Te Last Airbender and Character Arcs

The TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender was an exercise in character development. Every.Single.Character in that show was ridiculously thoroughly developed, had incredible arcs, and memorable character traits. They had distinct voices, personalities, and motives.


Step one in creating a character arc is to create a distinct character. Take Zuko for example. He’s immediately distinct due to his physical scars and angry personality. Not a word of his dialogue would sound natural coming from the mouth of another character.

Step two to a great arc is to add depth. This is most often achieved through weaknesses, flaws, and motivation. Zuko’s flaws seem obvious at first glance. He’s a bad guy. He’s impulsive. He’s got an attitude problem and a temper, he’s an ungrateful brat to his uncle, and he’s obsessed with honor and his duty as prince of the fire nation. He’s a perfect foil for Aang who is calm in matters of temper, happy, well mannered, on the side of good, and terrified of being forced to do his duty. Opening scene Zuko wants nothing more to be prince, opening scene Aang wants nothing less than to be Avatar. One is exiled from his role and has no other goal but to return to it. The other is actively running away.


Each scene Zukko is in chips away at his exterior to reveal what he’s like inside and to reveal his backstory. He’s a victim of abuse, he’s afraid, he’s desperate to regain his honor, not for himself, but because he thinks if he’s just good enough his family will accept him. The writers gave him very concrete, very universal motivations so viewers, while frowning at his methods, can’t help but feel sorry for him.


Halfway through the character arc there’s typically a major character transformation in motives, not flaws or methodology. Most often this is achieved by the character getting what he wants, only to discover the price was too high or that what they wanted wasn’t what they wanted after all. Zuko makes a choice that results to him being  welcomed back to the Fire Nation only to find that there’s no honor in being on the side of evil. At this point he joins team Avatar, but he still has a long way to go.


During the downward slope of the characters arc the character gains strength, whittles away at flaws, takes a major stand and is tested in the worst ways. This is where that belly of the whale moment comes in. For the character arc, this is called the dark night of the soul. If the character survives it, they come out the other side stronger, resolved, and at peace with their transformation.

His is the most obvious arc in the story, but it’s not the only one. Every character was brilliantly developed, even his sister. Gosh, that episode on the beach…If you haven’t watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, do. It’s amazing.


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