Michael Dante DiMartino Interview
This week on the Writers of Fantasy podcast my guest is Michael Dante DiMartino; he is a writer, artist, and perhaps most famously, the co-creator of Avatar the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra! He is also the author of a new fantasy series, Rebel Genius!
We talk about building characters, worlds, themes, and more besides. Check it out as we delve into Avatar and more!
What makes a compelling character, which ones in your books or your shows have you most enjoyed writing?
Obviously one of the most popular characters we had on Avatar was Zuko. Although I wasn’t super conscious of it at the time, I knew he was going to be a cool character, but I don’t think I understood the gravitas he would carry in viewers’ minds. I learn a lot writing on the show and with that character.
Seeing how you could take a character who was really flawed and objectively doing the wrong things – he tried to hurt Aang in the very first episode! – but he grew to be this character that people related to. Because of his complicated backstory with his dad, and the emotional and physical abuse he received at the hands of his father.
You can’t give every character a super-angsty backstory, but I always keep that in the back of my mind. What is the emotional wound that’s driving the character? It may not be something he or she is willing to talk about, but the story is going to help them cope with that. And also to show characters that do have that range of emotion.
Even Aang, we had him do stuff that went against his nature. Seeing him struggle with that kind of stuff always makes for interesting characters.
In the season one episode ‘The Storm’ you play Aang’s backstory alongside Zuko’s, and we see how much they reflect one another. Was that a conscious decision?
Yeah, for sure. We knew those guys were the core of the show, and we wanted to show that they could become friends. I think that is one of the main reasons why the show still resonates with people is that relationship between the supposed villain character and the hero.
Was that something you were keen to do in Rebel Geniuses as well?
I think it’s something I am naturally drawn to. In Rebel Genius the main character is a twelve year old kid, very similar to Aang. He’s an artist and he lives in this fictional renaissance inspired world and he’s going on a quest and stuff, but he has kind of a counterpart, so to speak.
There is a – I’d call him a creature, but he’s not, he’s a humanoid being called a Tulpa. It’s a man made living sculpture. He’s kind of a servant to a somewhat evil artist, and causing violence and chaos wherever he goes. But, it goes against his nature, and he is trying to fight back against the guy controlling him. So, I enjoyed writing his chapters a lot; his struggle has some similarities with Zuko’s struggle.
You have an ‘Evil Artist’ in your book. Was that difficult to write? Artists tend to think of ourselves as very pure and good, so was that tough to get into?
That’s a great question. When I was developing the book – which was something that I worked on the side for over a decade before I wrote it – I wanted to have a world where there were artists and they had these Geniuses that help them do magic, so who would be against them?
For a while I was thinking someone who just hates art and wants to get rid of art, but as I was trying to figure out what that would look like, I couldn’t. I couldn’t imagine a scenario where there was no ‘art’. Because, there is the story that Hitler was a failed artist, and the Nazis used art as weapon to propagandise and to sway people’s minds.
Once I started thinking of it that way it made sense. It’s not someone who’s trying to get rid of art, because you can’t. You still have to make buildings, you still have to write things. There’s still going to be visual design in the world, but what’s the purpose behind those things?
How much of the voice artists performance influenced how you saw the characters? For example, Jack DeSenna was wont to improvise lines – did that add to the character?
Definitely early on. Sokka in particular, we saw him as a little more aloof and broody when we first came up with the character. But when Jack came in and gave his take on the character it totally made sense and we went with that.
You end up writing towards the actors.
When writing books, of course, you don’t have the voice artists giving their interpretation, you only have the voices in your head. Has that made a difference to how you build your characters?
Yeah. The only thing I have to compare it to is the Legend of Korra comics. It’s super helpful because all I have to think is “how would I have written this for PJ?” or “what would Janet sound like saying this?” so I’ll tweak stuff, thinking of how they might act it out.
For the book it’s totally just… me. And the voices in my head, I guess! My experience of going through the casting process – I deffinately learned a lot about qualities of voices that voice directors look for. There’s certain places where I try to touch on what their voice might sound like, but if this ever got cast into a series I’m sure an actor would do something I’d never have thought of.
The characters in Avatar are so often built of contrasts. Sokka is both a goofball AND the super logical planner. Zuko is both an angry villain, and a deeply moral character. Lin Beifong is both a crotchety hardass, and one of the most caring characters in the series. Is that the sort of thing you’re conscious of when creating characters, or does it usually develop over time?
A bit of both. I certainly start out with archetypal ideas. Like the emotional character or the logical character, but that’s really just the starting point. Then as you get into the story that will only get you so far. It starts to become very onenote.
So, for Avatar and Korra, as the series progressed and you have episodes where you can take time to delve deeper into the characters, those contrasts develop naturally. You get deeper into who these people are and why they turned out the way they did.
