s character. No, I am not talking about the fact that she Force flies in space. Nor am I talking about the fact that she will not be in Episode IX due to the fact that Carrie Fisher died last year. I am talking about the fact that Princess Leia is the most static, disposable character of the original trio of main characters.
This is not a popular opinion, given Princess Leia’s place in popular culture, especially for women. Princess Leia was definitely a subversion of people’s expectations for a princess in need of rescue. And yet, when I think back on what Princess Leia actually did in the original Star Wars Trilogy, I have to conclude that her story has no arc, and her actions are rarely relevant to the plot.
1 Princess Leia has no arc.
Luke Skywalker and Han Solo both have arcs within the trilogy. Luke Skywalker’s arc is one of coming of age. At the beginning of the trilogy, he is an impulsive, immature, teenager. He is a Jedi and a man at the end of the trilogy. Han Solo starts out as a selfish smuggler who only cares about money. At the end of the trilogy, he is a general willing to sacrifice his life for a cause. Princess Leia starts out as a feisty member of the rebellion against the Empire. By the end of the trilogy, she is a feisty member of the rebellion against the Empire. The only major transformation her character undergoes is to fall in love with Han, but this does not change her character. She stays exactly the same.
2 Princess Leia’s actions are rarely relevant to the plot.
The most significant action she ever performs is to put the Death Star plans on R2-D2. For most of the movie, she is a prisoner. When she arrives on Yavin 4, she literally stands around listening silently while Luke and the other soldiers destroy the Death Star. It is much the same in The Empire Strikes Back. She is shown as a leader with decision making power at the beginning of he movie, but then she is immediately stripped of this power when Han takes her on the Falcon. She spends most of the movie complaining about Han’s choices to no avail, after which she is captured and then rescued. The only other decision she makes is to take the Falcon back to rescue Luke at Cloud City. In The Return of the Jedi, she is a participant, but not a leader. She participates in Han Solo’s rescue, freeing him from carbonite and killing Jabba the Hutt, but it is not clear how much influence she had on the actual plot. The focus is on Luke saving everyone. At Endor, she is once again relegated to a participant. Han is promoted to general. It is this lack of decision making power that robs her character of a chance to grow.
None of this is to say that Princess Leia is a bad character or that it is wrong that so many love her and are inspired by her. However, her character is only a shadow of what it could have been. We know that Disney was planning to feature Leia in episode 9, much as they featured Han in episode 7 and Luke in episode 8. Despite the outrage of fans, I actually like how they handled Luke’s arc in episode 8 and I am fine with what they did with Han in episode 7. I like to believe that they were going to give Leia what she has never had in the series: the chance to grow as a character. It is sad that we will never see it.