There’s a stereotype of children’s entertainment being overly simplified and poorly written, and unfortunately, that’s true for a lot of children’s shows. Every so often though, there comes someone who puts time and effort into what they create, because they understand that children can be just as smart and perceptive as adults.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of those shows, and today I want to talk about just a few of the things we writers – even adult writers – can learn from it.
Beware, spoilers ahead!
Since a lot of my post is going to require at least a cursory knowledge of the Avatar series, here’s the Cliffnotes version:
Lesson 1 – Realistic Siblings
Most of the time, when siblings are shown in fiction – especially a brother and sister pair – they’re one of two things: they love each other so much and never ever argue or they’re always fighting and seem to hate each other’s guts. Sokka and Katara, the siblings who discover the missing Avatar (Aang), are somewhere in the middle.
Yes, they fight, and they fight often. The first time we see them, they start arguing after Sokka insults his sister’s waterbending. They have spats throughout the series, about everything from how the tent should be set up to which direction they should be traveling.
However, the two do care about each other. When Aang accidently injures Katara during a training accident, Sokka is quick to take her side and retaliates against Aang (1.16). Likewise, when Sokka is down about feeling useless in their group – he’s the only non-bender – Katara knows just how to cheer him up (3.04).
The Takeaway: When you include siblings in your story, try to keep their relationship balanced. While there are some extremes, for the most part, we’re all somewhere in the middle.
Lesson 2 – Complex & Terrifying Antagonists
While the “big bad” of Avatar is the leader of the Fire Nation, we rarely see him until we get close to the series’ end. Instead, out heroes often run into smaller antagonists: first Zuko (more on him in a moment), and later his younger sister, Princess Azula.
When we first meet Azula in the second season, she is commanding a ship and searching for a certain set of Fire Nation traitors. The captain of the ship soon informs her that the tides will delay their arrival. Azula replies by asking, “Do the tides command this ship?” The captain, confused, replies “No.” Azula then threatens him, saying:
This interaction tells us just about everything we need to know about Azula (2.01). Despite being a fourteen-year-old girl, she’s cruel and terrifying. She is obsessed with power and doesn’t think twice about using others for her own gain – even her friends.
Even though she’s a prodigy, Azula isn’t as perfect as she pretends to be. Though it is only hinted at, she believes that her mother thinks of her as a monster, and she’s been forced to always be perfect, unlike her other brother (3.05). Though this rarely appears in the series, it’s enough to make us realize that Azula isn’t just a one-dimensional antagonist.
The Takeaway: Your antagonists are (usually) humans too, so give them more personality traits than just “evil” – but also, don’t be afraid to make them frightening. Nothing’s worse than a laughable villain.
Lesson 3 – Satisfying Character Arcs
If you ignored my spoiler warning earlier, I’m gonna give another one here – seriously, this is end of the last season stuff we’re talking about here.
In the show’s first episode, we’re introduced to Zuko, son of the Fire Nation’s leader and heir to the throne. He is currently banished from his home as punishment for speaking out of turn to his father. For the past three years, Zuko has been on a quest to find the Avatar and regain his honor.
At first, he’s hot-tempered, entitled, and obsessive – his interactions with the members of his crew and his uncle Iroh are evidence of that. However, abut midway through the second season, we begin learning more about Zuko and his history, and we see more of his positive qualities.
Unfortunately, things take a dark turn here. After being on the run from his own nation, Zuko meets his manipulative sister again, and she entices him back to her side with promises of restoration. Turning his back on Iroh, Zuko returns home to a hero’s welcome, but he’s still restless. He comes to the realization that his “destiny” is to help the Avatar, and he finally confronts his father, Ozai, before leaving the fire nation:
Zuko: For so long, all I wanted was you to love me, to accept me. I thought it was my honor that I wanted, but really, I was just trying to please you. You, my father, who banished me just for talking out of turn. My father, who challenged me, a 13-year-old boy, to an Agni Kai. How can you possibly justify a duel with a child?
Ozai: It was to teach you respect.
Zuko: It was cruel! And it was wrong.
In the show’s final episodes, Zuko is reunited with Iroh. Upon seeing his uncle again, Zuko tearfully apologizes for betraying him and begs for his forgiveness. To his surprise, Iroh embraces him and says “I was never angry with you. I was sad, because I was afraid you’d lost your way… But you found it again! And you did it by yourself! And I’m so happy you found your way here” (3.19).
This brings Zuko’s redemption arc full circle – he is a far cry from the prideful and obsessive boy we saw in the first season, and now he’s ready to take his rightful place as the leader of the Fire Nation.
The Takeaway: Remember that character arcs can be a winding road, and sometimes it’s one step forward and two steps back. However, giving characters an arc that’s fulfilling for the audience to witness can take a story from good to great.