I love Avatar. I don’t mean Avatar as in blue people (which was a gorgeous movie but only so-so writing) but rather Avatar as in the dude with an arrow tattooed on his forehead. I am also not talking about the horribly butchered live-action movie, but the good old Nickelodeon cartoon. Now that was not only great animation, but also some really good story writing, for both Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra.
Anyway, while I could go on for days about how much I love this series, and what you can learn about it for story-telling purposes, I want to focus on one aspect of the show. In case you aren’t aware, both of the series take place in a world where some people have the ability to “bend”, or control, one element: Water, Earth, Fire, or Air. The Avatar, the bridge between the human world and the spirit world, can control all four elements. There are also some non-benders, people who can’t control any of the elements.
In both series, the Avatar can be considered the main character, although their friends are just as important to them as Ron and Hermione to Harry Potter. Aang, as the Avatar in The Last Airbender, is surrounded by Katara, Toph, Zuko, and Sokka. Katara is a waterbender, Toph is an earthbender, and Zuko is a firebender. In The Legend of Korra, a follow-up series that follows the next generation, Korra is the Avatar surrounded by her friends: Mako the firebender, Bolin the earthbender, and Asami.
This is a world in which amazing, awesome things are done by benders–they can make tsunamis out of water, glide through air by controlling currents, toss enormous boulders around like it’s nothing, and heat their tea without a microwave. (Okay, maybe I’m the only one who thinks that last one is amazing and awesome, but still) Every character has their badass moments of bending when you just sit there and gape at the TV screen in amazement.
Despite the awesome things to be done with bending, both main groups have a central character who cannot bend the elements: Sokka and Asami. They’re basically like Muggles, hopelessly outclassed in a world in which people can perform a kind of magic.
And yet, Asami and Sokka (and other non-benders as well) are just as badass if not more so than their bending counterparts. Both of them have incredibly sharp minds–Sokka is a natural leader and tactician who comes up with countless battle plans, and Asami is an inventor and engineer and basically a Fortune 500 CEO. Plus, in battle, both of them are wicked skilled with their own weapons. Sokka has his trusty boomerang and becomes a sword master, and Asami is a martial arts queen with an electric glove.
So why does this matter?
For me, a cardinal rule of stories is that magic is a tool, not the solution. What matters is the person behind the magic. You can be the coolest, most badass bender in the world. But if you’re not a good person, or a person who has learned and changed and grown, then what’s the point? It becomes a deus ex machina–“Let’s just wait for the Avatar to swoop in and magic us all to a good ending”. For both Avatars, their personal growth was not only learning how to bend the elements, but how to evolve as a world leader.
When you have badass non-benders, or Muggles, or humans in a fairy world, it serves as a reminder of this fact. It’s not the magic skills that make a person a hero. It’s the person that matters.
Here are some other examples of the badass non-benders in stories:
- Jacob Kowalski in Fantastic Beasts–Okay, I know this isn’t a book, but it’s related to Harry Potter. Jacob might not have badass fighting moments like the non-benders, but his presence as a Muggle in the Wizarding world is super important (even if they’re forced to wipe his memories)
- Percy Jackson and the Olympians: Let me focus on two characters here, both of whom illustrate this concept in different ways.
- Rachel Elizabeth Dare is basically a non-bender of the demigod world, since she’s 100% human. However, she is a little super-powered with her Sight, so she is able to participate in the demigod world by seeing everything and becomes pivotal to the battle. Perhaps my favorite part is when she hits Kronos in the face with her hairbrush.
- Silena Beauregard: Yes, she’s a demigod, but she’s also a child of Aphrodite. Compared to the rest of the demigods, that cabin is kind of a joke. However, Silena has her badass moment when she leads the Ares cabin into war by pretending to be Clarisse (just like Patroclus and Achilles in The Iliad). Even though this girl is not a fighter at all, she has her shining moment when she changes the fate of the battle.
- In The Wheel of Time, there is no end to badass women (and men) wielding the One Power and doing some crazy stuff. It’s a little heavy on that, but you still have characters like Faile, a woman who not only ran away to become a Hunter of the Horn, but is excellent with her throwing knives and her sharp mind knows men think and how to rule a country. Plus, Thom Merrilin is an old gleeman, but he is even better with his throwing knives, he’s as nimble as a gymnast at the Olympics, and he is an encyclopedia of stories and knowledge.
To sum up…
Just let the regular mortals have a chance sometimes, okay? It’s not necessarily about what awesome skills you have at your disposal, but what you make of them. Think of all the times Love triumphs over Evil in stories.
And if you happen to be good at throwing knives, teach me?