Lessons Learned from Characters I Love

Writing Advice

You know, I feel like it’s a great time to gush about some lovely characters from some lovely properties that I love. Ya know?

I enjoy a variety of media and that’ll be represented here. If you haven’t ingested any of this delightful content, I cannot recommend anything more than these shows, movies, and books. 

**A note for the format: I am going to talk extensively about the first character. The other discussions will be considerably shorter.

I’m going to split this into several posts This week, I’m going to talk all about some awesome ladies! 

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Toph Beifong [Avatar: the Last Airbender] 

What can I say that hasn’t already been said? Toph is the total package. In a show of fantastic characters, it was difficult to say ‘let me just pick the best one’ because each character feels so real. How do you compare these very diverse personalities, skills, traits, and dynamics? Because of the interconnectivity of all the characters, I struggle to identify favorites. But I wanted to talk about Toph for a very specific reason:

Toph receives one of the flattest arcs of the show. There are characters with a fraction of the screentime go through massive, compelling changes. And that’s the reason I want to talk about her here. A lot of you authors out there — myself included — have spent a lot of time learning from pros. I know that I’ve done a fair amount of research looking into what makes compelling characters, and, while there are cases like Indiana Jones where the ‘flat arc’ is perfectly acceptable, it is often suggested that the best way to convince your audience to latch onto a character is through a beautiful, symbolic arc. Yet here we are. 

One of the greatest things about Toph is the way this minimalistic arc plays into her character. When we first meet her, she is confident, powerful, stubborn, unyielding; she is the perfect foil for our MC, Aang. She embodies everything he needs to learn from her. She is an earthbender through and through. And to strip her of those traits would lessen the impact that she has on Team Avatar as a whole. Her minor arc centers around the slow-growing appreciation for authority, and it is just enough to ground her as a realistic person — a child who is still growing and learning. 

Of course, one of the best things about Toph is her blindness. I’m sure you writers out there have been warned against ‘writing a token ___ character’ to fill a diversity quota. Readers of the world are begging –demanding– diversity. And rightfully so. The world is full of a menagerie of people, yet the basic character template is ‘straight, white, able-bodied male until distinguished otherwise.’ That is a tragedy. Therefore, the response to this is to include one ‘checkmark’ character. Because that will satisfy fans. One character of color. One LGBT character. One character with a mental or physical disability. Bonus points if you lump several characteristics into one — a black female, wheelchair bound, who likes girls because lesbians can be hot. What a great idea. If you don’t understand sarcasm, understand I do not agree with this method. 

So what does that have to do with Toph? Her blindness is not used as a way to fill a quota. Her blindness is so well integrated into the world and her character. Why is she the most incredible earthbender? Because she can’t see, she developed an ability (that makes sense in-universe) that shows her what is happening. Want added drama in more mundane activities? Toph can’t see anything when they travel by sky bison. Need a way for Team Avatar to know they’re being pursued? Toph can feel people coming long before they’re close enough to attack. She isn’t a one-trick-pony. She is integrated into the story in every way. Without Toph and her blindness, the story could not happen the way it did. 

Asami Sato [The Legend of Korra] 

Originally, this slot was taken by Megara from Disney’s Hercules, but Asami hits all of the same points plus a few extras. When we first meet Asami, she’s the pretty romantic rival to Korra. She gets a standard meet-cute with their current shared-love interest, Mako, and sweeps him away to a world of wealth he’d never known before. Another show might take this opportunity to tell the audience they should be rooting for Korra and Mako to end up dating because Korra is the MC. The writers could have made Asami unlikable in a dozen different ways. She could’ve been snobby, dumb, petty, manipulative, unfaithful… Shoot, they gave her two chances to oppose Korra — once when Mako and Korra kissed and again when her Equalist father asked her to turn against Team Avatar. 

Legend of Korra has its faults, but I think they really wrote a beautiful character in Asami. She is level-headed and kind. She is hard-working and smart. She is independent. Oh, and did I mention, she is a non-bender? She is at a disadvantage in a straight fight, yet holds her own. And in a world where the market is overflowing with ‘strong women’ who look just like Korra, Asami is a great reminder that strong women come in all shapes and sizes. She wears heels and makeup and her hair is always perfect. She is soft-spoken but unwilling to be plowed over. She has strong emotional reactions — something Korra also offers in a way I appreciate. Asami is just a joy. The writers took a character who I assumed I would dislike, and they let her become one of my favorite characters in the show. 

Anastasia Romanov [Anastasia] 

It’s finally time to talk about one of my favorite animated movies out there. Our title character, Anastasia, is loosely based on the real life Russian Revolution in which Czar Nicholas ii is overthrown, and he and his whole family is killed. The following circumstances lead to a series of conspiracies that one of the daughters survived. Of course, that daughter was the inspiration for this magical, musical, happily-ever-after adaptation of the real-life events. 

So let’s actually talk about the movie. Because of the magic of amnesia, our grand duchess ends up in an orphanage at the age of 8 with no idea who she is or where she came from. Nothing aside from a locket that convinces her to go to Paris. We are shown that she is loved by her fellow orphans while butting heads with authoritarian figures. She is shown to be a bit aloof as she continues to show a strong will that favors that of royal privilege. This very fitting personality trait sets her up for fantastic banter and push-and-pull relationships with the headstrong Dimitri who helps her travel from Russia to France. 

I adore the character of Anastasia because she is so perfectly balanced. She is kind but proud. She has no intention to be run over. She is determined but unsure in herself. She has serious doubts that the path she is pursuing leads anywhere. I am a sucker for a snarky character who is stubborn and sassy while hiding a fear of the unknown. 

Next week, I’m going to talk about some of my favorite boys in fiction. I hope to see you all then!

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Stay Safe, 

Rena Grace

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