Ensemble Dynamics: Last Airbender and Legend of Korra

Something I’m currently thinking of a novella idea is how to show a crew being assembled. We all know how it looks like – just think heist movies – but how is it done well? And how do crews work well throughout the stories? Particularly in book form?

Well, I don’t have an answer to the latter. Or the former. But the middle one?

I think the comparison between Avatar: The Last Airbender and Avatar: The Legend of Korra is a good example of what works, and doesn’t work for me.

Let’s look at AtLA first, which I think is one of the greatest ensemble stories ever (hiding behind the idea of being all behind Aang).

From the beginning, we are with a group. AtLA always put the group first. You don’t have to, but it makes life easier. That Katara and Sokka are sister and brother helps too, as that’s the sort of big bond a lot of us instantly recognise in some form, particularly when bickering. So we start with a group with an obvious source of tension, one that is relatable and fits our idea of reality. What they also have though, listening close to the meat of their words, is they have a shared goal – a sense of responsibility to their tribe, a level of responsibility that is arguably too heavy for kids their age. Their bickering is sharpened by their sense the other can’t really shoulder it; Sokka because Katara is a girl, Katara because Sokka is an immature sexist who can’t bend.

Then they discover Aang. And what I like about Aang as an addition to their group dynamics is how who he is interacts with the existing dynamics on several levels.

  1. He is free-spirited, even irresponsible. His light-heartedness makes his personality clear and distinctive from the others. There’s no risk of confusing him.
  2. As a bender, he has an immediate bond with Katara – but there’s no immediate bonds with Sokka, making them slightly antagonistic. He deepens the tension and conflict just by being himself.
  3. As the Avatar, with a duty to fight the Firebenders threatening Katara and Sokka’s tribe, he’s automatically part of Katara and Sokka’s shared purpose. The writers don’t have to bend the narrative too much to have them working together; it also creates another source of available tension because of .

When they later add Toph (and later still, Zuko), they mostly stick with the same pattern. Everybody has an immediate point of difference to the others (Toph’s bluntness, Zuko’s solemness); everybody has a reason to be there; everybody alters the pre-existing social dynamics by their presence.

Now lets look at LoK. For one thing, it starts centered on Korra. If AtLA is an ensemble story pretending to be Aang’s story for commercial reasons, LoK is Korra’s story that pretends to be an ensemble story down the line to heighten similarities with the above. When new characters turn up, it’s not as easy to incorporate that into an ensemble feeling. One way around it is to add an established group – like a pair of brothers who are a pro-bending team – but it is not guaranteed to create an ensemble feeling and I don’t think it does here. Why? We see very little of Mako and Bolin’s relationship without Korra.

For another thing, it’s not obvious what clear and distinctive personality trait exists for characters joining the group. Bolin, the first brother to join Korra, shares a lot of personality traits with her. His goofiness emerges as a difference though, and Mako immediately is different because of how serious he is. Asana’s point of difference? I am struggling to see it. Their shared purpose is, initially, sort of, the success of the Fire Ferrets but that disappears when the Fire Ferrets do. Everything relies on interpersonal relationships; conflicts frequently don’t effect the whole group, decreasing the whole ensemble feeling.

Which, to be fair, is maybe because it’s not meant to be ensemble.

Regardless of whether it is meant to be or not, the difference does show (to me) a way to improve ensemble dynamics. Give characters connections away from the central figure. Make sure everyone’s clearly different. Give them a strong central purpose. If you don’t have that?

Maybe reconsider why the ensemble is there.

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