NOVELJUTSU EPISODE 11: THEME V - How "Avatar: The Last Airbender" Shows Theme Through Plot
Spoiler alert for Avatar: The Last Airbender.
Avatar: The Last Airbender has a very character-driven narrative, and so the major themes of the show mostly play out through character arcs. A few episodes ago I showed how Avatar’s theme affects the main characters’ motivations and the lessons they need to learn to have a complete character arc, so in this episode I’m going to go through those same characters’ arcs and show how Avatar’s theme plays a role in that too.
CHARACTER ARCS 101
Before we dive into those characters, what exactly is needed for a character arc? I’ll get more in depth into how to build a compelling character in future episodes, but for the purposes of this post, a very basic arc goes a little something like this:
1. STATUS QUO:
The character starts the story with their life as normal, and the readers have a chance to get acquainted with them—to figure out the lesson the character needs to learn and why the reader wants to root for them to learn it.
2. INCITING INCIDENT:
A catalyst disturbs the character’s routine and provides the motivation that will carry them through the story. If the lesson the character needs to learn hasn’t been made clear before this point, it needs to be made now.
By this point in the character’s arc, the reader knows how your character starts their journey and probably has a good idea of where the character is supposed to end up. The trials the character now faces must be designed to teach them the lesson that will get them where they’re supposed to be.
Not every setback the character faces has to relate directly to your themes, but if you want your themes to be strong, your characters’ major failures and successes should be thematic. At the very least you’ll want to be sure these trials don’t detract from any themes you have growing.
4. CLIMAX AND RESOLUTION:
The final test of the character’s arc provides them with an opportunity to use the tools they’ve gained (or haven’t gained or refuse to use, in the case of a tragedy). Like the other trials, the climax should test the character in a manner appropriate to the lesson and be resolved in a way that reveals how the character has grown.
That is a very basic character arc, but there are many, many different ways it can look if we try to graph it out. This means you can create all kinds of interesting characters who look and feel very different from each other, despite each going through this same system. With that in mind, let’s pick apart the arc for the hero of the series.
If you read my post on revealing theme through character, you’ll remember this graphic:
Because Aang’s interpretation of honour as “do no harm” is admirable but not quite right, it sometimes leads to him avoid conflict altogether. His running away left an opening for the Fire Nation’s war, and now Aang must defeat the Fire Lord by learning his lesson—by standing his ground and facing his problems head on. Let’s take a closer look at how Aang’s character arc relates to that lesson.
Aang starts his arc as a fun-loving twelve-year-old kid who ran away from home. From the beginning, Aang’s flaw—his evasive nature—is on full display. He shows no interest in how he ended up so far from home and avoids questions about the avatar. Already the viewer has a pretty good idea that Aang is going to need to end the series as a character who accepts his destiny and actively fights toward his goals instead of dancing around them. In order to get there, something needs to happen to inspire him to change.
Aang learns he was in the iceberg for one hundred years and hears that there’s been a war, but the full weight of this new knowledge doesn’t sink in until The Southern Air Temple, where Aang returns to his childhood home and finds the evidence of the genocide the Fire Nation committed in their attempts to find him. Aang finding his friend and mentor long dead partially as a result of his actions is the catalyst that changes Aang’s status quo and motivates him to defeat the Fire Lord.
Aang’s journey to become the character he is at the end of the series is not a straight line. As a series with sixty-one episodes, Aang has many, many trials, but I’m going to focus on no more than three that relate to how he develops thematically.
a. In The Deserter, Aang is very excited to learn fire bending, but when he accidentally burns Katara, he develops a fear of it. This sets the stage for later episodes where Aang’s instinct is to avoid his responsibility to learn to bend fire. He only accepts Zuko as his fire bending teacher when Zuko demonstrates an understanding of the dangers of fire, and he’s so afraid of his own fire in The Fire Bending Masters he lets it extinguish before he can present it to the dragon masters. In short, because Aang defines honour as “do no harm” and doesn’t trust his control, he runs from his responsibility to learn fire bending until the dragon masters teach him the positive nature of fire, allowing him to accept he’s meant to be a fire bender.
b. Toph becomes a major force in Aang’s life when she becomes his Earth Bending teacher, and she knows well how to stand her ground. Perhaps a little too well. This makes her a great mentor to guide Aang in learning how to stand his ground, which is essentially the entire point of the episode Bitter Work. Beginning with this episode, Toph helps Aang learn to face problems head on.
c. Shortly before the climax of Aang’s character arc, we see that, while he’s learned a great deal about his lesson, he’s still wavering. In Sozin’s Comet Part 1: The Phoenix King, Aang is confronted with the possibility that he might have to kill the Fire Lord. He’s much better at standing his ground this time—he tells the others he has no plans to kill the Fire Lord—but he still lacks confidence in that decision. Rather than making his decision and finding a way to accomplish it, he seeks counsel from his past lives in Sozin’s Comet, Part 2.
