Lessons About Story Crafting From Avatar: The Legend of Korra

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WARNING: This post is NOT spoiler free, so if you haven’t watched Avatar: The Legend of Korra yet and you care about spoilers, stay back. Back, I say!

If you’ve read this blog faithfully (or even sporadically), you might’ve picked up that I am a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender. This next bit I say with utter certainty: A:TLA is one of the best fantasy stories ever told. It comes correct on multiple levels: world building, characterization, a good magic system, strong girl/women protagonists, a relatable (if angsty) antagonist, evil-for-the-sake-of villains, and a cool ass map.

After the massive disappointment that was the film (we don’t speak of it. what? what did you say?), fans of the Avatar universe were treated to a new heroine who does her Avatar thing in a postwar colony-turned bustling megalopolis. This new Avatar is a spunky, teenaged water bender named Korra.

So you know all of this, huh? Then you also must know that Korra’s show Avatar: The Legend of Korra wasn’t a spectacular show. It wasn’t bad, sure. But it wasn’t super great either.

Korra started off very strong. The titular character was powerful, and flawed. Villains were shown to be idealistic and relatable all at once. There were some good supporting characters, and the animation was off the proverbial chain.

However, the show was brought low by shoddy character development, rushed and incoherent plotting, and an extremely forced love triangle that did an injustice to two of the show’s best characters.

Now, there are many speculations as to why the show was such a flop (in general. YMMV), but that’s not why I’m here.

Instead, after watching the entire LOK series for the second (or third?) time this week, I’ve started to pick up on some things that I consider pretty bad sins for any work of speculative fiction…heck, any work of literature at all, but some of these things only really work in fantastical stories.

From the top…

The protagonist must be flawed, but relatable and likable:

Korra, as I said earlier, was flawed. She was impetuous and headstrong, and prone to lashing out at people (especially when she was the at-fault party). Now, what were her redeeming qualities…? Well…uh….she takes well to artistic interpretation?

That’s a hard question to answer because Korra has very few redeeming characteristics. Yeah, she’s tough, and funny, the heroine of the story, the Avatar, and she gets put through a lot of singularly painful stuff, so she gets some play off the strength of that alone…but I’d have liked some more to her and her personality. Her only real goal in the show was learning airbending and getting with that asshole Mako. What else did she want? Hard to say.

It’s easy to fall into this trap as a writer because we know what we want our characters to be, and while we are writing them we’re doing this dance in our head because we know that we’re creating exactly the kind of character that we want, with the qualities that we want.

But is the character one that others would like, and relate to despite his/her/its flaws?

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Don’t pack too much into your story:

Korra had lots going on: She needed to learn airbending, Amon was going around threatening people with his supple, chocolatey voice (oh, and taking away people’s bending), The Pro Bending tournament was in full swing, Asami was running over random people on her motor scooter, Bolin was busy being the least funny comic relief on a television show in a long time, etc etc etc…do you see what I mean?

Packing your plot full of awesome is great…but it’s only stressful for a reader when you can’t tie all those strings together in a nifty little bow…or you have a nine-part, plot filled epic and you die/the Higgs Boson finally collapses reality and the world ends halfway through book seven…these things happen, you know.

Take that God out of your machine:

 This one hits home for me. A:TLA was a massively successful work of fantasy, because everything clicked. However, one of the major criticisms of A:TLA’s plot was the gigantic lion turtle that showed up in the next to last episode and provided a nifty solution to the major problem in the final story arc.

LOK has this problem too…after getting their collective butts totally whupped by the villains, Korra & co. win the day. But there’s still a problem. Korra is powerless, stripped of the very thing that makes her the Avatar…and there is nothing that anyone can do.

So what happens?

Korra cries. Her past lives feel sorry for her, and restore her powers.

I can’t make this up.

The key here is to not create a problem or situation that is SO INSURMOUNTABLE that you have to write some all-power into your work to fix it. Even though we’re writing Fantasy, you gotta keep it real with yourself. But not too real. We all know how that ends up.

It’s okay to Show and Tell:

 What exactly was psychic bloodbending? And how did Amon figure out this completely OP ability? Also, what were his real motivations? How did Hiroshi Sato have time to keep building evil machines? Whatever happened to the bending Triads? Why was Tarrlok’s hair so glorious? Was there ever a point in the day where Asami wasn’t wearing makeup?

Do you all get my point? After the show ended, I still had so many questions. Some were huge, gaping holes that messed up my enjoyment of an otherwise good series. Some were small things that I thought would’ve been cool to include in the show. All of them are legitimate, and each one could’ve (or WOULD have, in the case of the larger ones) added something amazing to the show.

I’m learning (actively, might I add) to tow the line between holding the hands of my readers and giving them just enough info to concoct long, convoluted fan theories about my characters that I haven’t even thought of.

So, that’s it. Some things that I learned from a cartoon that I can and will apply to my writing as I enter the endgame of my own novel, and throughout most of my work.

Did any of these things from Avatar: Legend of Korra stick out for you?

If not…what have you learned from other works, good or bad?

Sound off in the comments.

3 thoughts on “Lessons About Story Crafting From Avatar: The Legend of Korra

  1. Pingback: Lessons About Story Crafting From Avatar: The L...

  2. I like Avatar as a whole, TLA and LOK included, but my biggest beef was the unintentional homogeneity of how they took from many different Asian cultures and hamfisted them together. Now, that isn’t as bad as it sounds before you consider how the west views Asian cultures (in particular, South and Southeast Asian ones] as a homogeneous entity that’s a single melting pot. As if a cheong sam and hanfu are the same thing as a kimono, for instance. Avatar did a lot of good with making a diverse plotline and world and characters, but I sincerely think the appropriation and shoehorning of all these unique cultures and blending them indiscriminately together does nothing good for how the Eurocentric west perceives Asia as a whole.

    • Hi Cat. Sorry for the delayed response.

      That is a very, very valid critique. I too found myself wondering where some of the other cultural markers for asia were: specifically, where the darker skinned southease asians lived. We saw Guru Pathik in A:TLA but had no idea where he might have originated from. Overall that is a huge blind spot, and as I watch the series over and over and over again, the cultural mishmash does kind of stand out as such. Interestingly enough, I showed the series to my Korean middle schoolers a couple of years ago and they completely fell in love with it.

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