There are so many things about Avatar: The Last Airbender that makes it a fantastic series. Most would agree, however, that the character writing is something the show’s creators excelled at.
Most fans would immediately think of Zuko when asked which character had the best arc, but the creators certainly gave a lot of thought and care to the growth and personal journeys of other characters, as well. Here are ten characters from ATLA with some of the best arcs in the series and beyond.
10 Cabbage Merchant
At first glance, Cabbage Merchant might seem like just a one-note character for comic relief in ATLA, with not much else to his character besides mourning the loss of his cabbages. Digging deeper into the lore of the series, however, including the comic series and Legend of Korra, there seems to be much more to the merchant than meets the eye.
During Legend of Korra, it was revealed that the humble Cabbage Merchant overcame his frequent misfortunes in cabbage sales and went on to start a national automotive corporation in what was now Republic City. It had to have taken a lot of courage and ambition for the middle-aged Cabbage Merchant to completely start his life over and dive into a completely new business venture
9 Ty Lee
Besides betraying Azula and becoming an ally for Team Avatar, many would say Ty Lee doesn’t have much of an arc—at least, in the beginning of ATLA. However, more about her character and struggles for identity are revealed later in ATLA, and even more so in the comic series.
In “Ember Island” the usually happy-go-lucky Ty Lee reveals that she pursued a career as an acrobat in order to feel more like an individual so she wouldn’t have to feel like a “matched set” with her six identical sisters. Interestingly, Ty Lee contradicts this idea somewhat after she joins the Kyoshi Warriors at the end of ATLA. This is explored further in the comics when her identity crisis re-emerges, and she almost leaves the ranks of the Kyoshi Warriors. She eventually learns that, sometimes, problems are better faced with friends, and she becomes less worried about standing out as an individual and more comfortable being a part of a team.
Mai is another character you wouldn’t expect to find much of a personality, especially under her aloof and indifferent exterior. Again in the episode “Ember Island,” it’s revealed she hides and suppresses a lot of her emotions, as her parents would reward her for being quiet and blending into the background. Her mother was very controlling, and her father, Ukano, was an important political figure in the Fire Nation. The more stoic and inconspicuous Mai was, the more she was rewarded.
As time went on, especially after “Ember Island” and throughout the comic series, Mai began to show more emotion and grow as a person. With the strained relationship with her father in the comic series, upended family life, and her on-again-off-again relationship with Zuko, Mai had no choice but to give in to her emotions and express her feelings more to stay sane in this turbulent portion of her life.
With a name meaning “expanding lotus,” it makes sense for Toph to go through some transformations and grow throughout the show. Primarily in ATLA, she learned from Iroh to let others into her life and be a better team member. Toph still remains strong and stubborn as she grows up throughout the comic series.
In Legend of Korra, audiences learn that Toph has gone into the Foggy Swamp to seek enlightenment. When she later finds and rescues Korra and begins training her, it’s clear that she still has the same abrasive personality as she did when she was young. However, upon reuniting with her daughters, she expresses how proud she is of them and hopes that they can find a way to “not hate” her. This might seem like a small step, but her acknowledgment of her flaws and even failures as a mother are a big difference from the bullheaded and defiant kid and teenager she once was.
Iroh is another fan-favorite for many viewers, and, even with his seemingly infinite wisdom, his character goes through its own journey, as well. Starting out as somewhat of a goofy character, Iroh is revealed to be a man of great strength who has endured much pain at the loss of his only son.
Once a fierce General nicknamed the Dragon of the West, for a time, Iroh’s loyalty to his nation was unquestionable. Things began to change for him once his son was killed in battle, and, by the time Zuko was hunting the Avatar in “Book One,” Iroh was already well aware that the Fire Nation’s Hundred Year War was indeed a crime against humanity. He later becomes instrumental to Team Avatar, labeled a traitor by the Fire Nation, and, most importantly, helps Zuko find his true destiny.
Jet is one of many celebrated side characters in ATLA. As the leader of the Freedom Fighters, a group of guerrilla fighters made out of refugee Earth Kingdom children, he starts out as a very likable and interesting character, especially to Katara. He’s clever with a lot of redeeming qualities, and he’s a kind leader to the other orphans and refugees. But, when his intentions for destroying a Fire Nation village along with innocent civilians were revealed, Aang and the others fought back against him and eventually defeats him.
Team Avatar encounters Jet again in Ba Sing Se, and, since they last met, Jet has turned over a new leaf and acknowledged the crimes of his past actions. Already, Jet’s character is on the road to redemption, and that redemption is solidified when he is killed protecting Team Avatar after recovering from hypnosis and fending off Long Feng. While Jet’s life is tragic and short, it was filled with honor and redemption by its end.
Katara was a very loving and fiercely loyal member of Team Avatar who often acted as the group’s mom. Her kind nature and generous nature almost never wavered, but she did grow in a lot of ways throughout the show. Her overall confidence grew, as did her waterbending skills, and, with Zuko, she learned to trust and give second chances to those who had hurt her in the past, and she learned to accept her mother’s death and even forgive her enemies.
Katara’s character grows leaps and bounds throughout the series, and she continued to be a badass and fight for what’s right long after the timeline of the series ended.
Sokka starts out early in the as somewhat immature and even a little sexist, oftentimes teasing Katara and demeaning her. He’s somewhat self-centered and thinks highly of himself ever since his father and the other men left him in charge of the Southern Water Tribe while they went off to fight in the war.
It isn’t until he begins to appreciate and learn more from the powerful women around him such as Yue, Suki, the other Kyoshi Warriors, and eventually his sister that he begins to grow as a person and become a better leader.
Arguably, Aang’s character goes through as much of a transformation as Zuko’s, taking on the task of healing a broken world at just eleven years old. Instead of running away from his destiny and giving way to fear and uncertainty, he eventually learns to meet his destiny head-on and fully realize his power in his own way.
Aang learns some incredible lessons to help him become one of the greatest Avatars in history, finally ending the Hundred Year War and restoring balance to an extremely turbulent world.
1 Prince Zuko
Without question, Zuko’s character arc is not only the greatest and most dynamic in the series, it’s oftentimes regarded as one of the best in all of television. A battle between good and evil raging in his heart as the descendant of both Firelord Sozin and Avatar Roku, Zuko’s character was full of conflict from the start, which made his eventual redemption all the more epic.
Pushed to his limits, he finally overcomes all of the toxicity of the imperialist Fire Nation, his family, and even himself, to end the Hundred Year War, take his place as Fire Lord, and become one of Avatar Aang’s closest friends.
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