While individual villains will always be important, villainous organizations really propel a story to the next level. They allow for conflict on a vast scale, not to mention giving the antagonist a pocketful of minions to throw at the hero. Storytellers can also use villainous organizations to make important statements about society in a way that’s difficult to do with an isolated bad guy.
Considering their importance, it’s no wonder that so many storytellers have tried their hand at villainous organizations over the years. We’ve had galactic empires, evil hordes, and genocidal AI swarms, just to name a few. Many of these antagonistic associations are a credit to their story, but none do the job quite so well as the Fire Nation from Avatar: The Last Airbender. This flame-wielding island nation not only brought us some of the show’s best characters but is easily the best villainous organization I have ever encountered. Let me tell you why!
What a villain looks like is incredibly important, as it’s usually the first thing audiences have to judge them by. In text, this happens through narrative description. In visual mediums, audiences can just see with their eyeballs. In most cases, the villain wants to look intimidating without seeming over the top or performative. If the villain doesn’t appear intimidating, they’ll have a hard time causing tension. On the other hand, if they seem to be trying too hard, they’ll circle back around into being comical.
The Fire Nation performs this balancing act with flying colors. First, it gets a major boost of intimidation because its element is fire, which most people understand to be dangerous at a visceral level.* Beyond magic, the Fire Nation has technological might as well, steaming across the world in massive steel-hulled ships. Even Fire Nation costuming is on-message, making heavy use of red and black.
And that’s just what the Fire Nation sends out into the world. When we visit the home islands, we see huge cities and opulent palaces alongside the heavy industry. Everything about the Fire Nation’s aesthetic speaks of an organization with the strength to crush its enemies and build whatever it wants at home.
The Fire Nation accomplishes all this without going overboard. There’s never a feeling that the writers are laying it on too thick or that the Fire Nation is making life difficult for itself in the name of looking more evil. The imposing technology is necessary for the war effort, and while the uniforms are clearly intimidating on purpose, it seems like a calculated move made for the Fire Nation’s enemies rather than the audience’s benefit.
2. Concrete Goals
Evil plans present a nasty stumbling block for many villainous organizations. An organization’s goals are often kept mysterious and vague to preserve the mystery, which can make it difficult for the audience to care what they’re up to. Just as often, it’s not clear why the organization even wants to do what it’s doing. This is the classic “why would you want to blow up the world you live on” problem. Sometimes it doesn’t even seem like the villains are capable of achieving their stated goals, leaving the audience to wait for a big reveal.
None of this is a problem with the Fire Nation. We know what they want to do from the moment we first hear about them: conquer the world. This straightforward goal requires very little explanation. We can assume that they want to conquer the world for the usual reasons: resources and power.
From there, the show breaks the Fire Nation’s goals into smaller chunks. To conquer the world, the Fire Nation must subdue the Earth Kingdom. To do that, the Earth Kingdom capital of Ba Sing Se must be taken. In order to take Ba Sing Se, the Fire Nation must cut off all support from other Earth Kingdom strongholds, tightening the noose until there is no escape. We see this happening over the course of seasons one and two. It is brutal, methodical, and easy to understand.
It’s also clear from the beginning that the Fire Nation is quite capable of achieving its goals, what with the massive armies and fleets of warships at its command. We don’t need to ask where all that military might came from because we can assume it came from the Fire Nation homeland. This simplicity is important because it establishes what the Fire Nation is up to at the beginning, leaving the writers time to build up some…
3. Deeper Motivations
It’s very important to establish concrete goals for your evil organization, but if that’s all there is, then the organization won’t be as interesting later in the story. Audiences want to know what’s going on at a glance, but they also want there to be more when they peek behind the curtain.
The Fire Nation is ready and waiting. While conquest is always at the height of their agenda, the reasons and justifications for it take longer to tease out. Once we’ve had some time to get to know the Fire Nation, it’s revealed that Fire Lord Sozin originally started his policy of expansion because he wanted to spread his nation’s prosperity to the rest of the world. He believed the Fire Nation had the best way of doing things, and other lands would be either be grateful to accept his rule or weren’t responsible enough to govern themselves anyway.
You might recognize this as imperialism. As is often the case in real life, the Fire Nation’s imperialism didn’t start with violence, but with ostensibly peaceful colonization. From there the bloody war was inevitable, as the Fire Nation’s appetite grew and grew. In service of the war, the Fire Nation developed a cult of superiority around its patron element. Fire was better than the other elements – it had to be, or else the war was wrong, and that couldn’t be true. Anyone who opposed the Fire Nation became an obstacle to greater prosperity for the world.
It’s important to note that none of this ever excuses or justifies the Fire Nation’s imperialism. Avatar shows us more about the villains so we can understand them, not so we can wonder if they were right all along. In other stories, it might be appropriate to give the villain some justification for their actions, but here it’s to underline the importance of their defeat. Plus it encourages audiences to think more critically of imperialist violence in the real world, which is always a plus.
