Thoughts on fictional guilt and responsibility

I’ve been watching Avatar: The Last Airbender (also known these days as “The Other Avatar”), and enjoying it, for all that it’s messages lie rather close to the surface — there’s enough done well with this series that I can mostly forgive the things that aren’t (as always, in writing, it’s what you do right, not what you manage not to do wrong). But today, I came to a bit that got me thinking about a very common trope in fiction that doesn’t always work for me.

About halfway through season 1, the title Avatar (known to his friends as Aang) is feeling guilty about something he did back before the story began. (Being vague here to avoid spoilers.) At the end of the episode where this comes up, he comes to the Important Realization that it wasn’t his fault, he needs to stop feeling guilty for it and move on, etc., etc., etc. It’s a common sort of story, one I know I’ve read–and watched–many times before.

Except in the episode I was watching tonight, the thing Aang was feeling guilty about was his fault. It was totally his fault. His mistakes were understandable, and I had sympathy for them–but it still really and truly is his fault.

I actually enjoy the sort of story where a character realizes they’ve been holding onto guilt that isn’t theirs and somehow gets past that. But that only works for me when the character in question actually is innocent–maybe because they lacked information, maybe because, like so many of us, they felt like they ought to be able to control something they couldn’t. When the Horrible Thing is a character’s fault, imho, they shouldn’t be moving on. They should be fumbling toward a path not just of heartfelt apologies, but of solid actions meant to make amends–or if amends cannot be made, actions meant to make the world better in some other way.

The episode I was watching tonight redeemed itself for me because even though Aang says what happened wasn’t his fault, he’s been acting and continues acting in ways consistent with taking responsibility and trying to fix things, whether he realizes it or not.

A story about a character who admits the Horrible Thing is their responsibility and struggles to do something about it is more interesting to me than one about a character who tries to handwave that responsibility away (often with the loving encouragement of those around them). Repentance doesn’t end with saying “I’m sorry,” but with making things right, or as close to right as they can be made. There’s lots and lots of room for story in that, too.

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