NOVELJUTSU EPISODE 09: THEME PART III – How Avatar: The Last Airbender Shows Theme Through Character
Spoiler alert for Avatar: The Last Airbender. The beginning of this post is spoiler-free, but I will get into spoiler territory later. I will post a second warning before I do.
I’ve mentioned a few times in recent posts how theme, when it’s framed as a statement instead of as a topic, can act as a road map for your novel. Let’s take a closer look at what I mean.
Your theme, when framed as a statement:
a) Gives you something to prove in your novel through character, dialogue, action, setting, and so on.
b) Presents one or more possible stances in opposition to your argument, which allows you to:
a. identify who your novel’s antagonist should be and what goals they will have,
b. create appropriate trials for your protagonist to overcome, and
c. find a thematically appropriate resolution to your protagonist’s final battle with the antagonist.
c) Helps you keep your novel clean and on track, allowing you to decide which scenes must be present in your story and which scenes might distract from your message.
Theme is not a one-way street with no turns or intersections, but your chosen theme, while it won’t dictate everything you can and can’t do with your novel, will guide you into making decisions for your novel that are appropriate for your intended destination. Much like packing the right supplies for a trip.
Today I’m going to concentrate on how theme interacts with character, but before we get started, this is your friendly reminder that you don’t have to nail down your theme before you write the first draft of your novel. If you’re a plotter, you might make sure you’ve packed the right antagonist before you head out, but if you’re a discovery writer and you realize upon arriving at your destination that you brought the wrong dark lord, you can always go to the nearest convenience store and pick up a new one. (Is this metaphor getting away from me yet?)
So, with that preamble out of the way, let’s take a look at how theme influences your protagonist’s relationship with the antagonist.
PROTAGONIST AND ANTAGONIST RELATIONSHIP
Theme is usually portrayed by having each major character represent a different viable believe about the theme, and I do mean viable. Characters who don’t have an understandable reason to believe what they do are going to come across as stupid, so make sure your characters have good reason to believe what they do, even if their reason is selfish.
The next step in portraying theme through character is having your characters get into conflict with each other until one character emerges victorious and proves their belief to be correct. Or at least more correct. Your protagonist and antagonist exist in opposition to each other, so if you’re starting with theme and working backward, you need to look at what parts of your theme provoke conflict. Where might someone disagree with your theme and why?
As I mentioned in a previous post, the theme of Avatar: The Last Airbender is: you earn honour for yourself by trying to make the world a better place through humility and empathy. One major point of disagreement here is “honour,” because not everyone values honour or defines it the same way. By showing how the characters in Avatar struggle with their own concepts of honour, it highlights what the creators view as the correct definition.
There are a few ways you can depict your protagonist and antagonist’s battle of theme. Perhaps:
A) your protagonist’s interpretation of the theme is correct, and by defeating the antagonist they prove it,
B) your antagonist’s interpretation of the theme is correct, and by your protagonist’s tragic downfall, they will prove it, or
C) both your protagonist and antagonist have misconceptions about the theme. Either one or both of them will alter their understanding of the theme throughout the story.
Any of these three options works, but the third is the option I find most interesting, because it allows both your protagonist and antagonist room for character development. It’s also this third option that Avatar: The Last Airbender follows.
Now, I could analyze the characters of Avatar for hours, but, since I already planned to have a series of episodes focused on character, I’m going to focus on how just three aspects of each character relate to the show’s theme. Those aspects are:
1. how each character defines “honour,”
2. how that definition affects their motivation, and
3. how that definition affects the character’s “need,” or the lesson they must learn.
With that in mind, this is your second spoiler warning. From here on out, I’m going to get into all the juicy details of how Avatar: The Last Airbender uses theme.
But first, my obligatory disclaimer: the following are my interpretations of the show’s themes, and co-creators Michael Dante Dimartino or Bryan Konietzko could find this post and tell me dumb I am. Regardless, I think my interpretation will be illustrative. So let’s roll with it.
As we learn more about Aang through each episode, we start to understand his interpretation of honour is “do no harm.” This is a pretty honourable view! But sometimes this can lead Aang to avoid confrontation, to run away. And running away can have terrible consequences.
Aang’s motivation is to regain the honour he lost when he ran from his duty as avatar and allowed an imperialist nation to wage war on the world. He assumes regaining his honour means he must defeat Fire Lord Ozai and restore peace to the four nations, but it isn’t defeating the Fire Lord in and of itself that Aang needs to do to regain his honour. It’s about how he defeats the Fire Lord, because Aang’s need is to learn, rather than run away and avoid conflict, to trust himself and stand his ground when it’s in defense of the vulnerable.
Do you see how this relates to the main theme? Aang’s interpretation of honour as “do no harm” is noble but not entirely correct, and it sometimes results in him running away from responsibility. This in turn resulted in his greatest regret, his new motivation to right his wrongs, and the true lesson he needs to learn to have a complete character arc.
But now Aang needs a proper antagonist to oppose his view of honour.
For the big bad guy of the show, Fire Lord Ozai is unusually absent from most episodes. That said, his presence is felt not only in the four nations of Avatar, but also in the show’s themes.
Via the use of flashbacks, we can surmise a few things about Ozai. Especially in scenes depicting Ozai’s treatment of his son, Zuko, we learn he must have a view on honour. After all, he’s the one who told Zuko he’d lost his honour. But Ozai’s definition of honour appears to be of the “might makes right” variety. This is part of why Ozai is a great antagonist to face Aang—his view of honour places him in direct opposition to Aang’s “do no harm.”
Ozai’s “might makes right” philosophy fits right in with his motivation for the series: to prove his power through conquering the world. Ozai’s need—one he fails to fulfill—is to learn that mercy and kindness are not weaknesses. Ozai’s defeat by Aang helps reassert that Ozai’s definition of honour is wrong.
