As a reader, movie fan, and writer, I have admired great characters since I was a mini. Great characters draw you into the story. They inspire and terrify. They make you love them and hate them. A great character is key to a great story, no matter its medium. Great characters are very special because they have the ability to capture the attention of many people, a feat that is becoming more and more difficult as our modern world becomes more and more distracting.
I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid, I would get so wrapped up in my favorite characters that I often wanted to be them. I studied their personality traits and asked myself what made them so great. But of course, some of that changed as I grew older. I may have admired characters or they might have intrigued me, but it became a rare occurrence that I would want to be one of them. Until I met Uncle Iroh…
In 2005, Nickelodeon premiered an animated series created by Michael DiMartino and Bryan Koneitzko – Avatar the Last Airbender. (This is not to be confused with the M. Night Shamylan movie The Last Airbender, an adaptation that fell short in many ways.) My roommate at the time introduced me to the show, and I have been watching it since, even years after it ended. Just this evening, I was watching reruns and sent a clip to my mom because it reminded me of her. I can’t even begin to count how many times I’ve seen each episode. It’s just that good. I could talk about this show for days. With an engaging plot, beautiful artwork, impeccable writing, and rich character after rich character, it has a lot to offer – heart, humor, and time-tested wisdom that makes real life better if applied. The show also boasts some of the strongest female characters ever presented on TV, especially if you count the creators’ recent series The Legend of Korra, which chronicles the journey of the Avatar that follows Aang. I’ll freely admit that had the show come out when I was eleven or twelve years old, I would have wanted to be Katara and would have happily spent my summers pretending to waterbend as I splashed around in the pool. But since it came out when I was in college and I am even older now, I want to be Uncle Iroh.
In the series, Iroh is the uncle of Zukko, who begins the series as an antagonist and is a primary character. While a reoccurring character himself, Iroh’s influence permeates the series. Over and over, he makes his world a better place by simply being a positive influence on those around him. Iroh is old and male, so it may come as a surprise that I want to be Iroh, but hang with me. There are reasons. Iroh possesses characteristics that we should all strive to develop whether we are male or female. Not only do these characteristics help Iroh navigate life, but they help everyone around him.
Balance – Iroh is arguably the most consistently balanced character in the series. Sure, Aang is the Avatar, the epitome of balance. Aang has an open mind, is willing to learn, and can bend all of the elements, but he is still developing and growing into an adult. Iroh, on the other hand, is fully developed and understands who he is and his place in the world. Though Iroh will never bend all the elements, he develops unique firebending by simply applying the techniques waterbenders use to his element, thus creating the technique to redirect lightening. He welcomes the opportunity to learn from those who are not like him, and he does so with ease and grace. Also, he’s pretty hard to knock down in a fight!
Honesty About Himself and Others – Iroh acknowledges his mistakes and does not try to hide them from himself or others. “I admit my defeat a Ba Sing Se,” he tells his Earth Kingdom captors. “After 600 days away from home, my men were tired and I was tired, and I’m still tired.” Though Iroh always sees the best in every person, he is also realistic. When Zukko wants to fight his sister, he believes that Iroh will reprimand him, but rather Iroh says, “No, she’s crazy, and she needs to go down.” Because he is so frank about himself and others, Iroh can do what needs to be done in order to make the world a better place without letting the way he wants things to be cloud his judgment.
An Unassuming Power House – Just by looking at Iroh, no one would guess that he’s one of the most powerful firebenders in the story. I mean, really, the guy can breathe fire and redirect lightening, but everyone just assumes he’s a fat, old man. And though others make the mistake of judging him by his appearance all the time, he doesn’t make that mistake with others. In an encounter with the character Toph, who is a young, blind girl, she makes an assumption about how he views her, but he asserts, “I wasn’t thinking that at all.” Iroh accepts others as they are. He sees great potential in every one with whom he comes in contact.
Always Teaching – Iroh is continually teaching others unselfishly. It is apparent through his interactions with his nephew Zukko and others that he does so because he wants to see people reach their full potential. In the middle of his own mugging, he asks his assailant, “What are you doing?” When the baffled man clarifies that he is mugging Iroh, Iroh corrects the man’s stance so he can be a more formidable opponent. They end up talking and the man discovers a new path for his life.
Sense of Humor – Iroh appreciates the simple things in life – like a good conversation, good food, a story or song, or a cup of tea. The simple things make him happy and are of utmost importance in his eyes, and this translates into a fantastic sense of humor. His quips and impeccably timed observations of reality inspire a hearty chuckle on a regular basis. I refer you to the “hot leaf juice” clip below.
Not Bothered by What He Can’t Control – Iroh worries himself over improving the tea in his teahouse or finding his white lotus tile because he can control these things. He worries about Zukko because he wants to show him a good path. However, he is not in the least bothered by a squad of Earth Kingdom soldiers capturing him or mechanical problems with his nephew’s ship. Rather he chooses to bide his time, act with honor and intelligence, and let the chips fall where they may.
Wise – Iroh is wise. He has lived, made mistakes, listened to wisdom, loved, lost, and still loves. He truly understands love and values it above all else. Of all of the characters I have met in recent years, Iroh understands best how to walk through the world in harmony, and his ability to navigate so many different situations so well evidence his wisdom. He makes the world better, and the world makes him better too.
Call it childish if you will, but I want to be Uncle Iroh – not Aang, not Katara, not Toph. I don’t want to be them because they don’t have the experience and wisdom he has, not yet anyway. Sure, Iroh is a fictional character not a real person, but characters have the ability to inspire. Often their impact stretches much further than a real person’s because more people come in contact with them through the story. So thank you Michael DiMartino and Bryan Koneitzko for creating Uncle Iroh. In a world that is obsessed with money, success, and being the best, Iroh stands apart and shows those of us who care to pay attention a better way to live. The world needs more characters like Iroh, and it needs more people striving to be like him.