Lessons every fantasy writer could learn from Avatar: The Last Airbender
As Avatar: The Last Airbender nears the 10th anniversary of its debut, I finally got around to watching it. I was not disappointed; what begins as a lively and engaging fantasy tale rapidly spins into a gripping epic. All the while, Avatar had to tailor its subject matter to a 12-and-under target audience: children had to be able to understand its plot, and its violence could never exceed a TV Y7 level. And yet by the end of the series I was more invested in it, and more moved by its Big Moments than I ever have been by Game of Thrones (which I love).
I thought about this a lot as I watched the show: how did Avatar find so much creative energy despite these limitations?
And then it occurred to me: they weren’t limitations. Fantasy stories are usually told in broad strokes whether they’re aimed squarely at kids, adults, or everyone in between. There’s no time for ennui in the genre, whether you’re in Middle Earth, Westeros, or Ba Sing Se.
But Avatar has so much fun with its material. It doesn’t talk down to its target audience; it just speaks at a register that doesn’t block them out. The show knows that a reveling in its own creation once in a while is not mutually exclusive with having a high stakes plot. And being able to revel in the world in one of the joys of fantasy.
As I was watching Avatar, I asked my younger sister (who was seven when the show debuted) how as a child she managed handle a show that so often went for the emotional jugular. Her answer struck a chord with me: the writers; Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino (known affectionately by fans as Bryke); know what kids can handle. Children can grasp strong character arcs, and pick up on subtle nuances as characters grow and evolve. They are attuned to big emotions, and the grand sweep of fantasy is almost ideally attuned to a child’s wavelength. For the most part, Game of Thrones isn’t too complex for children, which can make its unrelenting sense of despair a bit tiring for me. It sometimes mistakes misery for depth, and resembles a gory game of whack-a-mole.
Avatar is a rare case of a fantasy recognizing that children are more than capable of appreciating a story that is still equally entertaining for adults. It’s a formula that writers have labored over since the dawn of motion pictures. Few have nailed it so successfully as Bryke.
I’m not saying that having to tone content down for children is why Avatar is such a good show. I’m saying that DiMartino and Konietzko had such a strong creative vision for the show, and it was one that was malleable to requirements of Nickelodeon. Where other writers have regularly run into hurdles, Avatar never skipped a beat. For example, I was struck by one episode late into the show’s run that grappled with Aang’s (the titular Avatar) desire not to kill the show’s primary antagonist (the monstrous Ozai, leader of the Fire Nation). It seemed clear that the show couldn’t depict Aang killing Ozai on screen without committing to a more mature rating. But this episode was not about waffling on content; it was thinking long and hard about what it would do to Aang, who is still just a child, to take a life. So few stories linger on that. Death is usually taken for granted as a means to an end. It is lingered on only when good guys die. When Katniss Everdeen kills career tributes, we’re supposed to be happy she’s taken them down. We don’t really get a sense that she has lost something for having to turn to killing in order to survive.
Avatar regularly displays uncommon thoughtfulness about its own material. It eschews story morals for character growth. When Katara, a water bender whose mother was murdered by the fire nation, goes on a mission to track down her mother’s killer, we understand her anger completely. And when she backs down from her vengeance, to let the man live, the scene is not constructed as a morality tale, but as moment of growth for her as a character. For children, it is far more instructive a method of teaching the virtue of mercy over vengeance than a more didactic approach would require, because it never once loses the episode’s narrative beat.
The show’s primary gang of four; Aang, Katara, Sokka (Katara’s older brother), and Toph (a young noble girl and an earthbending prodigy) fulfill one of the prime mechanics of fantasy storytelling: the fellowship. Like any fellowship, they have conflicts, and like characters on any Nickelodeon show they resolve those conflicts by the episode’s end. But Avatar is not concerned with imparting morals; it lets us get to know these characters deeply. There is a splendid little moment in one episode where Toph has a heart to heart with Katara. Toph, who is blind, has just been ridiculed for her appearance by a group of older girls. Her usually tough exterior falters. She tries to tell Katara that she enjoys not having to care what people think of how she looks, but (in a splendid moment of voice acting by Jessie Flower) her voice falters just a bit. We know she’s hurt. It’s not a necessary moment to the plot. Rather, it is one of many splendid moments of character building that the show features, simply by letting characters interact with each other in ways not dictated by the plot.
