Modern TV show creators have to worry about more than good writing, believable characters, and visual style. Online audiences expect to dig into their stories and enjoy analyzing them, almost as if they were games to be won. In the age of fan theory, a good TV show is like a puzzle box waiting to be solved. In Netflix’s animated show The Dragon Prince, some of the clues are apparently hiding in plain sight.
A few weeks ago, I had the chance to sit down with The Dragon Prince co-creators Aaron Ehasz and Justin Richmond to talk about their fantasy show, and we touched on everything from doubts they had about the series to the way Ehasz’s project Avatar: The Last Airbender influenced their new creation. Here are some of the best bits from our conversation.
The hardest thing about making The Dragon Prince
According to Richmond, The Dragon Prince does not have a lore bible, but the writers have jotted down 400 pages of “cool ideas” about where they can take the story. Developing the internal rules for how The Dragon Prince works, however, was one of the most grueling aspects of the process. The worry was about making sure the show always felt “real and grounded.”
“It is a labor of love, but there is a lot of labor, especially when you’re trying to build a big, epic world with lots of details and a kind of physics of magic that makes some sense and actually has some rules to it,” Ehasz said. “I think paying attention to all the details and making sure the character arcs you’re building are going to resonate as authentic for the characters but also fit into this world that’s unique and special and figuring out how it’s all going to fit together — it’s always really hard, but that’s what we love doing.”
The Dragon Prince just got the green light for season 2 on Netflix, so we’ll get to see at least some of those long-term ideas unfold.
How streaming and the internet have influenced The Dragon Prince
One of the most common complaints about The Dragon Prince, aside from the controversial animation style (which may get an update in season 2), is that the first season felt too short. While the creators did craft the show with the expectation that viewers would binge-watch it, they thought of The Dragon Prince more as an extra-long feature than a series, so the complaints took them by surprise. But addressing the initial season as one story — and assuming viewers might watch it all in a sitting — let the creators assume that their audience would remember all the finer narrative details from episode to episode.
“People are much more willing to sit down and watch all of [the episodes] in a row, so we’re able to do a lot more connective tissue between the episodes and expect everybody to immediately know what was going on,” Ehasz said.
Ehasz and Richmond say having fans who want more Dragon Prince isn’t a bad problem, as it likely means the show was good. But they hope people will feel more satisfied with the narrative once the larger framework becomes clear.
What they learned from working on Avatar: The Last Airbender
One of the defining characteristics of a great cartoon show is that it’s family-friendly enough for kids while still offering enough depth and intrigue for adults. Nickelodeon’s animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender struck the perfect maturity balance, which is part of what made it so beloved. According to Ehasz, The Dragon Prince took that lesson from Avatar to heart.
“We learned that there was a super intelligent, passionate audience that wanted material that was nuanced and detailed and authentic,” Ehasz said. “That there wasn’t just a kids’ audience — but that even the kids are very smart. There’s an adult audience that wants content like this, if it’s smart and real. On Avatar, I learned that it’s worth taking some risks and doing some weird little things with characters or having an off-joke here and there, even if it’s only for 5 percent of the audience. If it’s cool and it’s not going to derail the rest of the audience, putting those little things in there — there’s a little something in there for everyone.”
Why representation was important for The Dragon Prince
One of the most surprising things about The Dragon Prince is that it resists long-standing expectations about race in a fantasy setting. In this world, people of color exist and even rule kingdoms. One of the show’s fiercest warriors is a deaf woman who signs. And many of the coolest, most capable characters are women.
“We wanted to sell a really compelling story with really compelling characters,” Richmond said. “We knew from the beginning, we didn’t want the same type of fantasy tropes that had been done before. We wanted to hopefully reflect a wider diversity of characters. Not only that, but we wanted to reflect more of what, hopefully, people can see on the screen as themselves, or a reflection of a superhero version of themselves.”
Richmond clarified that the team didn’t sit down to try to find ways to make the show as diverse as possible. Rather, they considered ways to make good characters that represent a large group of people. The point was to avoid making “the same old thing.”
“We’re not going to just ram stuff in,” Richmond added.
What the fandom hasn’t found yet
The Dragon Prince creators say part of the process of making the show was looking over the skeleton of the finished product and going back in to make sure there were enough clues and juicy foreshadowing, in the hopes of creating a more cohesive creative work.
“People are finding every little treasure that’s in there, that we put so much time into building. Going back through, we made sure it had all these cool little undercurrent Easter eggs and things,” Ehasz said. “And people have found so many of them. But there’s still more out there. That, to me, is super exciting to see.”
Apparently, some of these Easter eggs were found quicker than the creators expected, so they’re considering making future clues subtler. But while fans have unearthed a ton of little details, including hints of where the show will go in the future, some clues still haven’t been found.
“I know there are other things that we put in there that nobody has figured out yet or haven’t put the pieces together properly yet,” Richmond said.
“We put in things that we would need like five seasons for you to get to the part where the thing that happened in the first 10 minutes, you’re like, ‘Oh my God,’” Ehasz said. “But we’re doing that because we’re hopeful that we have a chance to tell a long story.”
Unfortunately, they wouldn’t give me any clues about what fans are missing, but they did note that some fan theories out there are cool enough that the team wishes they’d developed them instead.
The most surprising thing about making The Dragon Prince
One of the defining aspects of The Dragon Prince, and Avatar before it, is that the show makes viewers care about the villains and question whether they’re villains at all. According to the creators, early focus testing made them nervous about whether moral gray areas were the right approach for the show.
“There is a lot of pressure on storytellers to simplify things. We resisted that pressure.”
“We knew we wanted these characters to be complicated, flawed, for there to be some grays in there in how they see the world, and stuff like that,” Ehasz said. “We did get some feedback before putting this out. People thought, ‘Well, the audience really wants to know who the good guys and the bad guys are in a really clear way.’ So there was maybe a moment when we were like, ‘Did we just make a confusing show where no one knows who to root for?’”
The creative team stuck to their guns, though, hoping their fans would appreciate complexity and nuance.
“The characters don’t all have to be likable, and they don’t all have to be hateable,” Ehasz said. “As long as it’s interesting and you connect to them and they resonate with you and you want to find out what happens and it feels authentic, then we have something.
“There is a lot of pressure on storytellers, particularly if you’re making animation, to simplify things and make it clear and less deep for the audience, so they can walk away going, ‘Oh, those are the good guys, and those are the bad guys.’ We resisted that pressure, and I think the audience is happy about that.”