How to Nail a Character 101: Brian Daley & “The Han Solo Adventures”

I. Preamble & Introduction

Han Solo is one of the most popular Star Wars characters — he is, in fact, one of the most popular cinematic heroes period; in 2003, the American Film Institute honoured him with a placement at #14 in their list of “100 Greatest Heroes & Villains.” It should therefore come as little surprise that, in the wake of the original Star Wars film, it was Han Solo out of the “trio” of heroes that received a trilogy of novels (titled The Han Solo Adventures) in the then nascent “Expanded Universe.”

The author of this trilogy was a man named Brian Daley, who practically stumbled upon the chance to write the character in 1979:

I stopped by Judy-Lynn [del Rey]’s office and asked if she had any for-hire work I might take on […] Judy-Lynn said, “Pick me somebody from Star Wars and write a proposal for a character novel about them.”

[…]

At that time, Jack Chalker was preparing to write about Solo, and Leigh Brackett was scheduled to take on at least one Princess Leia novel. But all that changed very quickly, since Jack decided to finish the series he was working on and Leigh passed away.


Solo was the obvious choice because he undergoes a moral transformation in the course of the movie; everybody else starts out either good or bad, and stays that way.


So into the bargain of getting to do Solo, mine was the only new SW book to appear at that time, which was a tremendous break for me.

(Excerpted from “A STAR WARS Fan Interviews Brian Daley” by Alex Newborn)

Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia Organa were featured in 1978’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (penned by Alan Dean Foster) a full two years before The Empire Strikes Back premiered in May 1980, but Han Solo was conspicuously absent from that story; according to Foster and other sources, this was because Harrison Ford had not yet signed on for an appearance in the sequel to Star Wars. It wasn’t until April 12, 1979, that fans would get a story centred around Han (outside the ongoing Marvel comics, that is) with Daley’s first foray into the universe, Han Solo at Stars’ End. This was followed by Han Solo’s Revenge later that year, on October 12, 1979, and the trilogy was completed with the release of Han Solo and the Lost Legacy, on August 12, 1980.

My hardcover copies of the trilogy (the second copy of Revenge is signed by Daley, a rarity)

Daley first saw Star Wars along with the legions of original fans when it premiered in May 1977; like so many others, he found the experience transformative. His friend and frequent collaborator James Luceno (himself later a Star Wars author) recalled that Brian said

[…] that he had finally seen on screen what he had been imagining for years. The wish-fulfillment of a 12-year-old budding sci-fi writer, whose small room overflowed with comic books and notebooks filled with ideas for the stories he would someday write.

(“Brian Daley 1947-1996” by James Luceno; originally published in an issue of Star Wars Insider)

Asked years later which Star Wars film was his favourite, Daley responded: “A New Hope, because there’d never been anything like it and nothing, even a second and third viewing of the movie, ever had the same impact as my first” (Newborn). He continued writing for the Expanded Universe over the years, adapting the original trilogy films into celebrated radio dramas for NPR, he created an original radio drama titled Rebel Mission to Ord Mantell, he wrote an article for Star Wars Gamer, and he also sketched an outline for a one-shot Droids comic book.

Sadly, Brian Daley passed away before produced had wrapped on the Return of the Jedi radio drama, on February 11, 1996, another in history’s long list of cancer victims.

As hokey as it might sound, I’m writing this piece in tribute to someone who has inspired me both as a “budding sci-fi writer,” like he once was, and as a fan who is deeply appreciative of his contributions to Star Wars. I honestly can’t remember the first time I saw the original trilogy, because those movies have been part of my life for as long as I can remember, a sort of legacy passed on from my older brothers and cousins — but I can remember the first time I read The Han Solo Adventures, and the first time I sat down and listened to the Star Wars radio drama.

I was transported to the Galaxy Far, Far Away as much by those works as any of the films I’ve ever seen.

Thank you, Brian — and I wish you clear skies.

My vintage softcover copies of the trilogy (Lost Legacy is signed by Daley, another rarity)

II. Who Is Han Solo?

Whenever I (re-)read Daley’s trilogy, I always feel a little awestruck how well he understood the character of Han Solo. That shouldn’t be hard, right? Well, in my opinion, it’s not nearly as easy as it sounds. Some writers fall short of a well-rounded interpretation of the character, portraying Han as unskilled or even (at worst) actually moronic. While I can’t argue against the fact that Han is a character who relies more on “luck” than careful planning, I will definitely argue that it is his innate skill as a gunman and a pilot that always makes the most of said luck, and he isn’t supposed to be actually stupid; sure, he can be an absolute goof at times — this is something we see in all his cinematic portrayals — but he is supposed to be a character that we take at least somewhat seriously.

This is a big part of the reason why Daley’s characterization of Han resonates so well with me: He doesn’t take the character for granted, and he doesn’t treat Han like an idiot. I’m willing to heap praise on The Han Solo Adventures as a result, but that’s not the only reason I adore the character as he appears in those books.