For Beifong that was for sure one of those things where we had this idea for the hard-ass detective chief of police who had a lot of Toph’s personality to her and she has some kind of back story with Tenzin. We had some ideas but it wasn’t until we got later into the season that we were delving into who she was and what had happened with Tenzin and that other side of her started to come out more.
To tie back into this idea of the emotional wound, I’m always trying to think logically about why a person is this way. Like, for Zuko, if he is so driven to get Aang, then why is he so driven? It’s not just because he’s an evil dude with nothing better to do. Delving into that backstory as to what brought them to that point. It was this sense of ‘I have to restore my honour’ and he believed this was the only way to do it. Even though that was not the case, he had to go through this crazy journey to figure that out.
Speaking of evil dudes with nothing better to do; have you seen the latest Star Wars movies? What do you make of comparisons between Zuko and Kylo Ren?
Yeah, I won’t go too much into that! [laughs] Bryan and I talked about that. There are many – probably unintentional – similarities between Avatar and The Last Jedi. The one that stuck out to me the most was the cannon thing at the end, I was like ‘This is like The Drill episode!’ It’s crazy! They’re slowly approaching with this giant cylindrical thing that’s going to drill through the wall.
People did make comparisons between Crossroads of Destiny and Empire Strikes Back.
Exactly! Bryan and I talked about this, too. We’re all working with mythology and the Joseph Campbell Hero’s Journey archetypes. So inevitably, stuff is going to overlap and one thing inspires another, and inspires another thing down the road.
It’s kind of like a big conversation, I think. In the different genres and different mediums.
I know for Avatar you and Bryan Konietzko created a gigantic series bible. Was the same true for your books?
It was not as extensive as the Avatar Bible. In part because the requirements for Television are just so much more different. There’s so many more hoops you have to go through. And it was the first time we had ever done something like that.
In order to get my book deal I did write a proposal that kind of described the world and the magic and had a pretty fleshed out plot for the first book, but for the second and third it was a lot more vague. And if people want to check it out I have it up on my website.
And if you sign up for my mailing list you can see it.
When building the world, how much of it was guided by the themes you wanted to explore? Like the idea of art manifesting in magic, Genius, this sense of how important art is. Was that the starting point and did you build the world around that?
Pretty much, yeah. One of the first things I wrote down in a notebook about this was ‘art as magic’. Over the years that’s what stuck with me and kind of kept me going when I didn’t think this story was going anywhere. I was like, ‘no, that is really important to me! That art can influence people for good or for bad.’
Growing up I was always drawing and reading but I never could find books about artists, other than nonfiction books. So, there was always, in the back of my mind, a thought that I haven’t come across an idea quite like this before. I was basically trying to fill this little void that my twelve year old self would have enjoyed.
I had researched the renaissance and reading a book about Da Vinci and came across this idea that, back in the day, you wouldn’t say ‘Da Vinci was a genius’ you’d say that he ‘had a genius’. Because in Latin the word meant a ‘guardian spirit’ of a person or place. So, when I read that it was the initial ‘oh! That’s cool!’
And having had the experience on Avatar with all of the hybrid creatures, that was one of my favourite parts, people love having animal companions. So, this idea of the guardian spirit that would allow them to manifest this magic, then the next challenge was what does the magic actually look like?
On Avatar the magic was based on martial arts, so people had to physically do something to make the magic. I wanted to do a similar thing; for the artists it’s basically like having a magic wand. Using a pencil or a brush, they trigger the gems in their Genius. It’s based on principles of Sacred Geometry.
You worked collaboratively with other writers for Avatar; Josh Hamilton, Tim Herick, Aaron Ehasz, and others. What did you learn from working with them, and from the collaborative experience?
Being in a writers room environment was deffinately a good learning experience. It started out as just me and Bryan in a room, but as the series progressed, we were working with more and more writers. It’s a good lesson of not getting too precious with an idea because it just might not work.
There are so many where, even as a group, we thought ‘Oh! This is the idea that’s going to work!’ and we’d just hit a wall. You’d be talking about it for days, ‘but if we do this, then that doesn’t make sense.’ It was just a great way to talk through problems and figure out solutions to story problems.
Ultimately, what usually happened, and what I still run into is that you often have too many ideas. It’s usually a matter of cutting stuff out, rather than adding something new to it. That creates more problems.
I interviewed Irene Koh [link] who did the art for the Turf Wars comics. She’s not related to Koh the Face Stealer, I am told. As an artist yourself did you find it easier to talk about the art in the development with her?
I think so. The transition from writing scripts for television to comics was easier than from TV to prose. Part of it was my background as a storyboard artist and director is that I can picture a shot in my head of what I want a panel to look like. Instead of drawing it, I’m trying to describe in words what I’m thinking and leave it open for her.
It’s this balance of not wanting to dictate exactly what the thing should look like, but sometimes you have an idea of how it should look.
Warrior Genius is out now!
Turf Wars is also out soon!