So. Avatar, The Last Airbender.
Much like Gargoyles, this was one of the best television series ever made. That is not hyperbole, it is a fact. It was wonderfully animated, had a strong voice cast, was very well written, with an epic three season storyline that did not disappoint in the slightest. So with all that being said I want it understood up front that if you have not seen this series then stop reading this article. It is going to be spoiler heavy and I do not want to ruin your opportunity to enjoy this show. I am not kidding. Netflix it, see if your local library has it.
But for God's sake do not see the live action movie.
From all accounts, it is shit.
Okay, if you have already seen the series, or if you have chosen not to and want to read this article anyway (And damn it, I am serious; watch this series!) then for the benefit of those who are ignorant of the plot I will try and be brief. There are four nations: Earth, Air, Fire, Water. Each nation has those who can manipulate one of the four elements. These beings are known as Benders. The Avatar is a being who can master all four elements and is seen as a powerful force for good. The emperor of the Fire nation declares war on the others and takes out the Avatar, his friend. The Avatar reincarnates in a cycle and the emperor knows he will be born in the Air nation next, so he destroys the air temple and wipes out all the benders. Almost all; he fails to realize the Avatar, a young boy named Aang, escaped. Aang fell into the ocean with his flying bison Appa and was frozen, much like Captain America. About a hundred years later he is thawed out when he comes into contact with two members of the Southern Water tribe, sister and brother Katara and Sokka. They realize what Aang is and they know that he is the last hope for bringing down the Fire nation.
Now, while this is going on the Emperor's son, Zuko, has been sent on a futile quest to find the Avatar. It is just busy work to get him away from the Fire nation due to him being is disfavor with his father, Fire Lord Ozai. Aided by his uncle Iroh, Zuko is nearby when Aang is thawed out and suddenly his futile quest is not quite so futile...
And now we come to the subject of this article: Prince Zuko. Who is he? What is his motivation? Why is he to my mind the best character in the entire Avatar series?
When we first meet Zuko he is an angry young man obsessed with what he percieves is his personal shame and his quest to regain his honor and his father's approval. He is young, hot-headed, irrational, willing to do anything and everything to achieve his aim, with is to capture Aang, The Avatar. His motivations are very clear cut and if he had remained the same character as first appeared in the first episode, The Boy In The Iceberg, he would have been one of the most boring characters to have ever graced television.
Only as the series progressed the writers began to produce interesting wrinkles to Zuko's story. Zuko's quest conflicts with that of the Fire nation's Admiral Zhao, who seeks to destroy the Avatar himself. Zuko even disguises himself as the Blue Spirit to free Aang from Zhao's clutches.
In the wake of the events of season one, also known as Book One, Water, Zuko and his uncle are now fugitives, hunted by Admiral Zhao's forces as well as his utterly batshit insane sister, Princess Azula.
Azula is an okay villain, but crazy is boring. During season two, also known as Book Two, Earth, Zuko and Iroh are on the run. During this period we see Zuko experience ups and downs and we discover that like Katara and Sokka, he lost his mother early on (It is later discovered Azula secretly killed her. I guess the writers really, really wanted you to hate her.). Ultimately, Azula talks Zuko into working with her to capture Aang but all they succeed in doing is mortally wounding him and arresting Iroh. Zuko returns to the Fire nation a hero.
In season three, Book Three, Fire, Zuko discovers just how Evil his father is and he undergoes his ultimate epiphany. He seeks out Aang and his friends to join in their quest to stop the war and defeat Ozai before he can attain ultimate power. Zuko and Katara fight Azula in a climactic battle while Aang takes on Ozai. In the end Zuko becomes the new Fire Lord and swears to usher in a new era of peace and to restore his country's honor.
Now, all of that leaves out a ton of story. There were sixty one episodes. Were there bad ones? Sure, one or two. Were there plot elements that did not make sense or were discarded? I can think of maybe one. It was very strong, tight storytelling and even if you read the above I think the thirty or so hours you invest in watching the series would be time well spent.
So, in watching Zuko what can you learn if you were a GM crafting such a character?
Teenagers should be written like teenagers: This is one of the series' strengths. You get the feeling these are kids. Mature kids, sure. But they are still hormonally charged, irrational people who do stupid things not because they are idiots, but because they are passionate and inexperienced. And during the course of the series we see them grow up and mature. And no one matures more than Aang and Zuko; Their paths are parallel.
Now, that does not mean I did not like Katara and Sokka, or that we did not see some tremendous character development in them as well. And Toft, the blind earth bender that joins them in book two. All of them are great characters that showed consistent and realistic growth along the way.
Not all villains share the same goals: During the course of the series we see Zuko come into conflict with Admiral Zhao and his crazy sister Azula. What makes these conflicts interesting is these characters are supposed to be on the same side. And yet all three factions have their own goals and motivations and sometimes they conflict with one another. This made for very interesting storytelling because at one point as mentioned above, Zuko, when still a villain, found himself aiding Aang if only to thwart Zhao's ambitions.
As a GM it would be good to sometimes see some villains in conflict with one another. Remember Destro and The Baroness?
One of the things that made GI Joe interesting was the fact that there were factions within the organization, that not everyone was on the same page, goal wise. So sometimes it might be in a bad guy's best interest if the good guys won.
Character evolution is a wonderful thing: Over the course of three seasons Zuko goes from a boy obsessed with regaining his father's love, affection and respect to a man who comes to realize that his father is the worst villain on the planet and must be stopped at all costs. This reminds me a bit of Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series-
-who one days wakes up and realizes that, holy shit, he is a super villain! His father is a bad guy and he is a bad guy as well. And at that point such characters have to make a choice; do you play the loyal son and follow the father regardless of your own morals, or do you become a man and think for yourself and do what you feel is right? Zuko chooses the latter path. This series was more than just about watching Aang and company fight hopeless odds. It was about watching Zuko's evolution from lackey to hero. And this finally brings me to...
Bad guys can become good guys: Like Xanatos mentioned in my last Study In Evil post, what we saw here with Zuko was the evolution of a character from full-on bad guy to something else. Only in this case rather than Zuko becoming a neutral, the prince becomes Aang's fully committed ally. Zuko has become a hero in every sense of the word, abandoning all he thought was most important in his old life, risking all in order to do what is right.
Think about it; let's say Aang had defeated Ozai. What then? With no Zuko to take over as emperor then Azula might have become queen and the war would have gone on. Or some general would have taken over. Point is, the war would have still gone on. With Zuko becoming emperor the war ended, right then. Zuko's transformation into a hero was as important as Aang defeating Ozai.
Well, I hope my observations were entertaining and/or helpful. Now go watch Avatar, The Last Airbender. There may be a quiz next week.