Star Wars: Why We May Never Learn What Makes Phasma Tick

At NYCC, Star Wars author Delilah Dawson talks about telling Phasma's story without revealing too much.

I’ve gone on a journey with Captain Phasma in the last couple of weeks. While reading the novel released as part of the Journey to The Last Jedi line, catching up on the comic by Kelly Thompson, and pondering characterization on Den of Geek’s Blaster Canon podcast, my view of the chrome-plated killer has shifted around a lot. On Saturday, I sat down with Star Wars author Delilah S. Dawson, writer of the new Phasma novel, to talk about the character behind the mask — and why the canon may always keep the First Order soldier behind a veil of secrecy. 

The novel itself contains one scene from Phasma’s point of view, but the rest of her story is seen through the perspectives of other people with their own agendas.

“The thing about Phasma is there’s always a mask between her and the world,” Dawson explains. “It says in the book that no one has ever seen her without her helmet. … On Parnassos she has her original leather mask. As soon as she can, she finds an abandoned helmet. When she can take a stormtrooper helmet and gain that built-in quadnoc vision, she does. She does whatever she can to survive. She always likes to have that mask between her and the world.”

This leads to a contradiction. How to show characterization while hiding it at the same time? Dawson compares writing Phasma to another famous villain in literature.

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“Writing her makes me think of what I imagine what it would be like to write Hannibal Lector, where you never get full insight into what that character is thinking. In scenes from their point of view there are obfuscations and points where they are either lying to themselves or withholding on purpose.” 

This certainly makes Captain Phasma more frightening. She fits the mold of cool-looking Star Wars characters like Darth Maul and Boba Fett who radiate malice. However, Dawson and Marvel’s Captain Phasma comic book author Kelly Thompson both found ways to characterize Phasma without directly stating her motivation or writing from her point of view. One way the novel does this is by focusing on Phasma’s radiation-scoured homeworld of Parnassos and her people, a clan desperate to find kinder shores. 

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Like other Star Wars villains in this mold, Phasma didn’t have the most glorious fate in The Force Awakens. Like Boba Fett plunging into the sarlaac pit, Phasma suffered both insult and injury when Finn and Han dropped her into a trash compactor. Dawson said that early conversations about the Phasma novel positioned it in part as a response to what fans criticized Phasma for in The Force Awakens.

“Our main interest was we wanted it to make sense with what she did on Starkiller Base,” Dawson says. “That seemed to be the biggest thing. People were like, oh she’s a coward! And we are like no, she is not a coward. She has her own reasons and they are not that. We wanted to give her a background that would turn her into the character we see in the movies, the very private, secretive, powerful dangerous warrior. We decided on a sort of Mad Max backstory for a destroyed planet where everyday life is a struggle. … These people are worried that if they don’t get off this planet, there will be no humanoids left. This is her motivation to get off planet and join the First Order. To have that safety, comfort, and food.”

And the novel does that without ever suggesting that Phasma is a good guy for siding with the First Order. She does want to save her family from their planet, but once hope for that is lost, Phasma goes with the First Order in an effort to preserve herself. 

The comic also shows Phasma’s tendency toward action. Dawson said that she and Thompson wanted to be sure to show that Phasma didn’t stay in the trash compactor for very long. Far from being a hazardous situation that requires an entire issue or more in order for Phasma to escape, the trash compactor is a minor inconvenience which Phasma leaves behind early in the comic. 

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As she tries to cross inhospitable ground with her First Order pilot beside her, Phasma uses  the collected ruthlessness she developed on Parnassos. 

Some of the most famous Star Wars villains have made dramatic choices just before their own defeats. Darth Vader is the most famous example, but secondary villains do this too. Darth Maul’s hubris let him stand and gloat at Obi-Wan instead of delivering a killing blow at the end of The Phantom Menace. We don’t know for sure whether Phasma will fit into this mold to the same degree. Images of Gwendoline Christie from The Last Jedi have so far shown her to be the ominous trooper we already know. But with the novel and comic setting up her personality as it was fostered on Parnassos, maybe we’ll see her making some more unexpected decisions in the movies. 

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