Building a Galaxy: Origin Stories

While the Star Wars franchise is best known for its films, it's also well-known for its sprawling novel series, the Star Wars Expanded Universe. While it's no longer canon, it kept Star Wars going for decades, and still retains a loyal following.

Building a Galaxy: Origin Stories

It was the moment that readers were dreading since news broke that George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney for $4 billion: the moment the Star Wars canon would be stripped down and rebuilt from scratch. The Expanded Universe that had sprung up from the ashes of the second Death Star was not going to lead to Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

After the theatrical release of Return of the Jedi, a larger story emerged, continuing the adventures of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Leia Organa, revealing what happened to the Rebel Alliance and the remnant of the Empire in the wake of that final film. Over more than two decades, it grew through a myriad of comic books, novels, roleplaying and video games, and other tie-ins, arcing backward and forward in time, collectively becoming known as the Star Wars Expanded Universe.

On April 25, 2014, Lucasfilm and Disney announced the creation of a new “Story Group” responsible for maintaining and developing the overarching story of the franchise. The announcement meant that the Expanded Universe that had been building since the early 1990s would no longer be considered canonical, and that the upcoming films would rely on a new, coordinated mythos. The time between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens would be reconstructed with a new series of books, comics and games, and while the older Expanded Universe novels would continue to be published, they would exist under a new designation, “Star Wars Legends.”

Fans immersed in the Expanded Universe were disappointed: the characters and adventures that they had followed for so long were going to end. Others were more optimistic—the Expanded Universe had grown organically over almost two decades; there were entries reviled by readers, numerous dead ends, and stories that were at times contradictory or difficult to reconcile. Maybe a fresh start would produce a canon that would be easier to manage.

For some, the Expanded Universe provided the definitive post-Return of the Jedi story, continuing the adventures of Han Solo, Leia Organa, and Luke Skywalker and giving a spotlight to some of the movie’s lesser known players like Admiral Ackbar and Wedge Antilles, and introducing numerous new characters such as Callista, Mara Jade, Grand Admiral Thrawn, Corran Horn, and Dash Rendar, some of whom became as popular with readers as their film counterparts.

How did these stories pick up the Star Wars mantle and become such a phenomenon in their own right, and how did the Expanded Universe take shape—and change over the course of its life? The answer lies in the numerous authors and editors who were tasked with continuing George Lucas’s grand story into the unknown.

This feature was originally published on Barnes & Noble's Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog. I've reprinted it here with some edits and minor corrections.

Every saga has a beginning…

Star Wars had always been closely linked to novels. Star Wars: From the Adventures of Luke Skywalker in bookstores in November 1976, marking the film franchise’s entry into the public consciousness. The novel was ghostwritten by Alan Dean Foster, who had been brought in by Ballantine Books as an experienced tie-in writer, and who drew from the scripts and concept art of the original film.

Following the success of the movie, Ballantine Books released what had been planned as a contingency: a story written up by Foster to become the basis for a sequel, should Star Wars prove to be only a moderate success. Instead, of course, Star Wars was a massive success, and Del Rey simply released Splinter of the Mind’s Eyein 1978 as a further adventure in the franchise. It became an immediate bestseller. “The world was hungry for any new Star Wars story,” wrote Chris Taylor in How Star Wars Conquered The Universe. “Children would reread the paperback until it fell apart in their hands.”

Splinter of the Mind’s Eye became the first inkling of further adventures in the franchise, and it was closely followed by several other novels from Brian Daley: Han Solo at Star’s End and Han Solo’s Revenge, each released in 1979, and Han Solo and the Lost Legacy, which followed in 1980. The Empire Strikes Back screenwriter Leigh Brackett had signed on to write a novel about Princess Leia, but shortly after completing her screenplay, cancer took her life and that novel was never written. These tie-in novels showed that Star Wars wasn’t limited to the adventures, characters, and stories of the film: they provided the first glimmers of a larger world beyond what was onscreen, an exciting “expanded universe” in which the stories of the film’s central characters lived on after the credits stopped rolling.

Three more books followed in 1983, following another hero from The Empire Strikes Back and written by L. Neil Smith: Lando Calrissian and the Mindharp of Sharu. Lando Calrissian and the Flamewind of Oseon and Lando Calrissian and the Starcave of ThonBoka. Other adventures appeared in a line of comic books from Marvel.

While these entries added to the Star Wars saga, the books and overarching story that we now know as the Expanded Universe truly have their roots in a small gaming company called West End Games. Founded in 1974 by Daniel Scott Palter, the company initially produced board games, before shifting to produce roleplaying games in 1984.

Bill Slavicsek joined the company in 1986 after answering a blind ad in The New York Times. He was brought on as a games editor, and branched into game design and development before the end of his first year. He was a longtime science fiction fan and gamer. He read everything he could get his hands on, and when Star Wars hit theaters in 1977, he returned to the theater 38 times.

The same year he joined West End Games, the company secured a license for the franchise to produce its own Star Wars products. They had already worked with some high-profile properties: Star Trek and Ghostbusters, which ultimately won over officials at Lucasfilm. “I can only guess,” Slavicsek recalled, “but I think the company pursued the license because the films had such an impact on all of us and they thought it would be a perfect match with the kinds of products that WEG did at that time.”

