Writing Lessons #2: Examples of Fundamental Goodness – Avatar: The Last Airbender

The last column I wrote should be enough to give you an indication of what I mean with Fundamental Goodness, but before I wrap up talking about this topic, I would like to give you a few examples of this process at work, drawing from one of my favourite franchises: Avatar – no, not the one by James Cameron with the blue cat-aliens, but the one with element-bending kids. Be warned, there are definitely some SPOILERS for these works below, so read at your peril!

Avatar: The Best Plot-bender

It might seem strange to take a children’s animated show as an example of good writing, but make no mistake: Avatar‘s writing isn’t good – it is outstanding, particularly when it comes to the characters. If you want some of the best examples of Fundamental Goodness as a basis for well-developed fictional characters (certainly in animation), you need only look at Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel, Avatar: The Legend of Korra.

I honestly don’t know with which character I should start because their personalities are all so well-developed by the writers and continue to evolve throughout their respective series (as every good character should). I’ll just start with the basics for those who are unfamiliar with the story.

Avatar - The Last Airbender 2

Protagonist: Aang – A young kid with the ability to manipulate air (hence, the airbender), who is raised as a monk, who is also the reincarnation of  a legendary figure destined to bring balance to the world, the Avatar. Aang however, being only about 12 years old, is unable to cope with the responsibility of having the entire world depend on him and runs away from the monastery where he was raised. This response from Aang ends up having grave consequences and later, he sets out trying to fulfill his duties as the Avatar after all. Aang’s journey to master all four elements (air, water, earth and fire) and bring peace to the land mirrors his inner journey: over the course of the series, Aang ends up bringing greater balance to the world as well as to himself. On top of that, Aang is a kind, sensitive and generally peaceful soul, though he can also be a bit mischievous and (at least at the start of the show) has a tendency to run away from his problems. He has an extraordinary mastery of airbending, a strong connection to animals and (being raised by monks) is even a vegetarian.

Holy crap, what a unique creation! Aang’s backstory as the Avatar alone makes him a very interesting character to follow. It is the knowledge that he is the Avatar that sets him out on his journey, as he realises that he has a responsibility to the world, and a unique destiny that only he can fulfill. In this sense, he is not very different from most ‘Chosen One’-type heroes, but it’s how the show deals with Aang’s journey as a hero that sets it apart: Aang’s motivation (driven by Fundamental Goodness) is to fulfill his destiny and help people after his initial failure to do so and he genuinely tries to live up to his role as the Avatar, but, being young and lacking guidance, he doesn’t always know how to do it. The show takes time to delve into Aang’s doubts, his anxieties, his loneliness and the struggle to do what is right. There are two strong examples of this I can think of at the top of my head. One is the episode ‘The Storm’ (S1E12), where Aang reveals to his friends that he ran away because he was being forced by the monks to focus solely on his duties as the Avatar and was going to be separated from the man that raised him. Another great episode is ‘The Guru’ (S2E19): while trying to open his chakras to unlock his full power as the Avatar, Aang has to confront many of his own negative emotions (such as his fear, guilt and sorrow) and learn to let go of them in order to reach his true potential. Aang’s tale is a classic hero’s journey while still being a very unique and interesting one – and the story does all this while still being a very fun, humorous, lighthearted, adventurous, action-packed TV show.

Sadly, there’s not enough time to discuss some of the other characters in detail, like Aang’s friends. There’s the waterbender Katara, whose strong, yet also motherly nature compels her to protect Aang and help him on his quest. Sokka, the sarcastic and witty brother of Katara who wants to stop the imperialistic Fire Nation and is desperate to live up to the example of his father. And then we have Toph, the blind, kick-ass earthbending girl who leaves her comfortable home as she’s sick of constantly being treated like a delicate flower by her loving, but misguided parents.

But I’m making an exception for one last character of The Last Airbender: Zuko.

Avatar - The Last Airbender 3

Zuko, the exiled Prince of the Fire Nation, is perhaps the most remarkable of them all. This ruthless firebender is compelled to capture the Avatar to regain his honour by his father, the evil Fire Lord, after Zuko brings shame to his family. Zuko starts off as the villain of the show, but our perspective changes as we learn about his background: Zuko is forced to capture Aang in order to regain his place in his society – and to regain what Zuko secretly desires most of all, his father’s love and acceptance. As we begin to understand him more, Zuko starts to become a very sympathetic figure, even when he and Aang remain on opposing sides. Gradually, Zuko becomes so much more than that, partly thanks to the sage advice of his uncle Iroh (another outstanding character), to the point that Zuko becomes one of the greatest heroes of the series.

Avatar - The Last Airbender 4

Even Zuko’s wicked sister Azula (wicked in both senses of the word!) is a compelling figure, being supremely evil, but also possessing a strength, confidence and resourcefulness that makes her almost admirable. In one very powerful scene towards the end of the show, we even gain more insight into Azula’s messed up psychology, as her cruel, controlling personality is revealed to have been driven by the fears and insecurities she keeps hidden, even leading her to break down in tears. How many villains do you see cry in most bog-standard fiction? In contrast to Zuko, who has faced his own flaws and learned to overcome them over the course of the series, Azula has refused to do so, slipping further and further into suffering, paranoia and even madness as a result – it’s  a wonderful reversal to how things stood between the two siblings at the start of the story, where it was Zuko who was uncertain of himself and Azula the confident one.

Characters in Korra

Avatar - The Legend of Korra

The Legend of Korra continues this succesful streak of characters with well-developed motivations and interesting personalities. Korra (Aang’s successor) is a bad-ass young woman who is eager to perform her duties as the Avatar and contribute to the world, but is so eager that she can actually be rather hot-headed, impatient, reckless and even a bit selfish at the start of the show, which makes for an interesting protagonist. The show’s villains are more than a match for her in this department too. For me, those who stood out the most were Zahir and Kuvira. Zahir is a spiritually-enlightened revolutionary who believes so much in the idea of freeing the people of the world from control that he will even assassinate world leaders, his detached view on things leading him to take ruthless actions for ‘the greater good’. On the flipside of Zahir stands Kuvira, a young soldier who desperately desires to restore order and strength back to her nation after Zahir killed its monarch (causing enormous chaos), but becomes an essentially fascist figure in the process.

A lot of serious stuff for a kid’s show, isn’t it? But the writers of this franchise (led by Michael Dante Dimartino and Bryan Konietzko) have handled both its characters and its themes with remarkable grace and balance. They understand that human motivations and human emotions are key to creating characters who we can empathise with, who feel natural and realistic and who drive the story forward by their own desires, not because the story dictates that they should do something. This concludes my thoughts on this topic for today. Do you agree? Let me know in the comments below! Disagree? Also let me know in the comments below! What topic concerning writing do you think I should discuss next? Let me know that too! Am I annoying you by asking you all these questions? Let me know!

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