NOVELJUTSU EPISODE 10: THEME PART IV – How Avatar: The Last Airbender Shows Theme Through Worldbuild
Spoiler alert for Avatar: The Last Airbender. Also a brief spoiler for Book 3 of The Legend of Korra.
Last time I talked about how Avatar: The Last Airbender’s main theme affects the motivations and needs of the major characters, but its themes affect the worldbuilding in the show too.
Michael Dante Dimartino and Bryan Konietzko have been quite open about how the idea for their epic tale evolved in part from their interests in eastern philosophy and martial arts films. As a martial arts enthusiast who grew up with old Jackie Chan movies and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, I approve.
Though they didn’t brainstorm their theme first, the theme of “honour is earned for yourself by trying to make the world a better place” is enriched and uplifted by the universe Michael Dante Dimartino and Bryan Konietzko created. So whether you come up with theme first or plan to use your theme to patch some holes in your world after you’ve written your first draft, Avatar: The Last Airbender provides a great example on how to do it well.
In this post, I’m going to go over two goals you should have in mind when looking at your worldbuilding from the perspective of theme and six aspects of worldbuilding you can use to facilitate the themes in your novel. So let’s dive in.
In the last episode I mentioned how your chosen theme should suggest conflict. In the case of Avatar’s theme, the main point of conflict the show explored was “honour,” since what is honourable is defined differently by different people.
After you’ve determined what point of conflict you want to explore in your theme, you want to find a setting that is going to breed that conflict. In effect, this means, whether you’re setting your story in the real world or in a world of your own creation, your setting should:
1. allow for the existence of characters who believe your theme is true as well as for those who don’t, and
2. facilitate the collision of those two (or more) groups of people.
Avatar wouldn’t have worked thematically if it had been set in a place where everyone agreed on a single definition of “honour,” and likewise you’re going to want to set your story in a place where your characters can explore your theme. But how do you build a world for your theme? Let’s take a look at six aspects of worldbuilding Avatar utilized.
1: REAL-WORLD INSPIRATION
If you like to use the real world to help build a foundation for your story, there’s a lot of history and culture across the globe to go through. With a topic like “honour” to consider, the creators of Avatar could have chosen almost any real world setting to inspire the story they wanted to tell, but perhaps there are few places with quite the deep and lasting relationship with capital “H” Honour that’s found in several East Asian cultures.
The concept of “honour” as a code of ethics and conduct has a long history in many of these East Asian nations. The effects of that history are still seen today. Setting the story of Avatar in a world so deeply inspired largely by such East Asian cultures gives more context to how viewers interpret the kind of honour the show discusses.
2: GEOGRAPHY (SCOPE)
You’d be forgiven for thinking the geography of Avatar has nothing to do with the concept of “honour.” In the strictest sense, it doesn’t, but what the geography of Avatar does is segregates the people. People separated by sea, mountain regions, swamps, or by…
...gravity tend to develop differently in terms of industry and culture and, therefore, in what they would view as honourable behaviour.
With the vast landscape of the Avatar universe, there were so many towns for our main characters to stop in. So many cultures to interact with, and so many conflicts, large or small-scale, to test the characters’ understanding of honour.
What if Aang, Sokka, and Katara had never left the South Pole? The writers might still have pulled off a conversation about honour, but because a community as small and isolated as the Southern Water Tribe is likely to have a narrower view on the subject, the show’s theme by necessity would have been much more narrowly focused as well.
There’s nothing wrong with a small, intimate setting and a laser focus, but the creators wanted a wide, sweeping tale with action and…
3: MAGIC SYSTEMS
If you’re writing fantasy with magic, your magic system is a wonderful tool to help you depict your themes. The magic system developed for Avatar: The Last Airbender is, of course, bending one of the four elements through martial arts. But what do those four elements have to do with honour?
Well, in Avatar, the series shows us that each of the four forms of bending has strengths that can be used in honourable and dishonourable ways.
We know Fire Bending can be used for honorable purposes such as keeping someone from freezing to death, heating a cup of tea, or for helping to advance the Fire Nation’s technology in ways the other nations have been unable to. But we also know Fire Bending is used to harm others, and that the Fire Nation has used its technological advances to oppress others. Instead of treating these qualities as random attributes, the show embraces them in its conversation about theme.
This is carried through with the other elements as well. Water Bending can heal, but it also has Blood Bending, which the show depicts in no uncertain terms as dishonourable.
Though Toph joins the avatar to help save the world, we first meet her when she’s using Earth Bending for selfish pursuits, and we later see her use Earth Bending to cheat others.
As Aang is the only Air Bender we see outside of flashbacks, we learn less about honourable versus dishonourable uses of Air Bending, though Book 3 of The Legend of Korra certainly gives us a view of how Air Bending can also be used dishonourably.
