Ah, the moon. Poor Sokka. (Photo from Unsplash stock photos)
Avatar: The Last Airbender (aka ATLA) was one of my favorite shows as a pre-teen and onward. I own every episode on DVD and have re-watched it countless times. Since getting a full-time job and moving across the country twice, I haven’t had time for it. So, when ATLA appeared on Netflix, you bet I binged it. Since it had been so long since my last watch, I picked up on all sorts of things in the writing that I hadn’t grasped before. These are all things that made me love the show more deeply, and I want to incorporate in my writing eventually. Maybe these tips can also inspire you!
Make Your Antagonist and Protagonist Mirrors
What ATLA did:
Aang and Zuko (I know he’s not the antagonist forever) have a TON in common but diverge from these points in intriguing ways. This is first explored in Season One Episode Twelve: The Storm, when we get flashbacks into both Aang and Zuko’s tragic pasts. Both lost family (Zuko’s Mom and Aang’s entire culture) and carried a deep sense of shame (Zuko for dishonoring himself and Aang for running away). Then both became functionally homeless with a mission to redeem themselves. However, they have complete opposite views of their father figures (the terrifying Firelord Ozai vs BFF Monk Gyatso.) In Season One Episode Thirteen: The Blue Spirit, we see Zuko don a blue mask to rescue Aang from Zhao. It’s one of the first times we see Zuko do something redeeming. Similarly, when Aang goes into his avatar state (not specific to this episode), his tattoos glow blue and he taps into previously unused powers and knowledge of his past lives. Blue = powerful and distance from their own identity for both of these characters. Both also have an inescapable mark on their faces (Zuko’s scar and Aang’s tattoo) which makes them easy to identify to the audience and their enemies.
What you can do:
-The two characters can share a similar past, but have made different decisions to get where they are now. It can show the hero what could have gone (or still could go) wrong if they make bad choices. Or in a redemptive arc (hello, Zuko, here) it can show what the antagonist could do if they make the right choices.
-They could share a similar driving force, like redemption, but go about it in opposing ways.
-A symbol can apply to or appear in scenes with both of them for a sense of unification.
-Make your protagonist and antagonist identifiable to your readers with something consistent about them, even if they attempt to use a disguise.
Slow and Steady Worldbuilding Wins
What ATLA did:
The ATLA team gets a lot of praise of their worldbuilding, as they should! But we don’t get a giant info dump in the first episode. We get the bare minimum we need from the opening credits, then dive right in. In the first few minutes of Season One, Episode One, the show establishes what water bending is, that not everyone can bend an element, and that it’s a skill to be learned. It also foreshadows the world being dangerous, lower tech, and the basic climate. Does it get into the politics of the Fire Nation? No. Does it explain why it’s called the Earth Kingdom but there are multiple Kings/monarchies? No. (In fact, it never does!) And it doesn’t need to. ATLA gives you what you need to know as you need to know it. The filler episodes often help build the world more than the action episodes, but this works. The audience would get bored if Aang went into the avatar state and kicked butt every episode. It would get predictable. By changing up the pacing, each season feels dynamic.
What you can do:
-Establish the basics and ground your opening scene with what the readers need to know, including some promises of what’s to come.
-Don’t overload your readers with too much world building at once. Spread it out among scenes as it becomes relevant.
-Remember that your book doesn’t have opening credits to rely on like a TV show, and prologues are not favored. Try to sprinkle that information in throughout. (If you didn’t watch the opening credits of ATLA, you could still probably understand the first two episodes.)
Keep Raising the Stakes
What ATLA did:
In season one, Zuko hunts Aang, with Zhao jumping in a few times, but really getting in the way at the end of the season with the assassination attempt against Zuko. (Stakes raised!) In season two, Azula joins the game with her two friends, upping the number of hunters and the danger. Zuko is taken out of the hunt for Aang, and becomes hunted himself. The stakes are raised when Azula finds him in Ba Sing Se. In season three, we finally see Firelord Ozai as the real boss to defeat, with Azula as more of a psychological threat against Zuko than a threat against Aang. And that’s just looking at what’s going on with the overall antagonists, ignoring the episodic antagonists like the pirates, the Dai Li, or Combustion Man. Also of note, in season three, when the Gaang is defeated at the solar eclipse, they decide not to fight the Fire Lord before the comet. But Zuko comes in and says nope, Ozai is going to burn down the entire Earth Kingdom, so if they don’t stick to the schedule, there will be no one left to save. Major stakes! A ticking clock! And because the build is slow over three seasons—even knowing the Firelord must be defeated eventually—it doesn’t feel crazy that a twelve-year-old (+/- 100 years) needs to save most of the world from a fiery genocide on a short time-frame. If we started with that level of stakes, the goal might feel too impossible.
What you can do:
-As your book, or especially series, progresses, keep raising the stakes.
-Add a ticking clock to force the climax to happen, even if (especially if) your protagonist isn’t ready.
-Don’t start with stakes too high too fast, or the logical choice for your characters might be to give up.
There are so many more things this show did well, I might make a second post. What did you love about ATLA? Did ATLA teach you anything about writing? Let’s discuss in the comments!