When I talk about Daley “understanding the character of Han Solo,” it might be hard for an audience in 2019 to really understand just how special that was, much less how special it continues to be. At this point, we are forty years removed from the publication of the first two books, and something of the historical context might be lost or forgotten. Pablo Hidalgo summed up the situation perfectly in his foreword to the 2014 “Legends” reprint of the trilogy:

With only one movie to draw on,* Brian Daley exhibited an instinctive, in-the-bones understanding of Star Wars in his Han Solo trilogy. […] In the decades following, Star Wars novelists would draw from an enormous well of reference: film, TV, novels, comics, and guidebooks.

[…]

Daley didn’t have these tools at his disposal. He had to create the Star Wars galaxy from scratch. By doing so, his books feel all the more exciting and authentic because they share the same sense of discovery and inventiveness that Episode IV has.

(Pablo Hidalgo, in The Han Solo Adventures by Brian Daley, 2014, Del Rey)

Daley wasn’t writing Star Wars in the same context that modern authors do, with the last forty-two years’ worth of material to draw from; that he was able to make something from so little that someone like me could enjoy so many years later is itself a major victory. But there’s something more to his works, as well.

My copy of the 2014 Del Rey reprint

When I say that Daley “understood the character of Han Solo,” I don’t only mean that he understood the character that the audience was introduced to in 1977; no, I mean that he understood the character on a deeper level. When I read Daley’s novels, not only do I see the scoundrel and reluctant rogue from A New Hope, I envision a Han who is (for the most part) compatible with the character as he became in 1980 after Lawrence Kasdan had co-written The Empire Strikes Back. In the aforementioned foreword, Pablo says that “Han Solo in the Daley novels is the essential Han Solo” (ibid., emphasis original), and I entirely agree. Outside of their intrinsic pulp value, the biggest factor in my enjoyment of these books is that I’m able to read a continuity of character across these interpretations of Han Solo, starting with the original film, going through Daley, and ending at his final (chronologically-speaking) appearance in 2015’s The Force Awakens.

That’s huge!

What’s fascinating to me is that I believe that Daley and Kasdan not only recognized the influences Lucas had when he created Han Solo, understanding (so-to-speak) where he’d come from, but that they also came to roughly the same conclusion as to the inherent “truth” of the character. The continuity that I spoke of isn’t always there in the “Expanded Universe” materials (both Legends and Canon); there are times when it feels like characters act counter to how they would in the films or experience situations that can really take you out of the narrative, but (for me, at least) there are notably few of those moments in Daley’s trilogy.

(I wouldn’t say “none,” because while I think Han Solo is intelligent, sometimes he comes across a little too technically-inclined in Daley’s books. For example, I think Han would be more likely to have a working understanding of various technologies than an engineers’ understanding of how a computer functions. But this is really a minor nitpick.)

Daley said that he was drawn to write about Han because “he undergoes a moral transformation in the course of the movie,” whereas “everybody else starts out either good or bad, and stays that way” (Newborn). Thus, for example, while Luke and Leia are “good” and never really deviate from that in any significant way, Han is the figure in the movie who enters morally ambiguous and only becomes truly heroic by the end. In deciding to tackle the character, and by extension the question of his burgeoning morality, I feel like Daley was able to tease out an understanding of who Han Solo is in a way that was almost prophetic; by that, I mean that he was able to focus on an aspect of Han’s character that is definitely present in A New Hope, but only really emphasized in the sequels (and much later in 2018’s prequel film, Solo: A Star Wars Story).

So, who is Han Solo?

In reality, Han is “the good guy” — he just doesn’t want to believe it. Sometimes, in fact, he goes out of his way to quash the idea. He does this in both the films and the Daley trilogy as much for braggadocio and reputation as he does to protect himself from becoming too attached (and, possibly, hurt). This is the core of Han’s being, and the moral pendulum on which he finds himself consistently balanced. Han Solo is an inherently regressive character who is unable, at various points, to fully embrace his better nature.

Thus in Solo, we see the younger and far less experienced Han jump at the opportunity to become an outlaw, and he proclaims that he’s a “terrible person” to Qi’ra — only to be rebuffed by her with what she actually sees in him. In the original film, Han kills Greedo in cold-blood (a justified murder, perhaps, but one that is nonetheless intended to shock the viewer) and abandons the Rebellion at their most desperate hour — only to reappear when he’s most needed, playing a crucial rôle in the destruction of the Death Star. In Empire, Han again prepares to abandon the Rebellion, but his plans are cut short by the Battle of Hoth — whereupon he goes out of his way to ensure that Leia, the women he loves, gets away safely. And so on, and so on. The redeeming qualities of Han Solo, his penchant for heroism (especially defending his friends) but reluctance to be the hero, are ever-present, as much as he tries to sublimate or even eliminate them. Solo itself wraps up the main plot of the film by having Enfys Nest prophesy Han’s true place in the galaxy, fighting against the oppression of the Galactic Empire; Han responds in, well, true Han fashion, shaking his head and waving her off.