The point is, the art of bending in Avatar: The Last Airbender, while awesome, is never just about being awesome. It is constantly being used to reveal character, worldbuild, and depict theme.
But even if you’re not writing fantasy, you can still use a “magic system” to enhance your themes. In science fiction, technology is often the equivalent of a magic system. The choices you make in regard to what the technology’s purpose is, how that purpose is directed or abused, and who is and isn’t allowed to use that technology can all impact your themes.
Even if you’re not writing speculative fiction at all, you can use real world technology as a vessel for your theme. A phone can represent a desire to connect with others. A house can represent a happy family. The technologies you incorporate in your novel can be almost characters in themselves, and as such, they can be used to explore theme.
Building a history for your world can give context to how your theme plays out within your story. In Avatar, the world has been beset by war for one hundred years, but the writers of the show don’t oversimplify the situation by saying “all war is dishonourable!”
While the Fire Nation is depicted as villainous for the imperialistic nature of their war, the war only happened because the rest of the world entered into it and perpetuated it. So, in the writers’ view, war in and of itself, though ultimately always horrible, isn’t necessarily dishonourable. The reasons for entering the war and the methods used to fight matter, and the show doesn’t shy away from depicting how even some of those who are fighting on the “right” side of the war are still doing so dishonourably. Even the act of avoiding war can be seen as a dishonourable choice.
When we first meet the Kyoshi Warriors, a man from the town says something that could be mistaken for a throwaway line: “Kyoshi stayed out of the war so far, and we intend to keep it that way.” However, despite their intent, war comes to Kyoshi in a terrible way. After the avatar’s visit to the island, after the town has witnessed first hand what innocents caught in the war are suffering, the Kyoshi Warriors are inspired to leave home and join the war in their own way: first by aiding refugees, then by confronting Azula to protect Appa, and finally by Suki joining in on direct attacks against the Fire Lord’s fleet. In a small but significant way, the writers of Avatar are saying that ignoring the oppression of others when you have the power to help is dishonourable, and it’s a lesson Suki and her warriors learn well.
Perhaps one of the most interesting ways to worldbuild your themes into your novel is through developing different cultures in your story. How do the cultures and subcultures you create view your theme? Where do they misunderstand your theme, and how has that affected people within that culture? How do their values, rituals, and languages impact their view of the theme?
I already mentioned bending under “Magic Systems,” but in the Avatar universe, bending is closely tied to culture too. Take a look at the Fire Nation’s agni kai. This is a duel steeped in ritual. Though the show doesn’t give us the rulebook, we understand clearly that an agni kai has rules of conduct inextricably tied to the honour of those involved. When Zhao attempts to strike Zuko from behind after Zuko had shown mercy in victory, Iroh tells Zhao this act was dishonourable.
Designing peoples and cultures to inhabit your world can be a rewarding experience, but be careful if you intend to use real-world cultures to depict your themes. It’s too easy to stereotype or pass moral judgement on a culture that is different from yours. Remember that the religions and cultures you depict are a way of life for many people, and blundering around with someone else’s culture can be harmful. Diverse stories are important and encouraged, but make sure treading carefully.
I touched on this when I spoke of technology, but the symbology used in your story is another great way to depict your theme. Avatar has a lot of symbols, but the one I’d like to focus on is Zuko’s scar.
Zuko’s scar represents his dual nature and struggle with honour. The show repeatedly uses it to remind us that Zuko’s understanding of honour has been corrupted by his father’s abuse, and it’s also used to telegraph to the audience much about his conflicting thoughts.
When Zuko is committing actions based on a corrupted definition of honour (such as when he returns to the Fire Nation after betraying his uncle), or when he’s battling with confusion about which path he should follow, the show will often focus on the burned side of his face. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder that Zuko’s sense of right and wrong has been poisoned.
I like to think that this shot of Zuko from The Crossroads of Destiny, depicting him shortly before he betrayed Uncle Iroh, was deliberately included as a hint that he hadn’t changed as much as he thought he had. That he was still struggling, and that he was about to make a decision he would very much regret later.
When, however, Zuko is acting based on a true sense of honour, such as when he walks away from his father after telling him he’s joining the avatar, the frame will often zoom in on the unscarred side of his face to reinforce that he’s moving in the right direction.
As a writer, you can pour meaning into almost anything. An object. A colour. A smell. And, if you want, you can use that symbol to help convey your theme.
That’s it for this post. I know I’ve made several posts about theme, but I still have one more to wrap up this discussion, so stay tuned for one more lesson from Avatar on how to incorporate theme.
What’s your favourite way to show theme through worldbuilding? Is there something I missed in my list? Go ahead and comment below or hop on over to my video and drop a comment there. Feel free to like and share this post if you found it helpful, and I’ll see you again next time!