NOT THIS (Trust me if you haven’t seen this movie, don’t)
Yes, it is a cartoon.
There are four nations each with the ability to bend one of the four elements: water, earth, fire, and wind. Every generation the Avatar is born who is the only one with the ability to bend all four elements. The Avatar keeps peace and brings balance to the four nations.
When the Fire Nation starts a war with the other nations, the Avatar disappears. One hundred years later, a water bender finds an iceberg with Aang (the new Avatar) frozen in it and frees him, but now the Fire Nation has nearly conquered the world. So Aang (A twelve-year-old boy) needs to master all the bending forms and defeat the Fire Lord to bring peace back to the four kingdoms.
You really have to watch a few episodes to appreciate it, but it has all the elements of great storytelling: an overall complex plot, deep characters with rich back stories, an imaginative and fully realized world, and it is really, really funny. It just goes to show you that great storytelling can be found anywhere.
There is a lot to learn from this three season series, but the one thing that stood out the most to me was the main antagonist, Prince Zuko.
|Prince Zuko is the one in the back|
Over the course of the series Zuko’s backstory is slowly revealed: his insecurities, his loss of his mother, and his desire to be accepted by his father. This enriches his character, strengthens his motive, and makes him very sympathetic.
I’ve heard the advice to make your antagonist the hero of his own story, and this series illustrates why this advice works. In fact, after a few episodes of watching Zuko’s character developing and how Zuko’s storyline often parallels Aang’s, it becomes apparent that Aang and Zuko are both protagonists, only on different sides. And I started to be equally invested in both their stories and hoped that they would unite against the Fire Lord, Zuko’s father, and turn from enemies to allies.
Not every story can or should develop the antagonist to this extent. Some stories really need an under-developed big bad especially when the antagonist is more of a symbol of evil than a character (like Sauron in LOTR). But most of the time, adding some depth to the antagonist strengthens the story.
Pros of having a well-developed antagonist
Increases or deepens the conflict-The stronger the motive of the antagonist, the stronger the conflict is.
Zuko doesn’t just want to capture Aang. He needs to. He is banished from his home and stripped of his honor. The only way he can return home and become the heir to the fire nation is to capture the Avatar. There is no other option for him, and he is determined and obsessed and this just ratchets up the tension.
Makes the plot more interesting-A lot of times, the antagonist drives the plot as much as the hero, so if you have an interesting, well-developed antagonist with real motivations and goals and not just acting like a plot device, your plot will be a lot more interesting.
Zuko always behaved intelligently and true to his character, this put Aang and his friends in a lot of sticky situations, and it was interesting to watch them get through it. When Zuko did make a mistake, it was true to his character and not just a plot device to help the protagonist out (see the Evil Overlord List).
Everything is more dramatic-When the antagonist is seen as a real person and not just some two-dimensional evil overlord, the conflict feels more real. It becomes two real people fighting for different goals, and even if it is clear who is right, just knowing that each have a clear, strong motive, makes the whole thing more dramatic.
When Zuko and Aang fight, knowing what each of them is fighting for and what each of them has to lose makes the fight scenes so much more dramatic and exciting.
The antagonist could take over the story. The stronger, character-wise, the antagonist is, the stronger the protagonist needs to be. Otherwise the audience will start cheering for the antagonist.
In Avatar, they purposely made Zuko as important to the story as Aang. I have to admit that Zuko was my favorite character, but Aang and his friends were just as strong, just as well-developed, and really I loved them all.
Like I said before, not every antagonist needs to be this well-developed, a lot of great stories don’t. But if it can work for your story, it is worth the effort. Personally I love a real, complicated, deep bad guy or girl.
Okay, now I think I need to work a little more on my antagonists. :)