Disclaimer: This post will contain *heavy* spoilers for Rogue One, summarizing the plot from start to finish. Do not read this if you haven’t seen the movie.
I loved Rogue One, as did many people. However, different people had different experiences, and even those who liked the movie have called out flaws. One of the most common flaws I hear is that the main characters didn’t have a decent arc, and that the characters weren’t well-developed, particularly Jyn Erso.
I have the opposite opinion. I loved the characters (especially Jyn!) and I saw clear character arcs. Many feel differently, and I want to be clear I’m not looking for an argument. I was simply fascinated that people could experience a movie so differently, and wanted to explore why it worked so well for me. For purposes of brevity, I’m only going through Jyn’s arc, though I feel the others have arcs as well.
Before we get started, we need to talk about how Rogue One tells its story. Rogue One relies heavily on what I call the “iceberg” method of storytelling. Rather than having character motivations and backstories spelled out (here’s a flashback that shows everything, or characters monologuing their innermost feelings!) all we are shown is the tip of a (figurative) iceberg. The rest is left for us to infer from character action and dialogue.
[Taking cover is for chumps. Stormtroopers charge the laser fire.]
A writer using the iceberg method sees the entire iceberg, of course. They know their character well, but choose to feed us only small clues. They show us things about their characters, rather than telling us, and let us put the pieces together. They raise questions we want to answer.
The writer lets us connect the dots (like a detective) instead of connecting them for us, and personally, I find this really fun. What follows is my recollection of what happens in the movie and how it built Jyn’s character and gave her a great character arc – for me, at least.
We begin with Jyn as a child, with two parents who seem to love her very much. This doesn’t last, obviously, because Krennic arrives. Jyn has known something like this might happen for some time – we see this when she busts into the house and says “They’re coming!” Yet Jyn arrives before the shuttle, and is ready to grab her “bug out bag” and run. This shows us Jyn is already a level-headed person, even as a child.
[Don’t run. We just want to borrow some milk.]
While Galen goes to try to trick Krennic into leaving, Jyn flees with her mother. Yet the scenes with Jyn’s parents aren’t really about Galen and Lyra, but clues as to what they were like as parents. We start developing Jyn’s character by seeing who raised her.
As Galen confronts Krennic, we learn Galen was once a scientist working on an Imperial project who later left because he opposed the project on moral grounds. Galen is so brilliant that the work can’t be continued without him. So, now I know Jyn was raised by a father who was a brilliant scientist, but who also has a strong moral compass.
This tells me a lot about her character, even in this first scene. I imagine Jyn has been exposed to logic, critical thinking, and pragmatism, as well as being taught a strong sense of right and wrong. So Jyn is already pragmatic, smart, and moral.
We then cut to Jyn with her mother, a scene that couldn’t be more different from Krennic and Galen. Lyra seems to be a very spiritual woman, as demonstrated by her talk to Jyn about trusting the Force and by gifting her the Force crystal. So now I know Jyn’s other parent was a very spiritual woman with a strong belief in justice, goodness, and the Force.
So five minutes into the movie, I already know Jyn was raised by a critically thinking, moral scientist and a spiritual and free-thinking mother. That’s a great contrast, meaning she’s been exposed to many perspectives. So Jyn probably has a strong pragmatic side but is also open to the more touchy-feely spiritual side as well. Neat!
[Unfortunately for Jyn’s mother, she’s in a Disney movie.]
Now, what happens next? Jyn sees her mother killed, then gets chased by Death Troopers. She manages to hide and waits. There’s a storytelling cue Jyn was hiding for a *long* time … her light is almost dead. For all that time (Hours? Days?) Jyn was stuck in the dark, alone, having just seen her mother murdered, waiting for a father who doesn’t come.
Now consider what we’ve just learned about Jyn. As a child, after she witnessed her mother’s murder, she locked herself in a dark hole for an eternity while guys literally called DEATH TROOPERS hunted for her. That’ll mess any kid up. Finally, Saw arrives, the man who we saw Galen call earlier. He opens the door and looks down at Jyn.
And then, the flashback ENDS.
