Alrighty, here are my theories/predictions/hopes-and-wishes for the new Star Wars trilogy... BEWARE OF SPOILERS. ALL THE SPOILERS. SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
Here's what I think happened after Return of the Jedi. Some of this is pure speculation, and some is based on other theories/background info I've discovered while obsessing on the interwebz.
- Luke offered to train Leia as a Jedi, but Leia opted out. Partly because she was comfortable in her position as a politician and military leader, and partly because she had a feeling she'd turn Dark Side if she tapped into her Force powers. When we meet Luke, he's an innocent, idealistic little farmboy who's been raised far from the machinations of interstellar politics. As my author friend Josh Pritchett, pointed out, he's kind of like Superman. He has all these great powers, but he was raised with a strict moral code about right and wrong, and that's why he's able to wield the Light Side the Force and, while tempted to go Dark Side, ultimately resists. Meanwhile, Leia was raised in the Alderaanian court. By the time we meet her, she's already a cunning leader and a shrewd strategist. She's very practical and does what needs to be done, even when it costs her. In other words, she'd be willing to do things Luke wouldn't be. After Return of the Jedi, she continues to fixate on the remnants of the Empire, which are reorganizing into the First Order. She's dismissed as an alarmist by the New Republic, and instead of following due process and relying on democracy to do the right thing, she goes rogue to get her way, bypassing the will of the people. Which, if you think about it, is a pretty selfish thing to do, but ultimately needed to be done. And is a very Vader-like tendency. It's great for a rebel leader, but could be fatal in a Jedi. So she opted out of Jedi training, knowing that if she went down that road, she'd end up just like her father. Her somewhat ruthless instincts would also explain why Obi-Wan insisted that Luke was the only hope for the Jedi (other than plain ole sexism) while Yoda disagreed. Perhaps Obi-Wan, having been scarred by Vader, believes Leia's too much like her father, whereas Yoda thinks she can unlearn what she has learned. Leia, practical and levelheaded as always, gave up the opportunity to learn the Force for the greater good... a very Leia-like thing to do.
- Leia, knowing she has these Vader-ish tendencies in her, didn't trust herself to raise her son Ben in a way that would keep him from turning Dark Side. So she persuaded Han to let Luke, the ultimate Good Guy, raise Ben instead, hoping Ben would turn out like Luke and be able to resist the Dark Side. Both Luke and Leia sensed how strong Ben was with the Force and thought that someday, he'd be the new leader of the Jedi order who'd usher in a whole new era of Jedi... the next coming of Yoda.
- For the first several years of Ben's life, he was the family's star. Everyone would go on about how he was basically a chosen one and how he's destined to be great. He was also the apple of his family's eye... everyone loved him, and he felt special. Luke started his new Jedi academy, and Ben was the star pupil. While Ben enjoyed being the favorite, this also put a lot of pressure on him. He was expected be the perfect Jedi, raised from birth with all these great powers and expected to fulfill a mighty destiny. Which meant he wasn't allowed to screw up, causing him lots of secret angst and anxiety.
- Meanwhile, Luke falls in love (and maybe gets married). His wife/lover bears little baby Rey, who's even more Force-strong than Ben. In fact, she makes Ben look like a weak-minded Stormtrooper in comparison. And she's Luke's own daughter. Suddenly, Rey is Luke's favorite, and even Ben's own parents seem to think she'll be the next great hope for the Jedi. Ben was abandoned by his parents to live with Luke, and now, he's abandoned by Luke, his surrogate father. Over the next several years, Ben continues training with Luke in hopes of proving that he IS as special as they made him feel when he was littler. But no matter what he does, Rey is just SPECIAL.
- Ben grows into an angsty, depressed, and angry teenager. He both resents Luke and his parents and yearns for their approval. Meanwhile, he resents Rey for displacing him, even though she's just a little kid. She's already showing her Force powers, accomplishing feats that no one that young should be able to do. People keep talking about how she's stronger than Ben, which drives Ben insane. Meanwhile, the Ren Knights, an ancient order of Dark Side practitioners (though not necessarily fighters), sense both his strength and his anger. They turn to Snoke, who's not one of them but is a Dark Side ally, to recruit him.
- Ben's anger and frustration makes him ripe for seduction to the Dark Side. Snoke persuades Ben that he could be stronger if her tapped into the Dark Side, reminding him that his grandfather, Vader, was stronger than Luke will ever be. Ben uses the Dark Side to accomplish more magnificent feats of the Force. Luke senses Ben's turn and tries to stop him, but this only fuels Ben's resentment, since Ben thinks Luke is trying to hold him back in favor of Rey.
