No. I’m not talking about James Cameron’s remake of Fern Gully. I’m talking about the award winning Nickelodeon production, Avatar: The Last Air Bender. The first and original Avatar story, that should have had dibs on the name for the movie production, until James Cameron stole it.
My son started watching the cartoon while visiting his grandparents’ house. I watched along and was quickly impressed. Recently we subscribed to Netflix, and we just completed the entire series.
There’s a lot to be learned about writing fiction from watching Avatar. Anyone who likes epic fantasy should spend some time watching this cartoon to learn from it. I highly recommend it. It’s fun, exciting, and family appropriate, but at the same time it’s a master’s class in story telling.
I haven’t done a top ten list in a while, so here’s the top ten things I learned from watching Avatar.
1. Comic relief is best served at inappropriate times.
It doesn’t matter what’s going on. Sokka will always say something funny, clever, inappropriate, or stupid. You can depend on it. And honestly, this helps the story stay believable. When you reach a high tension level, it’s difficult to maintain that tension without losing the audience. Frequent cuts in the tension are needed, so the story can rebuild it layer by layer. With each new layer, the excitement grows. But it can never grow properly if it’s never broken. It’s kinda like pruning a tree, or cutting split ends from your hair.
2. Villainy should come in layers.
In an epic, you can’t give away your ultimate bad guy right away. You have to peel back the layers of villainy one at a time. There should be multiple villains, each worse than the previous. The heroes will need to work through them all before reaching the climax.
The main villain of Avatar isn’t revealed until the final season.
3. The main hero should be surrounded by people who can kick his tail… until the end, that is.
As the Avatar, Aang needed to master all four elements: Air, Water, Earth, and Fire. Being born an Air Bender, at twelve years old he was already a master. But he needed teachers for the other elements. His water and earth teachers? Yeah, they could seriously kick his tail. Katara, fourteen years old, becomes a Water Bending prodigy, barely defeated by a veteran master before she had any formal training. Toph, twelve years old, is the self-proclaimed (and rightfully so) greatest Earth Bender ever. She’s blind, but can see through her feet with Earth Bending. Watching her fight is like watching poetry. She also invents “Metal Bending,” something no Earth Bender has ever done.
Both of these girls could kick the Avatar’s tail. I have no doubt that they could have defeated all the villains alone. Katara easily defeated all but the #1 villain by herself, and Toph never lost to anyone.
But in the end, the Avatar proved greater than even his teachers.
4. Strong female leads are a must.
You can’t get any stronger than Katara, Toph, Suki, Mai, Ty Lee, and Azula. There are more strong females in Avatar than there are strong males. Not only do they each have a unique and dynamic personality, but they are the best at what they do. Most are also very soft and feminine. They are everything strong female leads should be. And they add balance to what would otherwise be an overbearing boyish plot.
You need balance, especially if you want to broaden your audience. If your epic is very fantasy and war/fighting oriented, then you need soft feminine characters. You need to balance the testosterone with a good dose of estrogen. It doesn’t hurt to have a couple of love stories going on either. Avatar has three.
5. The good guys should be unexpected.
What’s more unexpected? The war has been raging for 100 years. Aang is just a kid. He’s discovered by two teenagers. Later, they enlist the help of other kids and teenagers. Against all odds, they continually go up against older foes who underestimate them. They can hide in plain sight, because no one expects kids to save the world.
But these are no ordinary kids.
If the heroes are expected and recognized, then the story is not as engaging. There’s something about seeing someone rise from obscurity and make a huge impact, that’s appealing in fiction.
6. Good guys should always be the underdogs.
If you know they’re going to win, what fun is that? The audience needs to doubt. Therefore, the odds should be so overwhelming that the good guys might possibly lose. Of course, this gives your good guys more opportunity to prove themselves and create confidence in the audience.
With every battle the heroes face in Avatar, the stakes get higher and the difficulty more intense. Usually they rise to the challenge…
7. Good guys have to lose before they can win.
But they can’t always win. Sometimes, they lose. Sometimes, the odds are too much. Winning becomes sweeter once they know what it feels like to lose.
There is one point in Avatar where the heroes lose… badly. But it’s what drives them through to the end.
8. Epics are about nations, not individuals. But individuals can change nations.
This is probably the biggest lesson for me. If a story is to be epic, there needs to be more at stake than just a few lives. Nations should be involved. There should be armies and large scale invasions. The heroes may never engage on this scale, but they are aware of it. In Avatar, the Fire Nation has waged war on the rest of the world for a hundred years. This it the backdrop for the entire story.
However, the heroes plan of attack focuses on individuals. They chose battles with leaders. It is on the small scale that the war is won, even though the war takes place on a large scale.
Don’t expect your heroes to lead armies. Sure, they can, but this isn’t how epics are won. Epics are won one on one, and the consequences should be felt through the whole world.
Also, don’t forget about the variables… disgruntled heroes the main characters may not know about. In Avatar, the final moments are not defined completely by what the heroes do themselves. There are others who band together and decide enough is enough. This is the tipping point that breaks the Fire Nation… the variables that tie up lose ends while the heroes handle the major conflicts.
9. Being on the bad guy’s team, doesn’t necessarily make you a bad guy.
You have to understand that the war is about nations, it’s about the world. People do what they’re told. They have to follow orders. Leaders can be evil and get delusions of grandeur. But not everybody on the bad guy’s team is really a bad guy.
Everyone has a story. Everyone has loyalties. This includes the grunt in the trenches. Epics may be about nations, but individuals can change nations. This includes the bad guy prince who is conflicted about his place in the world. This includes the bad guy kick-tail girl who is only fighting because her friend asked her to. This includes an oppressed bad guy nation just looking for an excuse to rebel.
In then end, you’ll find that not all bad guys were really bad guys. I won’t tell you who in the Fire Nation is really a good guy. You’ll have to figure that out on your own.
10. Everyone is on their own Hero’s Journey, at least in part.
Want to tell an epic? Then everyone’s a hero, at least in part. You can’t just weave one hero’s journey for your main hero. You must weave it for everyone… including your bad guys. This is where the masters are separated from the wannabes. It takes patience, organization, creativity, and skill to handle that many story arcs. But it has to be done. An epic is about more than just one person, and you should try to make your audience care about them all.
In Avatar, everybody has a story. They may not all complete the hero’s journey, but they are on it. I can think of at least seven characters who DO complete the Hero’s Journey. And there are four who complete the Villain’s Quest.
There you have it… a review of sorts. I hope all of you lovers of epic fantasy will check this story out. It’s not your typical Saturday morning cartoon. I promise, you’ll enjoy it just as much as your kids.