What We Can Learn From Avatar: The Last Airbender

Avatar: The Last Airbender is a kids show. At least, that’s how it’s usually marketed. But for those of us who have watched it, we feel that it’s more than that. We’ve been captured by its three-dimensional characters, its moving plot, and its brilliant animation and premise. And while it may be aimed for kids and it may have its moments of kiddish fun, I know people who are college-aged or adults who love it (my dad, who is fifty, is an example).

Even though Avatar is a show and not a book or novel, I think that observing other types of storytelling (such as movies, shoes, plays, poetry, etc.) is important. The different approach someone uses to write a movie may give us some insight on how to write our book. (Although, writing a movie is different than writing a book, often methods of writing will overlap.)

For those of you have not watched the show, I recommend it. Based on Japanese anime, it’s a really wonderful show. I won’t really go into the plot here (so no spoilers), but focus more so on its strong points.

Avatar excels at making three-dimensional characters. Arguably the best part of the show. While they may start off a bit flat (Aang is just a goofball, Katara a worrier, Sokka’s a sexist, Zuko’s your typical hotheaded bad guy), they really grow into likeable characters that have their own flaws. Aang has the fate of the world on his shoulders; everyone is telling him what to do, what they think is right, but he wants to form his own path according to what he believes is right. And he still finds ways to have fun during this. Zuko, while starting out as a cliché bully, grows and develops into a conflicted characters who gets lost in his way to find the right path.

The point I would like to make from this is that while your character might start out as a cliché at first, one-dimensional, make sure you add other layers and make them three-dimensional. One-dimensional characters are static, flat, clichés. But with three-dimensional characters, you not only have what they appear to be (the first dimension), but you have their backstory, their motives and goal, and why they are the way they are (the second dimension), and finally: who they are, underneath all that. Their underlying personality, their core, that is inevitable, unchangeable, no matter what (the third dimension).

The second thing I’d like to point out about Avatar is its plot. There are three seasons and each has about twenty episodes, lasting twenty minutes long. If you’ve watched the show, you’ll notice that, especially in the first season, there are quite a few “filler” episodes. Filler episodes are episodes that don’t really move the plot along. However, the plus side of filler episodes is that they add a great opportunity to develop your characters. And in Avatar, even if the episode was mostly filler, the writers never failed to add in character development — and they could usually always add a connection to the main plot, too.

What I’m trying to say is sometimes you do need a “filler” scene. If we have all action, it can wear down on the reader. Sometimes we need a break to sit back and just enjoy some simple character development that still adds something to the plot, however small, but moves the characters forward more so.

These filler episodes are also a good time to highlight a single aspect of your character (a skill they’ll need to use later, a backstory, a motive or goal they have, etc.) or story or subplot. For example, in “The Great Divide,” which is often considered the most useless episode in Avatar, Aang must learn how to put his peace-making skills in practice for pretty much the first time. As the Avatar, a symbol of peace and harmony in the world, this is important. While it’s definitely not my favorite episode, I do think its value is undermined.

The last point I would like to make about Avatar is that, even though it’s supposed to be a “kids show,” it has somehow managed to touch the hearts of so many people, ranging from kids to teens to adults. Is it because of the characters, the plot, the themes? It certainly does amazing at all of those three. There are many inspiring quotes from the show, the characters are memorable, and the plot is heart-pounding and awe-inspiring.

One thing I’d like to say about why I think it’s so wonderful is because it’s a kids show. It can’t rely on the shock value of curse words and it can’t include lots of gore and blood or show us inappropriate things to try and make us think it’s a “mature” and “deep” show. It has to rely on more subtle, relatable things. Actual story-telling methods, not just fanservice, which, unfortunately, a lot of stories these days fall prey to.

Perhaps it’s just my opinion, but I think that if Avatar had been made for an older audience, it would lose some of its innocence and charm. It wouldn’t be the same. The lessons we learn through the characters wouldn’t have the impact that they do.

What you should take from this comes to two things: 1) don’t rely too much on shock value or giving in to what your readers want (aka service) to try and make your story “good,” and 2) stories, even if it meant for one particular audience, can transcend ages. At the core, if a story is good, it will be heard.

Have any of you ever watched Avatar: The Last Airbender? What do you think of the show? What are some important things you think we can learn from it?

(On a side note, I did not really mention Avatar’s sequel, Legend of Korra, because while I do enjoy it immensely and still think it one of the best shows out there, I enjoy its predecessor more, and decided to focus solely on it since I think Avatar outshines Korra in nearly every way. I will say, though, that I found a lot of Korra’s villains slightly better than Avatar’s (namely Ozai, that is; Azula and Zuko, if you want to call him a villain, were great).)

Thanks for reading!

~ J. Dominique

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2 thoughts on “What We Can Learn From Avatar: The Last Airbender

  1. I loved “Avatar: The Last Airbender” characters. The characters on the good side didn’t get along all the time — nor did the characters on the bad side. I also really enjoyed seeing the relationships transform over time. (no spoilers)

    • Yes! I thought the character relationships in the show were amazing. Each one had a unique feel to them, and they all had their own goals and motivations even if, ultimately, they were working towards the same goal (or supposed to be, in some cases).
      Thanks for reading!

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