But we all know the truth, of course.

We see this pattern as well in Daley’s works. Han and Chewie find themselves in desperate need of repairs for the Falcon in Stars’ End; seeking out pirate-techs for the work, Han very nearly abandons them when they come under attack by the evil Corporate Sector Authority…only to give in and heroically lead their defense. He claims to have done so just because he needs their help, but Jessa (and the reader) knows better. All three of Daley’s female protagonists (and sometime-love interests) remark on the emptiness and loneliness of Han’s life as a smuggler, and his reverence for fortune and glory, and they all note the falseness of it; time and again, his attempts to convince himself, his compatriots, and by extension the reader that he doesn’t care are dashed by his own actions as he comes to the defense of those he clearly cares about — including the memorable droid-duo of Bollux and Blue Max, who go from a glorified pair of scrap Han can’t wait to space to (by the end of the trilogy) core members of his crew.

Of course neither the films nor Daley’s works go so far as to suggest that Han Solo is a bastion of moral purity, not even in his best moments — he has no problem playing games with or actually harming those who are antagonistic to his goals, Sabodor in Stars’ End and the Sljee waiter in Revenge being small but pertinent examples — yet when push comes to shove and Han could just walk away, and stay away, something inside always seems to pull him back from the brink, and we see the heroism that has inspired generations of Star Wars fans and put him at #14 on AFI’s list. Han’s hare-brained scheme to rescue Chewbacca from Stars’ End is (I have to assume) intentionally similar to his reckless assault on the Death Star in A New Hope, and possibly even greater, in a sense — in Daley’s book, he does it for love and friendship, and not the potential of a reward. Indeed, outside the glimpses of their relationship in Empire, The Force Awakens, and Solo, I proudly rank Stars’ End among the most (if not the most) emotionally satisfying. Daley deserves a great deal of praise for recognizing that Chewbacca wasn’t just a dog, and that the bond between the pilot and copilot was immense. We have the author to thank (or berate, your mileage may vary) for the concept of the “life-debt,” after all.

The overwhelming sense of similitude between the Han we read about in The Han Solo Adventures and the Han we see the Star Wars films staggers me, and I think it speaks well not only to Daley’s abilities as an author, but also to how clear and universal the mythological and the more mundane underpinnings of the Star Wars universe truly are. These people (Lucas, Kasdan, even Daley) were able to create fictional giants who could stand the test of time, and that is not an easy feat to accomplish.

III. The Legacy

What, then, is the legacy of Daley and his impact on the Star Wars universe?

I think that’s both easy and hard to say. It’s east to point to the many creations from both the trilogy and the radio dramas that have persisted through the decades: The Z-95 Headhunter originated in the books, as did the Corporate Sector, the Authority, the Tion Hegemony, and the myths of Xim the Despot. References, call-backs and more have permeated both the Legends Expanded Universe, as well as that of the post-Disney Canon; recent books like Tales from Vandor (by Jason Fry) and Smuggler’s Guide (by Dan Wallace) even give indications that Daley’s novels are in fact still broadly canonical events in the universe (or, rather, are believed to have occurred). I have yet to read a single James Luceno Star Wars story that didn’t feature some sort of tribute to his old friend, the most recent example being (among others) the appearance of Tynnans in Catalyst: A Rogue One Story (being the species of Spray/Odumin from Han Solo’s Revenge). A great deal of the elements in Solo: A Star Wars Story owe a debt to Daley’s works, including the sprinkling of references such as the masthead of Xim the Despot made of mytag crystal in Dryden Vos’s office.

Outside these more Easter egg-style references, and perhaps slightly harder to quantify, I feel like Daley’s legacy is one of ingenuity, of fleshing out the universe and giving us a new adventure with some familiar faces. He was given the keys to the kingdom, in a manner of speaking, and he explored and built a world that feels as rich, and alive, and lived-in as any of the original trilogy films. There are things that stick out, either as dated or odd — Daley’s use of the word “automata” instead of “droid” can be jarring at times — but it’s the elements that the novels do well that stay with us. Bonadan and Dellalt are as real in my imagination as is Tatooine, and the Han Solo I envisage when I (re-)read these books is the Han Solo that would walk the streets of all those worlds and countless more.

What else can you ask for?

Note(s)

* — As noted in the body of this essay, Han Solo and the Lost Legacy was published on August 12, 1980, three months after the release of The Empire Strikes Back, but it is likely that the book was completed before the film debuted. This is technically supposition, but I feel justified in saying so based on my own, limited knowledge of the subject, Pablo’s statement here, as well as an extrapolation from an interview Daley gave where he said:

I eventually saw some material George had generated about Han, Wookiees, the Falcon, droids and so on, but that wasn’t until the radio serials. For the books, it was more a matter, I feel certain, of my being familiar with the paradigms George drew on for Han. You know the roster: Terry & the Pirates (the original, that is); the great SF and Western heroes; flawed fliers and quixotic gangsters from 30’s and 40’s flicks.

(Newborn, emphasis added)

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