The West End Games team began working on a roleplaying game sourcebook, led by Curtis Smith, the head of the creative team. When management duties pulled Smith away from the project, Slavicsek was assigned to write most of the book, after the team learned that he was a big Star Wars fan.

His approach was simple: "create material that worked with the stuff we saw on the big screen." he explained. "I saw it as my job to explain what hadn’t been explained and to fill in the blanks so that game masters could run campaigns.”

Roleplaying games, by their very nature, required the production of volumes and volumes of additional material, according to Troy Denning, who worked as a game designer and writer for companies such as TSR and West End Games. A novel, he noted, only required what was necessary for the story at hand. Roleplaying games, on the other hand, required massive amounts of extra information for game masters to use.

The West End Games team had to produce an extraordinary amount of material for their games to work. They went to the original films, novels, scripts, and artwork, and were granted access to Lucasfilm’s archives to mine for information.

Between 1987 and 1999, West End Games produced numerous sourcebooks — notably the Galaxy Guides — for use in the games. “I don’t think that it would be an exaggeration to say that there wouldn’t be an EU without West End Games,” Denning noted.

The Galaxy Guides and other supplements were authoritative books that provided an enormous amount of raw material for Star Wars fans. Elements such as the names of alien species and their histories, the names of planets, weapons, spaceships, histories, and more were created for use in the games. Denning noted that working on them was a Star Wars fan’s dream: “My assignment was to take all of the characters in the cantina scene and to write their backgrounds and histories of their species. Whatever their common names are now, I made those up. ”

Slavicsek also wanted an element of realism for the games. “I wanted to smooth out any of the rough edges and make the place feel real. For example, ‘Hammerhead’ might be a fine name for an alien on a piece of concept art, but as I explained to my contact at Lucasfilm, that wouldn’t work as an official species name. No species is going to call itself something that sound derogatory or silly. So, in the fiction, Imperials and other elitists will call them ‘Hammerheads,’ but they call themselves ‘Ithorians.’” This philosophy was critical in shaping the tone of the materials that they were putting together. When it debuted in 1977, Star Wars stunned audiences by presenting a massive world that felt lived-in; the materials that West End Games was creating followed the same line of thought, and helped provide the context for what was seen on the screen.

While there had been additional stories told in the Star Wars universe, it was the West End Games materials that really demonstrated to Lucasfilm officials the value of expanding their horizons. “[Lucasfilm was] extremely excited by the prospect of us adding to the existing lore.” Slavicsek recalled. “The RPG book began that process by expanding on a few basic concepts, including the Force and hyperspace travel, but it was the Star Wars Sourcebook that really opened their eyes to the kinds of details we could fill in to help explain their universe.”

The gaming supplements were adding something interesting to the Star Wars universe: it was raw building blocks for storytellers—at the time, gamers—to create their own tales. The West End Games materials became akin to an operating system upon which all Star Wars tales would be based.

Lucasfilm kept a close eye on what they were producing, ensuring that their creations were in line with the tone and intentions of the films. Everything was looked over by the company, and even George Lucas weighed in. “They reviewed and approved everything.” Slavicsek explained. “I could even ask George Lucas a few select questions during the process, as long as I framed them as ‘yes or no’ questions so he could fire back a quick answer.” Lucasfilm had firm rules in place, and suggested alternatives or asked the game makers to steer clear of certain elements, such as Yoda’s species and whether or not Stormtroopers were clones.

West End Games’ Star Wars line was extremely popular, becoming a major source of revenue for the gaming company. In the years following the release of Return of the Jedi, there was an appetite for new Star Wars content from the general public, bolstered by persistent rumors of plans for sequel and prequel trilogies.

Troy Denning asserted that without the efforts of West End Games, the Expanded Universe as we know it wouldn’t exist. “West End Games was huge in establishing the EU before there was an EU. I don’t think that it would be an exaggeration to say that there wouldn’t be an EU without West End Games. The sheer amount of material created for a roleplaying game helped to establish the foundation for the EU and the books that game later on.” He went on to note that after while he was reading Timothy Zahn’s novel Heir to the Empire, he noticed that some of the species that he had invented for Galaxy Guide 4 had been incorporated into the text, something that he was very excited to see.

By the late 1980s, West End Games had done something unique: they had established the elements from which any fan could work off of to tell their own stories in the universe with some level of consistency. The story of Star Wars had ended with Return of the Jedi, and there were no concrete plans for additional movies. Without the efforts of Slavicsek and his team at West End Games, the universe would have simply ended.

But West End Games' work in the 1980s, Lucasfilm began to spool down its licensing efforts: with no new films on the horizon, it was hard to continue to market new products for the franchise, and it seemed as though Star Wars would slip away, fondly remembered by fans who had seen it, and by an even smaller group of fans who played their own adventures, using building blocks that had been written down.

However, the seeds for something greater had been planted, and were waiting for the right encouragement to blossom.