One of the show’s most impressive traits is its grasp on its antagonists. It goes through a series of them, all of them members of the totalitarian Fire Nation. The first antagonist we meet is Zuko, a teenage former-prince, Ozai’s son. Ozai burned his face and banished him for daring to speak up against him during a military meeting. Now Zuko searches for the Avatar, hoping that capturing Aang will restore his honor in Ozai’s eyes. Zuko’s motives are clear and simple. His path is anything but, and the simplicity and sincerity of his motives allow Zuko tremendous room for growth. His arc takes him from being a primary antagonist in the first season to one of Aang’s closest allies in the third, and it’s a transition that is as earned as it is satisfying.
The strength of Zuko’s arc is largely due to how well DiMartino and Konietzko constructed the world of the Fire Nation. One of my biggest gripes with Harry Potter is how conveniently evil Slytherin is. The overwhelming bulk of villains in the book are Slytherins. Snape takes some heroic actions, yes, but he is an utter dick toward Harry for most of the books. Draco Malfoy has some interesting turns as a character, but for the most part he’s a not quite evil jerk. Let me put it this way: JK Rowling would often throw all Slytherins under the bus (the reawarding of the House Cup at the end of Philosopher’s Stone; the summary arrest of all Slytherins before the battle of Hogwarts in Deathly Hallows) and we are expected to take it for granted. Slytherin is there to provide an easy source of anatagonism; Rowling saw little need for nuance beyond that purpose.
Avatar allows the Fire Nation ample room to become something far more than a conveyor belt of villainy. Its imagery is rooted in totalitarianism, an age-old source that fantasy and sci-fi alike have mined for decades. However, beneath the surface is very deep sea. Zuko’s sister Azula is the show’s functional primary antagonist from season 2 on. She is a coiled ball of menace, but watch carefully and you’ll see a human being there driving every moment. A key scene shows Azula (ordered by Ozai to find the Avatar after Zuko begins having second thoughts) recruiting a childhood friend of hers to join her team. The friend, named Ty Lee, is a circus acrobat. Azula’s recruitment is subtle and brutally manipulative. In a few minutes we see years of a toxic friendship laid bare, ready to continue for as long as Ty Lee is willing to fool herself that Azula is really her friend. Yes, Azula is a terrifying villain, but the show lets her be a character. She is not defined simply by her ability to impede Aang.
Her relationship with Zuko is similarly poisonous, helping to deepen Zuko’s arc that much more. When he interacts with Azula, who is more openly cruel and manipulative to him than she is with her friends, we can see clearly the sort of environment he grew up in. Additionally, both Azula and Zuko help to build up Ozai’s villainy before we even properly meet him. After all, he is the sort of man who would maim his own son, who would encourage vicious antagonism between his children, and who would raise and encourage Azula to be as cruel as possible. And that inevitably leads to us empathizing with Azula; she is still just a teenager, after all, and it becomes clear that she is as much a product of her father’s upbringing as Zuko is. They are different forks splitting from the same path.
This is deep and superb world building. Antagonists are rarely so acutely rendered in genre storytelling.
I would be remiss to not talk a bit more about the main characters. Aang is someone rare in fantasy, an unwaveringly noble protagonist who is perhaps the show’s most interesting character. Most fantasies start from a moral position than unwavering morality is either a character flaw or evidence of denial. The irony of that position is that it works best when the story’s antagonist is unremittingly evil, and the audience gives the writers leeway to deny them mercy. The moment in Deathly Hallows when Harry Potter uses the Cruciatus Curse on a Death Eater struck me as a bit too flippant; that Harry could successfully use the curse should say something about how the horror of the world he inhabits has chipped away at him. Instead, it’s something of a bravura moment; we’re supposed to cheer because the recipient of the curse a) is a Death Eater and b) has just spat on the beloved Professor McGonagall.
A similar moment involving Katara is given much more weight. She resorts to a rare and brutal tactic called bloodbending (manipulating the water in a human body) to subdue an adversary. Afterwards, Katara breaks down sobbing as her friends and brother comfort her. She did what had to be done, but the show recognizes the toll it takes on her. Avatar’s always allows character to dictate action. It is unwavering in its recognition of everyone’s humanity.