It’s certainly not a bad thing to receive counsel, but in this case, Aang seems to be looking to others to take the decision away from him—to give him the answer only he can find for himself. Or get from a lion turtle…
CLIMAX AND RESOLUTION:
When Aang finally comes face to face with Fire Lord, Ozai is powerful, brutal, and has none of the reservations Aang does about harming others. For a while, Aang is losing. It’s only when the avatar state takes over that Aang puts Ozai on the defensive.
But if Aang had killed Ozai using the brute force of the avatar state, the show’s messages about honour would have gotten muddled, because killing Fire Lord Ozai wouldn’t have fit Aang’s character arc. Instead, when Aang refuses to kill the Fire Lord despite believing it’s what everyone expects of him, this ending feels more earned than if Aang had killed him.
ANTAGONIST: FIRE LORD OZAI
Where most of Aang’s arc is told in a linear fashion, most of our main villains start the series already partly into their arcs, and we have to learn through flashbacks how their arcs started. Since he spends most of the series off screen, this is especially true for the first and baddest antagonist on our list: Fire Lord Ozai.
At the beginning of the series, Ozai is just a-Firelording away and carrying on the family legacy of trying to take over the world. From what little we see of him early on, the audience knows that the lesson Ozai should learn is that mercy is not a weakness, which would place him in a better position at the end of the story than he is in the beginning. But, since Ozai fails his arc, he remains a static character. Still the show offers him plenty of opportunities to change course.
If Ozai’s arc is supposed to be about learning to be merciful, the one event that interrupted his routine and set him on a course that would end with his downfall was Zuko speaking out of turn during the war meeting. If Ozai couldn’t see the value in his son’s opposition, he could have at least handled the outburst with kindness. If not for Ozai choosing to burn and exile his son, Zuko very likely would have remained loyal to him, and there’s a very real chance Aang wouldn’t have been capable of defeating the Fire Lord, certainly not without using the avatar state.
With Ozai being offscreen for most of the show, the viewer is left to infer much about his character arc. That said, there are enough episodes that depict Ozai’s character development to understand that, well, he’s not developing.
a. In The Siege of the North, Part 2, the invasion of Ozai’s forces in Northern Water Tribe territory fails, and the fleet is forced to retreat. Instead of worrying for his son who disappeared after the battle, Ozai dismisses Zuko as a failure and gives Azula new orders. Not only does he not rethink his goals, but he also continues to use, abuse, and endanger his own children without a thought.
b. When Zuko returns to the Fire Nation in The Awakening, Ozai has the opportunity to welcome Zuko home and be a loving father. If he had, once again, Zuko might never have joined the avatar. Instead of accepting Zuko out of love and forgiveness, Ozai’s acceptance is based only on the assumption that Zuko has furthered Ozai’s hold over the other nations. Ozai shows no real care for his son beyond Zuko’s usefulness in making him more powerful.
c. When Ozai is confronted by his son in The Day of Black Sun Part 2: The Eclipse, he belittles Zuko and is ready to attack him again, proving he still hasn’t changed.
CLIMAX AND RESOLUTION:
In the end, Ozai’s downfall as the leader of an empire is a direct result of his failures as a father. Ozai fails to learn that mercy is not weakness, and he is defeated by a child who overpowers him through an act of mercy. Ending Ozai’s arc in this way reasserts the show’s themes … until Sokka, Toph, and Suki make jokes at the Fire Lord’s expense.
Others have commented on how Avatar’s need to constantly land a joke even when it’s inappropriate timing is one of the show’s few flaws. When it comes to this scene, I would have to agree.
Having the heroes mock Ozai in his defeat takes away from the message that mercy is not weakness. And I don’t agree with excusing these jokes because Avatar is a “kid’s show.” No jokes are thrown after Zuko and Katara’s battle with Azula. The writers had the sense to treat the scene with the empathy and seriousness it deserved, and the scene is better for it. I wish the writers had thought to hold in the giggles during Ozai’s defeat as well. Ozai, after all, in many ways was as tragic a character as Azula.
Prince Zuko has a fascinating arc in part because it covers so much ground and sways back and forth. Viewers love to watch him struggle, learn, and grow, but even though his arc looks different on a graph than Aang’s or Ozai’s, it’s still made up of the same essential points.
We know from what the creators have said and from a few short flashbacks in the show that Ozai was once a loving father to Zuko. But now Ozai is emotionally distant. The viewer feels sympathy for Zuko and begins to understand the path he must follow as they watch him try so hard to earn the fatherly affection he’d once enjoyed from a man unwilling to give it. For now, Zuko’s status quo is dealing with being ignored or chastised whenever he attempts to gain his father’s love and respect.
