Everything I Needed to Know about Writing, I Learned from Airbender

I was rewatching the AVATAR THE LAST AIRBENDER series with my kids, and was deeply impressed with the care that went into the background, the humor, the joy, the drama, profundity of the themes.

For example, there is a scene in an episode (Imprisoned, Book 1, Chapter 6) where Katara lets herself be captured, so that she can get into a floating prison where the Earth Benders are held. When she makes a rousing “St. Crispin’s Day” /”Braveheart” style speech to encourage them to revolt, the prison warden (voiced by George Takei, Star Trek’s Sulu, by the way) merely smirks and lets her talk. The speech does nothing. The prisoners merely hang their heads.

When Katara is ordered by her older brother to escape when they have a chance, she steadfastly refuses, insisting, despite the odds and despite the setbacks, that they have to rescue everyone — and her strength of character is displayed clearly, simply because her miserable failure does not daunt her.

Without that failure to act as contrast, she would simply look like an optimist, and a naive one. With it, she looks as stubborn as a saint.

While they do eventually prevail in this episode, I was impressed with the psychological complexity and realism of the scene. This children’s cartoon was showing how being imprisoned is more a matter of hopelessness than a matter of physical chains and bars. When is the last time you saw any movie made for any age where the writer was brave enough to have his heroine made a rousing speech, and the speech did not rouse?

And the kids figure out a way to help the Earth Benders escape which is both unexpected beforehand, and makes perfect sense in hindsight.

I should mention why Katara is in this mess. The kids stumble across a young Earth Bender named Haru secretly levitating rocks. Haru’s mother forbids him to practice his art, because their village is conquered by the Fire Nation, and bending is strictly outlawed. When Katara idealistically urges the young man to use his art, because it is part of his nature, and because he must fight to free his village as his father once dreamed to do. The mother curtly informs her that such talk as this is what led to Haru’s father being taken away by the Fire Nation to a prison camp.

Note, my fellow writers of drama, the deceptively simple yet touching nature of the conflict here. No one except a rather shallow fellow would easily dismiss the mother’s concerns as untoward. She is perfectly right to try to save her son from the concentration camp. But no one can easily dismiss Katara’s urgent plea either. We know she is right when she speaks of rebellion.

Drama does not tell, drama shows. The conflict foreshadowed in the verbal exchange manifests the next day. When an old man is trapped in a cave-in, it is Katara who urges Haru to use his hidden and illegal powers to part the rocks and save the man. But the writers of AIRBENDER never allow you the make the safe assumption that everyone is perfectly good or perfectly evil, or that anyone is who he seems: Haru gets ratted out to the occupation, and by the person we least expect. The mother’s worst fears are realized as her son is hauled off to the prison camp, and Katara, and Katara’s ideals, share the blame.

Note also, my fellow writers of drama, how funny this episode is, despite this grim theme. The opening scene where the kids are trying to make a breakfast out of nuts (one of which I think is a rock), the middle scene where Sokka  trying to fake up Katara bending earth, and so on, are comedy gold. When one of the fire nation guards glimpses Appa, he reports to the short-tempered prison warden that he saw a flying buffalo. The other officer opines that it was a flying bison. The warden demands, “WELL! Was it s a flying bison or a flying buffalo?!” The guard, caught off guard, says, “Gee, I am not sure what the difference is…” The officer snaps, “Bison or buffalo, what does it matter?” The warden in anger throws the officer into the sea, and tells the guard to wake the captain and sound general quarters. “But that was the captain you just threw overboard, sir!”

Also note, my fellow writers, how to establish character in merely a line or two, or a gesture. When the Fire Nation cops barge in to Haru’s mother’s house, they demand ‘taxes’. “But I paid this week!” she moans. The cops tell her the taxes just doubled and mention how easy it is for buildings to burn down. The cops cleans out her cashbox and scornfully throws the copper coins to the floor, it being too little to steal. The scene is only a few moments long, but it creates an impression of what life in the occupied Earth Kingdom is like.

Especially note, my fellow writers, what is needed to make a character dramatic and memorable: give the bad guys some good qualities and give the good guys some bad qualities. Make the good qualities ones we the audience also have or wish we had; make the bad qualities ones we the audience also have and wish we did not.

I do not mean make everyone into Wolverine from X-Men, an antihero, and I do not mean preach nihilism — which is both tooth-grindingly boring and undramatic.

I mean look at characters like Jet, the charismatic kid Robin Hood who goes too far; look at characters like the angry Zuko, the dead-pan Mai and the invincibly cheery Ty Lee; look at Hama the Bloodbender, the last survivor of a horrific past. None of them are simply bad guys or simply good guys. Are any of these characters simple enough or one-dimensional enough to make their actions predictable? Are any of these characters ill developed enough to make their actions seem totally arbitrary? A character who is too predictable is dull; a character who is too unpredictable is dull. But a character who is realistic has more than one motivation, often in conflict with each other, and the drama when one motive prevails over another, especially if it is a motive we the audience understands, is sharp drama.

And Imprisoned is not the best episode in the series! They are all this clever or more so, this dramatic, this morally deep, this psychologically three-dimensional. Not to mention funny, kinetic, loveable, well-drawn, well-scripted, well-researched, et cetera, et cetera.

(Much as I liked the live action version, the parallel scene to this episode in the M. Night Shyamalan movie has none of these clever elements. The Earth Benders are imprisoned, not on a rig at sea where they are powerless, but on dry land, where they are all powerful. Aang’s first speech immediately encourages them, and instead of figuring out a way to escape that is unexpectedly clever, they simply toss boulders and smash their way out, which they could have done at any time. Lame.)