The Basic Storyline and Structure of Avatar: the Last Airbender (Book One: Water)

As an introduction to the series of posts on this animated TV series, I would like to introduce the characters and the plot.  Be warned: this entire post-series is one long string of spoilers, so if you’re not familiar with it and want to be surprised, don’t read this.  If you aren’t familiar with it and don’t plan to watch the series or don’t care if the plot is ruined for you, this is the post (and series) for you.

We will focus for now on the first season (or “Book”): Water.

The World:

There are four groups into which people are born.  These groups are defined by the elements they can bend (bending is a type of psychokinetic martial art manipulation of the Empedoclean elements).

Earth: The Earth Kingdom is very reminiscent of imperial China.  It consists of big cities with sophisticated technology and clever inventors, each city ruled by its own king.  The capital is Ba Sing Se /bah-sing-say/.  Members of the Earth Kingdom dress in shades of green and brown.  Earthbending is associated with a firm “center” but flexibility and creativity.  They tend to be offensive fighters.

Water: The Water tribes live at the North and South Poles and appear to be Inuit.  The Northern Water Tribe is a massive civilization made of ice and snow, and its city layout is reminiscent of Venice with canals being one of the main methods of transportation.  The Southern Water Tribe is much more like what people imagine when they hear the word “Eskimo”: a small village of igloos and tents.  It is also very lacking in benders, unlike the Northern Tribe–the Fire Nation did its best to exterminate the benders of this tribe.  Also, all its men are helping the Earth Kingdom fight the Fire Nation’s invasion.  Members of the Water tribes dress in shades of blue, with white (sometimes fur) trim.  They are often wearing long sleeves and/or parkas, depending on where in the world they are.  Waterbending is associated with fluidity, flexibility, and creativity.  Most waterbenders can manipulate water into and out of its frozen state at will.  They can be either offensive or defensive fighters.

Air: The Air nomads live in the sky.  Literally.  Air temples are usually on the tops of mountains or in the sides of cliffs–basically, as far away from easily-accessible as possible.  You can only get there on a flying bison.  The air nomads of the Eastern and Western Air Temples are modelled after Tibetan monks.  All Air Nomads seen in the series have been airbenders, most likely because of their civilization’s monastic way of life.  Air nomads dress in yellow and orange.  Airbenders, after a certain point, receive airbender tattoos: a series of blue arrows tattooed over their bodies with their points at the center of the forehead, the centers of the backs of the hands, and the centers of the tops of the feet.  Most airbenders shave their heads; some grow facial hair.  Airbending is associated with flightiness but revolves around meditation and control.  They tend to be defensive (non-violent) fighters.

Fire: The Fire Nation heavily resembles feudal Japan.  Society revolves around a very strict system of “honour,” where in order to maintain the honour of your family you must not dishonour yourself.  Exile is a very real thing in the Fire Nation.  Since in this series, the biggest plot point is that the Fire Nation is attempting to rule the world with force (and to keep it down with martial law, once it’s conquered), the Fire Nation itself is difficult to describe because of its far-reaching arm.  Under the rule of Fire Lord Ozai, the Fire Nation has a primarily military presence in the world.  Members of the Fire Nation dress in shades of red and often look militaristic or samurai-esque, even when not in battle.  Firebending is associated with power and passion but revolves around control through proper breath control.  They tend to be offensive fighters.

Cast of Characters

The Good Guys:

Aang: The Avatar.  He is discovered in an iceberg in the first episode, but you don’t find out he is the Avatar until the second (they were initially aired back-to-back).  This means that he is pivotal to the survival of the world: he is the only one who has the capability of controlling all four elements AND he is the bridge between the mortal and the spirit worlds.  He is an airbender from the Southern Air Temple.  At the time of the series beginning, the airbenders had all been killed by the Fire Nation–but he didn’t know this because he was frozen in stasis in the iceberg for 100 years.  Because of this stasis-freeze, he is still twelve: the age he was when he froze.  He is a happy and bouncy personality, but still understands his responsibility as the Avatar.  He also has a very strong desire to help everyone with whom he comes into contact.  His job is, literally, to save the world from the Fire Lord.

Katara: The only bender left in the Southern Water Tribe.  She and her brother Sokka (below) discover Aang in the iceberg when they are out fishing.  She is very maternal, as she has had to take care of the household chores since her mother died at the hands of a Fire Nation invasion.  Her father is fighting with the other men from the Southern Water Tribe.  Katara and Sokka live with their grandmother, Gran-Gran.  Katara seems to be about thirteen.

Sokka: Katara’s older brother.  He is a non-bender (which means he can’t manipulate any elements) but has a good mind for strategy.  He often fills the role of comic relief and is usually hungry.  He has been the “man” of the village for two years now, since all the grown men left to fight.  He seems to be about fifteen.  His weaponry consists of a mace and a boomerang.


Momo: Aang’s flying lemur.  He is adorable and can always find food (often making him friends with Sokka).

Appa: Aang’s animal companion (all Avatars have one).  He is a flying bison.  Like Aang, he has arrows on his body at his head and all his limbs (he has six legs and a very big, flat tail).

The Bad Guys:

Prince Zuko: Son of Fire Lord Ozai; he has been exiled and must capture the Avatar in order to regain his honour.  He has a flame-shaped burn scar on his face from a vital backstory plot-point.  He is a firebender with a tendency to let his temper get the better of him.


General Iroh: Zuko’s uncle.  Also exiled, so he travels with Zuko and teaches him (as well as talking sense into him).  The comic relief for the bad guys, Iroh is a funny old man with a passion for tea, food, and pai sho (an invented-for-the-series game which appears to be like mahjongg with some elements of Go.)  If you try to harm Zuko, though, he will kick your butt faster than you can blink.  Iroh is also a firebender (which is why he teaches Zuko).

Commander Zhao: A generally bad guy.  Commander in the Fire Nation Imperial Army.  He hates Zuko; Zuko hates him.  Much more about him later, as he has a LOT of issues.

Did we forget anyone?