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Things Avatar: The Last Airbender Taught Me About Writing

ATLA poster

The second season of The Legend of Korra is ending soon. I, uh, wish I had better things to say about it, but that’s a story for another time. With season two on its way out, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic for the show that got it all started.

Have you seen this show? If you have, high-five. If you haven’t, hold up your left hand, extend your first finger, and jab yourself in the eye. Hard. After you see the eye doctor and he okays your vision, then go out and buy the DVDs. It’s that good. Thus, I will spend a minute or two talking about all the wondrous things this delightful animated show has taught me.

Underage characters are just as interesting as adult characters. Anyone with experience in reading Young Adult fiction, or who frequently watches cartoons/anime intended for children, has heard this tired, common complaint. Unfortunately, a lot of folks think that just because a novel/short story/cartoon/anime stars a child, it won’t be as good as something with a teenager or adult protagonist. This is such pure bologna that it should be represented by Oscar Meyer. Children are interesting. They are engrossing. They are capable of incredible things, whether they are good or bad. Avatar TLA knew this right of the gate. It introduced us to one of the most amazing spread of characters in all of animated history. Every kid had their own personality, their own agenda, their own beliefs, and their own dreams/goals. It is simply staggering to know that there are seven main young characters (and that’s just the ones central to the plot: Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, Zuko, Suki, and Azula) and every single one of them develops and changes over the course of three seasons. Age only determines the way certain things unfold within a story. It often does not limit the spectrum or scope of things that happen. These kids still deal with all the horrible parts of life that adults face at one time or another: violence, rage, hatred, racism, sex, fear, faith, and that’s just for starters. The writers (affectionately called “Bryke” for Brian Konietzko and Martin Dante DiMartino, because both their names are a mouthful) did not treat their audience like drooling infants. They wrote the Gaang the way all shows should hope to—with balance, maturity, and respect.

‘The Chosen One’ trope is not always a cliché. Everyone knows this trope: the “one” who is prophesized to end a war or battle of some sort. It’s been around since the Bible days—Jesus, Luke Skywalker (or Anakin, if you decide to believe that the Star Wars prequels exist), Neo, Harry Potter, and John Connor are just the ones I can rattle off the top of my head. Sometimes it can really wear on the nerves when one character’s actions will affect an entire society, or even a world.

For instance, while I generally disagree with the massive hate over the Matrix sequels, one of the main reasons they were disliked is because after Neo got all his powers, he stopped being an underdog, and a normal guy in an abnormal world. If not written properly, the Chosen One can destroy a story and make the reader want to throw your book across the room. I hate to point fingers (usually), but the Fallen series by Thomas E. Sniegoski also had this problem: a bland, douchebag character who was “the Chosen One” and yet all he did was selfishly bitch and moan, neglect his duties, and get people in his life murdered. However, ATLA was a refreshing change from the tired stereotypes of the Chosen One.

First of all, Aang is freakin’ adorable and peppy and cheerful and wide-eyed and goofy. It’s so easy to like the kid. You’d have to actively try to hate him. His idealism is what makes him both strong and weak throughout his journey, especially his struggle to find a way to stop Firelord Ozai without killing him. The show laid bare all of Aang’s inner turmoil and expanded on everything he learned from his friends and his enemies. I think all writers should watch the show and takes notes, especially those who might consider writing a Chosen One character at some point in their careers.

Another important factor that ATLA got right was to PROVE why Aang was the Chosen One: for his skill, his love of the world and the people in it, and his ability to unite them. That can go haywire quickly. Anakin Skywalker via the Star Wars prequel had this problem in spades. Through all three movies, everyone kept talking about Anakin being the one to “balance” the Force, and yet we’re never shown why. He NEVER shows any great potential, other than the potential to whine incessantly, glower creepily at Padme, and throw temper tantrums that result in murdering lots of people. He had some Jedi skills, but not enough to warrant all that attention. ATLA avoided this and proved that there is a way to do it right.