If we weren’t using the iceberg method, we’d have a montage here. We’d see a succession of scenes where Jyn grows up. First, Jyn’s a child distracting Stormtroopers. Next she’s a young teen planting a thermal detonator. Next she’s an older teen, in a firefight besides Saw’s revolutionaries. It would be annoyingly obvious Saw raised her as a freedom fighter.
But we don’t see that montage, because that’s BORING. We don’t beat you over the head with “Hey, this is how Jyn becomes a rebel!” because that’s been done to death. Instead, Saw opens that door … and we quick cut to Jyn, now an adult, locked in an Imperial prison.
It’s at this moment I’m hooked. Instead of a montage, I got a mystery! There’s a story here, and I don’t know that story yet, but I want to know it. I am intrigued!
[That cute child is now this woman, and trust me, she’s seen some ****.]
Somehow, the events I just saw led to adult Jyn stuck in an Imperial prison. Her cellmate, the one person she might connect with given her situation, snorts obnoxiously, and Jyn wrinkles her nose – no sympathy or interest, just distaste. Jyn isn’t interested in making friends, but why? What made her this way? I’m trying to puzzle it out.
The next time we see Jyn, she’s in an Imperial prison transport. She doesn’t seem scared, just resigned. Maybe she’s been on the run so long that she has lost the will to fight. Or maybe she’s biding her time. I don’t know, but it is obvious she’s been knocked around and is world-weary. More character development.
The transport stops. Rebels bust in and blast the Stormtroopers. One rebel turns to Jyn and says “You want to be free?” Jyn nods eagerly, smiling.
“Oh!” I think. Her rebel alliance buddies came to save her! So Jyn must be a hardcore rebel (maybe recruited by Saw?) and this is her rescue by her buddies.
Actually no. The moment the rebel frees her, Jyn clocks her rebel “rescuer” in the face. I sit up and go “What?” Jyn decks the next guy too, taking both out with unarmed precision before K-2SO clotheslines her on the way out, WWF style.
[Reprogrammed Imperial droid / Pro-Wrestler.]
After that scene I’m thinking, damn, this woman can fight, but more importantly, she has zero love for the rebel alliance, even though they just rescued her from the Empire. But why would she hate the rebels? What turned the child I saw in the first scene into this embittered loner? I want to solve this mystery!
Cut to Yavin Four. Jyn is being escorted to meet with the rebel leaders. General Draven lists her crimes: stealing, resisting arrest, assaulting Imperials. He also says she is “currently” using a specific alias, implying Jyn has had more than one alias. Now I know why Jyn was in that Imperial prison. I can fill in what happened between the flashback and now, which is fun.
At some point, Jyn probably had to resort to stealing (for shelter or food) and eventually got caught by Imperials. She was probably in hiding for a long time, unable to use her real name, scraping by on nothing to stay hidden. So why? What’s she running from? Krennic?
Mon Mothma arrives and tries to appeal to Jyn’s sense of patriotism and morality. It’s obvious from Jyn’s expression that she’s having none of that, reinforcing her disillusionment with the rebels. She’s obviously just biding her time until she can escape. She only perks up when Cassian enters the conversation and mentions her father, Galen.
Suddenly, Jyn’s interested in the conversation, but not just that. She’s visibly thrown off balance. Is she scared? Worried? Whatever it is, it’s obvious that Jyn still has feelings for Galen Erso, good or bad, even after all this time. So how does she feel about the father who abandoned her? I want to know! And we continue to add new facets to her character.
We learn the rebels want Jyn to connect them to Saw Gerrera (the man who rescued her in the first scene). They need Jyn to get them an introduction so they can retrieve a defecting Imperial pilot with plans to something very big – and Jyn agrees to help! Why?
It’s obvious Jyn doesn’t care about the rebels, doesn’t care about the Empire, and certainly doesn’t care about the defector or these plans. But she *does* care about her father, and this may lead her to him. Jyn may be a loner who wants nothing to do with this war, but she’s still connected to her family. More character development!