- Angry, depressed, lonely, and resentful, Ben decides he'd rather feel nothing than wrestle with all this pain and conflict. He longs to become a force of pure evil, a manifestation of sheer power with no conscience or humanity to hold him back or torment him. So he delves even deeper into the Dark Side, until he ultimately renounces his name, joins the Ren Knights, and reinvents himself as Kylo Ren. He dons the mask both as a tribute to Vader and to hide his humanity--to make his outward appearance a reflection who he hopes to be inside: an evil, inhuman being incapable of feeling anything, including pain.
- Kylo Ren turns on the Jedi academy, leading the Ren Knights on a raid that slaughters his former schoolmates. But his real goal is to be rid of Rey... He wants to prove that he's the most powerful wielder of the Force ever and rid himself of his perceived rival. Luke, sensing this, fakes Rey's death and flees with her.
- Luke doesn't seem like the type to abandon his kid. His devotion to those he loves has always been his weakness... He went to Cloud City despite Yoda's warnings because he feared losing Han and Leia, and though he wouldn't turn to the Dark Side to save himself, he called upon when Vader threatened his sister. However, Leia has always known what has to be done, no matter how hard it is. She was willing to sacrifice Alderaan for the sake of the Rebellion Imagine what would have happened even if Tarkin hadn't pulled the trigger right away... they would have found that Dantooine was not the Rebel base and destroyed Alderaan to punish Leia. This must have crossed Leia's mind before she lied, and she lied anyway. The most she could hope to do was buy Alderaan some time while protecting the Rebellion. Therefore, though Luke wanted to take Rey into hiding with him, Leia persuaded him that Rey would be safer if he left her, since Ren would undoubtedly come looking for him. Luke's wife/lover agreed with Leia.
- Knowing that Ren would kill Rey if he knew she were alive, Luke suppresses Rey's memories and Force abilities so she won't accidentally reveal herself and draw Ren to her.
- Luke, at this point, is pretty wrecked. His father destroyed the Jedi, and when he tried to rebuild the order, his pupil destroyed them again because he failed to train him well. And now, he has to abandon his daughter. So, much to Leia's dismay, he vanishes and goes into self-exile, thinking the galaxy is better off without him.
- Leia and Luke's wife/lover take Rey into hiding. Luke's wife/lover, who isn't Force-strong and therefore wouldn't be sensed by Ren, plans to stay with her. And they weren't heading for Jakku... they were heading for Naboo or some other little far-off world that's nicer. But, pursued by Ren and the First Order, they're forced onto Jakku. Leia realizes that the only way to protect Rey is to draw off the bad guys. Ren at this point has zeroed in on Luke's wife/lover and suspects that Rey might still be alive and with her. So though it pains her, Leia persuades Luke's wife/lover to leave Rey behind while the two of them escape Jakku and lead Ren and the First Order away. Note that Rey says "my family," not "my parents," and "they'll be back," implying multiple people left her... possibly her mom and her aunt.
- Rey's mom intends to go back for Rey right after shaking Ren and the First Order, but is killed in battle. Though Leia longs to go back for Rey, she knows that Ren and the First Order are following her closely, so going back to Jakku would lead them right to Rey. So Leia, as always, does what she believes is right, even though it pains her. Note that Leia immediately embraces Rey when they finally meet... without saying a word. Almost like she recognizes Rey as family, right?
- When Han meets Rey, he has a sneaking suspicion that Rey might be his long-lost niece, which is why he seems drawn to her and offers her a job. He has no proof and thinks he's probably wrong, but can't help his gut feeling.
- When Ren meets Rey, he recalls that his pursuit of his aunt (Luke's wife/lover) and his mom led him to Jakku. He recognizes all the amazing feats Rey has accomplished as being something only someone who's Force-strong could do. So when he meets her, he suspects she might be his long-lost cousin. Though he's still resentful, he's spent the past ten years or so in turmoil... unable to complete his transition to the Dark Side yet unable to return to his family, whose approval he still secretly yearns for despite all his efforts to quash that instinct. This has also left him incredibly lonely, since he has no one he loves he can turn to, and he though he seeks Snoke's guidance, he knows he's ultimately a pawn on Snoke's chessboard. His plan is to become all-powerful and eventually surpass Snoke, but until then, he's dependent on Snoke and completely alone. So when he approaches Rey in the interrogation room, he finds that he no longer wants to kill her, but instead wants her to join him so he'll finally have a true ally.