Don’t be afraid to explore other cultures. Alright, lower your pitchforks. I’m not one of those writers who believes that white people are the devil. I am, however, realistic about what’s out there in the main media. When it comes to fantasy and science fiction genres, white characters are predominant. Often, it happens because there are just a ton of incredibly talented writers. Still, there is a stigma whispered about that ethnicities can’t bring home the bacon, and that’s just not true. ATLA integrated several different cultures—Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, Indian, Eskimo, and that’s the tip of the iceberg, hahaha I made a funny—and still knocked it out of the park without (a) being offensive or (b) compromising great storytelling. This is another aspect I think other writers should make a note of for the future. Culture is what makes the world go ‘round. At the end of the day, all writers end up talking about can boil down to how similar or different their characters are. There are beautiful and hideous things about every culture. We should explore them, and explore them without restraint. A character’s race should never be a deterrent. If it is well written, it can be enjoyed by a person of any background.

Women are awesome. I really don’t need to go on long about this one. ATLA has some of the best female characters of all time, bar none. I mean, Toph. Just…TOPH. If you somehow don’t worship the ground she earth-bends, then there’s always Katara, Suki, Azula, Mai, Ty Lee, Princess Yue, June, Avatar Kyoshi…I could go on for ages. ATLA knew how to write girls, and write them better than a hell of a lot of other shows. Mostly because Bryke knew that girls are the same as boys—they have emotions, thoughts, fears, desires, and everything that the male characters have. There were very few stereotypes to be had and every character had a purpose in the show. That, to me, is one of the greatest things that ATLA accomplished in its run.

Honestly, I could probably go on longer, but I have to stop worshipping at some point because my knees are tired. Seriously, though, if you haven’t checked it out, please do. It’s worth your time, believe me. I’m glad to have grown up with a show that believed that I could handle a great story and didn’t talk down to me. It’s something we should all have, no matter how old we are.

Kyoko

Things The Legend of Korra Taught Me About Writing

Legend of Korra

Do you hear that? It’s the sound of The Legend of Korra being back on the air with new episodes. And, subsequently, my high-pitched fangirl screaming.

So to celebrate my favorite hard-headed Avatar returning to the air waves, here’s some things that LoK has taught me about writing.

1. You can’t please everyone. Well, if you follow me on Tumblr, you know what I’m about to dive into. After the hour long premiere of Korra last Friday, I excitedly hopped onto Tumblr and entered the Legend of Korra tag in order to reblog my guts out in excitement. However, when I arrived, I found that nearly the entire tag was filled to the brim with negative comments. I was stupefied. In my opinion, it was a fair premiere–nothing more, nothing less. I couldn’t understand how it seemed like half the fandom absolutely hated it, and for some pretty petty and perhaps trigger-happy reasons. It kept getting worse the more and more I scrolled down until I finally got pissed off and did something I soon regretted. I made a post saying that the premiere was better than no premiere at all. Albeit, I was being sarcastic. Boy, howdy. The post reached over 1,000 notes within an hour. Half of them agreed with me. The other half vehemently did not. I received at least five angry Anon messages in my Inbox. I lost eight followers overnight. So. What did I learn?

 
Writing is subjective. If you wanted to get down to bare bones, there probably is not definitive way to decide what is “good” and “bad” writing. All we can do is weigh in and see what the general consensus is. As a result, it’s impossible to write something that makes literally everyone happy. You could ask every single person on this planet what they like and try to incorporate that into the end all, be all novel…and someone would still hate it. Because we’re human. Because we’re flawed.

 
Did the Korra premiere have issues? Hell yeah. All over the place. But it’s clear–at least to me, if no one else–that the writers/animators/directors actually care about the characters and the storyline and they made the best story they felt they could based on the direction the series is going. In order for Korra not to be a retread of ATLA, they are taking more risks and diverting from the source material. In some ways, it works. In others, it doesn’t. This is something that every writer–myself included–will face whenever they put ink on the paper. Someone’s going to disagree with you. Someone’s going to hate you and your work. But it’s part of the job. We aren’t here to be liked. We’re here to art, and art hard.