The next critical moment that defines Jyn for us happens on Jedha. As they’re exploring the market, Jyn has a moment where Chirrut calls to her, despite being blind. He mentions the hidden necklace she’s wearing (her mother’s, connected with the Force!) and Jyn, rather than dismissing him or continuing to snark, approaches him with what might be an almost reverent look.
She’s not dismissing this. She looks at Chirrut with wide eyes, almost as if she’s convinced there is something spiritual about this man. Is Jyn thinking about her mother?
We saw Lyra Erso tell Jyn to trust in the Force. In this scene, we see that Jyn hasn’t discounted the Force entirely – she has just buried it deep. More development. She’s not so closed off and hardened as we thought. She has a spiritual side as well, buried.
This is followed by another critical (to Jyn’s character) scene where Saw’s rebels attack the Imperial kyber crystal transport. We see more evidence that Jyn is a great fighter (reinforcing that *someone* trained her), but, more importantly, we see Jyn spot a screaming little girl, an innocent bystander caught up in the battle. And Jyn reacts.
Without hesitation, Jyn dives into the open, facing blaster fire and death, selflessly saving the little girl before someone can blow her up. Moments later Jyn hands the girl to her mother, and we’ve just learned something new. Jyn will still risk her life to help others.
This reinforces the fact that just because Jyn is guarded doesn’t mean she isn’t a moral person. Her father’s influence? Another puzzle piece. Perhaps she keeps to herself not because she doesn’t want to help people, but because she was hurt in the past.
Finally, we get the big reveal we’ve wanted since that first flashback. Jyn meets Saw. We knew Saw rescued Jyn after she lost her parents, but that’s it. We knew nothing else. And in a few lines of dialogue, we finally learn another huge piece of what made Jyn who she is.
[I used to be CGI, but I got old.]
Jyn was Saw Gerrera’s best rebel fighter. She fought with him for almost a decade, likely treating him as a surrogate father. She probably idolized him, worshipped him, and then, at 16, Saw abandoned her.
We finally know why Jyn has so much distaste for the rebel alliance – the man who got her into the alliance, the man who taught her how to fight and survive, the man she trusted with her life — betrayed and abandoned her. Just like her father, or so Jyn must believe.
Jyn may have believed in the rebel cause, once. Saw did! But not anymore. Not after being abandoned twice. Now I know why Jyn keeps people at arm’s length. And the rebels? What must Jyn have thought about the people who used her and then abandoned her (as she saw it?) The rebel alliance betrayed her, and now all the pieces from before come together.
Yet finding Saw and learning why he left isn’t enough to draw Jyn back into the rebel alliance. She still resents them. Remember, when Saw asks her if she’s fine with the Imperial flag flying over the galaxy, Jyn tells him “It’s not a problem as long as you don’t look up”. This tells us Jyn’s still in it for herself … for now.
[Seriously? That’s your excuse for abandoning me? Jerk.]
Yet shortly after, Saw shows Jyn the transmission from her father, and Jyn learns the truth. Galen Erso never came for her, because if he had, the Empire would have had abducted Jyn. Galen feared she was dead and hated himself for never finding her, but he stayed away to protect her, and thought about her every day. He loves her dearly.
Jyn must have questioned why Galen didn’t come back every day since he left her. Maybe he was a coward. Maybe he was dead. But now she learns far from being a coward, her father sacrificed everything to give the rebels a chance – just a chance! – of destroying the Empire’s super weapon. Galen knew the Empire would build the Death Star, with or without him, and gave up his whole life (and Jyn) to stop them and save others.
Now we must imagine everything Jyn learned from Galen flooding back. Galen demonstrating his altruism and love for her is the first crack in the “I’m out for myself” wall Jyn built to protect herself. Jyn is changing! This is character development!
Then Jedha blows up.
Obviously, Jyn doesn’t have a lot of time to process the death of her (other) father, Saw. Her real father is alive, and she knows where Galen is (on Edo). She also knows he’s in danger. Finally, Jyn knows that her father has given up everything to give the rebels a way to defeat the Death Star. For better or worse, the events of Jedha have changed Jyn. She’s not in this for herself any longer. Now, she’s in it to save her father.
[Yeah, trust us. We’re totally going to Edo to save your father.]