While the inciting incident of Ozai’s arc is the moment Zuko speaks out in the war room, the inciting incident of Zuko’s arc is the agni kai. When his father burns, humiliates, and exiles him in front of an audience, Zuko’s sense of honour is twisted. This inspires his journey to capture the avatar and earn what he really wants: his father’s respect.
We see more of Zuko’s trials than almost any other character, and nearly every one is meant to test his understanding of honour. It was very hard to narrow the list down to these three examples:
a. Over the course of Book 2, Zuko struggles with his new status as a refugee. He comes face to face with people who’ve been burned by the Fire Nation, sometimes literally. Despite a slow and subtle softening of his character, despite the evidence that his father’s ways are wrong, Zuko isn’t ready to learn his lesson yet.
In the aptly titled Zuko Alone, Zuko bonds with a boy from an Earth Kingdom family. When that boy gets into trouble, Zuko saves him, but his identity as the prince of the Fire Nation is revealed. Instead of being met as the boy’s saviour, instead of being shown the respect Zuko associates with honour, Zuko, as a symbol of all the hurt and trauma these people of the Earth Kingdom have endured, is met with warranted anger and hatred.
b. In the episodes before The Crossroads of Destiny, viewers are led to believe Zuko is finally beginning to understand that his previous ways were wrong. But Zuko hasn’t earned his redemption yet. In this episode, Azula promises Zuko honour, redemption, and his father’s love, and he so longs for those things he betrays Uncle Iroh, his true father figure, to get them.
c. As far as the main plot of Avatar goes, The Beach doesn’t add much to it, but it’s in this episode Zuko expresses how unfulfilled and angry he feels. He spent years with Iroh, experiencing what true fatherly love feels like, and he must have known by this point that what similitude of affection he received from his own father didn’t feel anything like the unconditional love Iroh offered. Unfortunately, he still isn’t quite ready to listen to his doubts.
CLIMAX AND RESOLUTION:
All of Zuko’s steps back and forward lead to the climax of his character arc in The Day of Black Sun Part 2: The Eclipse, where he stands before his father and tells him he is leaving to join the avatar.
It isn’t always necessary, but having the climax of a character’s arc reflect their inciting incident is a great way to depict how your character has changed. Zuko’s arc gives a beautiful example of this. His confrontation with his father is a mirror to the agni kai that started Zuko on his path. Once again he faces his father and refuses to fight, but this time Zuko has a truer understanding of honour and knows he’s making the right decision.
In many stories the resolution comes shortly after the climax, but in Zuko’s case his arc is resolved eight episodes later in Sozin’s Comet Part 2: The Old Masters. Zuko’s arc has been about learning that honour is earned by showing respect to others. His motivation has been to earn his father’s love. When he reunites with Uncle Iroh, both his lesson and motivation are resolved. We know he’s learned his lesson when he apologizes sincerely to the person he most disrespected, and he regains the love of a father when Iroh welcomes him back warmly.
The final character arc we’re going to dive into belongs to Azula, who can be every bit as fascinating to analyze as Zuko.
We see glimpses of Azula’s status quo through flashbacks—scenes of her being the Fire Lord’s favoured child and scenes of her rivalry with Zuko. As much as Azula was a constant reminder for Zuko of what it was like to have his father’s favour, Zuko was also Azula’s reminder of what awaited her should she lose that favour.
The inciting incident for Azula’s arc comes at the end of Book 1 when her father gives her a mission. It’s her chance to seek power of her own and to thwart Zuko, all while solidifying her position as her father’s favourite child.
At first glance, even when Azula seemingly fails one trial, she seems to twist something else in her favour and make out the better for it. But even though she feels she’s come out on top most of the time, each failed trial is one more chain that will end up dragging her down.
a. The first of Azula’s trials I’d like to go over happens in Return to Omashu when she recruits her friends’ help. While Mai seems happy enough for the distraction Azula offers, Ty Lee makes it clear she’s happy where she is. Rather than accept Ty Lee’s answer, Azula abuses her power in order to remind Ty Lee to fear her. Ty Lee gets the message, but a bond made through fear has limitations.
b. Mai and Ty Lee’s betrayal in The Boiling Rock Part 2 hits Azula hard. Very hard. This is the first major crack that eventually leads to her breakdown. Their betrayal calls into question how much control she truly has.
c. When Fire Lord Ozai refuses to take Azula with him on his planned attack of the Earth Kingdom in Sozin’s Comet Part 1: The Phoenix King, Azula feels he’s treating her like Zuko, and she knows exactly how bad that can get. Though her father placates her by making her the new Fire Lord, she is now placed in a precarious position. After her friends’ betrayal, she sees enemies everywhere, and to fail as Fire Lord would mean losing the confidence of the last ally she has, a father who is all too quick to toss aside his own family.
