So I finally finished “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and WOW. That may or may not be the greatest TV epic ever, but it certainly had the best finale of any TV epic. (It helps that many such shows have had terrible finales.) (And boy oh boy does this one do a great job of addressing the great hypocrisy.)
Nevertheless, I want to focus on an uncharacteristically weak episode that stuck out like a sore thumb in the otherwise brilliant final season. Four of the villainous characters take a vacation at a private island… Now obviously, the fact that a kids’ show is willing to devote a whole episode to its villains, who each have their own complex and ambiguous characterization, is a sign of its greatness, but the creators still have to stick the execution and, unfortunately, they blow it. For the last third of the episode, the four characters simply sit around a campfire on a beach and, one by one, with little prodding, explain their own baggage and insecurities to the others.
This is “characterization” at its worst. Never have your characters talk perceptively about their own feelings. In real life, people do not understand their own feelings. And even when we think they understand those feelings, if we’re asked about them, we will usually lie. Do you like that boy? No! Are you still in love with your ex-wife? No! Do you feel appreciated by your grown children? Of course I do, what a silly question!
Our mouths lie about our feelings, but our bodies betray us. Make your characters reveal emotion entirely through behavior. If a character baldly states, “I want to stay a kid forever,” that’s bad dialogue. On the other hand, if the character asks, “Why won’t you treat me like a grown-up?” while wearing Spider-Man pajamas, or cutting the crusts off his sandwich, or sticking his gum under the table, then you’re on the right track.
Unity of word and action is unironic, but good storytelling should always be ironic, because life is ironic. If word and action match, then you, as author, aren’t showing any powers of observation. Your audience need not even look at the visuals you’re showing them, because the character is simply telling them what’s going on. If the audience is asked to believe them, then there’s no way to interact with your story.
Your audience wants to play sleuth. They want to make their own observations about your characters, instead of being forced to listen to and accept the characters’ observations about themselves. Stories thrive on tension, both external and internal, but the most important source of all should be the tension between what people say and what they mean.If you want to reveal a character’s baggage, then find an active and ironic way to do so. Nowhere was this done better than in the first three seasons of “Lost”. In each episode, we saw a character’s baggage flood over them through a series of flashbacks, which were ironically juxtaposed against a painful dilemma that that same character now had to face on the island. Only the audience knew how that baggage affected their ultimate decision, because they kept their conflicted feelings to themselves.