Onwards to Edo, where Jyn sees her father in the flesh, from a distance. She has to speak to Galen, and makes the decision to put herself at risk. The rebel attack happens before she can reach her father, and he dies in her arms – yet not before telling her how much he loves her, and how proud he is of her. And losing her father, at long last, breaks her.
Jyn, who has not cried the entire movie, suddenly sobs inconsolably. This strong woman who fought through a city being nuked has to be dragged away from her dead father, by Cassian. Jyn finally got her father back only to watch him die, and it has wounded her.
Finally, back on the shuttle, Jyn puts it all together and realizes the rebellion ordered Cassian to assassinate her father. She knows the rebel alliance dropped the bomb that killed him. Once again, the rebel alliance betrayed her.
Everything in the Jyn we met at the start of the movie tells us she should run again, yet Jyn doesn’t run. She doubles down, because she’s a different person now. Her arc has progressed. She doesn’t abandon the rebels. Instead, she swears she will convince the rebels of her father’s story and retrieve those Death Star plans.
Because it’s not just about Jyn Erso now. She has just seen Jedha obliterated by the Empire, and now knows her (murdered) father gave up everything to stop this massive superweapon that could literally murder billions. Jyn now sees it as her duty to stop the Empire, even if she despises the Rebellion.
This is character progression! Jyn has gone from looking out for herself, to looking out for her father, to fully embracing her role as the only person who could show the rebels how to defeat this evil (the Death Star). She has changed, and this is obvious from the speech she gives the hesitant rebel alliance leadership.
“Rebellions are built on hope!” Jyn says, parroting Cassian’s earlier line – not because she believes it, necessarily, but because she *does* believe she must convince these people to trust her father and retrieve the Death Star plans. The earlier Jyn would never have made such a speech. And despite her newfound belief in resistance, she fails utterly.
[Rebellions. Built on hope. And really big belt buckles.]
The rebel alliance chooses not to attack Scarif, so Jyn makes the decision to go after the plans herself, a suicide mission. Yet she doesn’t have to go alone, because Cassian and a whole bunch of other rebels moved by Jyn’s speech do show up. Jyn’s words have made them willing to fight for her and, more importantly, to stop the Empire.
Once on the shuttle, Jyn changes a little more. She smiles at these men and says “May the Force be with us.” Is she sincere? Perhaps not. But she knows how to motivate them. She’s thinking like a leader, and now she’s changed again! She’s not just a rebel. She’s a rebel leader, truly committed, and a long way from the Jyn we met at the start of the story.
The third act is awesome and crazy and epic, and pretty much everyone dies. Jyn’s arc is almost finished, but not yet. Her last bit of character development is yet to come, a very small, very personal change. A quite denouement. After being betrayed so many times, after closing herself off from everyone, Jyn is finally going to learn to trust again.
At the end of everything, Jyn has transmitted the Death Star plans. She’s in the elevator with Cassian, a man who has been through hell with her, and he’s not just a soldier any longer. He’s someone Jyn trusts with her life, and for Jyn, trusting someone else with her life after being betrayed so many times a *huge* step. Her character arc concludes here.
On the beach, it is Jyn who throws her arms around Cassian. She isn’t the same person she was at the movie’s start. Jyn has changed from a loner, to a woman trying to save her father, to a committed rebel, to a committed rebel leader, to a committed rebel leader who can trust and love again … in the last moment before she’s incinerated.
Jyn dies making her parents proud. She helps save the galaxy, and dies knowing she completed both her father’s mission and her own. She dies a far different person than she was when the movie began, and that, I am happy to say, is a character arc I really enjoyed. The pieces are there for all to see.
[So long, Stardust.]
I knew everything I need to know about Jyn by the end of the movie. I was able to glean it from the events as shown to me and saw Jyn change for reasons that are clearly laid out in a way I enjoyed. So was this planned? (I think it was) Or am I just adding my own story to what’s there? Either way, it’s okay. Good writing doesn’t always require that you explain everything. You just have to explain enough for the reader/viewer to fill in the blanks.
And Jyn’s arc and character development are one of many reasons I loved Rogue One.