CLIMAX AND RESOLUTION:
Azula’s insecurities leave her unhinged. When Zuko and Katara arrive to overthrow her, she’s a little too eager to make a show of superiority.
With the Fire Lord and even their mother, consciously or not, pitting the siblings against each other, Zuko and Azula’s rivalry has been headed toward this battle since before Zuko’s exile. It’s also the perfect example of why it’s so important to understand how each character in your novel is a vessel to reveal theme.
It would have been easy for the writers of Avatar to decide they wanted this fight to end in cheerful cries of victory as the evil tyrant, Azula, finally gets the comeuppance she deserves. I think many writers would have made that unfortunate mistake, but the writers of Avatar understood the tragic nature of Azula’s character.
Zuko and Azula are similar in many ways—both victims of their parents’ faults. Both attempting to please a man who doesn’t care for them. Both, in their own way, missing the love of their mother. Had things happened differently, their positions in this fight could easily have been reversed, and it would have been a disservice to Azula’s character and the themes of Avatar to depict her downfall as anything but sad.
Instead of celebrating their victory and mocking Azula in her defeat, to have Zuko and Katara stand in silence and look upon Azula with pity is the perfect victory over her. Azula—who failed to realize that having others fear her gained her nothing of value—sees their pity, and it’s a greater blow to her than any quip Zuko or Katara could have given. It’s the perfect tragic conclusion to Azula’s arc.
Once I’ve come up with character arcs for my novels, I often figure out the rest of the plot by seeing how these character arcs line up, but maybe you prefer to figure out the main plot of the novel before delving into your charcters. The good news is: you can give your setting a “character” arc of its own using these same steps. Take a look at how the arc for the world of Avatar relates to the show’s discussion on honour.
The entire world of Avatar starts the story at war. There is no peace. Mercy, kindness, and humility are rare. So few act with true honour.
The avatar returns to the world, giving hope to those fighting for peace and inspiring the enemies of peace to act increasingly dishonourably.
a. In The Siege of the North Part 2, the avatar unleashes a devastating attack on the Fire Nation when he combines power with the ocean spirit. The Fire Nation fleet is overcome, but the avatar seeks not peace, but revenge. He pursues the Fire Nation fleet even after they’ve been beaten. Only Princess Yue’s selfless act appeases Aang and the ocean spirit in time.
b. When Aang is too late in giving up his own self-interests and entering the avatar state in The Crossroads of Destiny, the last major bastion standing against the Fire Nation falls into enemy hands.
c. In the two parts of The Day of Black Sun, the avatar joins with allies from the water tribes and Earth Kingdom. They make a united attack on the Fire Lord, but their efforts fail, partly from being outwitted and partly from a member of their team sidetracking the mission out of rage.
CLIMAX AND RESOLUTION:
The avatar fights the Fire Lord and defeats him through an act of mercy. The four nations celebrate an end to a century of war and look forward to a new era of peace.
Though I now tend to think of theme in the early stages of writing, when I first came up with the idea for Project: Noveljutsu, I didn’t think much of theme at all. So I find myself in what, for me, is now an unusual position of trying to figure out my theme backwards.
I think of some the ideas I have floating around my head, and I see a lot of themes regarding worthiness. Several characters question their own worthiness, whether that be questioning why they were given magical power they don’t deserve, or whether they question what must be wrong with them that so many people treat them poorly. The theme I’ve chosen may end up changing, but for now I’m going with: “your worth is not determined by what you are but by using what you have for a noble purpose.”
Now that we’ve made it through all those posts on theme, I can issue a challenge! If you did the challenge in Episode 009, take the moral question and two characters you came up with. You don’t have to go into extreme detail unless you want to, but fill out a basic character arc for each of those characters. Figure out each character’s status quo, the inciting incident of their arc, a minimum of two trials that will test their definition of the moral question, and an appropriate climax and resolution to their arc.
This video marks the end of my first arc of episodes, which means those of you who’ve stuck with me have finally earned your first Noveljutsu pen…cil! Congratulations! For funsies I’ve included a graphic for this pencil here, as well as a super official-looking, totally not useless at all certificate you can fill in. If you haven’t watched all the videos or done the challenges, I can’t stop you from stealing this certificate and falsifying your credentials, but do you really want to fake having a fake certificate? Are you really that sad?
So, what’s next for Noveljutsu?
When you work on your own novel, you might prefer to start by thinking about character before you think of worldbuilding, or plot before your character, but in all likeliness, you’ll probably develop your world, characters, and plot all at the same time, because these three things influence each other. But, for the sake of having a certain logic to my episodes, I’ve decided to focus on one at a time, and the next arc of episodes will be on worldbuilding. So I hope you’re excited to tune back in to see more!
That’s it for this episode! What are your favourite novels with strong themes? Do you agree with my assessment of Avatar’s themes? Is there anything you’d like to add? Go ahead and leave a comment below.
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