Most of my favorite characters tend to hail from the world of anime. When I was younger, I was captivated by their expressive features, high intellect, and passion to overcome whatever plight they were given. As I aged, however, I found myself paying more attention to the backstories of said characters. This gave me a deeper understanding of the human experience- instilling in me the power of perspective, while showing me just how much your environment can influence the person you become. These parallelisms are what I believe makes characterization so important. Sure, I watch these shows for entertainment, but I can appreciate the Aesop-esque nature of them as well. These qualities were best personified in a character named Prince Zuko, a gifted fire bender from Avatar: The Last Airbender. The show (it was adapted to film, but real fans don’t speak of it) follows the story of Aang, the long-lost Avatar, on a journey to master all four elements – fire, water, earth and air (he is already an air-bending prodigy).
The Avatar world is divided into four nations – the Fire Nation, The Water Tribe, The Earth Kingdom, and the Air Kingdom. “Benders” from each nation can control and manipulate the element from their nation. Zuko, the banished Fire Nation Prince, has but one goal: capture the Avatar. He believes this will restore his honor and his father, Fire Lord Ozai, will accept him once again. After Fire Lord Ozai discovered that Zuko (a child at the time) spoke against the Fire Nation, he challenged Zuko to an ‘agni kai’, or a duel in front of the entire Fire Nation. Zuko pleaded for this father’s forgiveness, but it was too late. Zuko is not only banished from the Fire Nation, but his father severely burned Zuko’s left eye (this is known as the ‘mark of the banished prince.’)
As the show progresses, however, Zuko learns that true strength does not manifest itself from rage, rather inner peace. This is largely due to the help of his tea-loving, peaceful Uncle Iroh, aka “The Dragon of the West”, who we learn lost his only son to war. According to Zuko, in his showdown with Fire Lord Ozai, “He’s [Uncle Iroh] the one that’s been a real father to me.” Zuko eventually teams up with Aang and his friends and together they save the world from the Fire Nation’s wrath. Fire Lord Ozai is defeated and Zuko ascends the throne.
I think Zuko’s character is a mix of “The Rebel” and the “The Explorer” archetypes, balanced out by Iroh’s “Sage” archetype. Unlike many “villians”, Prince Zuko is not one-dimensional. He is a well-rounded, complex character that makes you root for him, and (arguably) has the best character development in the series.
What makes Prince Zuko an effective character:
- His Gradual Maturity – Zuko’s development mirrors that of the average human. We certainly do not mature overnight. This process takes years of grit, triumphs, and pitfalls.
- Complexity of Emotions – As mentioned before, Zuko is far from one-dimensional. As the series progresses, we are given insight in to how his upbringing and environment influenced the person he was. We see Zuko filled with hatred and rage, but also depressed and defeated.
What traits do you think make for a memorable character?