I’ve heard all the criticism of James Cameron’s Avatar.

The plot is predictable.

The bad guys are two-dimensional.

Visual effects don’t substitute for story.

All this is true.

But Avatar isn’t simply a movie with great visuals that happens to be making a ton of money because people are shallow and love gimmicks.

Avatar is making a ton of money because it has incredible world building and audiences care about what happens to the characters.

In November, I attended an all day workshop given by screen writing teacher Michael Hauge. The workshop was an eye opener in a number of ways but the one lesson that keeps coming back to me is about how to get audiences to bond with characters.

One quick way is to create a sympathetic character. But that’s not always possible, especially if you’re writing a difficult character. The next way is to put the character in a sympathetic situation.

And look how Avatar starts….spoilers below the cut….

Jake Scully is staring down at the dead body of his twin brother.  Not only that, the camera pans out as Jake and the audience watch his brother be cremated.

Jake, in a wheelchair, is watching his life virtually go up in flames as he’s about to assume his brother’s existence.

This is all done with visuals and restrained emotion, which is what makes Cameron a great filmmaker. He instinctively trusts the images to get his point across. He always shows just enough and never too much.

Cameron never says outright that we should feel sorry for Jake in the wheelchair who’s so useless to society that the only job he can take is to take over his dead twin brother’s life. But that’s the message.

Jake never feels sorry for himself but we know he bitterly resents his handicap. By the time Jake slips into his Avatar body, we’re rooting badly for him to walk again.

The moment Jake throws off all the med techs to experience joy, his story becomes the audience’s story.

We care.

At that point, we’re ready to forgive all of Jake’s reckless behavior later in the movie because we understand it. He’s a man who’s just figuring out how to live again.

Cameron is a master at doing this. Look at Sarah Conner’s first appearance in The Terminator. She doesn’t do anything heroic. She’s at her everyday normal job as a waitress and she’s not very good at it. But she’s confronted by a series of very demanding customers and a bratty kid who puts ice cream down her apron. We like her. We’ve all had days like that. Similarly, by the time the incredible visuals kick in in Avatar, we’re bonded to Jake.

And that’s where the world building takes over. It’s not just incredible technology and visuals on display. Cameron has done something much more difficult than that. He’s built an entire world and an entire culture that feels real.

It’s not just that the 3D effects make us want to touch the flowers and the dragons. We want to touch those things because we want to be with Jake on Pandora. This is because Cameron’s world is fully realized.

It’s a wonderful lesson for writers. World building matters. Characters can’t exist in white space. Settings will just sit there and look pretty but they won’t engage unless they feel as real to the writer as they do to the audience.

The visuals and the story are complementing each other because the world building and the special effects are fully integrated into the story, not some gimmick to enhance it.

As someone who’s been working hard on world building over the last year, this is a good lesson for me. And it’s not just a lesson that applies for those writing fantasy and science fiction.

What I learned while doing the final revisions of Above the Fold is that it’s not enough to put characters in a contemporary setting and describe the setting. The setting must be as much a part of the story as in any imaginary universe.

For me, that means it”s not just New York City.

It’s Trisha and Grayson’s New York City.

It’s not just the world of Pandora. It’s the world of Pandora as seen through the eyes of Jake Scully.

That’s why it works so well. That’s why people are going back to see the movie again.