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Character arcs are very important within a narrative. Characters start in one place and the best of them go through a metamorphosis of growth throughout the length of the story. Often the best growth is when a character becomes redeemed. Yes, they begin the tale as a villain. Yet, by probing their past and emotions and reflecting on their wrongdoings and the pain in their lives, they make a complete 180 degree turn towards good by the close of the story. This is common in film and live-action television – Ebenezer Scrooge and Shrek spring to mind. However, due to the natural episodic nature of TV animation, it is not as common there as one would expect.
One example, which I will use to highlight the beauty of such an arc, is Prince Zuko from the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. It should be said Zuko is less a pure evil villain, than a tragic one. After all, redemption isn’t as clear cut as evil to good. Humans are complex. It’s also worth pointing out that the writers of Avatar also led their main character Aang on a path to redemption. Starting off the story fearful and fleeing from his responsibilities, the protagonist becomes someone capable of standing tall and embracing his duty to protect.
Out of the two characters, however, Zuko’s arc is stronger and arguably one of the best redemption arcs ever written. He’s a lost soul when we first see him. He has been banished from the Fire Nation, seeing himself as lesser than his father, who’s a lord, and sister. Zuko puts power first and sees emotion as a weakness. His excellent foil is his Uncle Iroh, who teaches the young villain with smiles and wisdom throughout. Iroh, once a hardened war leader, approaches every situation with intelligence and heart. In doing so, he begins to project that onto his nephew during the various situations the writers on the show place Zuko into.
What’s incredible about Zuko’s arc is that it isn’t as clear cut as bad to good. It’s more like a scale, with 1 being bad and 10 being good. Halfway through the series, he may be at a 7. But then a couple of episodes later, he is pushed back to a 5. This adds a realism that reflects real world moral dilemmas. One doesn’t always make the correct choices. Plus, fluctuation and consequence dotted through narratives are what allow for the flow of tension and growth.
By the end, Zuko does what’s ultimately right. The triumph of the character is that he moves from wanting to capture the Avatar, out of pride and as a way to prove himself to his father, to teaching the Avatar his skill of fire bending. He does this because, on top of sympathising with the Avatar’s oppressed people, he realizes regaining honor as a substitute for love is a waste.
Ultimately Zuko addresses his own inner turmoil and uses it to be better. Why is this a perfect example of a redemption arc? Simply put, it’s because it isn’t about the transition from bad to good. Instead, it focuses on the journey itself and all the choices and changes Zuko makes along the way. Sometimes he takes the wrong path and that leads him to difficult places. Yet, all the twists and turns he embarks upon throughout the show combine to eventually bring him towards the light, fueling his redemption arc – one that would be difficult to rival.