Image: Nickelodeon

Giving a character a tragic past can be trickier than it looks. Done incorrectly, it can come off as forced, awkward, or contrived. Avatar: The Last Airbender shows how to get it right.

In a new video by YouTube commentator Just Write, the critic discusses an insight into character backstory derived from his experience watching Avatar. Simply giving a character a lingering conflict from the past, a ghost that follows them around, isn’t always good enough to drive effective drama. The trick, he thinks, is to create a conflict that also invokes the character’s sense of self-worth and moral responsibility. It’s not enough that a bad thing happens. They also have to think it’s their fault.

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I’m wary of any have-to statements when it comes to stories. I don’t think there are rules here, just ideas that work in some contexts but might not work in others. So I’m not sure I fully agree with the creator here, though I see his point. Internal conflicts tend to be richer, more subtle, and more dramatic than purely external ones. And, as he says, Avatar does backstory masterfully.

Watch the video below, and sound off in the comments: What do you think makes a good character backstory? Which character in fiction has your favorite dark history?