As a reader and a writer, I love stories. The best kind of storytelling, in my humble opinion, are stories that you escape to whenever reality is getting you down. When the author can create a fictional, complex, fantastical world that makes me want to explore there if only for a day, that is the kind of storytelling that will stick with me throughout the years. The first story that made me feel this way--this indescribable, nostalgic emotion--was Harry Potter. Although the plot was set in a magical land of wizards, witches, extraordinary creatures, and perplexing sorcery, it still felt like all of it was within the realm of possibility. It explored very human elements: romantic and familial love, friendship, bravery, grief, sacrifice, death, and the idea that good can always triumph over evil even in the face of adversity. The depth of this artificial world and the multi-dimensional character creation allowed its audience to feel empathy for people and situations that perhaps have not or could never exist.
In my personal life, it isn’t often that a book or a television show or a movie can make me feel this way. When it does, it’s a fierce reminder to me as to why I love being a writer and why I hold others’ stories so very closely. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a series that has done for me what my beloved Harry has done. Its world-building and character development are unparalleled. This was a television show that aired on Nickelodeon from 2005 to 2008, spanning three seasons with a total of 61 episodes at the series’ finish. In 2005, I was 12 years old and ignorant to most elements of a good story. Although I am currently a lover of books, at 12 I had not yet read a full novel myself. I had never watched an entire series on television. But I knew I had a passion for storytelling, which is probably why this show was so attractive to me. At the time of the show’s airing, I had watched many episodes, but certainly not all of them, and I had never seen the four-part series finale.
As an adult, I realized that I never received closure with this storyline that at one point in time piqued my interest. I have always been intrigued with the supernatural and characters who have amazing powers that transcend anything here on Earth. My sister, being a hardcore Avatar fan since the series’ premiere, encouraged me to watch it with her from start to finish. So, last year, as a 23-year-old person, I devoured all three seasons fairly quickly. Although considered a children’s show, and although it is a cartoon, this show touches on such relevant topics. At its core, it is one of the most political kid’s shows I have ever seen.
The story centers around 12-year-old Aang, the world’s current Avatar (a deity-like person who can bend all four elements) who has been frozen in ice for 100 years. In his absence, the Fire Nation--led by a dictatorial Firelord Ozai--has begun a war under the guise of spreading its prosperity with the world. It is the Avatar’s duty to maintain peace among the nations, and Aang quickly discovers that he doesn’t have much time to master all four elements in order to stop the Fire Nation from committing another genocide and conquering the world. On his journey, Aang meets many characters who help him on his way, showing him and the audience what kind of state the world is in. Of the main characters, we as the audience get to know Katara, the last waterbender of the Southern Water Tribe, who is still grieving over the death of her mother and holds much resentment towards her father. We meet her brother, Sokka, a non-bender who struggles with his masculinity and his leadership role as the oldest male in the village. We meet Toph, a 12-year-old master earthbender who is more powerful than her family understands. We follow the banished Prince Zuko, son of the Firelord, on his quest to regain his honor by capturing the Avatar in order to return home. And in the second season we meet Princess Azula, Zuko’s sociopathic sister, who will show no mercy to anyone that stands in the way of her father’s victory. In addition to these characters, we meet more people throughout our protagonists’ travels, and whether they are a proven ally or sworn enemy, each one has their own part in strengthening Aang’s beliefs and abilities. As the main characters travel from city to city, nation to nation, and as Aang learns the elements, we are able to see the many facets of each character and their influence on the plot, whether they play a major or minor role in the series.
Throughout the story, the characters face many dilemmas: How much can power corrupt a person? Is ignorance truly bliss? Is every villain as heartless as they appear? Is revenge worth tarnishing your morals? Is it reasonable to deny your responsibilities if you never asked for them? What sacrifices would you make for the people you love? Is murder acceptable in order to save the lives of many? The conflicted actions and emotions of the characters bring about a very human question that I think we all ask at one point or another: Who am I? We cringe at the repercussions of their mistakes. We rejoice in the happiness of their triumphs. And above all, we learn that no matter how many poor choices we have made in the past, any trial can be overcome with hope and perseverance. The writers of this story made me fall in love with the characters and the world they have delicately woven together. Although fictional, the plot mirrors real-life issues that are happening in the world today. It allows me to reflect upon the kind of person I am and examine my own belief system. It makes me question how I would react in similar situations and the length I would go in order to bring about justice where I thought I could. Would I be the character who stands up for what is right or would I stand idly by? All of these reasons, and many more, are why I will always return to this realm of elemental bending and spirit worlds and flying bison and tyrannical monarchs any chance I get.