Interview: Avatar: The Last Airbender Co-Creators on Writing Flawed Heroes and Smart Content for a Young Audience

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The complete series for Avatar: The Last Airbender just came out on DVD yesterday! In honor of that release, we interviewed co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko via email about their process and their original goals for the show, which remains an enduring favorite.

Plus, did you know that you can enter a giveaway to receive a copy of that DVD collection from us? Here’s some instructions on how to qualify to win that illustrious prize.

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The Mary Sue (Maddy Myers): What sorts of narrative imperatives did you feel over the course of making the show? To put it another way, are there any plot threads or moments that you wanted to explore differently, but didn’t get to?

Michael Dante DiMartino: Overall, we told the story we set out to tell. Thanks to the influence of other writers and artists along the way, we were inspired to explore themes and stories we never could’ve imagined when we first created the show. But looking back, I feel like we were able to tell Aang’s story in a cohesive, unified way. And now with the Dark Horse comics, we’re able to tell some new stories with the same characters.

TMS: The show often features deeper themes about industrialization, politic dissent and power. How did you make this still accessible for a younger audience?

Bryan Konietzko: Kids are deeper than a lot of people, and especially corporations, give them credit for. We just stayed away from the typical approach of assuming kids only like and understand fart jokes and cartoony villains and told the kinds of stories with the types of conflict that interested us. We would check ourselves occasionally to see if we were getting too pedantic or preachy. I think the goal was always to get down to the core human side of the struggle, and to try to show more than one side to each argument, instead of just the oversimplified “good versus evil” fare. All of that seems to resonate with a young audience quite well.

TMS: Avatar often features characters who are flawed and make mistakes, but who learn from those mistakes and recover – as opposed to featuring “perfect” heroes or aspirational figures. Was that an intentional theme? Do you think it’s valuable to show mistakes as part of a coming-of-age story?

DiMartino: I’m not sure how to tell a story where the hero is perfect. I’m not sure it’s actually possible (or the story would be really boring). I think of flawed characters who make mistakes as just “characters”. They usually make for the most interesting stories. And I would argue that our characters are be both flawed and aspirational. The audience can still look up to a character, even if he or she had make a mistake. And yes, it is valuable to show younger audiences that making mistakes is part of life. In our stories, we tried to show the characters learning and growing from their mistakes in order to become more balanced human beings.

(Image via Tumblr)

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Author
Maddy Myers
Maddy Myers, journalist and arts critic, has written for the Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and tons more. She is a host on a videogame podcast called Isometric (relay.fm/isometric), and she plays the keytar in a band called the Robot Knights (robotknights.com).