Updated: Dec 31, 2022
What can we writers learn from Avatar, the Last Airbender (ATLA), and why it is such an amazing example of great fantasy writing?
ATLA is an animated television series that first aired on Nickelodeon in the early 2000s. As a child, I was hooked. When I revisited the series as an adult, I was increasingly surprised that it is just as amazing. Proceeding the television series was a series of comics, a film adaption (that unfortunately diminished the amazingness of the show), two novel prequels (Rise of Kyoshi), a continuation/ spin-off show (The Legend of Korra), and now finally a promising Netflix adaption in the making.
This world of ATLA has taken the world by storm, and many on the outside looking in are wondering why. The vast and colorful world of Avatar is unlike any other fantasy, and here is why it has captured so many hearts, including mine. As a fantasy writer, there is much to learn from the show and much to appreciate from its inventive creators. Any writer or creator would benefit from this franchise.
1. Breaking down the Fantasy world
As we know, every world consists of nations, cultures, climates, animals, government, history, and conflict. ATLA has covered each of these topics in their fantasy world, leaving no stone unturned. It is clear that the creators knew the world before diving into telling the story. This way they were able to include all the details with ease. Let me explain.
In the world of ATLA, there are four nations: The Water Tribe, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads.
Right off the bat, you can see the theme for the world they invented, which are the elements. As consumers, we can tell that each nation might be able to control one of these elements.
Not only are the nations mentioned, but so are various cities and places within the nations. Just by watching the show, you will learn the geography of the world with little to no effort. For example, the water tribe is divided into Northern and Southern tribes, and the Earth kingdom houses the city of Ba Sing Se.
Each nation mentioned here has different cultures, beliefs, and governments.
Here is a summary of Air Nomad culture. As children, air nomads are brought to temples to become monks. They are taught that every life is valuable therefore, they were vegetarians, and were peaceful. It is customary to shave their heads and tattoo their bodies, which helps the flow of Chi. Chi is the internal energy that powers bending (the control of one element. In this case, Air.) The air nomads were very much connected to the spirit world which is why ALL of them were able to air bend (unlike other nations where a person might or might not have bending ability).
As you can see, the creators of Avatar were inspired by Buddhist monks when creating this culture, and likewise inspired by various other Asian cultures when creating the cultures of The Fire Nation, Earth Nation, and Water Tribe.
Sticking true to their themes, ATLA created perfect climates for the bending nations. The Water Tribes lived on ice in the northern and southern poles. The Fire Nation, in the east, has many volcanoes. The Air temples were atop great mountains. And the largest of all nations, the Earth Kingdom goes from subtropical to desert.
And of course, we learn about these places with ease because we journey there with our characters who go along their quest.
This is by far one of my favorite parts of the world-building. In the world of ATLA, there are no ordinary animals. Every animal must be a hybrid, like Lion Turtles, Badgermoles, and Eel Hounds. There is one strange exception in which the king of the Earth Nation owned an ordinary bear, which perplexed many characters as to how such a species could exist!
The show creates its own species as well, like the flying bison, which is possibly the most famous animal in the show. Flying Bisons are bred and used by Air Nomads as companions and travel. The flying bison has six legs, a manatee-like tail, and an arrow print running across their bodies. Air nomads learned from the sky-bison that this arrow pattern along the body enhances air bending, which is how the tradition of tattooing themselves with the same pattern came about!
There are several types of government expertly shown in the world of ATLA. The Air Nomads had a theocracy led by four council members. The Water Tribe had chiefs. The Earth Kingdom is a confederate monarchy. And the Fire Nation is an absolute monarchy.
The vast histories of ATLA are amazing to learn about and offer great context to the world. Over time, we learn about past wars, the purpose of the avatar, who the past avatars were, how the avatar and bending came into existence. You are left with no unresolved plot points and are overall very satisfied!
G. What exists beyond the world?
Even this is explained! Viewers and readers are introduced to the spirit world several times. We learn how the spirit world and the human world were separated. We also learn about portals to and from the spirit world, and about certain frightening spirits the Avatar had to battle like Vatu.
The perfectly constructed conflict of the world can be reused over and over again! The Avatar is a single soul who returns to this physical earth to keep the peace between everyone. That is why he or she is granted power over all elements, while ordinary people may or may not have the ability to bend one element. In every one of the Avatar's lifetimes, the Avatar must battle with various enemies that threaten peace. This is a perfect conflict because we can easily dive into each Avatar's life and become consumed with their numerous and diverse enemies.
2. Rules of the World
As we can see, there are clear and consistent rules of the world and how it works, and that is one of the most vital attributes of any fantasy.
From beginning to end we have a great plot in which the lost Avatar is finally found in a block of ice by two water tribe kids who had just lost their parents in the war. We immediately know who the villain is and we get an understanding of how the Avatar and other characters must now prepare themselves to fight this big evil.
4. Character Development
Because the franchise began with a television series, there was more than enough time to focus on every character and how they matured, overcame their obstacles, and grew as people with one another's guidance. Yet, even if it were a novel series, the same thing would have been achieved as the characters were such a close-knit family. As you watch the highly relatable characters grow and overcome their struggles, you are growing along with them. This is one of the most important things to include in writing in any genre.
When the characters laughed, we laughed. When they cried, we cried. The series captivated its audience in a way that most fail to do. Struggle, the building of friendship and unity, a few great romances, the lessons learned, personal growth (including mental, physical, and emotional growth) are all present here.
Avatar, the Last Airbender will permanently change their audience, young and old alike, as it relates to all people of all backgrounds. It accomplishes so much as a television series, a franchise, and a universe.
What have you learned from ATLA as a writer or as a viewer? Leave a comment below!