Inspiration – Mastering the Element of Character Development

Created by Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko, Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the best animated television shows of all time.
Created by Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Konietzko, Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the best animated television shows of all time.

It would be impossible for me to write about television shows which inspire me without mentioning the animated masterpiece Avatar: the Last Airbender. I discovered this show when it was about halfway through its run and it’s been a staple of mine ever since. Some of you may be familiar with the show The Legend of Korra, which is a continuation of the story told in Avatar, featuring a new generation of characters existing in the same world as the previous series. Legend of Korra recently finished its second season and is slated for a third.

For those of you who have never seen the show (or even worse, have only seen the M. Night Shyamalan film of the same name), watch the video at the link below and let Katara, one of the main characters, get you up to speed.

The Avatar Opening Sequence

This show borrows a lot from anime storytelling and drawing traditions, and the Asian influences in the show are balanced nicely with more Western ideas of craft and story development. The show is beautifully written and drawn, and I honestly could spend hours talking about each episode in turn. It deals with serious topics like war, death, and evil in ways that do not talk down to its audience, despite being marketed as a show for ‘children’. But I think one of the most amazing things this show does is serve as a beautiful example of masterful, subtle, and well-written character development.

As you might have guessed from the show’s intro, Avatar is a character driven story. The audience is encouraged to heavily invest in all the characters, major and minor, and almost all the characters introduced receive more than one episode. Each character has their own motivations, flaws, and strengths, which are explored, tested, and sometimes called into question by the situations in which they find themselves. Aang, Katara, and Sokka are all children in the traditional sense of the word. Aang is twelve, Katara thirteen, and Sokka fifteen when the show begins. They go through some pretty intense things for adults, let alone children, and they are often forced to change their point of views and opinions. By the end of the series, although they may not be significantly older, they are fundamentally different people then they were when they started on their journey; as they should be.

By the final season, Katara, Aang. and Sokka have all been shaped by their experiences.
By the final season, Katara, Aang. and Sokka have all been shaped by their experiences.

The changes are sometimes subtle. For example, in the first season of the show, Aang admits to Katara and Sokka that he never wanted to be the Avatar. But by the beginning of the third season, Aang has not only accepted this responsibility, but is keenly affected by his belief that he has failed in it. Likewise, Sokka transforms from a young man intent on isolationism, concerned only with his tribe and their welfare, with an instinctual distrust for outsiders, into a mature warrior who recognizes his place in the wider world and has befriended individuals from every walk of life.

When writing, there should be no distinction between your characters and real people. Your characters need to react to their environment, which means that change is inevitable and natural. They should change in ways they don’t consciously acknowledge, change slowly and not always change for the better. Every person they meet, every event that occurs around them should affect them – they’re not statues or set pieces after all. Think about how much you’ve changed from one year to the next, in ways you might not have even realized at the time. If your character doesn’t have a similar arc, go back and imagine how you might be different if the same events happened to you!

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Published by rsjeffrey

Robin Jeffrey was born in Cheyenne, Wyoming to a psychologist and a librarian, giving her a love of literature and a consuming interest in the inner workings of people’s minds.

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