In “Out of the Past,” the ninth episode of Nickelodeon’s The Legend of Korra, supporting character/love interest Mako single-mindedly dedicates himself to rescuing Korra from the clutches of big bad Amon. He personally witnessed Amon’s terrible power back in Episode 3 (“The Revelation”);…
Okay, my answer might be a bit weird and long-winded…
First off, I’m not a Mako hater. (Or an Asami hater. I think I am the only person in fandom who likes them both and thinks they’re both justified in their actions, and that two people can hurt each other in a relationship without either actually being at fault. Maybe I’ll write an essay on that after the finale or something.) I’ll defend Mako’s actions. However, it didn’t create a visceral bond. I like Mako as a character, but don’t feel particularly attached to him, and actually, don’t think he should be in Team Avatar. I realize I need to back up a statement like that, so that’s going to be my next post. (It would distract from the point on this one.)
Maybe this comes with being older, and with my life generally not turning out the way I’d hoped. But like, let’s talk about Harry Potter for a moment, because that’s a well-known example, and a rather stark contrast. Right from the getgo I identified with Harry, because when I was around eleven/twelve, I lived with my aunt and uncle, who also clearly didn’t want me there. My situation wasn’t as bad as his, but my aunt was pretty much exactly Petunia Dursley. I thought, oh man, this kid is me.
But by the end, I still liked Harry, I sympathized with his pains and I rooted for him as a character, but the character I obsessed over, and generally put myself in the place of was Voldemort.
I’m not excusing any of Voldemort’s ideology, and I wouldn’t be caught dead with the real-world equivalent. He just seemed…such an utterly hopeless character. A character who, partly through environmental causes, and partly through his own choices, became someone who could not be saved. Someone pathetic, someone always in pain. Is pity more visceral than just understanding why a character does something (empathy)? For me, the answer is yes, definitely.
I tend to like characters who have given up on themselves, characters even the audience has given up on. Characters who don’t get their happy endings. Lost causes, impossible dreams, characters where what they want is very different from what they need, and they’re unlikely to get either.
But it’s worse than that. Because see…I identify with them, too.
I’m a morose person. A pathetic person. My life is a mess, and quite a bit of it is my own fault. I don’t get a happy ending. I’m not a hero. This isn’t my story.
And that’s where the hurt/comfort dynamic comes in. Because, being that sort of sad, pitiable person, deep down I do want someone to think I’m worth saving. Even if I don’t. Even if I’m not. Even if I can’t be saved and they’re wasting their time. I want them to think that.
I want someone to love me even though I don’t deserve it.
That’s why I shipped Zukaang, folks. (Zuko was my spirit animal, just so you know, and probably one of the only times I found a happy ending inspiring rather than alienating. It was never a given for him, he actually had to make it for himself.) I totally bought that Aang and Katara loved each other and they had a great life together. But when Aang accepted and loved Zuko, that was so much more powerful for me. That was forgiveness, redemption.
Seriously…forget everything you’ve heard in writing classes or read in books about writing. There’s good advice, but there’s also a lot of misleading crap, and it takes wisdom to sort the wheat from the chaff, not blind acceptance of everything you’re told. You write what personally resonates with you, because humans are more alike than you’d think, so whatever you’re feeling, a bunch of other people out there are feeling it too. Your own heart is the best guide.
Getting back to Tahno in particular, well, to be honest, Tahno reminds me of my cat. Smug, self-satisfied, trouble on legs, kind of an enormous dick with no understanding of morals or how they work, seemingly living to make my life more difficult, not even remotely aware of how ridiculous she appears to others, and a damn good snuggler. And if anything bad happened to her, I’d probably cry for a month straight. Tahno’s arc sets him up as this ridiculous, lovably bad catlike character, then pretty much creams him in front of you on the highway, doesn’t have the main characters seem to notice or care, then shows him limping and in pain later and expects you to just forget about him?
Also, Tahno emotes like 1000x more than the entire cast combined. You know exactly what he’s feeling at every moment. He broadcasts. He has that ridiculously expressive body language. Have you seen how that boy WALKS? That makes him less threatening and more endearing. The only character approaching his expressiveness is probably Bolin, and Tahno has more range, even in the fifteen minutes we’ve seen of him.
Mako, on the other hand, keeps his feelings close to his chest. This makes sense, with his backstory. But he’s also written as human, not an inscrutable Other (that would be Amon) which means viewers are less inclined to get obsessed with understanding him or imagine all kinds of fun, tragic things into him. He does have pain in his backstory, which could be played for sympathy, but isn’t. We don’t get sepia-tinted flashbacks of him giving Bolin his dinner and going hungry. You just sort of have to infer that stuff like that probably happened, which is less powerful than seeing it.
Because he clearly has feelings, but doesn’t express them strongly, it’s harder to understand why he does what he does. Why doesn’t he just tell Asami the kiss wasn’t his idea, and he set Korra straight, and it’s over and done? Unless he thinks he might want to date Korra? In which case, why doesn’t he tell Asami it isn’t working out? Why is he even helping out in Team Avatar? What the heck motivates anything he does? Clearly it’s in there, he does have feelings and he acts on them, he actually just doesn’t do a very good job of creating empathy or sympathy. You have to work a bit to understand him and like him, sort of play a detective game of, “Oh, he did this, so he’s feeling that,” whereas Tahno just saunters into the room and the feels roil off him like a stench.
In conclusion, I’m wild for Tahno (and just sort of politely like Mako) because Tahno is a more emotive character that pulls you into whatever he’s feeling much more effectively, because he’s pitiable, and because I personally identify with losers who don’t get their happy endings.