 
2. Pacing can make or break you. Now it’s time to travel back through time to the first season of Korra. I liked the first season. It had some truly gorgeous fight scenes, one hell of a creepy villain, and some excellent characters to explore. However, the one complaint that nearly everyone has brought up is the pacing. Sadly, LoK started out as just a mini-series. They had absolutely no indication or promise that it would make it past twelve episodes. As a result, the writers had to cram an entire season’s worth of story into half a season’s worth of episodes. This meant taking huge shortcuts with plot elements, character interactions, and overall story arcs.

 
This unfortunate drawback imparted an important detail to me: know the length and duration of your story beforehand, if at all possible. Some writers do this very well. Jim Butcher, for instance, does an excellent job with stringing together elements from the first Harry Dresden novel all the way to the latest one. Some writers struggle with it. The writers of Supernatural, for instance, are great at bringing back certain minor characters, but they massively abuse it by simply bringing them back to bump them off, or completely forgetting a major recurring character entirely because of whatever reason. (*cough* ADAM *cough, hacks up a bloody lung and cries because at least it’s not burning in hell like Adam*)
Pacing is just as important as any other threads that hold a story together. It’s important that things happen naturally, even if their nature is something irregular or bold. The story needs to have plot points that are organic, and the characters’ actions should reflect such accordingly, or you’ll give your audience a massive case of whiplash. You don’t want to do that. Medical bills are expensive.

 
3. Memorable characters can make your story soar. Okay, so it’s no secret that I like Korra. She’s ballsy and awkward and headstrong. I also like Mako, despite the fact that over half the fandom hates his guts. Whatever. But you know who will always stick out in my mind as a great character? Lin frickin ‘ Bei Fong. This is yet another aspect that the writers of ATLA and LoK are really good at–developing side characters and making you love them. As a reader, you usually expect to like or want to follow your main protagonist, but I’ve noticed that good writers can also write great supportive characters. I’ll give two examples for science reasons: Waldo Butters from the Dresden Files and Jason Schulyer from the Anita Blake novels.

 

Alright, shut up, it’s time to talk about the Dresden Files. If you’re not reading them, hold out your hand so I can smack the back of it. If you are, please email me with all your feelings about Cold Days. I need to share. Anyway, Waldo Butters is by far one of my favorite characters in the novel series, and that’s saying a lot considering I am 1000% head-over-heels in love with Harry. Butters was introduced in Death Masks and later received supportive character status in Dead Beat. This was easily one of the best decisions Butcher made. He is a wonderful offbeat character who started out as an awkward dorky guy who didn’t have much courage, and then turned into this hilarious, quirky friend of Harry’s. There is nothing I love more than to trip over a character and fall in love with them like a cheesy rom-com.

 

Jason Schulyer, however, won me over basically the first time he was introduced in The Lunatic Cafe. I mean, let me describe his character: he’s a male stripper whose stage name is Ripley (yes, as in Ripley from the Alien movies), he’s a werewolf who spends his nights feeding his blood to his vampire master, he’s bisexual, and he’s a total lecherous pervert with a noble streak. I mean, come on. Doesn’t he sound like he should be the actual protagonist of the novel series? The point I want to make about Jason is that he is so entertaining that I actually kept reading the Anita Blake novels specifically for him after the series went in the crapper after the infamous Narcissus in Chains. It is completely absurd that I liked him so much that I would put up with the purple prose, horrible sex scenes, misogyny, and general unpleasantness that is Cerulean Sins and Blood Noir, but it still happened anyway.

 

To circle back around to my point, The Legend of Korra did exactly that–it gave me an extra reason to tune back into the story for season two. Anytime a reader finds more help to love your series, that’s an achievement. For example, my editor told me that a minor character from The Black Parade made her laugh so hard that she hopes he reappears someday. I had no intention of ever bringing him back, as he was just a one-off villain, but thanks to her, he might show his face again. Details like a well-rounded cast of characters can be that boost to an author’s reputation that they never knew they needed.

Well, I think I’ve gushed enough. If you’re curious, The Legend of Korra premieres Fridays at 7:00pm EST on Nickelodeon. Join us. WE ARE LEGION.

*waves hands, whispers* Water tribe.