- Ren takes off his mask in hopes of gaining Rey's sympathy, but Rey clearly doesn't give a crap about him (understandably). So Ren tries to force her to reveal Luke's location. Though Rey doesn't know what she's doing, she deploys everything she has to defend herself--and awakens the Force within her. Her Force powers surface, though her memories remain suppressed. This is how she's able to manipulate that Stormtrooper so easily... she'd learned how to do this as a little kid, and but it was only because of Ren's actions that she was able to awaken her dormant abilities.
- Ren and Snoke believe that Ren's conflict will be eliminated if Ren can do what Luke couldn't: kill his own father. Though Ren knows in his head that he has to kill Han Solo, some piece of him hold him back. When Han calls to him on the Starkiller Base, Ren is mentally unprepared for the confrontation. He's caught between the Dark Side, demanding that he Force-grab Han and strangle him (which, as we saw, he could easily do), and the Light Side, reminding him that Han is the father who still loves him. That's why he pauses on the platform--he's paralyzed by equal but opposite forces. Unable to do anything else, he lets Han approach. When he says, "I'm being torn apart. I want to be free from this pain. I know what I have to do, but I don't know if I have the strength to do it," Han takes that to mean that Ben (not Ren) wants to renounce the Dark Side and come home. What Ren (not Ben) really means is that he wants to kill Han. But he's still paralyzed by the opposing sides of the Force as Han draws closer.
- Ren pulls out his lightsaber, unable to decide if he wants to stab Han or hand the weapon over. Then Han tries to take it. It's the symbol of Ren's power, and Ren finds himself unable to let go. He manages to ignite the lightsaber, killing Han. But it's not the moment of Dark Side triumph Ren thought it would be. It's a very passive way to kill someone... almost an accident. So instead of feeling a surge of Dark Side power or feeling his pain disappear, Ren is attacked by sudden sorrow and even guilt. He's so confused and distracted that he loses track of everything else around him, which is how Chewie is able to shoot him (even though we saw earlier in the movie that Ren can stop blasts mid-air even when they're coming at him point-blank).
- The physical injury shakes Ren awake just enough to keep going and keep trying to fulfill his Dark Side duties, but his unexpected grief and guilt, as well as the physical pain, hold him back. This is why Finn is able to get a shot or two in, despite being unfamiliar with the Force and with lightsabers (though he did have training with staff weapons, like the Stormtrooper he dueled earlier).
- Still shaken, Ren is unprepared when Rey rises and Force-grabs Luke's lightsaber (using the ability she doesn't remember learning but knows instinctively that she has from her early Jedi training). And still tormented, Ren doesn't really want to kill Rey. What he really wants is for her to join him. That's why he just stands there while Rey closes her eyes and calls on the Force... he's hoping she'll change her mind about him. But instead, she uses the Light Side of the Force to defend herself. She has a clear goal and knows exactly what she wants: to stop Ren. Meanwhile, Ren is still conflicted... he doesn't know if he wants Rey dead or if he wants her as his ally. This is why the untrained Rey is able to defeat the super-powerful Ren.
- Rey leaves the Starkiller Base secure in herself and knowing she wants to find Luke and become a Jedi. Ren leaves more conflicted than before. He was hoping that killing Han would destroy the last shreds of goodness and humanity in him. Instead, it left him caught between being guilt-stricken and triumphant, especially since Han's last action was clearly one of love (that look in Han's eyes totally said "I love you, son, and I forgive you.")
- Episode 8 will have Rey training with Luke, who will effectively be her Yoda, while Finn and Poe go off on some Resistance adventure (much like Han and Leia did in Empire). Meanwhile, Snoke aims to complete Ren's training by sending him to kill Leia.
- I really hope Ren is redeemed and doesn't die right away, Vader-style. Much as I love the throwbacks to the original trilogy, that would be TOO much. It would also be really boring and cliche if Ren were to go completely Dark Side, and Rey killed him in a prolonged battle. The most interesting outcome would be if Rey, possibly with Leia's help, manages to reach Ren and bring him back to the Light side, turning Ren from a villain into an antihero. Luke, Leia, and Rey forgive Ben despite him killing Han, which helps pull Ren back to the Light (Finn and Poe still have their issues with him, but listen to Rey). Then Ben Solo would unite with the Light Side heroes--Rey, Finn, and Poe--to defeat Snoke, the Ren Knights, and the First Order.
And now, to sleep until 2017, when we'll find out if any of these crazy thoughts/theories/speculations/wishes are right...
Both pull down their masks the same way moments later... THERE ARE NO ACCIDENTS!!!