Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra wavers between exciting and disappointing. The rocky first season left much to be desired both from a storytelling and pacing standpoint. Although season 2 is more put together, it’s clear that this show doesn’t have the excellent writing that its predecessor had. At least, not all the time and certainly not for all characters. In fact, almost everyone in the cast gets shafted at some point. Is it because the seasons are so short and the creators are trying to cram a 26-episode story into 12 episodes? Have they just lost their touch, or have they gotten lazy because of the success of Avatar: the Last Airbender?
Whatever the case, I would actually consider The Legend of Korra a good learning tool for writers. The story is enjoyable enough to hold your interest, and the problems are obvious enough to show you what doesn’t work. One of the things that doesn’t work is how Katara, now an old woman, is just sort of “there” to occasionally make those of us who have been around since A:TLA feel all the feelings. As an old woman, Katara hasn’t retained even a drop of who she was as a kid. Although Legend of Korra is not about Katara and it’s clearly not intended to have any strong ties to A:TLA, I still believe that Katara’s characterization in Legend of Korra is an example of how elderly characters, especially elderly women, are not important parts of the stories we tell.
On the one hand, Katara’s story is finished. She aided the Avatar in restoring balance to the world and purging the corrupt leaders from the Fire Nation. Along the way, she helped benders in a small village fight for their liberation, got thrown in jail several times, and accidentally became a master of bloodbending. She’s done a lot and we’ve seen that, so I don’t have a problem with her being a static character in Legend of Korra.
What’s odd to me, though, is just how passive Katara is, especially in season 2 when her own people are in a civil war. Although I can imagine that an old Katara is tired and has already passed most responsibilities on to the next generation, I can’t picture her having lost all of her passion, especially when the conflict is so close to her. Not once do we see her even express opposition to the fighting or frustration with the situation.
I can’t imagine that the Katara who vehemently insisted that she will never turn her back on people in need and blew up a Fire Nation factory in the middle of the night would stay silent. She might not want to fight in the civil war between the water tribes, but it would be much more in character for her to at least try to convince someone somewhere that this isn’t a good idea.
I don’t know what it’s like to be an old person because I’m a 20something, but I do know that people don’t lose their passion when they get older, especially not people like Katara. I don’t think her life experiences would allow her to ever be completely passive in the goings on of the world no matter how much she’s relinquished to Korra’s generation. So how did Katara get reduced to a nice grandma who heals people and that’s it?
A lot of people who write a lot of stories that get a lot of mainstream attention are young. Youth is celebrated in media and, especially for women, it’s sold to us as the only desirable way to be. I rarely see recurring elderly characters in anything. If I do, it’s in fantasy and the character is usually male and a mentor to the young protagonist (Gandalf, Dumbledore, Brom). I’ve only seen prominent elderly women in Harry Potter (Minerva McGonagall) and various anime/manga series (Naruto, Sailor Moon, Soul Eater). Aside from Professor McGonagall, all the elderly women I’ve seen who are of any importance to the plot have some sort of magic or skill that makes them look young most of the time.
It’s like when we write old people, we don’t know what to do with them because we have consciously or unconsciously devalued them. We’re fed a very narrow depiction of humanity and that depiction is young. We know how to make complex young characters, but elderly ones are much more of a challenge.
I think Katara has unfortunately become a victim of this “I don’t know how to write old people” problem, which is especially weird given that Uncle Iroh was very important in A:TLA and helped move the plot forward in the second season of Legend of Korra. I know that Katara is supposed to be a minor character in Legend of Korra and that at some point she probably decided that she was done and wanted to keep growing old in peace, but it would be nice to see a little more involvement out of Gran Gran Katara. I mean, we have to remember just what kind of person she was as a kid.
The Lesson for Writers
Being old doesn’t mean becoming docile, cynical, or passionless. Old people can and should serve more roles in fiction besides the mentor that usually dies so the protagonist can grow up. If you’re writing something where one of your main characters from a previous series is still around as an old person, don’t forget how you created the young version of the character. Just because they get old doesn’t mean they have to fit in whatever we may think is typical of old people.
This is something that I will admit I don’t catch in my own work. The elderly are a more difficult group for me to write about because that experience is in my future. However, I think that understanding the way elderly people are portrayed in stories (or not) can help writers avoid resorting to the same tropes.
Who are some awesome elderly characters you’ve seen or read about? Are they mentors, or do they serve another role? Are they there just to be the token old person, or do they actually play an important part in the story?