4. Internal Division
No group of people is a monolith, no matter how united they appear on the outside. There are always factions and disagreements beneath the surface, and portraying that makes a fictional organization seem more realistic. Most storytellers understand this, but working those divisions into the plot can be a real challenge. After all, you don’t want to abandon your protagonist in order to exposit how the villains feel about their new vacation plan.
In Avatar, the writers start small, showing minor disagreements between branches of the Fire Nation military. From there, they escalate to higher-level politics, with characters like Prince Zuko and Admiral Zhao willing to fight and even kill each other over who gets credit for a major victory. This conflict is relevant to the main plot because the heroes can exploit it as a weak spot in the seemingly invincible Fire Nation.
Once Zuko transitions from villain to full-on protagonist,* the writers show us how deep the Fire Nation’s political intrigue goes. We learn of complex and deadly plots to seize the throne, and how those plots changed both Fire Nation policy and the course of the war. This is all kept relevant because of the way it affects Zuko, everyone’s favorite tortured hero.
Avatar also shows us the occasional Fire Nation citizen who opposes their country’s policy. This is important because it reminds us that no group is without dissent, but it also puts into stark contrast how rare that dissent is. The Fire Nation isn’t prosecuting a war over its people’s wishes; for the most part, they fully support it. This complex portrayal of the Fire Nation’s internal politics helps it feel like a living entity rather than a conveniently evil plot device.
5. Sympathetic Members
Everyone loves a sympathetic villain. They’re cool and conflicted, plus they give us a break from all the evil laughter. The problem is, if a villain is truly sympathetic, it can be difficult to explain why they’re on team evil in the first place. You’d think a semi-decent person would notice a problem when their home base is called the Terror Lair and puppies are served at the breakfast buffet. But we also want our evil organizations to be, well, evil.
This is another expert balancing act by the Fire Nation. We see early on that the Fire Nation is evil and has to be stopped, what with all the conquest and burning anything that gets in its way. But we also see the tools the Fire Nation uses to keep its people in line: nationalism and family loyalty.
For nationalism, the Fire Nation has built a complex fiction of its own superiority. The war is necessary to spread Fire Nation greatness to the rest of the world. This is something children are taught from birth, and it’s very difficult to question. The Fire Nation doesn’t call itself an evil invader. Instead, it is preemptively defending itself while also spreading the superiority of Fire Nation culture to any land that might threaten it. Sounds like a win/win!
Family loyalty is the other half of the equation. Even if individual Fire Nation citizens question what their country is doing, it’s difficult for them to act on it without betraying their friends and loved ones. This is especially potent for Zuko and his uncle Iroh, both members of the Fire Nation royal family. Even when they believe the Fire Nation is wrong, doing anything to stop it means hurting the people they care about.
In this double bind, it’s easy to see how otherwise kind and honorable characters could serve the Fire Nation. It’s their home, and they will do terrible things in its name. As with their deeper motivations, none of this excuses what the Fire Nation characters do. The show is very clear that they must actively make amends, but the sympathetic context lets us want them to make amends in the first place.
The villain’s primary purpose in the story is to oppose the protagonist, and to do that they have to be threatening. If the villain isn’t threatening, there’s no tension when they come into conflict with the hero, which is just boring. This is probably the most common stumbling block for villains, especially in episodic TV shows, where repeated confrontations can make the bad guys seem like pushovers.
The Fire Nation, on the other hand, stays threatening for Avatar’s entire run, and the writers manage this with a number of important tools. First, the Fire Nation starts the story with a strong reserve of threat because they’re already winning the war. They’ve devastated the Southern Water Tribe and conquered large swaths of the Earth Kingdom. They can afford to lose a few confrontations without looking like chumps.
Next, when representatives of the Fire Nation do lose to the heroes, there’s almost always some kind of mitigating circumstances. The most common option is that for our heroes, victory means escape rather than taking the Fire Nation down in a head-to-head confrontation. Other times, the heroes need to ally with mutual enemies or call on the aid of powerful spirits that won’t be around later. The writers are also careful to drop individual villains after they’ve been defeated too many times, replacing them with fresh sources of danger.
These methods all help, but the most important factor in keeping the Fire Nation threatening is that it actually wins sometimes. For that matter, it wins a lot. Some of these victories are minor, but two enormous triumphs later in the show really cement the Fire Nation as a force to be reckoned with. The writers were able to do this because the Fire Nation’s goal is to conquer the world, not kill the main characters. That way they could actually get what they wanted without ending the show.
A threatening villain is infinitely more satisfying to defeat than someone the hero has already beaten a dozen times. While most viewers know that the Fire Nation has to lose eventually, emotionally it feels like they could keep winning forever. That’s a big part of why the Avatar finale is so epic: we finally get to see the downfall of a villain that seemed unstoppable before.
Villains are a difficult aspect of storytelling, and villainous organizations even more so. You have to make sure the villain is threatening, credible, and evil enough that they must be stopped but not so evil that audiences won’t be able to enjoy the story. With such a high burden, storytellers could do a lot worse than copying the Fire Nation. Most of the specifics would need to be changed for a story that doesn’t take place in the Avatar setting, but the broad strokes can all stay the same. That’s not the only way to make a great villainous organization, but it’s a reliable one.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?