While many stories provide one main antagonist to oppose the protagonist, sometimes having more than one antagonist allows you to give a more complex depiction of your theme. And Avatar: The Last Airbender utilizes its other antagonists well.
With Fire Lord Ozai largely absent from the screen, it was important for Avatar to have other antagonists who could be stand-ins for the Fire Lord. Each other antagonist we meet has a different interpretation of honour, allowing Avatar to have a wider, fuller conversation about it.
The first of these stand-in antagonists and everyone’s favourite grouchy pants is Ozai’s son, Zuko. While Ozai’s view of honour places him exactly opposite Aang, Zuko’s struggles with honour are in many ways similar to Aang’s, and it’s in part that similarity that makes the differences between the two characters sharper.
I don’t know what Zuko’s view of honour was before his father burned and humiliated him. Likely, Zuko was still forming his own view of honour, but it makes sense that a child having what privilege and respect he’d once enjoyed stripped from him in an instant would believe his honour had been taken from him too. It’s easy to see how Zuko would now define honour as being respected by the one who took that honour—as being respected by those he views as having status over him, by those he loves.
This spurs his motivation to complete the quest his father gave him. In Zuko’s mind, capturing the avatar is the only way to earn his father’s love and respect—the only way to earn honour.
And, finally, that brings us to Zuko’s need: to learn that honour can’t be given or taken by anyone but himself. That it must be earned, in a way, by showing respect to others. By respecting their differences. By respecting their culture. Their heritage. All things the Fire Nation currently isn’t doing during their world conquest. By having Zuko redefine his view of honour and be rewarded because of it, viewers are pointed toward the show’s theme.
A fearsome prodigy, Azula is our main antagonist for book two. She has developed a similar definition of honour to her father, but with a twist. Instead of Ozai’s “might makes right” approach, Azula believes in her divine right to rule. The question of whether or not something is honourable is meaningless when all that matters is her will.
With Azula believing in her divine right to rule, she, like many gods from tales of old, wants others to fear her. While Azula’s firebending skills mean she would be perfectly capable of beating others into submission, she prefers to manipulate people into fearing her. Those who fear her reassure her that all that matters is others do what she wants without question.
The lesson Azula needs to learn is that using fear to control others is unhealthy for both those under her boot and herself, and it’s ultimately unfulfilling. By showing her in the final episode as not feared but pitied, Azula’s interpretation of honour is proven wrong.
Avatar has other antagonists, but Ozai, Zuko, and Azula are the main three. You may notice that together, along with Aang, they form a nice square. In The Anatomy of Story, this is what John Truby dubs a “four-corner opposition.” Each character here is not only in opposition to Aang, but also to each other, because their values, and their definition of the theme, are different.
When it comes to what behaviour they define as honourable, Aang prefers to use diplomacy, or “wits” to achieve balance and peace in the world. Because of her belief in her divine right to rule, Azula uses her wits, in this case emotional manipulation, to achieve power for herself. Ozai thinks it perfectly honourable to use brute force to achieve power for himself. And Zuko will use force in his quest for honour, but usually only for the sake of achieving balance. In his case, this primarily translates to balance within his family, balance within himself, and later to restoring balance to the world.
Using the four-corner opposition or a similar method allows you to compare and contrast your characters and theme in more complex ways than typically allowed by a one-to-one showdown, but not every story has room for multiple antagonists.
The good news is, though Truby uses his four-corner opposition to have a single protagonist face three antagonists, I think this works equally well with a hero and two or more allies facing a single antagonist.
In book one, Zuko fulfills his role as the primary antagonist while Katara and Sokka give Aang counsel about how best to fulfill his duties as Avatar, each of them giving contrasting views of honour. It took me longer to figure out how I wanted to label this version of the four-corner opposition, largely in part because book one is much more episodic than the other seasons and there are many ways I could have compared these characters’ concept of honour. I am focusing just on book one in this comparison, but these are the dynamics I chose:
Aang and Sokka primarily use their brains to dictate how best to follow the path of honour, whereas Katara and Zuko follow their hearts. (Zutara fanart). No. No, that’s not what I meant. Ahem. On the other hand, Aang and Katara’s version of honour drives them to respect and preserve what I’m going to call “the natural order.” By this I mean these two characters honour cultural traditions and show respect for the spiritual world. This isn’t a perfect example, but for the most part this holds true. However, Sokka tends to view progress and innovation as more honourable pursuits than tradition and spirituality, and the simple fact that Zuko is looking to capture the avatar for his father shows he doesn’t respect the natural order of the four nations or their relationship with the avatar.
KEEPING YOUR NOVEL ON TRACK
Even if you don’t want to use the four-corner opposition method yourself, it’s a good idea to take a look at your characters at some point in the writing process and see if they’re carrying their weight when it comes to theme. Some good questions you might ask yourself are:
A) Do each of my characters have a belief about my theme?
B) Does their belief make sense?
C) Is their belief evident in how they speak and act?
D) Do my characters act consistently in line with their belief? If not, is there a realistic reason why their actions are contrary? (For example, Zuko saying “the crew doesn’t matter” when realistically he does care about his crewmen. He’s trying to pretend he doesn’t, because he’s trying to conform to his father’s definition of honour.)
E) Do I have multiple characters fulfilling the same thematic role? Is there a way I can make their roles more distinct? Do I need to cut characters from the story to make these roles more distinct?
For today’s challenge, I want you to think of a moral question that’s important to you. It doesn’t have to be big or deep. Just important to you. I want you to write two paragraphs, each describing a viable answer to the question. Write these paragraphs as though they are being written by two different characters. Be fair in how you represent their views, even if you stand firmly on one side or the other.
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See you next time!